Shades of grey – Shell vs. Nigeria’s Ogoni people

Oil pipeline explosion in Ogoniland
Oil pipeline explosion in Ogoniland (© Eric Beauchemin)

Over a decade after it began, the conflict between the Anglo-Dutch oil multinational, Shell, and one of Nigeria’s smaller ethnic groups – the Ogoni people – has lost little of its intensity. It’s one of the few conflicts in the developing world that attracted some international interest in the 1990’s. It continues to this day in a tiny corner of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. The Ogoni people live in the country’s oil-producing region, the Niger Delta. In the early 90’s, they launched a campaign against the Nigerian government and Shell for more political autonomy and a greater share of their region’s oil revenues. They also demanded a clean-up of their environment. The conflict had all the elements to become a global cause célèbre: a small, impoverished minority group fighting one of the world’s biggest multinationals. It was David vs. Goliath, against a backdrop of environmental devastation.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: December 12, 2001


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Shades of Grey: Shell vs. Nigeria’s Ogoni people”. The programme is produced by Eric Beauchemin.

On behalf of Shell. we have a lot of love and regard for the Ogoni people.

Shell has always had a good heart and a good attitude.

Shell has done a lot of criminal injustices in Ogoni. Shell is interested in what we call divide and rule.

We are prepared to clean up every oil spill, irrespective of whether it was caused by sabotage or caused by Shell.

Exactly. That is what Shell says and that is part of the propaganda I am talking about.

Over a decade after it began, the conflict between the Anglo-Dutch oil multinational, Shell, and one of Nigeria’s smaller ethnic groups – the Ogoni people – has lost little of its intensity. It’s one of the few conflicts in the developing world that attracted some international interest in the 1990’s. It continues to this day in a small corner of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. The Ogoni people live in the country’s oil-producing region, the Niger Delta. In the early 90’s, they launched a campaign against the Nigerian government and Shell for more political autonomy and a greater share of the oil revenues produced by their region. They also demanded the clean-up of their environment. The conflict had all the elements to become a global cause célèbre: a small, impoverished minority group fighting one of the world’s biggest multinationals. It was David vs. Goliath, against a backdrop of environmental devastation. To find out how things have changed since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, after nearly 3 decades of military rule, I went to Port Harcourt, one of the main cities in the Niger Delta. There I met Bari ara Kpalap, a spokesperson for MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. He wanted to take me to see Yorla, about 30 kilometres from Port Harcourt, where an oil spill occurred last April. It’s a spill, I’m told, which exemplifies the conflict between Shell and the Ogoni. Along the way, we see a huge fire billowing thick black smoke. We make a detour. As we arrive, a crowd appears out of nowhere, a crowd of young men.

Bari ara Kpalap near an oil spill in Yorla
Bari ara Kpalap near an oil spill in Yorla (© Eric Beauchemin)

The community on the 5th of July experienced an oil spillage on the pipeline, high pressure pipeline carrying crude oil from fields outside Ogoni area but through Ogoni to the export terminal at Bonny, and they reported the incident to Shell who visited the site but did nothing to stop the spill, but only promised to come back. On the first of October, they saw the same site in flames and they reported the incident to Shell who also visited the site and promised coming back to stop it. Unfortunately, up till now, they have not come to stop the spill, neither have they stopped the fire. But obviously they’re coming by quite regularly. Yes, every day they hover in helicopters over the area, but they have not come down to stop the spill and the fire incident. The important thing is to come down and stop it. Then talk about proper cleaning of the area.

After months of waiting, these men are impatient. As they demand money for their story, children appear out of the all-enveloping black smoke. I’ve been to many places in Africa, poor places, but never have I seen so many children walking around completely nude.

We get back on to one of the few paved roads in Ogoni. After the oil fire, the Yorla oil spill seems distinctly unimpressive. But then the stench of crude hits my nostrils, and again I find it difficult to breath.

