Stop environmental racism in Nigeria: Boycott Shell!
By Norm Dixon
On November 10, 1995, the Nigerian military dictatorship hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa and nine other Ogoni leaders who had been framed on murder charges. Their true crime was to expose and campaign against the oil giant Shell's role in the environmental destruction of the Ogoni people's land and communities, as well as its complicity in propping up the brutal regime of General Sani Abacha.
Of those arrested and charged, only Ledum Mitee was acquitted. Ken Saro-Wiwa told him to continue the struggle, and he went underground, becoming acting president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Mitee now travels the world, building solidarity with the Ogoni people, and sometimes sneaking back into the Niger delta region.
Mitee was in Australia in August to launch the Ogoni Freedom Campaign and to urge the Australian government to support a move to expel Nigeria from the Commonwealth at the next Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM), to be held in Britain in October. He spoke to a packed public meeting in Sydney on August 18.
Mitee explained that Shell first struck oil in the lush Niger River delta in the 1950s. Since oil production began in 1958, money has poured from the delta into the coffers of Shell and the pockets of the corrupt central government and military high command. But the environmental and social cost has been great.
"When we talk about oil installations in Nigeria, we are not talking about some remote facilities in the bush or in the sea. We are talking about oil wells, gas flares and pipelines right next door.
"My house in my village is less than 500 metres from a gas flair. A gas flair is something unimaginable unless you have experienced it. They burn 24 hours a day, for years, producing toxic fumes. High pressure pipelines that carry crude oil criss-cross in front of people's houses and right through schoolyards. You have to step over them to enter your house.
"It was not long before these pipelines, which run between oil wells and flow stations, started to burst, spilling large amounts of crude oil. Because Shell knew these installations were bound to cause pollution, they told the Ogoni people that crude oil was medicinal. As a kid I used to rub it on my body, because we were told it was good for you, that it would keep evil spirits away", Mitee said.
Between 1982 and 1992, Nigeria was the site of 40% of Shell's oil spills worldwide — 7.4 million litres. Drinking water in the region contains levels of petroleum hydrocarbons at 350 times that allowed in the European Union. Between 1976 and 1991, there was an average of four oil spills a week in the delta.
Mitee stated bluntly that this represents environmental racism. "We are sharing our front lawns and our backyards with oil installations, pipes and flares. Where do you see oil pipelines like that anywhere else in the world? In Europe and America they are buried, but in Ogoniland, and in all parts of the Niger delta, all pipes are above ground.
"We found out that, apart from pollution, the flares that burn 24 hours a day also attract all the insects. Crops are devoured, and pollution kills them. So the land dies. People who live on subsistence farming go hungry. The pollution enters the sea, and the mangrove forest, which is abundant in that part of the delta — the second largest mangrove forest in the world — is dying and with it the fish who breed under the mangroves. The land is polluted, the seas are polluted, the wildlife is scared away."
In the face of this, the 500,000 Ogoni people decided to organise for their rights. "We decided to launch MOSOP, led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, in 1990. We demanded the right to control our environment, to be able to say where a pipeline should not go, to be able to say we don't want an oil well so close to our communities.
"We also thought that Shell should clean up the mess they had made. We demanded that the resources taken from our land should be used for development of the region."
Oil accounts for 95% of Nigeria'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, Shell's oilfields have yielded an estimated US$30 billion since 1958, yet the 6 million people who live in the region remain desperately poor.
Mitee told the audience: "Since Shell came to the delta, billions worth of oil and gas have been taken out, yet the people have no electricity, no running water, no hospitals, no schools. It costs Shell about $2.70 to produce one barrel of oil, and they are selling that oil for $19 or $20 a barrel. As a result, Shell is one of the world's largest and most profitable companies."
MOSOP presented its demands to Shell, Mitee explained. It also launched a campaign of mass action. In January 1993, in defiance of the regime's ban on public demonstrations, more than 300,000 Ogoni and their supporters marched in a massive show of support for the MOSOP's demands. Soon after, Saro-Wiwa was detained several times, prompting more large-scale protests.
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.
Instead of addressing the Ogoni people's grievances, Mitee said, Shell "took advantage of the fact that Nigeria has a brutal military administration. Shell went to the military and said: 'The economy is dependent on crude oil. If you don't crush this movement, it will affect the economy.' The military sent in their troops. People were shot, people were wounded. About 15 villages were completely destroyed."
Saro-Wiwa, Mitee and other leading members of MOSOP were arrested in May 1995 on trumped-up murder charges. After a show trial which featured false evidence and bribed witnesses, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were hanged. Mitee was the only one to be acquitted.
Another 20 Ogoni leaders remain in prison in Port Harcourt on the same trumped-up charges. The Nigerian regime, aware of the international furore another trial would bring, is keeping the leaders out of court and refusing them bail.
On August 11, the Ogoni 20 began a 10-day hunger strike. They are being kept in overcrowded cells; all must sleep on the floor in shifts. They are tortured, poorly fed, denied medical care and deprived of toilet facilities.
Mitee said that the repression is continuing. "Since 1993 an estimated 2500 people have been killed. The military are shooting people every day. They have prevented the dead from being buried, so the people are deprived even of their final human right. Mourning is completely banned."
Shell has its own armed police force, which has been responsible for acts of repression.
Mitee urged solidarity activists to pressure the Australian government to take action against Nigeria at the October CHOGM meeting. Mitee has been lobbying Commonwealth countries for Nigeria's expulsion but has been disappointed at the response. He has also called for sanctions against oil exports from Nigeria.
"When the Commonwealth took the decision to suspend Nigeria after Ken Saro-Wiwa's murder, they said that unless the dictatorship respected human rights, released political prisoners and returned Nigeria to democracy within two years, they would be expelled.
"That two years has ended! Even though Commonwealth governments I have met with all agree with me that things are getting worse, they are not prepared do to anything. It is because it would pit them in a struggle against one of the world's most influential and profitable companies."
Mitee also encouraged activists to think of ways to hit Shell's profits. He reminded them of the success of Greenpeace's Shell boycott in protest at its plan to scuttle the Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea.
"The distance between the Niger delta and Sydney is only as far as the nearest Shell service station or shop that carries that symbol. The only thing that will make Shell move is when their profits are affected. These people only think about profits and money."