Sunday, February 12, 2006

Foreign Oil Workers In Niger Delta Worry As Ethnic Militants Threaten New Kidnappings; Shell, Chevron, Suspend Delta Operations, Punch Says

A threat by the group that took credit for the kidnapping of four Royal Dutch Shell platform workers - who were held for 18 days - is worrying all foreign workers in the oil-rich Niger Delta as the group threatens to start a new kidnapping campaign against them.

More worrisome yet is the paper's claim that Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron, two of the very largest producers in the Delta, are suspending operations until the Nigerian government can assure them their workers are safe.

Findings by the Sunday Punch revealed that some oil multinationals, including Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) and ChevronTexaco Nigeria Limited, were planning to suspend operations in the region until sanity returns.

And the paper says that it hears workers are not coming to work, anyway, especially in offshore waters, but only want to work onshore. The four kidnappings occurred at Shell's Benisede platform offshore Bayelsa State.

The group, known as MEND, which despite its name has done little but destroy, set Sunday, Feb. 12 as its deadline for all foreign workers to leave the Niger Delta or risk harm.

The issue has particular relevance for ERHC Energy because it is bidding with a consortium of Indian and Taiwanese companies for ownership of the Port Harcourt Refining Co., the nation's largest, and also because as a newly-christened major player in the Joint Development Zone set up by Nigeria and the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, it can expect to enjoy some immunity from such problems when it begins to explore Blocks 2 through 6 of the JDZ with its partners, Addax Petroleum and Sinopec over the next few years.

The issue is spotlighted in Sunday's Punch of Nigeria:

Panic ... as Niger Delta militants’ fresh ultimatum expires today •Expatriates, other oil workers shun off-shore operations


Tension mounted in the oil industry in the Niger Delta region, on Saturday, less than 24 hours to the expiration of the ultimatum issued by the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta [MEND] for the expatriate oil workers to leave the region.

The MEND claimed responsibility for the January abduction of four expatriate oil workers and disruption of oil exploration activities in the region.

The expatriates - Mr. Pat Zandey, Mr. Nigel Markson, Mr. Marko Miche and Mr. Harry Edenles, only regained their freedom after 18 days in captivity.

The MEND, through an e-mail to some media houses on Thursday, said it would repeat the feat as from February 12 and asked foreign nationals, who are employees of the oil firms to flee the restive Niger Delta region.

Consequently, our correspondent gathered that anxiety has gripped the managements of the oil multinationals as the deadline by the group expires on Sunday (today).

However, stakeholders including governors from the area as well as elders have been holding consultations on how to find an amicable solution to the crisis in the Niger Delta.

Findings by the Sunday Punch revealed that some oil multinationals, including Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) and ChevronTexaco Nigeria Limited, were planning to suspend operations in the region until sanity returns.

Specifically, our correspondent learnt that the managements of the oil giants were in a dilemma following the alleged refusal of most of the expatriate workers to accept posting to riverside field locations.

Investigations by Sunday Punch in Warri revealed that the expatriates have opted to operate only at on-shore locations for now.

A reliable source told Sunday Punch on Saturday that “SPDC has been thrown into confusion since Thursday when the MEND served a notice to resume action and had indeed issued a fresh ultimatum to the expatriate oil workers to leave the Niger Delta region.”

“Already, the morale of the foreign nationals has gone down. They have shunned field operations, preferring to work in the offices in the cities.

“The management is afraid that the expatriates may resign en-masse and go back to their countries. You will recall that their colleagues who regained freedom after 18 days in captivity in January, vowed not to return to the country.

“The nightmare of the management was worsened by the fact that the Nigerian oil workers too were afraid and they are not ready to venture into riverside field locations. Some of them easily pointed out that a number of indigenous oil workers were killed in the January incident”.

The Sunday Punch source, who is a senior official of SPDC in Warri, further explained that, “The management is contemplating the closure of riverside field operations until the issues raised by MEND are resolved by the Federal Government because we are not prepared to toy with the lives of our employees”.

Furthermore, Sunday Punch gathered that the management of the oil multinationals have formally drawn the attention of the Federal Government and other relevant agencies to the latest position of the MEND.

Our correspondent could not reach the SPDC’s Corporate External Relation Manager, Mr. Don Boham, for comment on Saturday as he refused to answer his mobile phone, which rang many times.

It was, however, learnt that the Federal Government responded promptly by ordering the Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta, code-named ‘Operation Restore Hope,’ to augment security networks around the oil workers and facilities in the region.

The government, which relayed the message to the JTF through the Chief Defence of Staff, Gen. Alexander Ogomudia, reportedly warned the security outfit not to treat the ultimatum by the MEND with levity.

A reliable security source said, “The security men at the various riverside oil locations have been directed to be combat ready. There is security alert presently in the Niger Delta region, especially in the Ijaw areas of the region, to nip any unwholesome action in the bud.

“We have initiated enough measures to prevent the re-occurrence of the January episode in the Niger Delta region. Even as I am talking to you today (Saturday), notable indigenes of the region, including top officials of the Federal and state governments as well as military top brass are meeting in Yenogoa, capital of Bayelsa State to discuss the security situation in the region and work out measures to deal with the militants.

The Federal Government will not set up any committee to dialogue with the militants this time around; troops and equipment are ready for any eventuality. The Presidency has directed us to crush any rebellious act with maximum force”, our source, who did not want his name mentioned in print, added.

The Commander of JTF, Brig. Gen. Elias Zamani, could not be reached for comment on Saturday, but his aides confirmed that adequate security arrangements had been made to safeguard the lives of oil workers and equipment in the wake of the hint of fresh unlawful actions by the MEND.

However, the Commanding Officer of the NNS Delta, Warri, Naval Base, Navy Capt. Mufutau Ajibade, urged the oil workers to ignore the ultimatum and go about their normal duties without fear of intimidation or molestation.

He said, “There is no cause for alarm and the oil workers should not be afraid at all because security personnel are everywhere, offshore and onshore to protect them”.

Ajibade asked the leaders of the region to call their youths to order, adding that “The Federal Government and its security agencies will not brook any rubbish”.

In another development, Bayelsa State on Saturday recorded a major tragedy as its Commissioner for Information, Chief Aziboalanari Nelson died in a fatal autocrash.

The accident also claimed the life of another person said to be one of his relations. His identity could not be established as at 9 pm when we went to press.

The commissioner was returning from the Rivers State capital, Port Harcourt, when his car veered off the road and hit a big tree in attempt to avoid crushing a motorcyclist.

The accident occurred at 5.00pm along Rumuyi, a community in Rivers State.

His body has been deposited at the Federal Medical Centre mortuary in Yenogoa.

SUNDAY PUNCH, February 12, 2006

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