Oil Be Back: could drilling begin again in Ogoniland 22 years after the people kicked Shell out?

26 Feb 2015 admin
Platform protest outside Shell UK shareholder meeting last year. Credit Martin Lesanto-Smith
Platform protest outside Shell UK shareholder meeting last year. Credit Martin Lesanto-Smith

Recently there has been a flurry of Nigerian media headlines stating that oil drilling in Ogoniland could soon re-start. I have tried to dig deeper to assess what is currently known and what questions remain.

Has Shell sold assets in Ogoniland?

So far, there have been no news stories outside of Nigeria about Shell’s plans and there has been no announcement from Shell itself or the Nigerian Government of a sale. What some Nigerian outlets are reporting is that Belema Oil received unanimous endorsement from major oil producing communities, stakeholders, representatives of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, MOSOP, and religious leaders from the area. Other media has said that Belema is among eight oil firms jostling to take-over Shell’s OML11 oil block in Ogoniland.

What support is there for Belema Oil drilling in Ogoniland?

Reports that there is unanimous endorsement for Belema do not seem to be based in fact. For example, MOSOP, the group that Ken Saro-Wiwa led, released a statement denying this:

The attention of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) has been drawn to media reports credited to some Ogoni chiefs purported to have “approved the immediate commencement of oil production in Ogoniland and has as well endorsed an indigenous company, Belema Oil, to be the sole prospecting firm to explore and extract Ogoni oil. Ordinarily, MOSOP would have ignored the reports but for its potential of deceiving, confusing and misleading unsuspecting Ogonis and indeed the general public. MOSOP would unequivocally wish to state that the Ogoni people have not taken such position.

MOSOP and other regional movements and NGOs such as Ogoni Solidarity Forum and Environmental Rights Action demand that there should be no sale of oil assets without the broad-based consent and involvement of the Ogoni people and all are clear that this has not happened yet. Listen to Celestine from Ogoni Solidarity Forum being interviewed about this.

What does this mean for cleaning up oil pollution?

There is still no evidence that the sale of Ogoni assets has taken place. So it is impossible to say what the conditions of such a sale would be. Would the buyer be prepared to take on Shell’s oil spill liabilities? Audrey Gaughran from Amnesty says that Shell can’t just wash its hands of its oil spills if it sells up:

Selling an asset does not mean selling the liability – neither in reputational nor legal terms. Even after they divest, lawsuits can follow both Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary. Individuals can sue a company that harmed their lands and livelihoods if they can establish that the company owed them a duty of care and the company’s failure to fulfil this duty caused the harm.

However, there does seem to be agreement on the need to deal with oil pollution before any new drilling begins. Chairman of Kpean Council of Chiefs, Chief Nwarinee Gilbert has stated that no company will operate in Ogoniland, if the environment is not cleaned up as recommended by UNEP. Celestine AkpoBari of Ogoni Solidarity Forum wonders how oil production can start in Ogoni when its environmental issue has not been tackled:

 To us, the priority is the remediation and restoration of our degraded environment via urgent implementation of the UNEP report on Ogoniland.

Even Belema Oil itself has promised to “respect the UNEP report.” However, it is unclear what this means in practice. The UNEP report of 2011 concluded that it would take 30 years to clean up the devastating pollution in Ogoniland. Reports last year by a range of Nigerian and international organisations conclude that almost none of its recommendations have been implemented. In November 2013, I visited three pollution sites in Ogoniland and found that people are still dying, sick, can’t feed themselves and have no clean water because Shell’s drilling destroyed their environment. Given this context, it is difficult to see how any company that respects the UNEP report could drill for oil in the near future.


In 2015 Platform is sending the Battle Bus – a Living Memorial to Ken Saro-Wiwa – home to Nigeria to support the movement for Ogoniland cleanup. You can help – click here to find out more!

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