An article from Do or Die Issue 6. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 130-132.
News of a further clampdown in Ogoni should come as no surprise to observers and activists used to the cynical disregard for environmental and human rights by transnationals and the governments they support. Despite the deaths of 2000 Ogonis killed by the Shell-backed Nigerian military regime, and the internationally-condemned executions of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his 8 colleagues, it is business as usual as far as those in power are concerned. Another 19 Ogonis are being held in prison on the same false charges that led to the execution of Saro-Wiwa, and the conditions in Ogoni have worsened. Without any pretence of interest in democracy, Shell is now planning to resume its corporate piracy of oil in Ogoni against the wishes of the people, and the Abacha regime is plotting to succeed itself in a stillborn transition to democracy.
The laws under which Shell operates in Nigeria are unjust and brutally repressive: military decrees have removed people's fundamental human rights to land and resources, and to freedom of speech and assembly. Shell is, and always has been, inextricably linked to the politics of Nigeria. As part of the British establishment, the company has roots in the ruthless colonial exploitation of people and resources. In the 1960s it had a role along with BP in ensuring that the Biafran secessionist movement was defeated, in order to keep the oil wells in the right hands and safeguard long-established British interests. At least 1.5 million people died in the conflict.
With a history of supplying fuel to the army of apartheid South Africa, Shell is certainly no stranger to working hand-in-hand with repressive regimes wherever and whenever it can profit. According to N. A. Achebe from Shell, "For a commercial company trying to make investments, you need a stable government. Dictatorships can give you that." And Shell provides the throne for any regime it can do business with: the company currently supports the Abacha regime with economic guidance and major investment. Shell managers have even worked in key government positions: Ernest Shonekan, now head of the Shell-backed economic development project for Nigeria, 'Vision 2010', was even president of the country in 1993. To date Shell has accrued $30 billion from its investment in brutal regimes and its theft of resources.
The indigenous struggle of the Ogoni for environmental and human rights was precipitated by the poverty of the oil-producing regions and Shell's devastating pollution. Oil provides over 80% of the illegal military regime's income, with Shell responsible for half, and yet those who live above this source of wealth are amongst the poorest in Nigeria. Environmentally, Shell operates a clear policy of racist double standards. In contrast to its performance in areas where white Western shareholders tend to live, the company has for forty years plundered the oil from the Niger Delta and left a trail of neglect and indifference.
Rusting high-pressure pipelines criss-cross villages and farmlands, and the countless oil spills and blow-outs are often left unchecked. The land, rivers and lakes are polluted with oil. Canals, or 'slots', have permanently destroyed fragile ecosystems and led to polluted drinking water and deaths from cholera. Gas flaring and the construction of flow stations near communities have led to severe respiratory and other health problems, and contribute massively to global warming. And exploratory and other work has devastated more rainforest, mangrove and wetland habitat, threatening the biodiversity of the Niger Delta. The traditional, sustainable lives of Ogoni farmers and fishers are now virtually impossible.
The people's mobilisation threatened the profits of Shell and angered the regime which saw a major threat to its income and security, particularly if other minorities began to emulate the Ogonis. And so the catalyst for this peaceful and effective grassroots resistance - the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and its president Saro-Wiwa - had to be stopped. Peaceful protests at oil installations were crushed by the paramilitary Mobile Police Force whose presence Shell has repeatedly requested, and the company continues to operate behind a military shield in the Delta. Forced last year to admit to having imported weapons and paying the military in Ogoni - after years of denial - the company has in fact financed military operations throughout the region, and supplied vehicles, boats and a helicopter to transport soldiers who have raided villages. Killings, beatings, rapes, large-scale looting, arbitrary arrests and torture are commonplace. The company even has its own armed police force, the Shell Police, who have themselves been responsible for human rights abuses.
The democratically-organised MOSOP grew in strength, and 300,000 Ogonis rallied peacefully against Shell on Ogoni Day, January 4, 1993. The company was declared persona non grata and forced to stop all oil production in Ogoni. By 1994 a confidential internal memo by the head of the newly set-up Internal Security Task Force, Major Okuntimo, called for "ruthless military operations" to ensure that "smooth economic activities" could commence. He reminded the oil companies of the need for "prompt regular inputs as discussed." Four conservative Ogoni chiefs were subsequently killed by security agents within a mob, after which Okuntimo launched a genocide against the Ogoni which has left a total of 2000 dead and up to 100,000 as internal refugees. Hundreds have since fled Nigeria to refugee camps across West Africa.