On the 29th of April 2001, the Yorla communities woke up to find the site of Well 10 in the Yorla oil field already spilling oil. The community on the same 29th April 2001 reported the incident to Shell Petroleum Development Company in Port Harcourt. We are still awaiting the time when Shell will come to clean up the area because we are predominantly farmers and we depend solely on land for our own cultivation. And they cannot re-use it until proper cleaning has been done. EB: So what are these farmers doing then now? The farmers are just at home. Some of them are trying to raise funds to be able to buy other lands from other people somewhere to be able to farm and maintain the family. EB: Is Shell providing them some assistance so they can do that? They have not provided any, and they don’t appear to go in line with provision of any such a thing. All we have heard them say is telling lies.

Yorla well site is a sign of the difficulties of law and order in the Niger Delta because what happened in that well is a criminal activity by youths in the area who tampered with the well-head in order to make some environmental compensation claim.

Basil Omiyi is the external affairs director for the Shell Petroleum Development Company. Most people just call it Shell.

Basil Omiyi of the Shell Petroleum Development Company
Basil Omiyi of the Shell Petroleum Development Company (© Eric Beauchemin)

The American company Boots & Coots brought the well under control and re-capped it. The evidence which is on paper and on tape said that they found that people were actually trying to remove the well-head. I think most of the bolts have been removed, save one. Two of the wing valves have been hack sawed, and one was cut off properly. One was hack sawed. So it’s a sign of criminality in Niger Delta rather than Shell’s irresponsibility. EB: Nonetheless the oil is still there. The site hasn’t been cleaned up. Why not? That is not the only site in Ogoni that Shell has been asking MOSOP to grant us access to do what we normally would do anywhere else when an oil spill occur. They have not allowed us to do that in Ogoni, and the reason they have not allowed us, they like to show it off, just the way they’ve shown it to you. Come and see one of our trophies, Shell’s environmental irresponsability. EB: But they have said, look, we allowed Shell and the subcontractor who actually stopped the fire to come in. We have also said that Shell can come and clean up this spill. So are they lying? Is that what you are saying? Yes. The test of the pudding really is when you then try to go in to clean. I’m happy that you can go there and listen but when you actually then go on to clean, then they stop you.

Shell’s earnestness disturbs me. So does MOSOP’s. I have the feeling that I’m listening to a show that has been performed a few times too many. I have seen these exhibitions far too often: in Kashmir, Burundi and Kosovo (before the war)…people tell the truth, but they also resort to lies and half-truths…anything to convince outsiders. Journalists are a prime target in a propaganda war like this one. But the situation is never as black and white as the two sides portray it. To get some sense of what’s going on on the ground, I spoke to Aaron Padilla who’s writing a doctoral thesis on the global politics of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. During the 3 months he spent in a dozen different villages in Ogoni, he saw numerous spills, some of them caused by tampering with oil facilities.

Aaron Padilla
Aaron Padilla

I know that some Ogoni people and some non-Ogoni people have been responsible for cutting the pipelines, taking them out of the ground, selling them and profiting from these activities. Those Ogoni people who are active and identify with MOSOP and the Ogoni movement would not condone or partake in the activity of cutting pipes. But other people in Ogoni have taken part in this activity. When it comes to the consequences that might come about as a result of this activity, that has to also be understood against the destitution that is prevalent in Ogoni. And people weigh the trade-offs. It’s quite easy to understand how somebody would want to risk cutting a pipe and destroying the oil infrastructure in order to profit what they could from it.

The Ogoni and other people in the Niger Delta tend to place the blame for their extreme poverty on Shell and the other oil multinationals, including Elf, Agip, Mobil, Chevron and Texaco. The Anglo-Dutch consortium is Nigeria’s largest oil and gas company, with an output of 850-thousand barrels a day. Shell and the other multinationals keep only about 5% of the revenues. 15% is for production costs and the Nigerian government takes the remaining 80%. In recent years, the multinationals have been getting a much larger share of the revenues from newer offshore fields, leaving the government with a cut of only 20 to 30%. Because of decades of military rule and corruption on a scale rarely seen anywhere in the world, almost none of the oil money has gone back to the Niger Delta, as I heard from Dr. George Frynas, a senior lecturer in International Business at Coventry University in Britain.

