The Risk Premium
Russell Spell thought he knew what he was getting into when he signed on with a Houston company to build a pipeline in Nigeria, where corruption and violence are commonplace and the safety of workers cannot be guaranteed. But he never imagined he would become a hostage—literally—to America’s dependence on foreign oil.
In the early morning of February 18, 2006, Russell Spell was sleeping on a barge off the Nigerian coast when he awoke to the sound of gunfire. A longtime employee of Willbros Group, an international oil and gas contractor, Spell supervised workers laying an offshore pipeline for Shell. His shift was noon to midnight, so he was still in his bunk when he heard the sound of bullets exploding into metal, a commotion so loud it seemed as if a helicopter was landing inside his cabin. The day had dawned placid and sweet, the barge an offshore oasis from the fetid air and roiling gas flares visible on the coast at Shell’s Forcados export terminal. Spell had no idea he was about to become a pawn in the increasingly violent war for control of the world’s diminishing petroleum resources.
Spell, then 41, was pale and impish, a small, shy man with a wry sense of humor who still had the broad shoulders and bowed arms of the welder he had been for much of his adult life. Born and raised in the East Texas oil field town of Silsbee, he didn’t want for much and generally took what came his way with equanimity. By 2006, he had worked in Nigeria for almost a decade. He knew the country posed its share of dangers to foreign workers, but he left the worry about kidnappings, robberies, and killings to his company and to his wife, Regina. Spell did not, for instance, pay much mind to State Department travel advisories, like the one that, just a day before the attack on his barge, warned American citizens to stay away. “The lack of law and order in Nigeria poses considerable risks to travelers,” it said. “Violent crime committed by ordinary criminals, as well as by persons in police and military uniforms, can occur throughout the country.”
Spell knew the people of the Niger Delta were desperately poor, while corrupt officials lived like Saudi princes. He knew the air and water were poisoned because multinational oil companies had exploited the region’s rich reserves for many years without a care. He understood that certain palms were generously greased for what he called “community relations.” But he had never had any trouble personally. He liked the Nigerian people and loved the routine and camaraderie of being offshore with longtime friends. And working in Nigeria was steady; you weren’t shut down for weather, like in the Gulf of Mexico. Spell was scheduled for three months on and one month off and made good money—$80,000 a year. It was enough to buy his family a brick house on a cul-de-sac within walking distance of Lake Conroe. His front door had a leaded-glass window that sparkled with rainbows in the afternoon sun; his living room featured a big-screen TV. Spell had never finished college, but his kids were in gifted-and-talented programs at good schools. His wife didn’t have to work. He never asked himself whether the job was worth the risk because the answer seemed self-evident.
Now, as the gunfire drew closer, Spell jumped out of his berth and ran to the door of his tiny cabin to look outside. He saw a motorboat full of men shooting as they approached the port side of the barge; shots came from starboard as well. Spell thought about running, but there wasn’t any place to run to. The attackers were swarming aboard, shooting all the while.
“Get into cover!” It was John Hudspith, the Brit who was the security coordinator on the barge. He was racing toward the bridge, trying to organize an armed response.
Footsteps pounded on the deck below, and someone—not someone from Willbros—screamed orders. Spell could hear the continuous rat-a-tat-tat of automatic weapons. Looking down the walkway, he saw powerfully built men dressed in camouflage vests, ammunition belts draped around their necks and shoulders. Black stocking masks covered their faces. They were coming toward him, firing into doors that wouldn’t give way to swift kicks. Spell backed into the cabin, slamming the wooden door behind him. He and his roommate, a baby-faced 23-year-old from Mississippi named Cody Oswalt, locked the door and hoped for the best. “What do we do?” Oswalt cried.
“Man, I don’t know,” Spell told him dryly. “But I hope we win.”
They held their breath, pinned to the wall, while the men stormed past. Where were the security guards Willbros kept on the payroll? Spell wondered. Supposedly, Willbros had three security boats and Shell had two—both armed with .50-caliber machine guns. What happened to them? Why hadn’t anyone sounded an alarm? WB 318 was Willbros’ largest and most profitable barge. Both Willbros and Shell paid handsomely for protection against surprises like this.
Suddenly the attackers came back. Spell heard them dragging one of his co-workers as they approached, beating him and demanding the whereabouts of the Americans. At Spell’s door, they stopped. “Open up! Open up!” They pounded on the door and kicked at it with their boots. Finally, someone fired an automatic weapon at the door handle, and four or five men pushed inside. They kicked Spell in the ribs and stomped on his stomach, cursing him and screaming for him to get up and out of his cabin. Oswalt got the same treatment. In the melee, someone knocked Spell’s glasses off his face, and he didn’t have time to recover them before his attackers hoisted him up and shoved him down the walkway, toward the deck and some waiting boats. When Spell hesitated on a stairway, someone hit him in the back of the head with the butt of a rifle, and he tumbled down the rest of the way. Another attacker crowed that they had the Americans.
They were loading barge workers into boats—nine men in all. Spell was shoved in with three other men, a knife at his back. One of the captors pushed him to the floor. “We are going to barbecue you,” one of the men taunted.
Finally, Shell’s Nigerian military protectors appeared in a boat with a crew firing shots that widely missed their targets. The captors began to fire back, and for five or so minutes, Spell felt the concussion of the bullets pounding his ears as they whizzed by. Glancing around, he spied a crate of ammo and found himself grateful that the kidnappers’ speedboats were easily outrunning the security forces.
They traveled from the open sea into the Forcados River, which was glazed with patches of oil. The river narrowed; the speedboat motor dropped to a purr. The boatmen went left, then right, then north, then south, following the thinning tributaries that spread like tiny branches below the jungle canopy. The captors removed their masks and showed Spell the charms that they believed kept bullets from penetrating their bodies. The men were Ijaws, members of Nigeria’s fourth-largest ethnic group, who are known for their fishing prowess and maintain an almost mystical mastery of these waters and the mangrove swamps surrounding them.
