THE MAGAZINE

The Price of Oil

By Robert Elliott

Unrest in Nigeria has forced corporate security for companies operating there to focus additional resources on personnel protection and awareness training.

An experienced oil hand can earn $1,500 per day working in the Niger Delta. But there’s a reason companies are paying such high wages to those willing to come to Nigeria, the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter. During one three-week stretch in August of last year, 19 foreigners were snatched in the Niger Delta as insurgents pressured oil companies to share more of the money they make with local communities—and the kidnappings have shown no signs of abating.

During a recent trip there, I spoke with a Briton working for Texas-based oil-services company Baker Hughes as he sipped his beer in the lounge of the Novotel in Port Harcourt and ruminated about one such incident—the assassination in May of one of the firm’s executives. Ricky Wiginton, 51, was sitting at a stoplight in the back of his chauffeur-driven car when a motorcyclist pulled alongside and shot him in the chest. Rumors blamed the murder on a contractual dispute.

The unrest has made corporate security directors and private security firms operating in the region focus additional attention on personnel protection. Security has always been important—workers have always lived in walled-off guarded compounds, for instance. But “up until very recently, a lot of people drove themselves around,” says one private security official working in Lagos.

The recent rise in violence has led to a ratcheting up of the protective measures. “Now we can’t go out without an escort,” says the oilman.

“There’s no doubt that the thing that occupies the minds of corporate security professionals in Nigeria is the exposure of their expatriate personnel,” says the private security official. “That is number one above any physical asset.”

Personnel not working permanently in the region but traveling there on business should seek out the best hotels, which have security measures such as screening incoming calls to protect guests from unscrupulous elements and procedures for searching vehicles at hotel entrance gates.

“It’s about as hostile an environment as you’re going to get into,” says Steve Casteel, senior vice president for international business at Vance International, who has spent time on the ground in Nigeria.

On my own trip to the region, I was met at the Lagos airport by an ASIS representative flanked not only by a private guard but also by the airport security chief. During a foray into the Niger Delta bush to see Shell’s oil installations, our 4x4 was escorted by a similar vehicle carrying two soldiers toting Kalashnikov rifles. At times, my car and driver came with a plainclothes security detail.

The road leading away from the Lagos Murtala Muhammed airport is known as a particularly hazardous run. “A lot of carjackings take place on the airport road leading into the city,” says Casteel. “The bottom line with driving in Nigeria is to never stop.” Fake checkpoints are sometimes employed to stop vehicles, he says.

Expats and their drivers know never to go off the beaten path; they make beelines for destinations. Taxis are highly discouraged. If another option is not available, it is recommended that a cab be taken from a hotel—never from the street.

Despite the danger, some private security companies operating in Lagos do not use armored vehicles. That’s because the main danger in Nigeria is common criminality, not explosives. Armored cars can run to $175,000, plus drivers have to be specially trained, fuel costs are higher, and spare parts must be obtained for maintenance. By contrast, a soft-skin Toyota 4x4 with plainclothes guards will cost about $60,000.

Another potential drawback to armored cars is the difficulty of deciding who would get to use the vehicles. If someone gets hurt who was not given one, how does that sit in a court of law? “It’s a can of worms,” says the private security official.

As important as any security measure is the need to educate employees about the risks they will face. Louis Laframboise, vice president of consulting and investigations for Vance’s parent company Garda, a leading supplier of security services, recommends that company security directors post security information on an intranet with tips such as not leaving the hotel after dark or unescorted. The company should require that employees sign off on reports indicating that they have read this information before they deploy.

Employees returning from such high-risk locations should be asked for feedback about the risks they encountered and the effectiveness or relevance of the security measures. This feedback can be used to refine the personnel protection program.

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