Oh certainly the government is one of the main creators of the problems in the Niger Delta. No doubt about that because the government for many, many years didn’t place any value in developing the local areas. There were no schools. There were no hospitals. People got sick. The government failed to impose environmental regulations or all sorts of other government regulations to protect the local people from the harmful effects of the oil industry. And on top of that, much of the money that has been earned in the Niger Delta from oil extraction was mismanaged or disappeared in corruption. I mean we are talking about a country where every year, the country gains billions of dollars in oil revenues from petroleum taxation. Most of that money has either disappeared in someone’s pockets or it has been used to develop other areas outside the oil producing areas. So obviously part of the grievances in the oil-producing areas, including the Ogoni areas, is that there is oil in our areas, people would say, but we are not benefiting from it, and some of the areas in which oil is being produced are some of the poorest areas in Nigeria.

Child near an oil spill
Child near an oil spill (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: Bar, we’ve driven around a kilometre away from the site of the oil spill. There is cassava that has been planted here. Um, you were telling me that it looks quite stunted. Yes, it is because when you look at the time it was planted and its level at this time, you discover that it ought to have grown past the level it is today because before pollution, we used to experience that our crops grow very healthy and very well and the harvest has always been bumper. It is from the farming we do that we are able to find food to eat, that we are able to market some as to be able to train children, foot hospital bills and take care of other family necessities. And now that we are experiencing stunted growth in our crops and poor harvests, it means we have a very difficult time.

After the well fire, the Yorla oil spill appears to me to be relatively minor, covering an area of less than a few hundred square metres. A black smelly blotch amidst kilometres and kilometres of lush green vegetation. But there’ve been thousands of spills like this one since oil production began in the Niger Delta over four decades ago. As Dr. Frynas explained to me, it’s the cumulative effect of these spills that’s caused outrage and deep mistrust throughout Ogoni.

Dr. George Frynas, senior lecturer at Coventry University
Dr. George Frynas, senior lecturer at Coventry University (© Eric Beauchemin)

There might be one small oil spill in a village, small in the sense, that when you get back there, in 12 months time, there’s little trace of the oil, but in the meantime you may not be able to catch fish or crops may have been destroyed or trees may have been destroyed that were used by the farmers. That means for say six months time or 12 months time, local people who are dependent on fishing or farming may suffer greatly. So even though it’s a small oil spill in environmental terms, it might have huge social effects.

The discontent against Shell – virtually the only oil company operating in Ogoni – led in the early 1990’s to the creation of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. MOSOP was led by the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, a man who’s assumed mythical proportions in the Ogoni psyche, as I heard from Deeka Menegbon, the current MOSOP secretary general.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a true Ogoni man. In fact as far as some of us are concerned, he was a gift to Ogoni people because right from his childhood, he has always fought for the rights that was denied. He was able to mobilise the people and the people saw it with him that there was need to actually embark on a struggle. And of course you know that there was no other reason why he died than that because Nigeria as gigantic as it is, didn’t see any reason why a small community should come and challenge government, challenge a multinational like Shell.

The Ogoni protests against the military dictatorship and Shell eventually forced the Anglo-Dutch multinational to pull out of Ogoni in 1993. But the price the Ogoni people had to pay for taking on Goliath was high. In 1995, the Nigerian military rulers executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 fellow Ogoni activists after what was generally regarded as a sham trial. The protests continued and so did the military repression in Ogoni. According to Bronwen Manby, who’s written extensively on this subject for Human Rights Watch, some of this repression came at the instigation of oil companies or at least with their tacit approval.

Bronwen Manby
Bronwen Manby (© Eric Beauchemin)

There certainly is some collusion. I think one can’t fairly ascribe to the oil companies responsibility for everything done by the Nigerian security forces. In many cases the Nigerian security forces are acting on their account, in defence of installations which the Nigerian government sees as installations of national importance, but certainly having said that, there are cases in which the oil companies have called in security forces without any thought for the consequences, not taken steps to ensure that violations do not happen, and not protested when violations have happened. There were certainly probably several thousand people killed in summary executions or in one way or another and very widespread repression in Ogoniland from around about 93 up until 98. It wasn’t just killing. It was also torture, it was also rape, those type of things. Yes, you had a special security force unit set up to police Ogoniland. Roadblocks all over the place which at the starting off, at the lowest level of human rights violations, imposed a very severe financial cost on people who had to pay to go through the roadblocks, then yes, quite a lot of rapes of women, torture, arrests, arbitrary detentions and up to and including summary executions.

