The saying “worlds apart” becomes reality when you go to some parts of Africa: those that do not have 5-star luxury resorts for tourists, just luxury prisons for expats.
These luxurious “prisons” are known as “camps” and each major multinational operating in Africa has at least one: mining companies, oil and gas companies, logistics companies and so on.
For those who seldom travel to “exotic” places (as one of my peers once called the places I usually go for work), London or Paris traffic seem to be insurmountable and the lack of respect displayed by cyclists to drivers and vice versa “astounding”: pollution, smog, noise and too much traffic.
I smile to myself when I hear such complaints – it’s clear to me they never worked in West or East Africa. What we consider significant problems in the West, they are totally superfluous issues in countries where the price of a human life is pretty much the equivalent of 10 dollars and a bag of rice.
Not that long ago, on the road from Port Harcourt to Onne (a video of it below will give you a good idea on what “traffic” really looks like), a truck came to a halt – as it very often happens there.
Two men decided to take advantage of the free ride to Onne and jump on the back of the truck. Sadly, only one of them made it because the other man lost his balance when the truck started moving, fell onto the ground and as was run over by a car coming from behind.
The truck belonged to one of the major logistic companies operating in Nigeria and was partly responsible for the man having lost his life. But, because doing business in some parts of the world looks very different than in others, the company’s compensation to that man’s widow and their two children amounted to 10 dollars and a bag of rice per month – the “going” rate for a life.
If you never worked in high risk countries, you probably don’t know that every expat who goes there on business or for work needs to have what’s called a Kidnap and Ransom Insurance – I have one, too.
You also need armed protection – generally, this service is rendered by the country’s national or military police forces, as the money they get for providing us, the expats, with this “protection” adds some more funds to an already barely existent budget.
Oil companies (primarily) operating in West and East Africa and their executives have long been targeted by various gangs – theft, extortion, kidnap and murder are not as uncommon as you may think.
The stories you hear are sure to give you a chill; but then, if you express shock and stupor at the unfairness of it all, you hear: “this is Africa – and the human life is cheap“. It’s the fatalism that is pervasive there – and it shouldn’t be.
I recently spoke with a Managing Director who resigned from his role in a West African country, after having been the MD of a multinational company there for several years. Over a coffee and since we both have worked extensively in Africa, I asked him what was the event that shocked him the most during his time there. Below I tried to capture, word for word, what he said:
I was driven to work one morning and P. [his bodyguard’s name] was riding in the front seat, as ever. I was checking my emails when the jeep came to a halt. P. turned to me and said “Boss, stay here”.
He charged out of the jeep and ran to the car in front of us just as a man was running away with a briefcase that he had snatched from the back seat of that car, through the open window. The passenger in the back was a white bloke who, later, I learnt he worked for XXX [an oil company]. The guy, because I could see his face when he turned to see what was happening, was catatonic.
P. chased the man with the briefcase and, several seconds later, I hear gunshots. P. had killed him and retrieved the white guy’s briefcase and brought it back to him – the poor guy couldn’t even gather himself to thank P. for it. He was totally frozen in his seat.
As we got to the office, P. asked me if he could be excused for several hours because he had something “very important to do”.
Several hours later he returned, grinning like a Cheshire cat. I asked him what had made him so happy and he said:
“Boss, I had to go to the station and claim the kill before someone else had claimed it. And I also got rewarded handsomely for retrieving that white man’s briefcase: I got 10 dollars, a new uniform and a new stripe; I’m a full sergeant now!”
Killing someone comes naturally in some parts of Africa, and there is absolutely no consideration whatsoever – not that I have seen – for a human life.
This video of an investigation recently finalised by BBC Africa is very explanatory and no, it is not fake news nor is it made up. It’s the harsh reality of some parts Africa, where taking someone’s life (including women and children), just because you can, is casual:
You may wonder what Public Relations, Strategic Communication or even Corporate Affairs have to do with any of this. My answer is, a lot. To understand communities, geographies and interest groups, you need to understand first that not everyone relates to the same things that you and I do.
Human rights, the right to live and the price of a life are very different across the globe, and if you promote a social purpose, a charitable project or an investment in a deprived region of the world, you need to do it wisely and carefully.
Talk to the people who would benefit from it the most, and try to change their lives for the better. We have a duty to ensure that anyone’s life, no matter where they are, matters.