After about an hour and a half, Spell caught sight of red cloths tied to some mangrove trees. His captors jumped out and pushed the boat toward a tiny compound, splashing themselves with water. Spell started wading toward shore. One of the men pointed his automatic weapon and called him back. Anointing Spell with water, he explained: The Ijaws took their power from the water; Spell needed purification before he could be among them.
The old world vanished, and the new one closed in: heavy, warm air; putrid water; leafy mangrove trees sinking their long, witchy fingers into the shore; angry masked men and their guns. Russell Spell had no idea where he was; all he knew was that he could, quite possibly, be lost for the rest of his days.
SPELL AND HIS FELLOW HOSTAGES would easily recognize the men who appear in a YouTube video titled “The Countdown.” Dated January 2008, nearly two years after their capture, it is a recruiting tool, a slide show set to a rousing Nigerian pop beat and displaying a number of photos of buff, heavily armed men in T-shirts and camouflage gear pointing menacing fingers at the camera and riding in speedboats as they proudly brandish their automatic weapons. They claim to belong to a group called MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. In many photos the members wear stocking masks; in others, they have painted their faces and bodies white, partly in honor of ancient traditions and partly because they know it frightens oil field workers. In other pictures MEND members show their ostensible handiwork: pipelines and oil fields exploding in flames. The video notes correctly that Nigeria is second to Iraq as the most unstable oil producer in the world. Words on the screen declare that since 1995, when the government executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, an author and environmentalist who became a national hero for battling to end government corruption, the Niger Delta has become “hell on earth,” a land devastated by industrial pollution and increasingly violent protests, followed by equally violent government retributions—which many in the delta believe to be wholeheartedly supported by the oil companies that operate here.
Members of MEND were the very people who kidnapped Russell Spell and eight co-workers and have since claimed responsibility for still more kidnappings and acts of sabotage. That same year—MEND’s first in operation—the organization and similar groups kidnapped 128 foreign nationals, shut down 25 percent of Nigeria’s oil production, and helped drive crude oil prices close to $80 a barrel, according to the Norwegian-based international security consultants Bergen Risk Solutions.
Most American consumers understand that the invasion of Iraq has contributed to the skyrocketing cost of crude. It’s the war premium, what the market adds to the price of a barrel of oil because the crude that once flowed from Saddam Hussein’s fields is now less dependably available. Americans are less aware, however, that there is another reason why the price of oil has blown past $100 a barrel and gasoline is approaching $4 a gallon: The countries around the globe where oil remains available in abundance are increasingly dangerous places to operate, with corrupt governments that are indifferent to the welfare of their citizens, in turn inspiring the proliferation of guerrilla groups like MEND. The cost of drilling in these venues—of attracting and protecting workers, of losing work time due to sabotage, of paying ever higher insurance premiums, of making quasi-legal payoffs that are part of doing business, of providing medical treatment for kidnap victims like Spell, of defending lawsuits, in short, the cost of everything that can go wrong in a destabilized country rich in oil—gets figured into the price of every barrel. The cost of doing business in this dangerous world—a cost all of us pay at the gas pump—is called the risk premium.
No one likes to discuss oil’s risk premium very much, particularly in Texas, because the talk is believed to encourage violence and increase costs, not to mention scare off potential employees. In the big picture, the risk premium is a worldwide concern, but it also hits close to home, because what affects oil affects Texas. The companies and the workers who bear the risk—financial in the case of the former, life and limb in the case of the latter—are disproportionately Texan. The experience of Russell Spell and others like him influences the employment practices and business decisions of major Texas companies, shapes the rulings of Texas courts, and affects the costs of Texas medicine.
In oil, as in war, the job of protecting vital American interests has been contracted out to private companies, whose employees can find themselves in harm’s way. In war-torn Iraq, more than a thousand workers for Halliburton and other contractors have been killed while trying to deliver toiletries or packaged foods to American soldiers. In oil-producing countries like Iraq, Venezuela, Mexico, Nigeria, and those parts of the former Soviet Union that have been corrupted by the Russian mob, American workers similarly find themselves caught up in resource wars. These countries may be rich in oil and gas, but they are rent by social inequities. American companies that undertake the exploration and exploitation of these resources can easily find themselves grappling with civil strife, growing anti-Americanism, the constraints and stark penalties of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and the potential for lawsuits from employees who find themselves unprotected in life-threatening situations. As long ago as 1998, in Cabinda, Angola, a four-car motorcade containing thirty employees of a major oil company was attacked near the local airport by a rocket-propelled grenade. Today, radicals who once sabotaged pipelines in Colombia have moved on to Venezuela. Every such incident adds to the cost of producing oil. Not surprisingly, Exxon Mobil recently announced that it would spend $1 billion a year on exploration in safer, if less promising, locales like Germany, Greenland, and New Zealand.
The private security business has burgeoned as the threats grow. “It’s become a number one priority. Companies have to protect their most precious commodity, which is personnel,” says security expert and former Bush confidant Joe Allbaugh, the CEO of the Allbaugh Company. Willbros at one time had a group that did nothing but repair damaged and sabotaged pipelines in Nigeria. The promotional materials for London-based Control Risks state, “If a client falls victim to an incident such as kidnap, extortion, illegal detention of employees, or product tampering, Control Risks will deploy consultants to advise on negotiation strategies and liaise with law enforcement, families, and the media. We have handled more than 1,400 such crises.” A company called Worldwide Employee Assistance Programs now offers treatment for oil company kidnap victims suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Chevron has an in-house attorney who specializes in lawsuits brought by employees who have been kidnapped.
