Monday, 19 March 2007

Stab the Dealer

Warri is an interesting place by all accounts and it sits slap bang over the top of a huge reservoir of hydrocarbons. This should make it a very rich area. After all, the oil companies have been there pumping the stuff out for years so all that employment and money coming into the area should have done some good, right? Sadly, the answer is: no.

A long time ago when Nigeria was created by the casual stroke of a pencil on a map spread out on some regal dining table recently cleared of venison and quails eggs (or Paté de Fois Gras and Chablis, must read Thomas Pakenham again), the territories now collectively known as Nigeria were home to over a hundred distinct ethnic groups. Around Warri, there were three main groups. One were farmers, another group hunters and the last fisher-folk. Since actual ownership of land was as alien to them as having only one God (or wife, can’t remember which) until the British came along, apart from the occasional scuffle, there wasn’t too much trouble. Or perhaps there was but let’s face it, if it wasn’t reported in the Times, it never happened. When the Brits turned up, among other things (such as small pox, syphilis and religion) they brought education. Only one of these three groups took up the offer, the Itsekiri, oddly enough the smallest tribe, so hardly surprising they hooked up with Big Brother pretty damn quick. The long and the short of it was that being educated, they came to dominate the administration and, after independence in 1960, it was they who formed the state administration (and had higher than normal rates of skin lesions, venereal disease and were all Anglicans). Again, this wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem but for Oil. Or, more importantly, the filthy lucre that can be made anywhere where Oil is to be found.

Pretty soon, the companies recognized that they had no choice but to contribute to the local economy one way or another. In Warri, it was to the Itsekiri administrators that Development Aid and Social Help (DASH) was paid. Naturally, the Ijaws, the biggest tribe in the area and the fourth largest in Nigeria, and the Urhobos, a medium sized tribe but dominating the Warri mainland (the Ijaws are nomadic riverine folk), felt that they were losing out. The result? Ethnic clashes that were sparked by the tiniest little incident. If it were confined to the locals bashing each other’s heads in, then I suppose the oil companies would not be so concerned. Or they would be concerned, as individuals but, corporately, what could they do about it? The trouble is that the aggrieved groups, the Ijaws and the Urhobo, take it to the multi-nationals. Rig invasions and hostage taking are common. Rig managers joke that when it happens, they take them straight to the kitchens and let them gorge themselves. Ok, they were making light of a serious situation but the fact remains, some of these communities are starving. None of the development aid appears to filter down to their level. It seems to them (the starving ones, not the rig managers) that the only way that they can get even a little of what they see as their fair share is to extort it one way or another from the multi-nationals. If that means lifting the odd expat or two or holding a whole rig and its crew to ransom, then so be it. They (the multi nationals) all pay up in the end so I guess for the natives it’s a tactic worth employing.

For the expat whose head has just been introduced to the heavy end of a Mkpara (a sort of walking stick with a bloody huge knob on the end,) and then been dragged stunned into the bush to be sat upon for however long it takes his employer’s to decide to cough up, (bearing in mind, the persons doing the ‘sitting upon’ have just wolfed down a ton and a half of rations and so much rich food at once? Well, I leave it to your imagination) it must be a fairly traumatic experience and not one the average sane person would want to repeat. I mean, I know that they are all paid ridiculous salaries and it is all tax free but there are limits. Spend a few days contemplating the mysteries of the native digestive system while being eaten alive by mosquitoes and even the attention of a UK tax man (persons expelled from the Nigerian police force for being too extreme) would be a welcome alternative.