Saro-Wiwa and other MOSOP activists were arrested on trumped-up charges, tortured and held without trial. They were finally sentenced to death by the Special Military Tribunal, a 'kangaroo court' involving prosecution witnesses who had been bribed by Shell and the government to give false evidence. Despite its influence with the regime, Shell refused to help Saro-Wiwa. In 1995 the head of Shell Nigeria, Brian Anderson, told Saro-Wiwa's brother Owens Wiwa that he could try to secure his release - but only if the international campaign against the company was called off. It wasn't, and the Ogoni Nine were hanged in November of that year. Just a few days later Shell announced the construction of a $4 billion gas project in partnership with the regime. "A reward to the military or just a coincidence?" asks Owens Wiwa.
Huge rallies on Ogoni Day in 1996 and 1997 have shown that the Ogoni's spirit has not been broken, despite Saro-Wiwa's death. The demands of the Ogoni Bill of Rights, for respect of full environmental and human rights, have of course not been met, and Shell's collusion with the military continues. Its corporate irresponsibility and arrogance is the same as ever, and against its own promises not to resume operations in Ogoni without the full support of the people, the company is violating the people's wishes and preparing to re-enter Ogoni for full oil production.
For this to succeed the communities must be split: pro-Shell, pro-government organisations have been set up, local chiefs have been bribed to toe the line and some even forced at gunpoint to sign invitations requesting that Shell comes back to Ogoni. The company is also trying to split the NGO sector, particularly in Europe, by funding or 'consulting' certain groups. It has succeeded in co-opting those who want money or are naive about the corporate agenda and Shell's willingness to change. [See 'The Conservation of Business...', note 4, in this issue - Ed.] Shell's new improved PR machine is working busily on many fronts to repair the company's image and greenwash the dirt away. A number of journalists have been taken on Shell trips to the nicer parts of the Niger Delta and fed propaganda about the company's commitment to reconciliation and its support for the communities, while others seem to fear the threat of legal action and are effectively censored from reporting the truth. Shell's 'community projects' - which may involve taking over a project near its completion and erecting a Shell sign - are clearly little more than PR exercises.
Despite the army of occupation there is grassroots resistance to the Shell/government intention for renewed oil production in Ogoni. A recent Nigerian magazine covering the issue showed Ogonis demonstrating against the plans. This has led to the latest wave of repression: Ogoni is still an occupied zone, and any dissent is dealt with harshly.
Across the rest of the Delta, recent occupations of flow stations and hostage-taking have disrupted oil production by Shell and Chevron. These actions are a result of the continuing anger felt towards the oil companies and the regime for the lack of benefits locally from the oil revenue, and the frustration that nothing is changing for the better. "The youths are no longer afraid of death," according to a southern minorities activist. There is also some ethnic conflict, arising from Shell/government manipulation of tribal differences and of the local political situation.
The Nigerian oil workers' unions have a great potential for bringing about major change. They have a radical history of solidarity links with opposition movements in apartheid South Africa, and initiated a huge nationwide strike in 1994 whose demands had similar elements to the Ogoni Bill of Rights. Realising a lack of effective networking with the oil producing minorities during the strike, however, they are now working towards closer activity.
It is clear that the Nigerian oil workers occupy a strategic position in the Nigerian economy, and that they are becoming more conscious of this. Indeed, a union official in Lagos said that the unions will "articulate a comprehensive agenda to challenge military dictatorship in Nigeria," and that Shell "could easily become the target of very serious political action" in the future.
Meanwhile, pro-democracy activists both internally and externally are building firm foundations for the organised structures of resistance needed to successfully replace the regime with some form of democratic representation.
At this year's Annual General Meeting of Shell the board and major shareholders rejected a motion from a number of concerned investors who were calling for greater corporate responsibility. The directors were offended that their competence or desire to monitor environmental and human rights issues was being questioned. As Cor Herkstroter, group managing director, said, "There's already someone responsible for these - it's me!" And indeed, Shell is being sued by the family of Saro-Wiwa and the Centre for Constitutional Rights for conspiracy to "violently and ruthlessly suppress any opposition" to its operations in Ogoni and the Niger Delta. The prosecution also allege that the executions of the Ogoni Nine were carried out with the "knowledge, consent and/or support" of the company.
There is an awareness that the Ogoni issue is a test case for our response to the growing militarisation of commerce and the corporate-sponsored attacks on environmental and human rights activists worldwide. Such an awareness demands a stepping up of our organisational ability and our activity. Paramount is effective networking and international solidarity with indigenous groups at the sharp end of the corporate stick.
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