The Next Page: In Nigeria, My ‘Fixers’ Keep Me Alive

Reporting from a lawless region, David Francis needed more than his wits about him. He needed fixers. And a driver. He needed Stephen, Stanley and George to ... 'Keep Francis safe'

Fellows Fall 2011

By David Francis

October 17, 2011

Also published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Located in Western Africa along the Atlantic coast, Nigeria produces around 2.2 million barrels of oil per day. It is the eighth-largest oil exporter in the world, and the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States. This oil comes from an area in the south of the country called the Niger Delta.

Since the British discovered oil here in the 1950s, energy companies from around the world have come to drill for light, sweet crude known as Bonny Light. This kind of oil is in especially high demand because it can quickly and easily be processed into gasoline. If oil production here were to falter, American consumers would immediately feel the impact.

Despite the oil riches, 70 percent of the country lives below the poverty line, and much of the rest live just above it. Nigeria is one of four countries in the world yet to eradicate polio. Modern roads and bridges are non-existent outside big cities. Electricity fails multiple times each day. Most of the country doesn't have viable drinking water, let alone working plumbing. Crime here is rampant, as is extremism.

In August, a Muslim terrorist group called Boko Haram exploded a bomb inside the United Nations office in Abuja, Nigeria's capital. Twenty-three people were killed and scores more were injured.

Port Harcourt is the largest city in the Niger Delta and home to many of the oil companies doing business here. Billions of dollars are generated annually but next to nothing is invested locally. Anger over years of mistreatment and exploitation by oil companies has created a fierce militant movement. Organized groups like the Movement to Emancipate the Niger Delta (MEND) and the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force continue to wage war against the government and oil companies.

Less organized groups like the Icelanders and Bushboys fight for control of the "creeks," the waters and land of the Delta. These groups enlist local children to serve as soldiers. These fighters, some as young as 8 or 9, are notoriously ruthless, well-trained and feared. In 2009 they chased the Nigerian Army out of the Delta.

The groups kidnap foreigners for ransom, sabotage oil facilities and commit violence against one another, the Nigerian military and the people of Port Harcourt. Under their control, the city is virtually lawless. Anyone who is white, as I am, is assumed to be with an oil company and is therefore an enemy. The only safe places here are behind concrete walls topped with razor wire.

Port Harcourt is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous cities on Earth. I came here to report on the militant movement and the future of the oil industry here.

I underestimated how difficult this would be. It would have been impossible without the help of fixers.

'Made it possible for me to exist here'

When reporting in an unfamiliar place, journalists often hire locals, known as fixers, to help them operate. Fixers are usually activists or local journalists. They know where it is safe to go and where to avoid. They know the local customs and whom to talk to for good information. They often set up your appointments.

The good ones know how to get you out of trouble. The very good ones know how to avoid it completely.

As I prepared to travel here, a source in the United States recommended two local conflict-resolution activists named Stephen and Stanley. The two have worked together for eight years, helping to broach peace agreements among the warring factions in the Delta.

They straddle the line between respectability and villainy: Both are just as comfortable around politicians as they are the boys in the creek.

Stanley and I met for the first time soon after I arrived in Port Harcourt in early October. He wanted to know why I came here. He wanted to know what I wanted to write about. He wanted to make sure I was not a member of the U.S. military looking to collect intelligence.

I wanted him to tell me about the militants. I wanted to know how he became an activist. I wanted his assurance that he wasn't going to set me up and get me kidnapped.

After three hours of this, we eventually clicked and trust was established.

Typical fixers pave the way for a journalist to do their work. Stanley and his colleague Stephen did more than this: They made it possible for me to exist here.

They set up interviews with militants who have never talked to the press. They paid boys to leave me alone as I passed through their creeks. When militants refused to talk to me, they vouched for my sincerity and integrity.

They also told me I'm going to need a driver.

'You know you're a white boy, right?'

Driving in Port Harcourt is a nightmare. Cars travel at frantically high speeds just inches from each other. Most roads are narrow and aren't separated by lanes. There are no working stoplights. Cars nudge and push and honk at 60 mph. Potholes are large enough to swallow a car. Back roads aren't paved, just puddles of mud and rock. Deadly accidents occur on an almost daily basis.

There is also the added danger of getting kidnapped for ransom. Most oil workers have the money to travel in large convoys escorted by the Nigerian military or police. Traffic jams last hours in Port Harcourt. They provide a prime scenario for kidnapping, as there are few ways to escape. A good, expensive driver would know how to get out of the tightest spot quickly.

I, however, have a very tight budget.

A journalist friend told me about Ani George, or George, for short, whose rates were reasonable and driving skills were solid. He met me at the airport on a Saturday and drove me to the inexpensive hotel I had booked online. When we pulled up to the hotel after searching for half an hour, I sensed it was unsafe.

George turned around and looked at me. "You can't stay here, this hotel isn't for white people," he said. "You know you're a white boy, right?"

"I never realized how white I was until I came here," I said. "Do you know a good hotel?"

"Yes, I know a place."

He drove me to the Aldgate Hotel on the other side of town. He checked out the room with me and helped me to talk down the rate for my two-week stay.

I had my driver.

'The music eased our mood'

We all met at the Aldgate the following Monday. Stanley worked his phone, texting and calling contacts around town. Around 4:30 that afternoon he told me I could talk to a top-ranking general of MEND. If we wanted to meet him, we had to leave immediately.