Just caused a little Wahala of my own. Chap can get jolly hungry hunched over a keyboard typing away and since I was in the middle of explaining Warri I didn’t want to lose the plot by spending more hours sitting in traffic on my way back to the canteen. So I decided I would try, for the first time, the culinary delights offered by Mr Bigg’s, a local and fairly widely spread chain of fast food emporiums. Technically, we are not supposed to walk for security reasons, why else go to all the trouble to give us cars and drivers? Actually, I am convinced that a significant proportion of expat managers have lost the use of their legs entirely. Shareholders should know that half of what is booked as Driver Overtime is for the luxury of having a driver and car sitting outside the manager’s house on the compound so that, when the moment he finally feels peckish arrives, he can climb into his car, be driven one hundred and twenty five yards to the Portofino Restaurant, eat his meal, book it to expenses and then be driven home again accompanied by the waitress (also a bookable expense) before some hours later finally releasing the driver (oh, and give this young lady a lift home as well, there’s a good chap). But as Mr Biggs is only a few hundred yards away from the office, I thought that a little fresh air would do me good so I decided to walk. Besides I would like to keep the use of my legs a little longer. I had Big Paul to keep an eye on me as well, don’t forget. Now if I tell you that the colours on which Mr Bigg has based his marketing strategy are bright red and yellow and that all the scripts used in his advertising material are in some cartoon font from Corel Draw you should get the idea on which famous catering company he has based his corporate identity.

Nigerian’s I have decided, by the way, look upon queuing the same way as they do driving. It is a blood sport.

Mr Bigg’s may look like (you know who) but the service is even slower and the staff have honed contempt for the client to a fine art. At least Mr Bigg doesn’t waste time giving his staff stupid little badges with gold stars so that customers can instantly recognise those with a true gift for pissing off poor old Joe Public. There is no need, they are all equally adept. Mr Bigg has, however, succeeded where (you know who) hasn’t. He has discovered how to make rubber and cardboard taste nice and his meat and chicken pies are really quite outstanding. Now in Nigeria, it seems that it is perfectly OK to shit and piss in the street, throw your rubbish into it, including the wife and kids because of the Wahala she gave you last night, even torch your neighbour’s house simply because five miles away somebody you never knew (but was from the same tribe as you) was killed by somebody else you never knew (but came from the same tribe as your neighbour). But, stroll down the road eating a meat pie and strewth! Thought I’d caused a bloody riot! Apparently, it is just not done for a gentleman to eat in the street. OK, I know that holds for most other civilised countries as well, with the exception of the country where (you know who) comes from, but in a country where just about anything you can think of except safe driving goes on in the street I hardly expected to offend anyone by consuming one of Mr Bigg’s fine meat pies in public. All goes to show, if your driver says that you really should sit down inside Mr Bigg’s and eat yer meat pie, then that’s what you should do. You do need razor sharp senses, though, when these guys are trying, in their own inscrutable way, to give you some advice. Instead of telling me what would happen if I ate outside, all he did was suggest that it might be better for me to eat inside. The mistake I made was not to ask, ‘Why?’

Back to Warri. Just recently, the trouble flared up again. Somebody that nobody knew got slotted by somebody else that nobody knew only they were from different tribes, this time the Ijaw and the Itsekiri. Or was it the Urhobos and the Ijaws? Who knows, all that mattered was that everyone suddenly went around torching their neighbour’s houses (probably tossing a few wives onto the bonfires as well, after all, a big wahala is a big wahala and mustn’t be wasted), which meant there were more people that nobody knew killed by a lot more other people that nobody knew and more houses were torched and so it went on, the death toll steadily rising. And it would have carried on if President Obasanjo hadn’t become concerned at the loss of revenue as one multi-national after another cleared out pretty damn sharpish like (sorry, if His Excellency hadn’t become concerned at the appalling and unnecessary loss of life. Still haven’t got my work permit yet, got to be careful) and sent in a load of extra police and troops to really shoot the place up, causing even more loss of life until eventually they all ran out of ammunition. Or beer, I don’t know which but it stopped anyway. Now, in the affected areas, and I have to say, we really are only talking about highly localized patches spread around a huge area, you can’t move twenty yards before running into a police, then an army checkpoint. Given the piles of empty beer bottles and spent cartridge cases that you have to weave around, this makes for very slow progress. At least there is a form of peace at the moment. There is a curfew from 6pm to 6am during which time the security forces can practice their marksmanship skills on empty beer bottles or any soft objects desperate enough to venture into the open (usually husbands caught in the wrong bed by curfew and trying to get to the right bed to avoid Wahala, and expatriates who are recognizable not just because they light up well at night but because by that time they are definitely legless and being driven).