Because oil is often found in remote places, contractors have always had to construct entire cities—with roads and airports and sewage treatment plants—in order to keep their people comfortable. Now compounds and job sites also have to be secure, which means the cost of construction and protection has gone up. Workers must be ferried to and from job sites in armored vehicles with (hopefully) trained guards.
The complexities of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act can also ensnare oil companies. The rule of thumb is that bribes to smooth the way for operations do not bring the FCPA into play, but companies that pay to win or extend contracts can end up as defendants in a major lawsuit or criminal prosecution, with legal fees that start at $3 million. As an executive for one major contractor told me, a pipeline that might take two months and cost $60 million to build in the U.S. would take at least six to eight months and cost a minimum of $150 million in Nigeria. “Your imagination isn’t big enough to figure out how Nigerians can separate you from your money,” he said. Still, the delta’s sweet, cheaply refinable crude is a siren song to Big Oil, especially because it can be shipped easily to markets in Western Europe. Nigeria pumps more than two million barrels a day, worth about $84 billion a year. It provides a crucial 14 percent of American imports.
That is pretty much the extent of the good news. Nigeria is the poster child for high-risk oil exploration and production, a living testament to the so-called oil curse. This holds that countries rich in oil wealth tend to have stunted economic growth—agriculture and industry wither and corruption thrives—because all the focus is on one incredibly lucrative business. “Everything is extracted and nothing is produced,” explains University of Houston history professor Kairn Klieman, who offers the only course in the U.S. on Africa and oil. “The political culture is, ‘I don’t have to produce.’ ” According to Bergen Risk Solutions, oil accounts for 90 percent of Nigeria’s export earnings and fully 80 percent of the government’s revenues—but somehow 85 percent of the money ends up in the hands of 1 percent of the population. Twice the size of California, with an estimated 148 million people, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and eighth in the world, but 70 percent of its people live on less than $1 a day. It is one of the most corrupt countries on earth, rated 2.2 out of a best possible score of 10 on Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perception Index. An estimated $400 billion has been lost to corruption since the country gained independence from Britain, in 1960, and 14,000 people have been killed in violent outbreaks since military rule supposedly ended, in 1999.
In other words, oil and oil field service companies must operate in a tinderbox in which the Nigerian government is located in the north and the oil is located in the south; the wealth is shipped north, while the people who live in the south get virtually nothing. There, millions of desperately poor people live in primitive villages with no electricity or running water. In the urban wasteland that is Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, they live under the freeways in shanties, their cook fires coating the air with a sticky brownish haze. If you blow your nose in the polluted air, your mucus will be black. The government enjoys an enviable split with its multinational oil partners—taking anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the revenues—but public services are few to nonexistent; the government functions primarily to enrich the officials who collect money from the foreigners who come to extract oil. A former governor of Delta State, James Ibori, managed to accrue his own jet, his own Mercedes Maybach, and some pricey London real estate. Not only do foreign companies have to pay bribes to import workers (most of the locals are too uneducated to be trained), but they must also pay bribes to get out of the airport, to get into their hotel, to bring equipment into the country, to appease local landowners, and much, much more. American companies face even bigger problems: If the bribes violate the FCPA, American companies will find federal investigators at their door.
The difference between common thieves and groups like MEND is one of sophistication and ambition. Once, oil companies paid small bribes—a “suggested list for Christmas gifts” from one local potentate featured a cow, fifty yams, four cartons of wine, beer, and Maltina (Nigeria’s premier malt drink), along with 250,000 nairas (a little more than $2,000). A kidnapping used to be a low-key fundraiser in which a small ransom would be paid—maybe just a few hundred dollars—and the employee would be back at the compound in time for dinner. A Nigerian Web site, Oyibosonline.com, which hasn’t quite come to grips with the current explosion of violence, offers nine T-shirts printed with kidnapping slogans, including one that says “Kidnapping, Nigeria’s fastest growing industry.”
But old-fashioned kidnappers are now competing with political activists whose demands are more enterprising and more expensive. Militants need money for their cause; they get it not just from kidnapping and bunkering (stealing and selling local oil on the black market) but from sympathetic Nigerian émigrés; likewise, their weapons come from around the world. This increases the danger for workers like Russell Spell: Politically motivated groups like MEND declare they have “nothing left to lose” and that their goals are “to totally destroy the ability of the Nigerian government to export oil,” to regain control of the country’s oil wealth, and to restore basic human rights in the delta. With easy access to the Internet, they have learned from groups like Al Qaeda that it is entirely plausible to demand that “all oil companies must leave the delta region or face their destruction.”
Spell’s job description, then, was to build pipelines in the midst of an undeclared civil war. “The oil companies are not the enemy,” Justus Wariya, an Ijaw who now lives in Houston and supports human rights for the delta, told me. “It is the government. The companies got in the middle.” What Spell, and perhaps Willbros, didn’t realize was that safety in Nigeria had become a mirage—for oil companies, for oil service companies, for all foreign workers, and, of course, for the country’s abundant supply of oil. As a University of Houston oil historian, Joseph Pratt, told me, “In a sense, we’ve all been kidnapped by Nigeria.”
MEND took nine hostages from the Willbros rig—one Filipino, two Thais, two Egyptians, three Americans, and one Englishman. Along with the others, Spell was marched to a palm grove and ordered to sit on some crude wooden benches. He looked around and saw a few tin-roofed concrete buildings riddled with bullet holes. A screen door, cut in half by machine-gun fire, had been sheared off its hinges. The place looked as if it had been under assault more than once.
