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Chasing Black Gold
The Incredible True Story of a Fuel Smuggler in Africa
By Robert Stone
The History PressCopyright © 2015 Robert Stone and Alan Wilkinson
All rights reserved.
Warri, Niger Delta, September 1992
Up ahead, there was a row of stationary cars, half on the road and half off it. Men were standing beside them in small groups smoking and talking. Others were squatting on the ground. One or two were cooking over little fires. In the distance, maybe half a mile away, I could see the coloured flags of the gas station. Jesus, some of these people would still be here next month – guys who were being paid by the day to line up for fuel, which might be available and might not. I felt a momentary pang for my part in the shortages. But then I told myself, same as I always did, if it wasn't me operating the black market – hey, it would be somebody else. That's Nigeria for you.
Just as I thought we were clear of the hold-up, Solomon put his foot on the brake, bringing the Landcruiser to a halt. A car had rammed a minibus and a couple of injured people were lying on the road. Passers-by glanced at the scene and hurried on. The policeman in his bright-orange kiosk waved us past.
We were out of Warri now, onto the main road, leaving behind the piles of trash where kids fought over anything worth having: a screw-top plastic jug, a discarded T-shirt or a deflated football. We were speeding between rows of low trees, swinging out to pass the occasional motorbike that puttered along, piled high with sacks of produce.
Solomon leaned forward and switched the radio on to catch the hourly news bulletin. I was half listening, in case there was a story I hadn't heard already, but it was the same old thing. Some asshole decides to help himself. Maybe he has one of those DIY refineries back in the swamps. Drills through a supply line straight into a pressurised flow of light oil. Up she goes and fries half a dozen innocent kids. Next thing, a politician waddles out onto the steps of his mansion flanked by bodyguards and tells the reporters, no, he never took any bribe. Then, news from the coast – another fishing area has been wiped out after an oil spillage.
After a mile or two, I got Solomon to turn the damned thing off. It made me uncomfortable. Besides, any day that ends up with a drive to Lagos along that potholed piece of shit they call a road is not a good day to listen to bad news. There's enough on your mind with the gun, loaded and cocked, sitting in your lap, ready for the ambush you just know will happen, sooner rather than later.
And then there's the past, always there in the background, tainting everything you do. Right now, it was threatening to screw up my new life, the life that had started when my kids came along. That changed everything. Suddenly I was thinking it might be time to get the hell out of Nigeria – take the money and go. All my life, since I ran out on my mother, I'd been like a gambler on a hot streak. Right now, I had to be worth 30, 40 maybe 50 million – although, as someone once said to me, a man who can add up exactly what he's worth usually isn't worth much. Maybe this was the moment to scoop up my chips, cash them in and spread the money out on the table. For the family.
But even as all this raced through my head and the green of the jungle flashed past, I found myself thinking about the new tankers. They were going to bring a whole new dimension to the black market oil side of the business. No more shitty little barge loads picked up in the night in mosquito-infested swamps. No more dealing with punk bandits brandishing gold watches and guns.
Every time I did the sums, I found myself breathing hard. We were already taking just about every gallon they produced in Warri. No wonder there was nothing left to sell to the locals; no wonder there were lines a mile long at every gas station. I was making a million and a half bucks profit a month with a 6,000- tonne vessel, and now my man 'The Admiral' had fixed it for me to bring a 90,000-tonner right slap bang into the refineries in Lagos and Port Harcourt. Ninety frigging thousand. Welcome to the big league, Rob.
I shifted forward in my seat as I caught sight of the oil drums lined up across the road and the uniformed figures lounging around them. Normally I would have a navy guard in the vehicle with me, rifle poking out the side window, and we'd sail through – but today the whole crew had gone missing and nobody could tell me why. Even as Solomon slowed the car I was fumbling around in my briefcase, feeling for the bundles of 20 and 50 naira notes.
It was the mobile police, the guys with face shields and black uniforms, leather helmets hanging low at the back to protect their necks – the 'Kill-and-Go', who could gun down an innocent civilian any time they wanted and walk away unpunished. Evil bastards – which is why I got a unit of them stationed across the road from my base in Warri, a unit whose commanding officer, Lieutenant Ogabie, now drew a nice monthly stipend from 'yours truly'. But these guys we were approaching, they wouldn't have a clue who I was.
