Shell Games in Nigeria | The Nation


Shell Games in Nigeria

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GEORGE ESIRI/REUTERSA woman dries tapioca at the site of a gas flare near Warri, an oil hub in the Niger Delta.

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Sasha Chavkin
Sasha Chavkin is a reporter based in New York City. His coverage of the environment has appeared in Mother Jones,...

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Alagoa Morris sped toward Ikarama as soon as he got word of the fire. He took a taxi from Yenagoa, the capital of Nigeria's Bayelsa State, to the Imbiama Junction, where he rented a motor bike and raced down the narrow roads to Ikarama. From miles away, he saw a column of smoke towering above the small rural community.

It was March 1, 2009, and Morris, a project officer for Friends of the Earth Nigeria, had received an urgent message that a fire had broken out at the site of a major oil spill. The spilled crude, which had streamed from a Shell Petroleum pipeline into the nearby Oya and Obrun lakes, had been sitting for months. When Morris arrived in Ikarama, he found that the site he had been pressing Shell to clean up was in flames. "The fire gutted all the plants and trees around the two lakes and was burning even on top of the water," he recalled.

Since June 2008 Morris has documented nine spills from Shell facilities in Ikarama. The spills have contaminated the town's main source of water, sickening children and killing many of the fish the local fishermen rely on. The March 1 blaze, said the Rev. FearGod Kologa, a pastor and respected community elder, destroyed plantains, cassava and cocoa yams on his property.

Ikarama is consumed by finger-pointing. Shell Petroleum, the Nigeria-based subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, blames the spills on sabotage by community members, an explanation that has been confirmed in several cases by formal investigations. Morris and Ikarama residents accuse Shell of ordering its contractors to set the spills ablaze instead of conducting real cleanups. "They tell contractors to come and burn the area," said a longtime Shell contractor in Ikarama, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job. "Every time there is an oil spill in Ikarama, whether sabotage or no sabotage, the contractor normally sets fire on the oil."

The damage in Ikarama is part of a swath of environmental devastation surrounding the operations of Shell and other multinational oil companies throughout the Niger Delta, the oil-rich southern region of Nigeria. Brushing aside regulation by a government that depends on oil extraction for 80 percent of its revenues, the oil majors act with impunity as they employ methods long since abandoned in the developed world. In turn, the government, a majority stakeholder in many joint-venture agreements with energy firms, fails to enforce the law as it spirits vast oil profits out of the Delta. Local communities, mired in poverty and pollution, have increasingly resorted to crime and militancy characterized by destructive attacks on oil facilities. The result has been the wholesale contamination of a region that is home to some 31 million people, most of whom depend on the natural environment for their livelihoods.

In recent years, the toxic combination of poverty, pollution, corruption and the federal capture of oil revenues has spawned a violent rebellion led by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Last summer MEND's attacks on the oil industry crippled production and threatened to bring the Nigerian economy to its knees. In August, the shaken government launched an amnesty program for rebels and opened negotiations on the militants' demands, which included a greater share of oil proceeds for the Delta. The amnesty led to several breakthroughs: in October the government proposed to grant a 10 percent stake in oil revenues to Delta communities, MEND declared an indefinite cease-fire and Nigerian Defense Minister Godwin Abbe told reporters that more than 15,000 rebels had registered to demobilize and turned in their weapons.

The effects of the amnesty have raised hopes of a peaceful solution to the region's longtime woes. But looming behind the advances remains the daunting challenge of translating these gains into a new way of doing business in the Delta. The same cast of characters from the region's half-century-old drama of contamination and violence--Shell and transnational oil firms, Nigeria's corruption-plagued government and the Delta's aggrieved and impoverished communities--must learn how to play new roles. The prospects of a lasting settlement will rest largely on whether the companies that dominate the region's economy and its environment can adopt a sustainable approach, and whether the government will compel them to do so.

The oil companies' environmental abuses were first dragged into the international spotlight nearly two decades ago by the charismatic writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa's nonviolent campaign against Shell's practices in his homeland, the Delta region of Ogoni, earned him a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. But his advocacy led him on a tragic collision course with Nigeria's military dictatorship; Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned on trumped-up murder charges and executed in 1995. In his final statement before he was hanged, the defiant environmentalist declared that Shell would one day stand trial. "The ecological war that the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished," he wrote.

Soon after, Saro-Wiwa's family and the survivors of the eight other activists who were executed with him filed suit against Shell in the United States, charging the company with complicity in the killings. According to Jennie Green, the plaintiffs' lawyer, evidence included records showing that Shell Petroleum had paid and equipped the Nigerian army units that brutalized the Ogoni community, and testimony that its managing director offered to intercede against the execution if Saro-Wiwa withdrew his charges of environmental abuse--a deal Saro-Wiwa rejected. On June 8, 2009, after almost fourteen years of legal wrangling, Shell paid a $15.5 million settlement. The case, which relied on the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act, set a legal precedent in establishing liability across international borders and was hailed as a triumph in enforcing corporate accountability for human rights abuses.

The publicity surrounding the lawsuit, and the emergence of democracy in Nigeria in 1999, have imposed greater caution on Shell and Nigeria's military. In 2000 Shell signed the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, a set of guidelines for corporate conduct jointly developed by multinational extractive companies and leading human rights groups. Communities affected by military violence are increasingly seeking redress in court, filing claims such as the $668 million suit against the government by members of the Delta's Gbaramatu Kingdom following a brutal military raid last May.

Yet even as accountability for human rights has improved, the oil companies' environmental practices have often slipped under the radar. Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Friends of the Earth Nigeria, says that the environment of the Delta, the cause that Saro-Wiwa gave his life to defend, has deteriorated dramatically in the years since the activist's execution. "When Ken Saro-Wiwa campaigned against the degradation of the Ogoni environment, he couldn't have imagined what would have happened after that," says Bassey. "The Ogoni environment was degraded, but what we have now is more massive than that."

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