The Drilling Fields
SBS, Tuesday, April 18, 8.30pm
Reviewed by Norm Dixon
This graphic documentary details the dreadful environmental vandalism that oil multinational Shell has visited upon the Niger delta region in southern Nigeria and the extremely brutal measures that Nigeria's military rulers have taken on behalf of the Anglo-Dutch oil giant to crush the mass movement that has developed.
Nigeria was Britain's largest African colony, a nation conceived by and for European economic interests. Within the Federal Republic of Nigeria's borders, 250 ethnic groups were arbitrarily gathered. Prior to independence, a succession of puppet leaders appointed by British authorities ensured that post-independence Nigerian politics were dominated by dictators from the northern part of the country. Minority peoples, especially those in the south, are denied political rights and discriminated against.
Shell struck oil in the Niger delta in the late '50s and soon became Nigeria's largest source of revenue. Oil was at the centre of the 1967 Biafran civil war when the oil-rich region tried to secede. More than 1 million people died in that conflict and war-related famine. Since the '50s oil money has poured from the delta into the coffers of Shell and into the pockets of the corrupt central government and the military high command in Lagos.
Shell produces 50% of Nigeria's oil production. Oil accounts for 95% of the country's foreign earnings. In the delta region, Shell's six oil fields have yielded an estimated US$30 billion since 1958, yet the six million people who live in the region remain desperately poor. Resentment has grown apace against the powerful Shell company, which is seen as being hand in glove with the dictatorship.
Shell's presence has come at an enormous environmental cost. In 1970, a pipeline carrying crude oil burst, polluting surrounding farmland. As a supposed "clean-up measure", Shell burned the spilled oil, leaving a semi-solid crust five metres thick. As the documentary starkly proves, to this day the land remains dead, and creeks are puddles of steaming black slime. Shell propaganda holds up the area as an example of a successful clean-up.
According to official statistics, between 1976 and 1991, there were 2976 spills in the delta — almost four a week — pouring around 2 million barrels of oil into the environment.
Because of air and water pollution, crop yields have declined massively. Oil pipelines run through the centre of heavily populated villages. There is footage of an oil leak that has gone unrepaired for six weeks. The farmer who owns the land, Gboro Okochi, has no other source of income. His nine children depend on the land for food; two have already died.
The peoples of the region, particularly the 500,000 Ogoni people, have begun to resist. The military's response has been brutal. In 1990, the people of Umeuchem village held a peaceful protest against Shell. At the request of Shell management, Nigerian Mobile Police swept in. They killed 80 and destroyed 495 homes.
Led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, president of the Movement for Survival of the Ogoni People, an international campaign was launched. It was described as a "last ditch stand against the government and Shell". The Ogoni people demanded royalties from Shell and compensation for the environmental destruction since 1958. In January 1993, 300,000 marched in support of these demands.
Shell withdrew its staff, costing it 28,000 barrels of oil per day. Soon after, Saro-Wiwa was arrested several times, and large scale protests erupted. In August, September and December military-orchestrated attacks took the lives of more than 1000 people and left 30,000 homeless.
The repression and violence continue in Nigeria. Since the making of the film, Ken Saro-Wiwa has been held without trial, denied access to his lawyers and kept in leg irons chained to a wall. The military has announced murder charges against him. A military tribunal will try him, and he faces the death penalty. Since last May, Ogoniland has been invaded by Nigerian troops who instituted a reign of terror.