As we pulled up, three or four of them sauntered towards the car. One tapped on my side window with the barrel of an Uzi. I wound it down. 'Open the back,' he said. I nodded to Solomon, who clicked the tailgate release.
'Where are you going to?' the guy with the Uzi asked.
'Lagos,' I said.
'Where have you come from?'
'Warri.' Where else did he think? The frigging road only went from A to B through 200 miles of jungle and swamp. In any case, this was all preamble. He soon got to the point.
'What have you got for me?'
'What do you need?'
'I need a drink of cold water.' Translation: 'gimme'.
I passed him a handful of notes. Solomon watched him pocket them. As we drove on, he said, 'Is it any wonder the entire country is in trouble?' I didn't answer. I was counting the miles as we headed towards the capital. Night had fallen and the sky was illuminated with an orange glow generated by a dozen scattered oil flares. What I now saw speeding by in the light of the headlamps reminded me of those photographs of the Somme battlefield. Bare mounds of earth surrounded by oily puddles, the stark outline of blasted trees, here and there a lazy wisp of smoke curling up from a burned-out vehicle. On the roadside were shapeless bundles, some of which might have been bodies. I wound up the window and put the AC on high. 'What the fuck happened here?' I said.
Solomon murmured something about a pipeline blowing up, but it was clear he didn't want to pursue it. I must have dozed off for a while. Next thing I saw was a blueish colour in the sky ahead – the lights of Lagos and Victoria Island. There was always heavy traffic, even at this time of night, but pretty soon we'd crossed the bridge and turned off the highway and I could make out my home. It was surrounded by a 12ft-high perimeter wall, topped with concertina wire. Tall trees grew around it, all lit up by security lights.
The guards on the outer gate stood to attention and let us pass. They were of the Yoruba tribe, from Lagos State. As soon as we were through the heavy steel gates, they closed behind us. Now the inside guards took over – Hausa, a much tougher tribe from up north. Once they'd checked that it was me in the car they opened the inner gate and we drove up to the front door.
Home was a big, two-storey place. It comprised offices, rooms for some of my expat staff and the home I shared with my wife and kids. It had white walls, red-tiled roofs and arched windows – barred, of course. Kind of Spanish. Linda had hired a bunch of gardeners and planted all kinds of fragrant flowers and vines around the home. Even on a night such as this, the scents were heavy, almost overpowering. She knew about these things and I knew I was one lucky sonofabitch to have married her.
I got out of the car and told Solomon to be ready at seven in the morning. I'd be calling on the admiral first thing. I needed to straighten out all the shit that had happened at the yard that afternoon. A riot, for Chrissake? I couldn't have that. I also needed to put some pressure on Chevron. I could do without that new health and safety guy, fresh out of San Ramon, California, telling me how to run my business. I needed to talk to him about how things worked in Nigeria.
The big wooden arched doors opened and I entered the headquarters of Coastal Shipping. Linda came down from our apartment on the upper floor. 'Why didn't you tell me you were coming home?' she said. 'I could've had a meal ready.'
I kissed her and asked, 'Kids in bed?'
'Yes,' she said. 'They crashed out early.' Then she repeated her first question. 'So why didn't you tell me to expect you?'
'Yeah, sorry,' I said, 'but the phones at the yard went out again. Damned power cuts. And a whole bunch of other problems.' She didn't pursue it, which was unusual for her. I didn't know whether it was, 'I don't want to hear it' or 'You'll only lie to me anyway', but she was well aware that I was paddling in murky waters. As for the riot, I certainly wasn't going to talk about that. That would've panicked her. Besides, it was history.
I unbelted my bum bag and dropped it on the table. 'Back in five,' I said, and went up to the bedroom. There, I laid myself out a set of clean clothes and got in the shower. I always stank of diesel after a day at the yard, couldn't wait to wash the damned stuff off. Then I'd go kiss the kids goodnight.
