The Cost of Doing Business

Nearly everyone in the central Texas Hill Country of Itasca knew Ricky Wiginton. He always wore a smile. Wiginton also was a proud employee of the Houston-based oil-field services giant Baker Hughes.

But earlier this year, just days before the fiftysomething operations manager was headed back to his job in the western African nation of Nigeria, he let a foreign emotion slip through his good nature.

"He was scared this time," says his stepdaughter, whose family refused to let her name be published. "He was iffy about it."

Yet "he wouldn't talk to us about it. He didn't want us to be scared."

In Nigeria, Wiginton lived and worked in Port Harcourt. A large city just off the Atlantic in southern Nigeria, it is home to dozens of big oil offices. By African standards, Port Harcourt is modern and westernized. Yet many consider it Nigeria's most dangerous city for foreign oil workers.

Early on the morning of May 10, as Wiginton was being chauffeured to work in a sedan, the car ahead of him hit the brakes. Then a motorcycle with two people on it pulled up to Wiginton's rear window. The back passenger drew a gun, pointed it through an open window, pulled the trigger and shot the American.

Wiginton's driver raced him to the Baker Hughes office. Getting there, he found Wiginton had died.

The Texan wasn't robbed. Just shot dead. Port Harcourt authorities are offering $40,000 for a tip leading to prosecution. Spokespersons from the Baker Hughes corporate office on Allen Parkway don't have much to say on the matter, citing minimal information flow from the FBI, U.S. State Department and Port Harcourt authorities.

At first, some close to Wiginton's case told Port Harcourt media his murder had a personal connection. Those familiar with big oil's strained relationship with Nigeria probably scoffed; the two most likely suspects were militants, and Wiginton's death was another attack against Nigeria's oil industry.

"The entire industry is keeping an eye on the situation," says Baker Hughes media liaison Gene Shiels. He adds later, "We don't talk about security issues."

Spokespersons from Halliburton and Shell Nigeria were similarly closemouthed.

Late last year, a new militant group declared war against Shell Nigeria, which produces half of the nation's oil exports. Within days, high-powered speedboats packed with black-masked men toting RPGs and AK-47s attacked Shell rigs, refineries and pipelines. They took hostages, including a western-based private-military soldier.

Calling itself MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), the group demanded $1.5 billion in reparations from Shell, claiming that some of the cash would go to clean up past environmental messes.

Shell officials say all abducted employees have been released; they also cited concerns about the environmental damage caused by the attacks. But they refuse to say whether they paid ransom, or to reveal the number of private-military forces they have in Nigeria.

The current Nigerian government, a newborn democracy after years of military rule, is trying to appease MEND with certain concessions. Such efforts, however, have been backhanded.

"We wish to restate our warnings to oil companies still operating in the Niger Delta, and more especially workers for such companies, to leave while they can," said a MEND spokesperson to Nigerian media this past summer. "At a time of our choosing we will resume attacks with greater devastation and no compassion on those who choose to disregard our warnings."

Nigeria is the king of African oil, and hundreds of Houston-based companies have a financial interest in the delta. It could be argued that it was Houston oil expertise that brought wells and pipelines there.

Every day, millions of barrels of crude are pumped out of Nigeria's lower midsection -- a maze of creeks and jungles called the Niger Delta. Much of it then flows south through pipelines to Port Harcourt, where it is refined and shipped out. Nigerian oil makes up nearly 12 percent of the United States' total yearly consumption. The CIA claims that figure could jump 20 to 25 percent in ten to 15 years.

But before the discovery of black gold, the delta was home to the native Ijaw, who number between 15 and 20 million. Many of them are considered some of the poorest people in the world. The Power and Interest News Report states that "while Nigeria has earned $300 U.S. billion in oil revenues over the last 25 years, per capita income remains below $1 U.S. per day."

What's more, the Ijaw still lack basic health care, schools, job opportunities and simple infrastructure, such as paved roads. The Ijaw also have little, if any, ownership in the oil industry that surrounds them. In essence, Nigerian oil is a joint venture between that nation's federal government and western-based big oil companies, many of which have offices in Houston.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Lasker