Shell's policy of blood for oil By Norm Dixon Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by Nigeria's brutal military regime on November 10 because he threatened the interests of the Anglo-Dutch oil giant, Shell, and a handful of European and US oil companies. Despite its denials, Shell is an accomplice to this "judicial murder". The blood of Saro-Wiwa and thousands of other poor Ogonis has been — and continues to be — spilt to ensure Shell's flow of oil and profits.
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 in 1960, a succession of puppet leaders appointed by British authorities ensured that post-independence Nigerian politics was dominated by dictators from the northern part of the country friendly to Western big business. Minority peoples, especially those in the oil rich south, are denied political rights and discriminated against. Shell struck oil in the lush Niger River delta in the 1950s. Oil soon became Nigeria's largest source of revenue and the Western powers' primary interest in the country. Oil was at the centre of the 1967 Biafran civil war when the oil-rich region tried to secede. More than a million people died in the conflict and war-related famine. Since the late 1950s oil money has poured from the delta into the coffers of Shell and the pockets of the corrupt central government and the military high command. Oil accounts for 95% of the country's foreign earnings. Shell produces 50% of Nigeria's oil. Nigeria, the world's eighth largest oil producer, accounts for almost 14% of Shell's global oil production. In the Niger River delta region, Shell's oil fields have yielded an estimated US$30 billion since 1958, yet the six million people who live in the region remain desperately poor. Shell's presence has come at an enormous environmental cost. In 1970, a pipeline carrying crude oil burst, polluting surrounding farmland. As a "clean-up measure", Shell burned the spilled oil, leaving a semi-solid crust five metres thick. 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. In 1994, oil poured from Shell's Korokoro pumping station for two months. In early 1995, a villager near Agbakabiria inadvertently ignited a two kilometre long oil slick while fishing. The oil burned unchecked for weeks, leaving the banks of the mangrove waterway a charred ruin and the waters devoid of fish, the impoverished people's staple diet. These spills are just the tip of the iceberg. 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. According to the Oil Spill Intelligence Report, a 10-year spill record commissioned by Greenpeace, Shell's major spills in Nigeria total a massive 7.4 million litres. Of the major spills from Shell operations in over 100 countries worldwide, 40% occurred in Nigeria. Shell burns gas from its oil wells in breach of Nigeria's laws, preferring to pay paltry fines than install new technology. Some gas flares have burned 24 hours a day for decades right next to Ogoni communities, causing much noise and air pollution. According to the March 16, 1992 Financial Times, 77% of natural gas extracted in Nigeria is flared: only 8% is reinjected into the ground as required under Nigerian law. Air and water pollution have caused crop yields in the delta to decline massively. Farmers who have no other source of income, and depend on the land for food suffer terribly. Greenpeace describes Shell's claim that it operates under uniform environmental standards worldwide as "a complete joke". "Would they allow oil spills like this to pour into the English countryside for this long?", Greenpeace's Andrea Goodall asked when she spoke to Green Left Weekly last year. The peoples of the delta region, led by the 500,000 Ogoni people, decided to resist. Led by an unlikely militant, the pacificist playwright and president of the Movement for Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Ken Saro-Wiwa, an international campaign was launched. Saro-Wiwa described it as a "last ditch stand against the government and Shell". The Ogoni people demanded US$10 billion in royalties and compensation from Shell for environmental destruction since 1958. The military's response was brutal. In 1990, the people of Umeuchem village held a peaceful protest against Shell. Shell management immediately contacted the authorities claiming the villagers were about to attack oil installations. The paramilitary Nigerian Mobile Police swept in killing 80 people and destroyed 495 homes. In January 1993, in defiance of the regime's ban on public demonstrations, over 300,000 Ogonis and their supporters marched in a massive show of support for the MOSOP's demands. Increasingly, the Ogoni people began to call for the right to self-determination. Soon after the January demonstrations, Saro-Wiwa was detained several times, and more large scale protests erupted. The support the movement was gaining worried the military regime and Shell. The corrupt and brutal military regime is propped up by US$30 million a day in oil revenue, and 90% of Nigeria's oil lies beneath the Niger delta. Shell accused Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP of violence and withdrew from the region in 1993. The company now claims that most of the hundreds of oil spills from its installations were caused by "sabotage". Shell refused to return until this "violence" ended. The military took the hint and moved to crush the Ogoni struggle and restore the interrupted flow of oil and the regime's source of legitimate and illegitimate cash. In August, September and December, 1993, military-orchestrated attacks — in the guise of "ethnic clashes" by people armed with sophisticated firearms and explosives — took the lives of more than 1000 people and left 30,000 homeless. In January 1995, a leaked secret internal Nigerian government memo dated May 12, 1994, set out clearly that a deliberate campaign of repression of the Ogoni people and their leaders on behalf of Shell was under way. The memo, signed by head of the Rivers State Internal Security, Major Paul Okuntimo, stated: "Shell operations are still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence." It recommended 400 soldiers invade the region and conduct "wasting operations" against the Ogoni and "especially vocal" leaders. The memo, which refers to the need to apply "pressure on oil companies for prompt regular inputs as discussed", confirms the military was directly in the pay of the oil companies. Just nine days after the memo's dispatch, in what now seems to have been an orchestrated provocation, four moderate Ogoni leaders were assassinated by youths. Saro-Wiwa and nine other Ogoni leaders were arrested on trumped up charges of ordering the murders. Saro-Wiwa was held incommunicado, denied legal defence of his own choice, kept chained hand and foot, and refused medical attention for a heart condition. A hand-picked military tribunal was appointed to try the case and no appeal was allowed. Prosecution witnesses have since admitted that the military and Shell offered them money, jobs and houses to testify against Saro-Wiwa. On October 31, 1995, Saro-Wiwa and his co-accused were sentenced to death. A military reign of terror continues in Ogoniland. In line with the memo's promise of "wasting operations", in late May and June 1994, soldiers and police attacked at least 30 towns and villages, indiscriminately killing, assaulting and raping the local population, then setting fire to homes and destroying property. Thousands were forced to flee into the bush. Military checkpoints were established throughout Ogoniland, where those passing were forced to undress. People bearing Ogoni tribal scars on their chests were arrested. Shell management steadfastly refused all appeals to intervene to save Saro-Wiwa's life, urging human rights and environmental campaigners to back the "softly softly" diplomacy of Western governments' approach to the terror in Nigeria. "Shell has clearly put profits before human rights in the most self-serving of ways", said the executive director of Amnesty International in the US. Shell must "face up to the nature of the regime with which it has linked hands and realise that it is now pumping the blood of innocents along with its oil and gas." Dancing on Saro-Wiwa's grave, Shell announced on November 15 that it would go ahead with a massive US$2 billion natural gas project in Nigeria. The governments of Britain, Netherlands, France and Italy — where companies involved in the project are based — have indicated they will not block the plans. There are growing calls for oil sanctions to be imposed on Nigeria — backed belatedly by South African president Nelson Mandela but likely to be opposed by US, British and European governments — and for an international boycott on Shell's products. While it may be too late to save Ken Saro-Wiwa, it is not too late to help the Ogoni people in particular, and the Nigerian people as a whole, in their struggle against the brutal military regime that oppresses them. An effective international campaign against Shell would provide powerful support to their struggle.