I was still thinking about my call to the admiral as I towelled off and started to get dressed. Why wouldn't he talk all of a sudden? Why had my guards gone missing? Jesus, I could've been killed. I had my shirt on and was just climbing into my slacks when I heard Linda call out to me. She sounded alarmed. I was already heading for the bedroom door when I heard voices. Men. I turned back, grabbed my gun from the bedside table and stuffed it down inside my waistband, zipping up as I hurried along the hall, my shirt tails flapping.
There were four of them. Two were sitting at the dining table drinking iced water; the others were standing up. They were all in plain clothes. It was one of the guys at the table who spoke. He wore a cream-coloured suit and dark glasses. 'Mr Stone,' he said, 'I am Captain Frederick of the Federal Investigation and Intelligence Bureau. We need you to come with us to the station. Now.' He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his ID. Then he turned to his left and introduced the other guy. 'And this is Captain Nboyo of Force CID, head of X-squad. You will need to bring your passport.'
'You gonna tell me what this is all about?' I asked. I could already feel the sweat trickling down my ribs.
Frederick spoke as if he were making a formal charge against me. 'You have stolen our resources and corrupted the moral fabric of our country. Your history of international crimes has caught up with you and now you will be brought to justice.'
Even as Linda gasped, I relaxed. In fact, I almost laughed out loud. So that was it. I'd heard all that shit a dozen times and more. This was the standard crap they spouted when they were shaking you down. I glanced at Linda and nodded reassuringly. Then I turned to the captain, 'Who the hell do you think you are to come into my home and tell me what to do? I'm not some street trader.'
He didn't answer. The two who were on their feet moved a step closer, staring at me with cold, expressionless eyes. That's when it occurred to me that these might not be police after all, but a hit squad. Maybe they were planning to take me down the road to some quiet spot. 'Linda,' I said, 'tell Solomon to get the truck. This shouldn't take long.' She left the room and I went across to the table, picked up the bum bag and belted it around me. It contained the three things I never travelled without: my passport, my Nigerian ID and $10,000 in cash. The captain wasn't taking his eyes off me.
By the time Linda returned we were at the door, ready to go. I kissed her goodbye and told her not to worry. 'And tell Blessing to call Judge Williams for me ASAP,' I whispered. Blessing was my PA. The judge had been handling my legal affairs in Nigeria for years. He knew everyone. He was a personal friend of the president. If these guys were the real thing he would soon sort it out. If they weren't – well, there wasn't a goddam soul who could help me once we were on that highway.
Outside the house was a convoy of several dark-blue vehicles. They looked official enough. My Landcruiser was in the middle, engine running, Solomon in the driver's seat. I climbed in the back and invited Captain Nboyo to get in with me. He took the front passenger seat instead and Captain Frederick sat beside me. He told Solomon to follow the other cars. We set off, heading towards Lagos city centre, blue lights flashing.
It wasn't until we drew up at the FIIB police headquarters that I started to relax. This wasn't some death squad after all. I should have dumped the damned gun in the car, but Frederick was watching me – and Nboyo was standing there holding the door. As I left the car I realised I had no choice but to hang on to it.
The first person I saw when we walked into the building was the head of the Nigerian Drug Enforcement Agency. I'd seen his ugly face plenty of times on the television news. He was walking down the corridor with my partner Douglas Kane. How the hell had he wound up here, I wondered. The thought was soon blown from my mind as we walked past an open door. There inside was ... fuck! Barry Sangster. I hadn't set eyes on the guy since he accused me of screwing him over a failed run. He had no business here. He was supposed to be in New Orleans. This didn't look good.
They took me into an office and sat me down. I wanted to put my hand down my pants and shift the gun. Instead I parted my legs and wriggled it into a more comfortable position. I expected some sort of interrogation, but instead of firing questions at me, Captain Frederick explained that my boats were being seized, every last one of them. Not only that, but everybody who worked for me was going to be arrested. They were closing my business down. The reason? Drug smuggling.
'Now listen,' I said, 'you guys have got this all wrong. I'm no smuggler. I'm a ship owner, a fuel trader. I grease the wheels for your country's oil business. I –' Captain Frederick cut me off with a wave of his hand.
