By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
When Plake set off in March 2007 for the Cheyenne, both he and Collette went in with open eyes; they knew about the many assaults and kidnappings in the region where Plake was headed. For decades, as they understood it, corrupt Nigerian government officials had been pocketing more than their share of the country's oil revenues instead of investing them in developing the nation and helping their people.
According to University of Houston Associate Professor of History Kairn Klieman, who teaches classes about Africa including "Africa and the Oil Industry," the Nigerian government took control of the country's oil revenues following a civil war in the late 1960s. The government then purposefully left the Niger Delta region massively underdeveloped — no roads, electricity, clean water or jobs — hoping this would stave off any further attempts at revolution. Instead, people living there have suffered terribly and vigilantism has become a way of life.
"Because the government was so greedy for oil revenues," says Klieman, "they let the oil companies work without following any kind of environmental regulations. So the land, the water, the air is all devastated and the people there can't even live in the normal, old-fashioned way, which was to grow food. It's not even possible to live in the 19th-century model there anymore."
Nigeria ranks as the 121st most corrupt country in the world and is ranked No. 22 in Africa, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International, a global corruption watchdog group. The country's score of 2.7 out of 10 in 2008 was an improvement over its score of 2.2 in 2007, the year Plake was taken hostage. By comparison, Somalia, which has made headlines this year for acts of piracy off its shores, was ranked as the 180th most corrupt country in the world in 2008 and came in at No. 47 in Africa.
According to Oyibos Online, a Web site that tracks security incidents in Nigeria, 62 foreigners have been kidnapped so far this year. In 2008, 81 were taken. In 2007, the year Plake was captured, 172 people were abducted. That's not to mention the hundreds of maritime assaults, hijackings and pipeline bombings over the same time span.
"You've heard of 'blood diamonds'?" says Plake. "In Nigeria they call it 'blood oil' because of all the deaths and kidnappings over it. They'll steal and kill their own brother because they're such a depressed people. Life is cheap."
Tribes and insurgency groups take hostages who work for the very oil companies that the government relies on to extract and move the country's vast reserves. Their stated political goal is to stop the country's ability to export oil and thus end the corruption, as well as to pressure the government to develop the region.
But nothing is ever so cut-and-dried. Motivations range from obtaining basic necessities to pure greed. Much of the environmental devastation is the result of insurgents blowing up pipelines to make their point and then attacking crews sent in to repair the damage. Many times the men will "bunker," or tap into, a pipeline to steal the oil — which they sell on the black market to pay for weapons and provisions — leaving a busted pipe spitting oil into the ground.
A central problem, says Klieman, is that the oil companies simply factor the cost of ransoms and hostage-rescue missions into the price of doing business, making the insurgents' efforts effectively moot.
Moot, that is, to everyone except the men who are taken hostage and their families.
Exhausted and in shock after being kidnapped and interrogated for most of the day, Plake, Roussel, Faller and Gay were searched and stripped of their wallets, watches, necklaces and cell phones. One of the militants demanded Plake give up his wedding ring, but Plake refused, insisting that his wife had put it on his finger and he'd be damned if it was coming off while he was still alive. Another villager stepped forward, telling Plake he could keep it because Plake was a Christian. By some miracle, they didn't find Plake's pocketknife, which he hid in his shoe.
That first night, the men were locked in a crudely fashioned thatched-roof hut with screen windows and walls made out of peg-board. Inside there was a table, a bench and a fan connected to a small generator stashed in the corner. A naked lightbulb swinging from the ceiling burned brightly all night.
When the men were finally alone, panic set in. They knew the Nigerian military was afraid of venturing this deep into the jungle and that they might as well be trapped on an island. A thousand thoughts raced through Plake's mind, always ending with, "I think we're pretty much fucked."
Plake slept less than an hour that first night, next to Faller on one of two thin foam mattresses in the room.
The next day, on Tuesday, May 8, Plake woke up at 5 a.m. to beating drums and gunfire — a ritual that would continue throughout their captivity. A man unlocked the door and led the hostages to the side of the building, where each was given a plastic lawn chair to sit in all day. This became the daily routine.