A man who appeared to be in charge—well built, late forties, in combat gear—viewed them with fury. “Why are you here?” he demanded. To Spell, this seemed a rhetorical question, but in fact it wasn’t. The man turned on his heel, stormed into one of the buildings, and came back out carrying a newspaper. Didn’t they know about Dark February? MEND’s warnings had been all over the news.
Spell scanned the front page of the Nigerian paper as his captors began to take photos of their hostages to release to the international media. The proclamation of “Dark February” came from the newly formed Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta; violence, their leaders declared, would escalate in the area, and for that reason all foreign oil companies should evacuate their employees by midnight, February 17. MEND’s leaders stated that they had chosen armed resistance because of Shell’s refusal to pay the Nigerian government a $1.5 billion fine for polluting Ijaw fishing waters. MEND also wanted the government to release two prominent Ijaw leaders from prison. Their recent attacks on oil facilities and a previous kidnapping in January were, they claimed, direct retaliation for air strikes in the delta by the Nigerian military. More violence was to come: “Administrative edifices, oil installations, vessels, and production machinery shall be sabotaged, and, wherever necessary, hostages shall be taken, this time to ply a poisonous jagged edged sword through the heart of Nigerian oil policies, 50 years of environmental desecration, psychological desolation, economic disenfranchisement and social depression that has been our redeeming franchise so far.”
Spell had never heard of MEND. He had never heard of Dark February, nor did he know that Shell had evacuated 330 of its own employees from the region. Access to newspapers and TV news on the barge was limited. But managers on the barge were in direct communication with the nearest Willbros office. If Shell had gotten word to evacuate its people, why hadn’t Willbros? If the workers had known how much danger they were in, they would have demanded to leave, and the company would have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars with each day of work stoppage. It was entirely possible, Spell reflected, that Willbros was playing a game of chicken with Shell over costs. He had seen this ploy during his days working on rigs in the Gulf of Mexico: Who would pay for removing workers when a major storm approached? Spell knew that service companies rarely chicken out first.
The soldiers stripped the hostages of all their personal possessions—money, jewelry, papers, whatever they had grabbed from the barge. The leader—the prisoners soon began calling him the General—took their names and made calls announcing their capture on his cell phone, probably the most useful instrument, along with the Internet, in facilitating the spread of terrorism today. Finally, as the shadows grew long and darkness fell, the soldiers loaded their captives back on the boats and pushed even deeper into the jungle, navigating by moonlight.
A few hours later they landed at what looked to be an old palm oil plantation, with a concrete jetty stretching into the water. The place clearly wasn’t lacking for funds; there were power generators, a machine shop for boat repair, and an abundance of automatic weapons. The air and water both gave off the thick, metallic odor of oil. The hostages collapsed from nervous exhaustion and slept for about 48 hours. When Spell finally awoke, his neck felt as though it was on fire from the rifle blow, and he was dizzy. The dizziness, he realized with growing panic, was because he had been without his hypertension medication for two days.
It did not take long for the group to settle into a strange routine, alternating between the humdrum and abject terror. Days began around seven. The prisoners sat in white plastic chairs in a palm grove, where they watched their captors train—running, lifting weights, and shooting weapons. In off-hours the younger men played soccer and smoked marijuana. Spell stuck close to Cody Oswalt, whose natural inquisitiveness, Spell feared, made the guards nervous and might get them into trouble. At first he avoided the Englishman, John Hudspith, because he felt the security expert had failed them. But as Spell got to know Hudspith, he found him to be a natural leader whose reminders to keep calm and quiet earned the respect of the other men. Macon Hawkins, a fellow Texan, was the oldest and gabbiest among them.
Sometimes the guards brought newspapers, which allowed the hostages to keep up with MEND’s campaigns and the ongoing negotiations for their release. They had bottled water and food; sometimes there was fruit and sometimes fresh fish, which the hostages declined, having seen the filthy water they came from. Their toilet was a small shovel and a short march to the river’s edge. Escape was out of the question; about fifteen armed guards kept constant watch. Even if they had gotten away, no one knew a way out of the jungle. The camp was dangerous enough: Venomous green mamba snakes lounged in the mangrove branches, and hungry mosquitoes swarmed at dusk, raising angry red welts wherever the prisoners weren’t covered with clothing. The malaria medication, Spell noted, came in boxes wrapped in paper stamped with the Shell insignia.
There was much coming and going in the camp in the afternoons and early evenings. Soldiers hiked to a nearby town for supplies; villagers stopped in for a visit. The older ones told the captives they would pray for their release, while the younger ones made no effort to hide their contempt. In quiet times, the soldiers talked about their ambitions, which included going to America. At night, everyone—hostages and their guards—slept on foam mattresses on the tile floors in the General’s two-room cinder block house. The building had window AC units, as well as a stereo/CD player, cell phones, and satellite television, powered by a generator. Everyone watched TV, and Spell found it ironic that some of the guards’ favorite show was a Nigerian version of Big Brother, since they too were trapped in a small space with too many people. A light had been improperly installed above the ceiling fan, so that the room seemed lit by a strobe; the fan also wobbled with a constant yooong, yooong, yooong sound that was worse, Spell told himself, than a dripping faucet.
Their treatment seemed to depend on how well hostage negotiations were going with the government and, Spell assumed, Willbros. On good days his captors were cheerful. MEND had stepped up the pressure by telling the press that they were not sure how long they would keep their hostages alive. At one point they kidnapped some Pakistanis off a ship and marched them to the camp just so they could return to tell the world the hostages were still among the living.