What this means for the companies that remain behind is that they have to employ ever more sophisticated security measures. What were already small armies of military and police units grow to battalions with more firepower than a medium sized state. All this costs money, vast amounts of it. What costs cannot be hoisted onto the company affected are, presumably, borne by the state although, believe me, companies are forced to pay the lion’s share. And still expatriates are kidnapped and production severely curtailed if not shut down altogether. Who loses? Everybody.

The companies are taxed to within an inch of the bottom of their purses as it is. With so much revenue going to the state, how can it reasonably be expected that a company must now provide all the infrastructure and social services that are normally the responsibility of the state? Surely it is enough that they employ a reasonable number of local workers under accepted terms and conditions and pay them on time? Why should the company be further taxed by having to provide a replacement for the host country’s social security, medical and welfare systems? They’re oil companies, not a national health service. They find and produce oil for profit, they are not civil engineering companies there to build roads and schools for free. Having entered into mutual exploration and production sharing agreements for which the host state receives its royalties, is it not the responsibility of the state to provide adequate security? Instead, companies do contribute and allow themselves to get involved in all sorts of local initiatives none of which would be available to the population of countries such as the UK or US of A, and certainly not in Russia. In any other country, if you get a job, your employer is not interested in how you get to work, just make sure you turn up on time. If you can’t, they’ll employ someone else who can. Here, unless transport is laid on, the offices and plants would be empty. And it is unbelievable trite to say that there is no effective public transport system so an employer is duty bound to provide the service. Rubbish. No Nigerian company does so. If they can get to church three times a week, the football match every Saturday and to all the bars and discos that burst with clientele every night, they can bloody well drag their carcasses to work under their own steam. Instead the companies provide the services required to improve the lot of their employees and indirectly the local community and provide much higher than average conditions of service. That is why everyone wants to work for them. So with all the fighting and banditry in an around Warri, the companies lose out as costs surge, production falls away and profit disappears.

Eventually, the effect on the bottom line is unbearable and the company pulls out or severely reduces the size of its operation. Its people are told to go home or are laid off. There are no more social projects, no more assistance. It is the people who suffer. Directly those who lose their jobs and, indirectly, all those who benefited from the significant proportion of the population who were employed and injected cash into the local economy. Not so long ago, a multi-national drilling company in desperation sold off its onshore drilling operations in the delta, the hardest to protect from the criminal activities of local community elements, to a Nigerian company which promptly laid off over half the bloated workforce and stopped paying the ‘ghost’ workers, those employees from the local communities that the multi had been forced to employ to maintain ‘quotas’ but who only ever turned up to work on pay day. Among those laid off will have been some good, honest and hardworking individuals whose only crime may have been to belong to the wrong tribe.

The state suffers too as revenues inevitably collapse. Although it tries to push off as much of its own responsibilities as it can upon the shoulders of the unfortunate multi-nationals, a tactic for which it gleefully accepts the support of bleeding heart liberals, it too faces rising costs for policing, not only the criminal activity but the rising discontent among its voters. As a result, it is not only the criminals who suffer under the blunt tool of state security, it is the population whose freedom of speech and right of assembly is curtailed under the jack boot of oppression.

A vicious circle, then, the blame for which can be laid firmly at the door of institutionalised corruption. The multi-nationals are an easy target. They are portrayed as rapacious conglomerates, conning the poor, ill educated leaders of developing countries into grossly unfair exploration and production agreements. Excuse me. Are these the same poor, ill educated leaders whose bank accounts have telephone number balances in their numerous offshore accounts? The same leaders who use state resources to brutalise their opposition and then go on holiday by private jet to their villas in Europe which are secured using host country security resources at the cost of the taxpayer? Those leaders? And if anyone suggests that the criminal activity in the Delta region is not institutionalised corruption, they are fooling themselves. A little while ago, an expatriate was kidnapped from a supply vessel anchored a couple of miles offshore. The security officer on board the security vessel went ashore to try and negotiate with the kidnappers. There being no mobile phone network there, he took a Thuraya phone with him and offered its use to the kidnappers so that they could seek guidance during the negotiations with whoever it was that was responsible for the kidnapping. Thuraya phones, as do all mobile phones nowadays, have a very useful function. It is called the ‘call register’. A check of the number dialled revealed it to be that of the Special Advisor on Oil and Gas of the State Governor’s office.