Even to this day, Aaron Padilla told me, that period is still very much alive in people’s minds.

During the worst years of the Ogoni crisis, which is what people call it in Ogoni – this would be in the months leading up to the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and in the years immediately following – Ogoni was basically occupied by the Nigerian military. And a great number of people – especially those who had been identified as active in the movement – were forced from their village homes and lived for a time in the bush, from anywhere from a few weeks and months to for several people many years. People were also taken into detention – the men more than the women – and there they were often tortured and treated terribly by those who were holding them. And I think that you would be hard-pressed to find any individual family who has not suffered this in some degree, whether it be a family member or they themselves, who were forced from their homes or were detained during this time.

Ken Saro-Wiwa poster
Ken Saro-Wiwa poster (© Eric Beauchemin)

The Nigerian military’s execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the severe repression that followed throughout Ogoni brought this conflict to the attention of the world.

The protests in the West were huge: people taking over petrol stations, staging huge demonstrations in front of Shell’s headquarters in London, etc., etc. I think all of that – in conjunction with some of the earlier protests regarding Shell’s Brent Spar platform in the North Sea – I think that had a huge impact on Shell and Shell’s management. It just showed that even if you have such a huge company – because Shell is one of the biggest companies in the world – that actually popular pressures make a big impact. And the way you can see that impact is one is for instance in terms of financial contributions: the financial contributions that Shell is now prepared to give towards environmental protection or development projects in the Niger Delta is much bigger than it was 10 years ago.

OK, Welcome to the Bori Agricultural Resource and Training Centre. This is a Shell supported centre. Shell is running this place in collaboration with the community. The idea is that the people get fully involved in what is happening around their area. EB: Can we go ahead and see a few things then? Yes, I will take you around this place…here, like there we have the tractor shed, that’s the tractor shed. The tractor is not there right now. It’s gone out to work in the community for people. EB: So you loan it out? Oh yes, people hire it for a small fee. You know the fee is used to maintain the tractor. And besides the tractor shed, is the yam barn. Yam is a major crop in this area. And the harvested yam is stored in there. We have put in that so that farmers can see what is possible. This is an improved yam barn. They harvest their yam. They put it there. It’s well aerated so that the yams don’t spoil.

Shell’s community development programme is the largest community development organisation in Nigeria. That’s a very unusual fact given that Shell is an oil company.

This is an experiment in private sector driven development. We also have the largest non-lending budget of any donor in Nigeria. We have 180 full-time specialists. We also have core staff – engineers, geologists – who after four years of experience with this development approach can’t imagine carrying out an oil and gas project without including a community development component.

In 1989, Shell spent a third of a million dollars on community development. The figure last year was 60 million dollars or a 180-fold increase in just over a decade. But even though Shell Nigeria is now spending the equivalent of 3% of its total operating budget on these programmes, a recent audit commissioned by Shell and carried out by independent consultants produced a less than glowing assessment of the multinational’s community development projects.

There was a report coming out within the last year or so, which was looking at 82 out of Shell’s 408 projects in Nigeria and basically found that only a small minority of those projects – actually less than a third – have been very successful and the rest were either not successful at all, or only partially successful. So you might have a hospital that’s been built or a hospital building that’s actually not functioning because there’s no medical equipment or there’s no water supplies or there are no nurses or doctors. So actually, this has been of very limited success and part of the reason that it didn’t take off as well is it was to some extent it was just a public relations exercise.

In recent years, Shell and other oil companies have encouraged greater local involvement in these community development projects. But Aaron Padilla told me that even today, Ogoni villagers feel that Shell’s just trying to bribe them to be able to resume operations in their territory.

The efforts Shell has made in bringing development to communities, to what they call their host communities in the Niger Delta, has been an effort that has created division within communities. I think that people in Ogoni view these small efforts of community development as a disingenuous effort by Shell to begin to infiltrate Ogoni again in the absence of a greater memorandum of understanding with the vast majority of the Ogoni people.