On bad days, when negotiations appeared to be breaking down, the daily lectures about the condition of the delta turned malevolent. The militants accused their captives of at least thirty “crimes against the Ijaw gods,” which included polluting their water, stealing their money, and killing their people. “We aren’t barbarians—we will give you a fair trial and then hang you,” one of them told Spell. Once, there was a brief encounter between Nigerian navy fighters and the militants, and Spell again found himself trying to avoid the spray of automatic weapons. The militants had told him that the hostages would be used as human shields if the government attacked; if MEND couldn’t keep the soldiers at bay, though, the hostages would be shot. On another occasion, the kidnappers marched their hostages deeper into the jungle. When captors and captives finally reached a designated spot, the prisoners were lined up, while the members of MEND loaded their weapons. Some of the men began to cry, tears silently rolling down their cheeks. The militants pointed guns at the heads of a few hostages—and then collapsed in laughter at their joke.
Near the end of February, the captors invited their prisoners to a special celebration. Each prisoner was allowed to pick out fresh clothes from a stack of jeans and button-down shirts. Spell and Oswalt got massages to help them recover from severe beatings they had received a few days before. The guards asked personal questions to send back to the negotiators, who wanted proof the hostages were still alive. Spell froze for a moment when he could not remember what he had given Regina for Christmas (a camera). Finally, the militants told them that they would be released in the next few days, pending media availability. “No hard feelings,” the guards said, their lilting Nigerian inflections particularly merry. “Remember how well we treated you.”
Just a few mornings later, a boat came up the river with a CNN crew in tow. In what seemed to be a well-orchestrated move, the militants allowed Macon Hawkins to leave. Later that day, the Ijaws assembled their remaining eight prisoners and started returning their belongings. “That’s mine,” Oswalt said, pointing to a necklace he’d worn constantly on the barge. The soldier ignored him. Then he passed by Spell.
“What’s it mean?” Oswalt whispered to his friend, his eyes wide.
Spell knew. “Cody, it looks like we’re not going,” he said, and he was right. Another boat came and took everyone away but Spell, Oswalt, and Hudspith.
That night, Spell’s fear got the better of him. As he waited and waited for a dinner he thought would never come, one thought roiled his mind: No one feeds a hog before he butchers it.
The kidnapping of nine employees could not have come at a worse time for Willbros. Once a division of Williams Brothers before it relocated from Tulsa to Houston in 2000, it was a construction colossus, among the world’s largest builders of pipelines, with operations in 55 countries. It had completed seemingly impossible engineering projects across the Andes and in the Amazon basin. During World War II, Willbros built the crucial Big Inch and Little Big Inch pipelines to carry crude and refined products from the Gulf Coast to the Eastern Seaboard. Over the next few decades, it constructed pipelines across South American jungles, Middle Eastern deserts, and Alaskan tundra. By 2004, the company had more than $660 million worth of projects in the works. Willbros was Shell’s contractor of choice in Nigeria; it had been operating there since 1962. But around the time of the kidnappings, it had run into legal trouble directly related to the challenges of operating abroad.
In any large construction project, it’s the contractor that goes into a foreign country first and assumes the initial risk. In corrupt countries, this meant Willbros’ clients could adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, while the contractor, to remain competitive, had to cultivate and assuage the locals in order to ensure that the job would progress with as few interruptions as possible. Sometimes the best-run projects can go awry: In 2004 Willbros had encountered difficulty in Bolivia. Government officials there accused the company’s Bolivian subsidiary of failure to pay “taxes” (the euphemism of choice for bribes) and falsification of documents, and they demanded more money. A Willbros internal audit revealed that, at the instruction of J. Kenneth Tillery, the chief of Willbros’ international division, the company had been engaged in a cover-up—which made Willbros vulnerable to investigations by the SEC and the U.S. Justice Department under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Tillery left the company in January 2005, but for Willbros, the problems were just beginning.
Any company that does business in a corrupt country runs the risk of corrupting itself. Willbros’ internal investigation, reported in its 2005 10K filing, also revealed that, dating back to 1996, company executives had paid bribes in other countries to avoid paying taxes and had paid off judicial authorities to rule their way in foreign courts, generating the money to do so through fictitious invoices from nonexistent vendors. Although the FCPA provisions are designed to allow American companies to compete with foreign rivals, Willbros had gone too far: To win a contract in Nigeria in 2004 worth $387.5 million, Forbes reported, Willbros employees paid out about $6 million in bribes. When asked by Nigerian officials for $1.5 million more, Willbros had to borrow from an unnamed German multinational corporation, which promptly delivered $1 million in cash in a suitcase to a Nigerian-based Willbros manager, who greased the proper palms. Under the FCPA, that conduct was against the law.
In addition, investigators found that Tillery had invested in companies that then charged Willbros for goods and services. Eventually the Justice Department and the SEC launched investigations, and class-action lawsuits on behalf of shareholders followed. The value of Willbros stock dropped 30 percent. “Special risks associated with doing business in highly corrupt environments may adversely affect our business,” the 10K filing confessed, but Willbros had little choice but to continue operating in Nigeria, where 84 percent of its ongoing projects were located. It could not afford to pull out, but it was at a disadvantage against European and Chinese companies that were not constrained from participating in the routine corruption in Nigeria.
With the price of oil rising, pressure was also coming from Willbros’ major Nigerian client, Shell, to speed up work on new pipelines. Dissatisfied with Willbros’ progress, the client started withholding payments; in turn, Willbros had to reduce its spending to maintain its profit margin. One of the things it cut back on was security. Meanwhile, MEND was launching ever more violent attacks on foreign companies to pressure the Nigerian government for reform. Willbros was in the classic contractor’s bind, taking all the risk and getting squeezed from all sides: the client, corrupt officials, desperate insurgents, and U.S. watchdogs.
To keep working in Nigeria was dangerous, but not as dangerous as losing everything. As the deadline for Dark February approached, Shell removed its employees from the line of fire. Willbros did not. The company decided to take the risk. Russell Spell didn’t know it, but he was taking the risk too.
