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.
Illustration by Mario Wagner

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

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