Shell’s development programme has also exacerbated tensions between communities in Ogoni itself. People wonder why they’re not receiving assistance, but their neighbours are. The way Shell and the other oil companies have dished out money, says Bronwen Manby of Human Rights Watch, has only created more tensions throughout the region.

The anger about lack of development in the Niger Delta has led to protests in which for example oil company facilities, flow stations, drilling rigs and so forth have been occupied. Now the response of the oil companies: they have two options essentially. One is to call the security forces and there have been cases where that has happened and people have been shot and killed and that is very problematic in itself, but they are doing that to some extent less than they used to because of the international focus on Nigeria that came from the Ogoni crisis and I think most security managers in the oil companies have been given instructions to be careful on that front, although it does still go on. But their second option is to hand out money to make the young men usually who’ve occupied the flow station go away. And the money that is handed out is then used to buy women and alcohol and vehicles but also to buy guns which of course increases the level of conflict in the Delta and creates an incentive to come back and do it again. It also means that you’ve got a group of 100 youths who’ve got that, and another group of 100 youths who have benefited want it too. And then you’ve got two sets of armed youths who are wandering around, who are in competition with each other and don’t have any other channels of employment other than being subsistence farmers or subsistence fishermen, which is really not nearly as profitable as occupying a flow station. So you create a whole set of social dysfunction, of conflict which leads to in some cases to wars between two communities in which many people die, and the oil companies’ response is look, look what a terrible and difficult environment it is to work in, all this tribalism happening in the Niger Delta, without looking at their own responsibility.

With the return of democracy to Nigeria in 1999, the federal government has been giving a greater share of the oil revenues back to state and local authorities. A so-called Niger Delta Development Commission has also been established. With funding from the various levels of government as well as the private sector, including the oil companies, the Commission is supposed to bring development to the entire Delta region. Whether it does so or whether it turns out to be another vehicle for corruption remains to be seen. Additional money would undoubtedly help solve some of the problems in Ogoni and the rest of the Niger Delta, but both the government and the oil industry need to acknowledge that it’s the thousands of communities in the Niger Delta that are responsible for Nigeria’s fabulous oil wealth and for 10% of Shell’s global oil output.

Some years ago, I spoke with a manager of an oil company and he would just be making claims such as customary land rights of local people are a total fiction. Or big projects such as gas projects don’t cause any adverse effects, whilst there might be major effects such as for instance migration into the local area, which then leads to a situation such as prostitution, etc., etc. So there are actually major impacts, and oil companies have in the past and still today – the same with government officials – have not taken the local people seriously enough to address those issues. EB: Why isn’t that changing as a result of the return to democracy? Cultural attitudes take a long time to change. You cannot change government officials or oil mangers who have been there for 10, 20, 30 years. So even if some people in the headquarters in London or in The Hague – some of the Shell managers there – recognise that we need change and actually mandate people in Nigeria to start changes, managers on the ground may not necessarily always follow what the headquarters says. So it’s very, very difficult to engineer change in a major company where for 20, 30, 40 years in Nigeria, you didn’t take environmental or social issues very seriously.

Over a decade after the conflict began, Shell and MOSOP are still at loggerheads. A commission investigating human rights abuses in Nigeria, the so-called Oputa Panel, has been trying to reconcile the two sides. It has met several times with both parties and hopes to bring about a reconciliation in the near future. But I learned long ago that there are no easy solutions to intractable conflicts like this one, nor are they as black and white as they seem at first. For the time being, at least, the war of words continues between Goliath and David.

We are prepared to go in and clean out all oil spills in Ogoniland, if they will grant us access today. If MOSOP will go out in their newspaper, on the radio, and tell Ogoni people, please we have agreed that Shell can come and clean up all the spills. Please don’t molest them. Please don’t seize their vehicles. Don’t beat up their people when they come, we would go there.

If Shell is coming back, let us know under which condition they are going to operate. Are they going to operate with the old style of bringing in flare gas and not bury pipes or are you going to operate with the international standard in which case our own environment will be secured, our health will be assured, our eco-system will also be safe? It’s a simple as that.

“Shades of grey” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.