Regina Spell got the news about her husband’s kidnapping from Willbros’ human resources department. The call came on a day like any other—she had been racing around to get her daughter, Kaitlin, to a dance competition on time. The phone rang, and she saw Willbros’ name on the caller ID and didn’t think much of it. An irrepressible woman with lively blue eyes, Regina had made her peace with her husband’s occupation. She was used to managing the family alone; she and the kids had long ago stopped walking him to the airport gate because it was just too sad, knowing they wouldn’t be together again for months. In January 2006 they had dropped him off at the curb and waved. Not that she didn’t worry. Regina always made Russell call when he reached the barge, instead of when he landed in Nigeria, because that way she knew he was completely out of danger.
Now a woman she hardly knew was telling her that her husband had been kidnapped by terrorists. For fifteen minutes, Regina hid in her bedroom so that her daughter wouldn’t see her tears; then she washed her face and took Kaitlin to the competition, because she didn’t want her daughter to know anything was wrong. Regina had not had the easiest life; there had never been a lot of money, and her parents had divorced when she was 18. Life with Russell, whom she married at 22, had been good, steady, with the wolf far from the door, and Regina wasn’t going to let go without a fight. The next day, she told her children—Kaitlin was eleven, Matthew nine—what had happened and resolved to keep their lives as normal as possible for as long as she could.
This was not easy with the daily calls from Willbros and frequent bulletins from the FBI, which knew little more than she did. She faxed a couple of letters that Russell probably would never see to Willbros for approval, all the while knowing she was writing to a husband she might never see again. She spent her days watching CNN and searching the Internet for news about Russell, thinking Willbros might have missed something. Too often, she stumbled across false Web stories that said some of the men had escaped, and she imagined Russell lost in the jungle. Then the kids would come home from school, and she would cook dinner and help them do their homework. She was, she realized, just another prisoner.
Thirty-eight days after Russell had been kidnapped, the phone rang. Regina was tired, having taken Kaitlin to another competition that day. She asked her daughter to get the phone. Seconds later, she heard her scream: “Daddy!”
By the time he was released, Spell had almost given up hope that the moment would come. “I don’t want to die for a pipeline,” he had told himself. They were “high-value hostages”—that was the reason he, Oswalt, and Hudspith had been held back. None of the captors’ demands had been met, and MEND had rightly assessed that its only hope for money and influence lay with the U.S. and the British. Conditions at the camp had deteriorated. The captors had cut down on the food rations, and there was no toilet tissue. Spell worried that one of the guards might shoot Oswalt, who pelted them incessantly with questions. Spell had lost his temper with him the day Oswalt had asked one too many times when Spell thought they were going home. “Damn it, Cody, I don’t know!” he’d shouted. The guards were crueler. “Maybe next yee-ah” was one’s answer. “Maybe two.” Their bodies were rank from the dampness, the dirty clothes, and the polluted water they bathed in. Oswalt had followed his captors’ habit of shaving under his arms to reduce the smell.
Spell thought about Regina and the kids—whether Matthew was reading Harry Potter and Kaitlin was still coltish and irrepressible, like her mom. Little League, dance competitions, report cards, backyard barbecues, Regina’s broad, eager smile—the whole of his life drifted across his mind like the clouds overhead. He thought about his parents, his dad in particular, who had introduced him to offshore work and whose business he had left to work for Willbros. He also thought about the newspaper he’d been given by the General, in which MEND had warned of future attacks. Why had Shell pulled their workers out but Willbros hadn’t? What had possessed him to come back here, when he could have worked with his dad in peace for as long as he’d wanted?
With every passing day, the danger increased. The prisoners knew about their captors’ weapons and their plans, knew their faces, and Oswalt had even let slip that he knew one of the commanders’ names. A newspaper had published a story identifying one of the remaining kidnap victims as a security expert, and the guards wanted to know who it was. Neither Spell nor Oswalt betrayed Hudspith. By then Spell had learned from the Englishman that “I don’t know” was the best answer to any question. Another time, the militants allowed Oswalt to call home, hoping to intensify pressure on the Nigerian government and convince Shell to meet their demands. “Something needs to get done,” he told his family as his captors ordered, “or we’re fixin’ to be killed.” Meanwhile, the risk premium was at work; due to MEND, oil production from Nigeria had fallen by 20 to 25 percent, and the price worldwide had risen to more than $64 a barrel.
As the month of March drew to a close, Spell sensed a shift in the negotiations. He had seen Ijaw leaders meeting with his captors, and he’d caught sight of some white men entering camp as well. In a subsequent meeting that Spell assumed involved ransom payments, the General paid his fellow militants from a bulging manila envelope. He was a little short of the 50,000 nairas—about $400—due the last soldier in line but promised to pay him the next day. The kidnappers explained their progress: Nigerian leaders were out of the picture; the U.S. government was now dealing directly with MEND to secure the hostages’ release. The FBI, the CIA, the State Department, Ijaw Americans, and countless others were now involved, including Willbros’ insurance company. In addition, six U.S. government terrorist experts had flown in from Afghanistan to close the deal, while the Bush administration had threatened to increase U.S. naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea. The captors kept negotiating, but they also brought in mortars.
The tip-off that release was near came when the militants suddenly seemed concerned about what their captives thought of them. Like most revolutionaries, they understood the value of propaganda and didn’t want the wrong message released to the world. At a midnight ceremony, complete with Johnnie Walker Red Label and Heineken, the captors, dressed in tribal robes and discharging guns into the air, seemed genuinely sorry to say goodbye. They gave Oswalt, Hudspith, and Spell detailed answers to questions Nigerian military intelligence officers would ask and insisted the captives carry the word about MEND’s struggle to the outside world. By then, Spell had come to feel the strange ambivalence that hostages often develop. Despite the beatings and the death threats, he had a healthy respect for his captors. They were disciplined and resolute; he had never seen people so determined to fight for a cause. “If we were in the same circumstances as them,” Oswalt had asked him one day, “would you join MEND and fight like they do?” Spell thought a while before answering. “I certainly hope I would have the courage to,” he said.
