Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Shell (Oil) Game

Following the execution of nine environmental activists by Nigeria last November, the Royal Dutch/Shell Group faced a public relations disaster: how to convince the world that there was no blood on its hands. The victims, including acclaimed writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, had led massive protests against the oil giant's ecological devastation in southern Nigeria's Ogoniland, damaging the company's reputation and even causing a partial shutdown of some of its facilities.After the activists' deaths, Shell mounted an international media campaign to combat the negative publicity. Company officials said over and over that there was nothing they could have done to stop the hanging executions, which they described as a political matter between the government and environmentalists belonging to the country's Movement of the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) organization.But Dr. Owens Wiwa, Ken Saro-Wiwa's brother, has now presented evidence that debunks Shell's claims of innocence. Wiwa, a Nigerian physician living in exile in London, said that Brian Anderson, the managing director of Shell Petroleum Development Company in Nigeria, offered to make a quid pro quo deal on three separate occasions during secret negotiations with Wiwa: Shell would try to save the activists from the gallows if the environmentalists would call off their protests."Anderson told me, 'Write a press release on MOSOP letterhead and get it published in a Nigerian paper saying there is no environmental devastation in Ogoniland.' And if MOSOP called off the international protest campaign against Shell, he would see if he could get my brother and the others freed," Wiwa said during a Feb. 5 visit to San Francisco as part of a U.S. speaking tour.With the lives of MOSOP leaders on the line, the offer was tempting. But because the air, land, and water in Ogoniland had been so devastated by Shell, MOSOP chose not to back away from its protests, which had captured the interest of influential international environmental groups such as Greenpeace. Wiwa told Anderson such a deal wasn't possible."Even if I had wanted to, I didn't have the power to control the international environmental protests," Wiwa said.A Royal Dutch/Shell Group spokesperson in New York who requested anonymity confirmed that the meetings between Wiwa and Anderson took place. But he said Anderson never made the offer alleged by Wiwa.The executions have prompted a broad coalition of environmental, human rights, and labor groups (including the Sierra Club and Human Rights Watch) to call for a boycott of Shell petroleum and an embargo of Nigeria's oil exports."I've never seen this level of outrage on an international issue," said Stephen Mills, human rights and environmental campaign director for the Sierra Club. "People now see the insidious relationship between Shell and a murderous regime, and the extreme measures a multinational corporation will use to protect the bottom line."The dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, considered one of the most corrupt and brutal governments on the globe, lives almost entirely off oil revenues."No other government since Nigerian independence has been so blatantly corrupt," said Paul Lewis, a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and an expert on Nigeria. "The military has been diverting $2 billion annually to nonbudget accounts. Abacha has probably amassed a fortune for himself."Nigeria derives 90 percent of its foreign revenue from oil exports. The United States imports almost 50 percent of Nigeria's annual oil production. The oil from the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria is also very important to Shell, which draws nearly 14 percent of its total oil production from the African country. As these numbers make clear, an effective boycott and embargo could certainly hurt Nigeria's ability to repress MOSOP."Exports provide the money to buy the weapons of violence. Two thousand people have been killed in the last three years," Dr. Wiwa said.The crackdown against Nigerian protesters began when a division manager at Shell Petroleum Development Company called the military for help in October 1990. The Shell official feared that the company's operations in southern Nigeria would come under attack by protesters from Umuechem, a village near Ogoniland.The villagers had occupied part of a Shell facility and demanded compensation for farm lands taken over by Shell. Under Nigerian law, Shell had to pay villagers only for the crops that were destroyed, not for the land itself."Farmers said: 'This is my ancestor's land. Now where am I supposed to farm?' " explains Barika Idamkue, a spokesperson for MOSOP who is living in exile in Los Angeles.Although a Nigerian judicial inquiry later concluded that the protest was peaceful, the military fired on the villagers. Some 80 people were killed and 495 homes were either destroyed or badly damaged, according to Amnesty International.The massacre led to the creation of MOSOP, which by 1993 had rallied 300,000 Ogonis -- more than half of the population of Ogoniland -- under the banner of environmental justice. Threatened by the rapid growth of MOSOP, Nigeria's military dictatorship waged a campaign of terror on behalf of Shell. After MOSOP protests forced Shell to shut down some of its oil-pumping facilities in 1993, a revealing memo written by Major Paul Okuntimo said: "Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence." By 1995, Human Rights Watch-Africa in Washington, D.C., had documented hundreds of incidents of rape, torture, and murder of civilians by marauding soldiers. Entire villages were burnt to the ground.FERTILE GROUND Since Shell began operations in the Niger Delta region in 1958, countless acres of fertile farm land have been destroyed by oil spills. In only an eight-year period, from 1985 to 1993, there were 87 spills, the Shell spokesperson said. He added, however, that 60 percent of them were the result of sabotage. "We try to get the land back to the way it was to the best of our ability, but we haven't been able to get into Ogoniland since '93 due to violence. So there may be spills that haven't been cleaned up," he said.Professor Claude Ake, a Nigerian environmental expert living in exile in London, said that Shell's clean-up work has been superficial at best."Shell hasn't cleaned up any of its spills. They use cosmetics," Ake said. "In all of the Niger Delta there is a thin film of oil in the streams and rivers everywhere you go. And the groundwater is polluted."Even more pernicious is the burning of gas, a byproduct of the oil production process, that turns the night sky an eerie orange color."This action has destroyed wildlife, plant life, and has made the residents half-deaf and prone to respiratory diseases," Saro-Wiwa wrote in 1992. "Whenever it rains in Ogoni, all we have is acid rain, which further poisons watercourses, streams, creeks, and agricultural land."Few observers outside Nigeria paid much attention to the growing ecological and human-rights crisis until Saro-Wiwa and eight others were executed on trumped-up murder charges."I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial," Saro- Wiwa said in his closing statement before the military tribunal. "Shell is here on trial and...there is no doubt in my mind that 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."Now, with the launching of the boycott, Saro-Wiwa's prediction is coming to pass.For information about the boycott, contact Stephen Mills at the Sierra Club, 408 C St. NE, Washington, DC 20002; (202) 675- 6691; or send E-mail to


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