A suppressed population is in no position to clean up its government’s act. The world needs oil and all its by products if we are to continue to enjoy the standard of living to which we have become accustomed. We need the multi-nationals to push into these often awful areas, to find and produce the product. Given the salaries they need to pay ordinary, sane folk to abandon their families back home and risk being kidnapped and beaten up, even killed in some pretty inhospitable places; the enormous costs involved in developing the new technologies required to extract an ever dwindling resource; the enormous financial risks to which they are exposed, why can’t they be allowed to turn in a decent profit? Why should they suffer criticism from the foaming-at-the-mouth vitriol pushed out by so many different pressure groups? Organisations like Global Witness provide a valuable service in many instances. They do alert an otherwise lethargic and indifferent public to some pretty awful crimes against humanity but, occasionally, like Green Peace, they appear to go off the rails a bit.

The United States has, perhaps, the toughest anti-graft laws in the world. It is hard to understand, certainly by a casual observer such as myself, how such laws will fairly and equably be enforced when its own government, and state appointed, therefore, hardly impartial legislator, depends wholly on the patronage of the very organisations most likely to be tempted to resort to graft. How can the developed world criticise the apparent greed of third world leaders when scandals such as Oil for Food and the obscure process by which contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq were awarded plaster the broadsheets? It may surprise some, but these poor, ill-educated third world leaders can read and sit confident in the knowledge that most understand the moral of throwing stones in glass houses. While most of us are not so morally bankrupt as many high government officials and presidents of all nationalities, I defy anyone to put their hand on their heart and say, if there was no chance of retribution whatsoever, they would not be tempted to dip their hand in the till every now and again. It is just that these people have a very big till and are obviously using shovels rather than their hands.

With a playing field the surface of which resembles more the Mourne Mountains than a billiard table, any multi-national who hopes to provide a return on investment for its shareholders will inevitably, with so many corrupt players in the field, be faced with the choice of retiring from the game or indulging in a bit of creative accounting to cover those consultancy fees, facilitation payments and signature bonuses. Transparency is obviously a good thing. I for one, however, would not thank Transparency International or Global Witness for trashing my pension plan by persuading the multi-national in which I had invested to earn the ire of a country containing its significant investment by opening up its books to the scrutiny of the world, and, more importantly, its competitors. I would rather stick my head in the sand and just hope that the problem would go away of its own accord.

The problem with today’s litigious society is that there must always be a guilty party. For someone to be guilty, there must be a weight of compelling evidence sufficient to condemn them. The compilation of this evidence will require, especially in this case, some pretty skilled investigation the course of which will be impeded at every step or, some fortuitous disclosure. If someone is found guilty then, naturally, punishment follows. Knowing this, anyone even remotely implicated in such questionable business practices, either directly, indirectly or merely by association will most likely do what any other, normal person would do. Keep their mouths shut. In the meantime, the game carries on and tyrants can continue to subject their citizens to awful privation in between European holidays, the population around Warri will continue to be subjugated to the will of the warlords and I can sleep at night knowing that I can fill my car in the morning and my pension will pay out.

Rather than try and expose what is already, to anyone with a bit of common sense, a self-evident fact; rather than waste a lot of time trying to put shackled bodies in the dock; why not have a go at a system that requires a political party to sell its soul to any devil with spare cash and an agenda in order to survive?

No one likes to play with a stacked deck of cards. Rather than attack the multi-nationals, direct a bit of attention towards exposing the hypocrisy of the governments involved. It is their foreign and domestic policies that force the game and dictate the rules. Don’t dig at the players who cheat a bit. Stab the dealer.

1 comment:

Please feel free to comment, good or bad. I will allow anything that isn't truly offensive to any other commentator. Me? You can slag me without mercy but try and be witty while you are about it.