As a final going-away gift, the captors offered a curse: If their prisoners ever spoke negatively about MEND, someone close to them would die soon after. The Ijaws had people everywhere, including Houston, they said. At last, in the darkness, a boat appeared to take them home.
They traveled upriver for about an hour and a half, the only sound the sputtering of the motorboat. Finally, they reached Warri, a city of about a million people, where many oil companies had offices, and were taken into a security debriefing. The intelligence officers asked the questions MEND had predicted, and Spell answered as he’d been told. How had Spell been treated? Well, very well. Did MEND have weapons? Yes. What kind? He didn’t know. Where was their camp? He didn’t know. How many men? He didn’t know. Spell wasn’t sure how free he really was. He was still deep in the delta, and MEND members clearly had security police contacts. He wasn’t taking any chances.
The next few hours consisted of a series of transfers that seemed to get Spell ever closer to American life without actually getting him closer to home. The security forces escorted the hostages to a large, darkened home for a meeting with an Ijaw chief, who sat in front of a red curtain in traditional red-and-white robes. He congratulated the men on their release and then handed them over to Delta State governor James Ibori—the official who was noteworthy for his Mercedes Maybach and London real estate—who told them how hard he had worked for their release. As night turned into day, Ibori passed the men on to FBI and State Department officials. At last, the Americans were in friendly hands. The FBI told Spell that reporters were waiting, hoping to interview him. Though the government officials urged discretion, they knew they had no claim on him. “It’s your story,” the agent said of Spell’s experience. “Say whatever you want.”
Spell said nothing; he was too eager to use the cell phone someone handed him to call home. He was in a daze as he was moved to a Shell compound, where, after a brief medical examination, a doctor gave him a clean bill of health and a fresh supply of his long-missing blood pressure medicine, along with a warning about the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Then, after breakfast and his first shower in weeks, he found himself flying to Lagos on a Shell jet packed with jubilant Willbros executives.
In Lagos, Willbros gave Spell $500 in travel money and a sheet of paper titled “Discussion Points for Russell.” He had to be careful when he spoke to the press. According to the list, he wasn’t supposed to mention the client, Shell (“They are very sensitive about the situation and want to have absolute control over any mention of the company on this deal”). Nor was Spell to mention Governor Ibori (“Not sure if he is in control”) or any empathy he might have developed for the militants (“Too touchy!”). He should say that Willbros was a “good company.” He should stay away from words like “bunkering, pollution, corruption, . . . Exxon, and Chevron.” Environmental issues were not to be discussed (“Way too sensitive of an issue for us to get caught up in; we do not know the facts”).
Basically, Russell Spell’s life-changing experience was off-the-record.
Cody Oswalt had been home for about six months before he sued Willbros and Shell. His September 2006 complaint alleged that Willbros was negligent for failing to provide a safe workplace and that Shell was negligent because it had advance knowledge of the attack and failed to protect its subcontractor by providing adequate security on the barge. (Spell later learned that Nigerian navy security boats, which had been hired to watch the barge, had disappeared the night before, as if warned or bribed to stay away.) Oswalt asked for $10 million in damages for, among other things, post-traumatic stress disorder, physical pain and suffering, and loss of future earning capacity. (The case was settled earlier this spring for an undisclosed amount.)
Spell wasn’t the kind to sue, however. He had always been a company man—he liked to joke that he nearly had a “W” tattooed on his backside—and when he had arrived home, Willbros seemed to want to do everything possible to help, starting with sending his family in a limo to the airport to pick him up. The CEO of the company, Mike Curran, presented Spell with a $10,000 check and a note card urging him to get in touch when he was ready to go back to work, so they could try to find something for him. He wasn’t really thinking about the future; he was just happy to be home with his wife and kids. Spell was also relieved to know that when he got back on his feet, he would have work. It was Spell’s understanding from two company executives that he should polish up his résumé; they’d find something for him in Houston. In the meantime, Spell started seeing doctors for a torn rotator cuff and three crushed vertebrae.
But as spring began to hint at summer, Spell began to feel lost. He often wandered around the house at loose ends. Sometimes he spent hours in front of the big-screen TV in the living room, waiting for his kids to come home from school. They walked on eggshells around him, as if he were someone they hardly knew. “Dad?” Kaitlin asked him one day. “Are you okay? You’re just sittin’ around starin’ into closets.”
The dreams and flashbacks had started on his first night at home. Thinking he was back at camp, Spell planned an escape in the event of a government attack. Or he imagined that he had to pick the guard who wouldn’t beat him when he asked to leave the house to urinate. In the dark he would see the gleam of a rifle in the moonlight and hear the breathing of the other hostages sleeping beside him. Then he would awaken to see the chrome of his bathroom shower and Regina next to him in bed. Willbros offered to provide therapy, and he did get some medications, but Spell declined most of the help. He thought he would be fine if he could just get back to work. He craved order—someone to tell him what to do. And he was worried about money; a $10,000 bonus only went so far.
It was around that time—about two months after his release—that some Willbros managers invited Regina and him to lunch. Afterward, they asked the Spells back to the office and, in a conference room, told Russell they wanted him back. Spell understood he was being offered work in Houston, but he didn’t sign a formal contract. After two weeks, Willbros called him in and offered him a different job—in Nigeria. At least the job wasn’t offshore. They just wanted him to keep track of inventory on a project for Exxon. Spell would be living in a secure Willbros compound and working in a secure facility nearby. The job would last only a few months. Willbros would raise his pay from $80,000 a year to $108,000 and fly him business class. And besides, that was all the company had.
