The Nigerian government, through its secret police, fuelled kidnapping in the restive Niger Delta region by paying millions of naira in ransom to kidnappers, a leaked US diplomatic cable, made available to NEXT, has revealed.
The cable, dated February 6, 2007, and which punctured the claims by the government, and the Nigerian security agencies, that ransoms were never paid to kidnappers, detailed how the government funnelled N20 million through an official of the State Security Service (SSS) to militants to free two foreign hostages.
Billy Graham, an American citizen, and Neil Mirrlees, a British national, were seized on January 23, 2007, in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, when two vehicles crashed into Mr. Graham’s Peugeot Sedan car, one from the front and the other from the rear, as both foreigners were on their way to work. Both men at the time worked for Pivot GIS Ltd (PGIS), an oil and gas servicing company located in Port Harcourt.
As the men were held captive and reportedly tortured, their employers, the federal government, the Delta and Rivers State government, and the American embassy made frantic efforts to secure their release.
Money for freedom
The US cable stated how in the second week of their captivity, Mr. Graham communicated with the then general manager of PGIS (we are withholding his name so as not to endanger him), appealing that the negotiation with the kidnappers “should conclude as soon as possible because British national Neil Mirrlees’s condition is very weak”. There were also efforts to get Oral Rehydration Therapy across to him to improve his condition.
Mr. Walker quoted the SSS official as saying that “he would arrange for the hostages’ release once he had the full naira 20 million ransom (approximately USD 156,000) in hand”. The decision, he said, was made in the light of Mirrlees’s condition. Days later, the kidnappers released Mr. Mirrlees whose condition had become critical but kept Mr. Graham hostage pending the ransom payment.
It took almost two weeks before Mr. Graham was finally released. By this time the government had discreetly paid the N20 million to the kidnappers, who had initially demanded 1.8 billion naira ransom (about $14million). The government told the world that no payment was made.
In the cable, the SSS chief said that “Ransom payment was contingent on the condition that it never be publicly mentioned”. He then warned the PGIS general manager that he “would be arrested” if the ransom payment ever became known.
The SSS could not be reached for comments yesterday. Calls and text messages sent to the spokesperson of the service, Marilyn Ogar, went unanswered.
In a telephone call with NEXT, the PGIS boss admitted that at the time of the kidnap, he was in constant touch with the SSS. He also admitted that Mr. Graham while in captivity had called him to intimate him about Mr. Mirlees ill health. He however said he did not know the amount paid as ransom for their release.
When contacted, Control Risks Group declined to comment on its role in the ransom payment saga. “I’m afraid that we’re not in a position to help on this occasion as we do not provide comment on specific instances of kidnapping,” Georgina Parkes, the company’s Director of Communications, said. “In terms of our areas of focus as a business risk consultancy, we advise our clients on the political, security and integrity issues that they may encounter when doing business globally. As a matter of course all our business activities are undertaken in line with international and jurisdiction specific regulations and legislation.”
Creating a hostage-taking industry
By paying ransoms, the government and oil companies created an industry of hostage taking, says an April 3, 2006 cable by Ambassador John Campbell to Washington.
In the dispatch, Mr. Campbell related how Chevron Nigeria security consultant, Hamish MacDonald, lamented to him at a March 29, 2006 meeting that a large amount of money was paid for the release of some hostages seized in Delta State that month.
At the meeting with the ambassador, Mr. MacDonald raised concern that his company was “blind-sided” by the commitments made to effect the March 26 release of three hostages held by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).
He said company sources indicated “a very large amount” of money had changed hands for this release, far more than in the release of hostages in January.
“If true”, Mr. Campbell wrote in his dispatch, “We might be witnessing the birth of an industry”.
Of course, kidnapping became such a huge industry afterwards, and the country is still grappling with the repercussions.