By Asad Ismi
Multinational oil companies operating in Nigeria are complicit in human rights violations according to a recent report released by Human Rights Watch. The report titled “Nigeria: The Niger Delta: No Democratic Dividend,” points out that “…oil companies are seen by the residents of the Delta [Nigeria’s main oil producing area] to have failed to give back anything for what they have taken out and to be complicit in human rights abuses carried out by government security forces that are deployed to protect their facilities.” The inability of oil companies to share their wealth equitably with the people whose land they extract it from has led to “a cycle of violence throughout the Delta”: residents kidnap oil company employees, occupy oil facilities and protest to bring attention to their poverty and the destruction of their environment. Such actions are met by brutal military repression which allows the companies to continue their operations. When the oil companies do distribute money to the Delta’s population they do so in a way that only exacerbates conflict.
The report focuses on Royal/Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil. Shell is the largest oil company in Nigeria and accounts for 50% of oil production. Nigeria is the world’s sixth largest oil producer and the resource provides 80% of the country’s revenue. In January 2002, residents of the village of Liama, Bayelsa State, seized nine employees and four boats of an oil service company working for Shell. The Nigerian Navy responded by raiding the village, killing two people and burning down 30 houses. The Navy could have simply arrested those allegedly responsible and handed them over to the police for investigation. When asked about this extreme reprisal, Shell stated that it did “not have a supervisory role over government security agencies.”
In the village of Finima where Exxon Mobil has a large export terminal, the company’s payment to one side in a leadership dispute has resulted in human rights abuses by security forces. There has been a dispute in Finima for decades over who should be chief of the community. The conflict is between I.A. Idamiebi-Brown, made chief in 1970, and Yibo Buowari Brown, presented as a challenger by a group of people dissatisfied with Idamiebi- Brown’s performance. Instead of being sensitive to the dispute, Exxon Mobil handed over $3 million to Yibo Brown. The money was supposed to be a compensation payment for the village as a whole. However, Yibo Brown, who is not recognized by most residents as the chief, used the money to “hire” 20 members of the Mobile Police, “a notoriously brutal paramilitary riot unit within the Nigeria Police” to intimidate supporters of Idamiebi-Brown. Since March 2002, these Mobile Police have been camped in the Finima town hall and have been coercing community members, arresting those belonging to the Idamiebi-Brown faction, “harassing women, and extorting money from boat drivers and others. Several people have been severely flogged.”
Shell has followed similarly divisive tactics in the community of Gbarantoru where it has been negotiating the creation of a new drilling site. In early 2002, a Shell community liaison officer held two meetings with BNS Weke, the chief of the community. Around the same time, a gang of thirty young men in the town known to be criminals got pistols that they had not previously owned. They were loyal to the chief. In July, the gang members badly beat and machete’d three people, all of whom were hospitalized. Two of those injured were opponents of Shell; they were: Loveday Oyadongha, the Community Development Committee secretary and Ebidou Feinfa. Silikibina Fiwaripamogha, who tried to prevent the attack on Feinfa was “badly assaulted.” Oyadongha was beaten with sticks and broken bottles and lost so much blood that he went into a coma.
Shell’s policies have also encouraged fighting between the Bille and the Kalabari people of Rivers State both of whom claim ownership of two Shell flow stations. In January 2001, the town of Ke populated by the Kalabari, was sacked by Bille youth. Dozens of people, including the elderly and children, were killed and houses burnt. As Human Rights Watch explains “the manner in which Shell and the other oil companies relate to the communities in which they operate is at the root of the conflicts…the current system both fails to ensure a fair distribution of benefits, and promotes conflict…clearly the oil companies… need to move away from this system to one in which the entire Niger Delta equitably benefits.”
In November 1999, the Nigerian army destroyed the town of Odi, in Bayelsa State, massacring several hundred unarmed civilians in retaliation for the murder of twelve policemen by a gang of young men. The gang members “claimed to be inspired by the struggle of the impoverished peoples of the region for a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth.” The army demolished every building in the town except for three.
Like Shell and Exxon Mobil, Chevron is also stoking conflict in Nigeria. According to Amnesty International, in January 1999, Chevron gave company helicopters and boats to the Nigerian Army to use against a community protesting the company’s operation on their land. More than 12 people died in the military attack.
These are only the latest incidents in the destruction of the Niger Delta by Western multinationals. The people of the oil-rich area remain amongst the poorest in Nigeria while Shell has extracted $30 billion in oil revenue since the 1960s. The seven million residents are mostly subsistence farmers and fishermen whose rivers and fields have been ruined by oil spills that average 300 a year. The explosion of a gas pipeline in October 1998 killed more than 700 people. According to “The Independent” (U.K.) the Niger Delta releases 12 million tons of methane and 35 million tons of carbon dioxide each year which makes it “the world’s greatest contributor to global warming.”
The Delta first gained international prominence in 1995 with the crisis in Ogoniland when author Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists were hanged by the Nigerian government for protesting Shell’s devastation of their environment. They were leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) which forced Shell to end its production in Ogoniland in 1993. In response, the Nigerian military occupied Ogoniland during 1993-1998 and killed more than 2,000 Ogonis. MOSOP accused Shell of complicity in what it considered the genocide of the Ogoni people. According to Amnesty International, Shell “has publicly admitted that it had invited the Nigerian army to Ogoni land, and provided them with ammunition, logistical and financial support for a military operation that left scores dead and destroyed many villages.”
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, February 2003.
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor‘s international affairs correspondent and author of the forthcoming report Canadian Mining Companies Destroy Environment and Community Resources in Ghana, commissioned by MiningWatch Canada.