On May 22, 2006, just before he left for Africa, Willbros executives asked Spell to sign an employment contract. It required him to release them from responsibility for any kidnapping, to promise not to file suit, and to agree to arbitration in England should any future problems arise. He was encouraged to get supplementary insurance. Desperate to get back to work, Spell signed.
On the flight over, Spell started to sweat. He couldn’t tell whether he was hot or cold, awake or asleep, alive or dead. The antianxiety medication he had begun taking wasn’t doing any good. By the time Spell landed in Germany, his clothes were soaked through, and he raced to an airport lounge to shower. He had to do the same thing several hours later, after he landed in Nigeria. It was as if his body knew better than to stop being afraid, no matter what he tried to tell himself.
Everything in Nigeria looked the same, but it was, for him, completely different. Each day, he was driven from the Willbros compound to the job site, a distance of about a mile and a half. He had never been frightened before, but now he was hypervigilant. One day, Spell rode back to the compound for lunch and then could not will himself to go back to work. Another day, he got wind of a security alert. He sped back to the compound and started packing his bags. “Man, you are ready to run this time, aren’t you?” one of his co-workers said.
His friend Tim Browne invited Spell to move into his three-bedroom house in the hope it might calm his fears. Instead, Spell woke him with his nightmares, and Browne noticed that the friend who had always been quick to laugh and cut up now kept his distance from just about everyone. When his father became gravely ill, Spell remembered the Ijaw curse. At the funeral back in Silsbee, his family begged him to stay, but he felt he couldn’t afford to risk his job. After two weeks at home, helping his mother iron out her affairs, Spell got back on a plane to Africa.
In September 2006 Spell returned home for what he thought would be a normal break between assignments. When no one contacted him about going back to work, he started pressing his managers. When would he be called back? No one seemed to know. They’d have something soon, he was told. Just be patient.
The answer finally came in the form of a letter telling Spell that he was being cut back to half-pay until further notice. After 42 years in Nigeria, the company was pulling out. Beset by lawsuits, government investigations, and security threats, management had decided that staying in Nigeria wasn’t worth the risks. Spell called HR to ask what would happen to him, growing increasingly frantic as their answers became increasingly vague. He knew he couldn’t support his family, much less afford his spiraling medical costs, without a job and health insurance.
Making due with painkillers, Spell had scheduled surgeries for his rotator cuff and neck injuries for 2007, when he assumed he would have a job in Houston, but no job was forthcoming. Finally, Spell decided Willbros had left him no choice. Almost against his will, and certainly against his nature, he hired a lawyer. Soon after, in January 2007, Spell was at home alone when the phone rang. It was an HR representative from Willbros. Haltingly, she told him she didn’t want him to be blindsided by the news, but he would soon receive a memo telling him he was going to be laid off permanently. There wasn’t going to be a job in Houston; in fact, there wasn’t going to be a job at all.
Regina took up secretarial work to pay the bills. “By the time we needed Willbros,” she said, “they were gone.”
Spell had hired the East Texas firm of Provost Umphrey, the legal juggernaut famous for winning large judgments in workers’ compensation cases. Legally speaking, Spell was fortunate that he had been abducted at sea rather than on land. Changes in tort law would have made it difficult for him to recover damages in a personal-injury suit, but he could sue under the Jones Act, which gave him some advantages as a maritime employee. His attorney, David Wilson, has sued both Willbros and Shell, charging “the cause of the accident was negligence attributable to the Defendants, in failing to provide a safe workplace to their personnel.” Still, because of the employment contract Spell had signed with Willbros, a favorable outcome is in no way ensured for him.
And so Spell, who was officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in December 2006, was on edge this spring as he faced the second anniversary of his release from captivity. He knew that the memories would come back with horrifying clarity. He went to counseling alone and with Regina; he worried about the effect his behavior was having on his kids. Once, he’d broken down when, on the way to a dance recital for Kaitlin, he’d passed an auditorium where the marquee announced a convention of Ijaw leaders. (Houston has one of the country’s largest populations of Nigerian expatriates.) His captors had kept in touch: In April 2007 he had gotten an e-mail from the man who had cooked the hostages’ meals and also been under orders to shoot if any of them caused any trouble: “Happy to know that your family is doing fine,” it began. “I really longs to hear from you often. Lest I forget are you still in ur country or ur company had taken you to other destination?” Spell took his words as a reminder, and a threat.
There was one moment of relief. John Hudspith was passing through Texas on a business trip in March, and Spell drove up to DFW Airport to see him. The two men embraced, had a couple beers, and told some stories, like buddies back from the war. Only it hadn’t been a war, exactly, just business as usual in the continuing global struggle for control of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves. The fight continues for Spell too. As he wrote in an e-mail to me in April, “I prepared to die too many times with the execution threats and fire fights. It is like something inside me died and will never come back. I just can’t get that part back, I am afraid at times that that is the part that held most of the good in me. I am not complete anymore, it seems there is now only off and on, no middle ground, no peace, no sanctuary. I feel as if my soul is still hostage in the Niger Delta. I am struggling to reclaim it, but close is the best I can manage, and those times are fleeting.”
As Russell Spell struggled to put his life back together, halfway around the globe in Nigeria, MEND blew up two pipelines and called upon Jimmy Carter to negotiate their disputes with the government. They were “freedom fighters,” not terrorists, they said. And the price of oil climbed higher and higher, to the once unimaginable level of $120 a barrel, and there was no relief from the risk premium in sight.