Murdered Westport man received death threats
Irish embassy in Nigeria unhappy, as convictions unlikely in Robert Gray case
A Westport father of two who was shot and killed whilst working in Nigeria in 2012 received death threats less than a year before, an inquest into his death has heard.
Robert Gray (pictured) from Carrabawn, Westport was shot and killed during a roadside armed robbery on August 23, 2012, in the Nigerian state of Taraba whilst working for construction company PW Nigeria. His driver, Armaya’u Abubakar, a Nigerian national, was seriously injured in the shooting.
A jury of seven men and four women took just six minutes to return a verdict of unlawful killing by person or persons unknown.
The inquest, in Castlebar Courthouse on Friday last, heard that Mr Gray, who worked as a project manager for roads construction company PW Nigeria, had received death-threat messages on his phone in October 2011 and that he had did not want to be transferred to Taraba State, where he was killed.
John Coen, a Regional Manager with PW Nigeria, said they were ‘aware’ that Robert Gray had received ‘threatening messages’ on his mobile phone and they reported them to the State Security Services (SSS) in Nigeria.
“As soon as the SSS began tracing the origin of the messages, the messages ceased. This happened whilst Mr Gray was working in Lagos. We were advised by the security operatives that the very same message was sent to countless other persons across the country. To the best of our knowledge, Mr Gray did not express any concerns regarding his own personal safety,” Mr Coen said.
However, a former employee of PW Nigeria, Jim McKenna, who was first on the scene at the shooting, was very critical of the company.
“I do not believe that PW took adequate care for the safety of their employees, including Robert Gray,” he said. He also said that he was not aware of the dangers until he had seen them firsthand himself, and that ‘the army/police and SSS were all corrupt’.
“I believe that this attack on Robert Gray was unusual. It is common place in Nigeria for robbers to set up a blockade on the road … They would be armed but would never shoot,” he said.
‘Highly suspicious’ police behaviour
Mr McKenna, from Co Armagh, said one PW worker believed that the Nigerian military were involved in the killing but Mr McKenna himself suspected police involvement when he arrived at the scene, some minutes after the shooting.
“The police were about 300 metres ahead of us, in the same direction. Their vehicle was stopped, and the police came out of the bush to get into the parked police pick-up that was waiting for them. I believed this is highly suspicious and showed, I believe, that the police were somehow complicit in the killing,” he said.
A police report said that one suspect was seen near a bank that Mr Gray had visited earlier that day, and the inquest heard that had the suspect seen Mr Gray, it could have led to the armed robbery. However, there were differing theories as to why Mr Gray had gone to the bank.
Jim McKenna said he believed Mr Gray was there ‘on company business’ as ‘it would not be unusual’ for project managers to have money to pay suppliers, land owners whose land PW was working on and ‘to cover bribes’ to get through army and police checkpoints, saying ‘corruption is rife in Nigeria’.
However, John Coen said he was ‘not aware’ of any of PW Nigeria’s ex-patriot workers ever withdrawing money from Nigerian banks. He said PW had other systems in place for handling cash. He added that in his four years in Nigeria, he has not had to ‘pay a toll’ at any checkpoint.
The inquest heard that PW Nigeria, a company with strong Irish links but registered in Guernsey and the Isle of Mann, often move personnel around Nigeria as the need arises. Joe O’Driscoll, Director of Operations for PW Nigeria, said as most of the company’s ex-patriot workers are allowed go on leave four times a year, and that ‘someone often has to move to cover’.
“Robbie was happy enough [with that arrangement] and said ‘wherever you think I’m needed’,” Mr O’Driscoll told the inquest.
Liam Guider, solicitor for the Gray family, put it to Mr O’Driscoll that his family said he was not happy about moving to Taraba State. “Not that I’m aware of [from] what he told me,” Mr O’Driscoll replied, later adding ‘I’d say he enjoyed living there [Nigeria]’.
John Coen told the inquest that, after consultation with the SSS in January 2012, PW was told to ‘take more caution with our movements, especially at night’. He said PW imposed a 7pm to 6am curfew at their secure camp, and the inquest heard that employees who failed to comply with the curfew would be sent home.
“Generally armed robbery is at nighttime and usually [it’s] just robbery – they don’t shoot,” Mr Coen said. “We discussed the idea of armed policemen in each vehicle in early 2012, and the consensus was that if you were robbed and you didn’t have a policeman, you would just be robbed, but if you had a policeman it was likely there would be an exchange of shots, which is more dangerous. We discussed this with staff,” he said. He denied PW staff were ‘living under a sense of anxiety’.
Joe O’Driscoll said PW ‘take the care of our people extremely seriously’ and described the killing as ‘a freakish occurrence which could not have been predicted’.
However, Liam Guider said that earlier evidence heard by the inquest described how camps where PW staff lived were guarded by armed militia, roadblocks were set up for armed robberies, curfews were in place and a security guard at a PW camp had shot himself in the foot with his AK47 when he fell asleep. He put it to Mr O’Driscoll that someone being killed in this environment was far from freakish.
“It was unprecedented,” replied Mr O’Driscoll. “We felt we were taking all the necessary steps to protect our employees. We were never told not to travel to Taraba State,” he said.
Mr O’Driscoll said they had hired a security consultant since, who had advised that all PW ex-patriot staff travel with armed police protection, adding ‘this was like a 9/11 incident for us’.
The jury in the inquest put a rider in their verdict of unlawful killing by person or persons unknown, which stated ‘the security and safety of all the company’s personnel should be its first priority’.
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