'This is not our doing,' he said. 'It is your own government. The DEA and the FBI and such bodies. They have provided evidence. Now, please hand me your passport.' Ah, the passport. That was more like it. I reached into my bumbag and took it out. I didn't bother to point out that I was, in fact, a Canadian citizen. There was no need. Five minutes from now I'd be heading home for my supper. I tucked the $10,000 between the pages and handed it to him, with a nod of my head.
Usually, these people slip the money in their pocket and give you back your passport. Then it's handshakes all round and, 'here, let me show you to the door, my friend'. Not this guy. Not this time. He hurled the clip of money against the wall. 'What is the meaning of this?' He spat the words out, then stood up, towering over me. I was half expecting him to hit me. 'If you think you can use your dirty money to get out of this, I must tell you that you are mistaken, Mr Stone. Grievously mistaken.' He snapped his fingers, bringing one of the guards hurrying to the desk. 'Take this man away. Now.'
All the time I'd been in Nigeria I'd managed to buy my way out of trouble. Money talked, every time; that was how it worked. Now I had the full might of the United States Government lined up against me. The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, customs and Interpol. It was going to take more than a bundle of notes to get me out of this hole. As they hustled me down the stairs, along a dimly lit corridor, and shoved me into the cell, I was shaking all over. The God's honest truth was, I was more than frightened. I was terrified. Once these people had you locked up they could do what the hell they wanted with you. At least I had the presence of mind to grab hold of the gun before it clattered onto the stone floor – although, right now, I could only think of one use for it.CHAPTER 2
The Indian Ocean, February 1988
My wife was lying face down on the deck above the wheelhouse in her bikini, soaking up the sun. Beside her were her sunglasses, a bottle of sun cream and the book that had first got me interested in the sea some twenty years previously, Hans Hass's Diving to Adventure. She'd spotted it in the cabin on day one and asked me about it. I told her this was the guy who inspired me to take up diving when I was a kid in Ontario, the guy who'd shown me there was a life beyond the dismal neighbourhood where I grew up. I said she ought to read it, get an idea of where I came from – the kind of dream I'd been chasing when I ran away from home at 15. I'd been meaning to re-read it for years – and what better place than the middle of the Indian Ocean, partway between the Maldives and the Horn of Africa?
Excerpted from Chasing Black Gold by Robert Stone. Copyright © 2015 Robert Stone and Alan Wilkinson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Warri, Niger Delta, September 1992,
2 The Indian Ocean, February 1988,
3 Mombasa to the Niger Delta, March–April 1988,
4 Warri, Nigeria, May 1988,
5 Natal, Brazil, July–August 1988,
6 Brazil, New Orleans, Brazil, August–November 1988,
7 Warri, Nigeria, and Aberdeen, Scotland, December 1988–January 1989,
8 Gulf of Thailand to Alaska, April–May 1989,
9 Mexico, New Orleans, Bermuda and Europe, May 1989–January 1990,
10 Lagos, Warri and Up-country Nigeria, January 1990,
11 Warri, Rio, New Orleans, January–July 1990,
12 Cannes and Abraka, Nigeria, August–December 1990,
13 Rio, West Africa, Louisiana and Europe, January 1991–February 1992,
14 Aberdeen and Lagos, March–May 1992,
15 Monrovia, Liberia, June 1992,
16 Lagos and Kinshasa, DCR, July–August 1992,
17 Warri, Nigeria, September 1992,
18 Lagos, Nigeria, September 1992,
19 Aberdeen and London, October 1992,
20 France, Switzerland, Spain, Brazil and Uruguay, November–December 1992,
21 Spain, France and Switzerland, January–October 1993,
22 Haute-Savoie and Paris, France, and Ibiza, Spain, November 1993–March 1994,
23 Haute-Savoie, Switzerland and Vaduz, Lichtenstein, March 1994,
24 Haute-Savoie, April 1994,
25 Champ-Dollon Prison, London Heathrow, Washington DC, Sacramento, April–November 1994,
26 The Federal Prison System, Con Air, December 1994,
27 Orleans Parish Prison, New Orleans, January–March 1995,
28 Lewisburg Penitentiary, April–May 1995,
29 Raybrook Federal Correctional Institution, June–December 1995,
30 Extradited to Lichtenstein, December 1995,
31 Home, December 1995,