This article first appeared on the Amnesty International UK, Press Release Me, Set Me Free blog on 17 October 2011.
by Ben Amunwa
Can we stop Shell abusing human rights?
In the case of Shell in Nigeria this is a question well worth asking. Over the past few months, Shell’s appalling legacy of pollution and human rights abuses has been globally condemned by the media, NGOs and even Nigerian legislators. In August, the UN exposed the horrifying impact of oil spills in Ogoni, many of which are from Shell’s facilities. The UN report reminded us of the fact that Shell operates in Nigeria well below international standards and that the company tries to cover up the extent of its pollution by certifying heavily contaminated sites as “clean”. Last week, Platform released a “bombshell” report which revealed that Shell has fuelled recent human rights abuses in Nigeria by paying huge contracts to armed militants, and relied heavily on Nigerian government forces who have perpetrated systematic human rights abuses against local residents.
But who or what can stop Shell from abusing human rights?
Last week provided three possible answers.
1. Exploding pipelines
On Monday 10 October Reuters reported that Shell’s major Trans Forcados Pipeline in the western Delta was the latest target of explosive attacks by militants. Shell declared a “force majeure”, suspending global shipments of crude oil from Forcados export terminal in Nigeria. This is the second force majeure in recent months. Shell’s Bonny terminal was suspended in August after the company lost control the key TNP pipelinewhich had an epidemic of 12 oil spills, severely impacting in the village of Ikarama. With both export terminals (Forcados and Bonny) suspended, Shell is incapable of exporting oil from Nigeria, for the time being.
More attacks and closures are likely. Since October 2009, the Nigerian government has ‘bought off’ many of the militant leaders and their followers in the Niger Delta through an improvised “amnesty” programme. But growing frustration with inadequate government policies has meant that many ex-militants are losing what limited faith they had in Abuja’s efforts. A return to insurgency and armed conflict could be looming.
Overall, armed insurgency has not achieved any substantial improvements in the social and economic development of the Niger Delta. Instead it has led to escalating militarisation and conflict. But small, mobile networks of insurgents have a proven capacity to severely disrupt oil extraction – on and offshore – over a long period of time.
On the same Monday, women and fisherpersons from Joinkrama 4 (Edagberi) in Rivers State, took direct action against Shell. The women were protesting against Shell’s pollution of their land and water and neglect of the community. Local residents have been forced to drink water from the nearby Taylor Creek that has been heavily contaminated by oil. Oil spills have destroyed their livelihoods and pushed them deeper into poverty. Women protesters – dancing and singing – blockaded a bridge which Shell depends on for access to its oil facilities and disrupted the operations of the oil giant. As Madam Aza Ezekiel, a local women’s leader, told Friends of the Earth Nigeria:
“We drink muddy, crude oil polluted water from the Taylor creek; no pipe borne water here. It is the same with electricity; we live without electricity here in the community. Besides all [this], frequent oil spills have rendered our environment infertile”.
When Platform visited local community members in October 2010, they informed us that Shell’s oil spills had devastated the area. Between 2006 to 2009, Joinkrama 4 documented sixteen oil spills which devastated the fisheries of Taylor Creek and destroyed hectares of farmland. Shell’s role in fuelling of conflict in Joinkrama 4 is also featured in Platform’s new report, Counting the Cost.
Since the 1990s, communities have frequently held peaceful protests in response to Shell’s environmental injustices in the Delta. A wide spectrum of groups and communities have stood up to what the Ogoni writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa dubbed the “slick alliance” of oil multinationals and the Nigerian regime. Protesters have risked their lives to defend their basic human rights and demand dignity. Women’s protests in the Delta have raised the cost of oil extraction significantly. Highly organised women’s groups have coordinated mass mobilisation and shut down oil facilities for weeks at a time.
Partly due to their effectiveness, women protesters have also been the target of brutal military repression. In recent years, protesters in the Delta region have been frequently attacked, beaten, shot, detained or killed by government forces who are often stationed to guard Shell oil facilities.
If there is one constituency that holds direct leverage over Shell and its partners, it’s the oil workers unions in Nigeria, called PENGASSAN and NUPENG. On Monday, the unions began a 3-day national strike over the insecurity of the Niger Delta, and said that they will go on “indefinite strike” should the government fail to respond adequately. Such a move could bring the oil industry and its government partners to their knees.
“We need a commitment from government to stop the growing violence. The the lives of our workers have been endangered and we cannot continue like this,” [Babatunde] Ogun, [President of PENGASSAN] said.
The Trade Union Congress of Nigeria last week also expressed concern over growing level of insecurity in the country and called for an overhaul of the nation’s security system.
The Nigerian government, in partnership with multinational oil companies, has heavily militarised the Delta in order to enforce oil extraction. This is a deeply flawed and counterproductive strategy, as Nigerian troops are themselves notorious for creating insecurity. The root causes of the conflict have been ignored: the daily human rights abuses, pollution, militarisation, land grabs, poverty and corruption at all levels of government have all continued and contributed to spiralling insecurity.
So where do we go from here?
Unrest is nothing new in the Delta, where Shell and other oil majors have extracted oil from onshore facilities throughout four decades of military dictatorships, a devastating 3 year civil war and more recently a high intensity conflict that claimed 1,000 lives per year. Despite the associated environmental and social devastation, Nigeria’s sweet crude is considered highly valuable. As film maker Sandi Cioffi remarks, “To an oil company, it’s liquid gold.”
But with the collapse of the amnesty programme looking increasingly likely, protests on the rise and unions calling for an “indefinite” strike, the outlook for oil extraction in Nigeria appears uncertain. Platform and a coalition of civil society groups are demanding that Shell and other oil companies break their close links with Nigerian government forces, clean up and prevent environmental damage and adequately compensate the victims. Similarly the oil workers unions are demanding that the Nigerian government tackle the root causes of the Niger Delta crisis, rather than deploying the military.
The limited gains of the amnesty programme could easily be undermined unless ‘security’ is based on respect for human rights, the protection of shared interests and the involvement of all stakeholders. The Nigerian government and the oil companies have a basic duty to address the root causes of the crisis in order to avoid another decade of conflict.
Ben Amunwa is a researcher with UK-based oil industry watchdog, Platform.