All four of us got into the car. George was in the driver's seat with Stanley next to him. I was in the back, passenger's side, while Stephen sat behind George. Stanley told me this arrangement had a purpose. If someone were to approach me in the car, Stanley would be able to exit quickly and stop him from attempting to open my door. This would give George a chance to drive away, while Stephen could try to keep me in the back seat if Stanley failed.

As we eased through traffic on one of Port Harcourt's main roads, it occurred to me for the first time that by enlisting these men to escort me around Port Harcourt, I was putting their lives at risk. If I got kidnapped I would probably survive, as I'm worth nothing dead. George, Stanley and Stephen would likely suffer much worse fates.

We made a quick right turn into a neighborhood. Immediately, the city closed on us like a vise. The streets narrowed. Vehicles parked or stalled on either side of the street made it nearly impossible for two cars to pass in opposite directions. We crawled along the pockmarked road at no more than 10 mph.

The street was packed with people who walked without acknowledging the cars. Occasionally someone leaned toward our vehicle and stared at me through the window. Stanley constantly scanned the crowd. Minutes felt like hours. We were all tense. George flipped on the radio and the music eased our mood.

Eventually we turned onto a side street and the crowd dissipated. We stopped and Stanley led me into a tiny alley where I met General TK. He smoked a joint and drank a beer as we talked about MEND's goals and mission. Stanley kept TK's boys at bay and made sure those lurking about us had no weapons.

'David ... like the king in the Bible!'

Two days later, we were driving to interview another top-ranking general, this time of the Icelanders (a.k.a. the Niger Delta Vigilante), a group that controls slums along the city's waterfront. We were meeting in one of these slums. I was less nervous about driving, having already done it once. George pulled over and turned off the engine. It was the middle of the day and the streets were half full.

"We need to get out and walk the rest of the way," Stephen said.

"Really? Here?" I asked.

"Yes. Just move quickly and stay between us," Stanley said.

We got out and people immediately started to stare at me with curiosity. Stanley later told me that it was extremely rare for white people to be in this part of town. He said I might be the first white person some of these people had ever seen. They probably assumed I'd been kidnapped, he said.

I followed Stephen into an open-air market with Stanley behind me. It was packed with people selling fresh and dried fish and many items I didn't recognize. Metal siding propped up by wood provided shelter from Port Harcourt's daily rains but made it stifling hot. It smelled of rotten food. I worried I might be sick.

We finally made it to a set of uneven concrete steps and turned into a small village of shanty homes. Stephen led me through a maze of concrete houses until we came upon a short older man standing outside. Stephen introduced him as General JB, the Icelander who controlled the area. When I told him my name his dark eyes lit up.

"David ... like the king in the Bible!" he said.

"Yes, General. Just like in the Bible," I said. "But I am no king here."

JB laughed hard, patted me on the back and led me inside. We talked for an hour.

Before we left, Stephen suggested I take a few pictures to prove I'd been there. We walked out to the edge of the water where JB's boys were waiting to bring barrels of stolen oil onshore. Some looked as young as 10. They spoke pidgin English and I could make out only a few sentences. There were weapons lying around but no one was carrying them. The boys seemed excited to see me. A young one told me I was his "first white man."

Stephen lined up the boys, the general and I for a photo, while joking loudly. Some older men came out of the shanties to see what was happening.

Suddenly the mood turned. The men started yelling at me for taking pictures and the younger boys turned and did the same. "I'm going to break your head, white boy!" yelled a man who was urinating in my direction. General JB had disappeared so there was no one with authority to calm the situation.

"Go, go, go!" Stanley whispered.

We began our retreat walking quickly, weaving through the dilapidated town. The boys followed, their shouts growing louder. I was worried the weapons on the shore had been picked up. I suppressed the desire to run and dared not look back.

People came out of their homes to see what was happening. Eventually we got close to the stairs that led up to the market. Stephen said we needed to pay the boys off so they wouldn't follow. I pulled out 40,000 naira (about $240) and handed it to Stanley. He turned around and went back.

"He's going back in?"

"He'll be OK, but we need to move, you get?" Stephen said as he started up the stairs.

We made our way back through the market. To my relief Stanley caught up with us. He said the boys wouldn't follow. "But let's go fast."

The three of us walked quickly to the car. George was waiting to drive us away.

'Every morning I pray, "Keep us safe, keep Francis safe"'

Later that evening, Stanley, Stephen and I were recounting the day's events in my hotel room.

"Every morning I pray, 'Keep us safe, keep Francis safe,' " Stephen said.

"Your prayers worked today," I told him. We then made plans for me to visit Okrika, an island in the creeks surrounding Port Harcourt. Stanley set off to pay off the boys in the creek so they didn't give us a hard time.

Stephen left a few minutes later. I lay down and guilt set in. If anything had happened to them, it would have been my fault. I don't belong in the shanties and I put three good people at risk by going there.

George, Stephen and Stanley are well aware of the risk I pose to them. We talked about it openly. But they assured me that helping a reporter tell the story of what's going on in the Delta is important. Nigeria is not going to run out of oil anytime soon. Energy companies are not going to leave. Roads are not going to improve. The boys in the creek aren't going to have a better future unless more people like them work to shed light on their grim circumstances.

I pay all three of them for their work. But what I really owe them is to tell this story well. It's the least I can do for George, Stephen and Stanley, three Delta boys made good.

David Francis is reporting from Nigeria as an International Reporting Project (IRP) fellow.