Oil corporations have operated for decades in Nigeria, the world’s
fifth-leading oil producer, with no fear of penalties for trashing the environment
or violating the human rights of nine ethnic groups in the Niger Delta. The
Ogoni, fishers and farmers like other peoples of the nine Niger Delta states,
lived off the land until 1958 when Shell Nigeria began drilling oil. Gas flaring
and river dredging for pipelines began almost immediately, transforming the
fertile delta into a wasteland of oil, chemicals, and pollutants.
The resultant destruction of land and contamination of rivers has made it impossible
for Niger Delta citizens to continue to fish and farm. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s
leaders have grown rich from corporate oil, and gladly assign security forces
to counter, and sometimes silence, citizen protests. In 1995 the military dictatorship
of General Sani Abacha deemed hanging to be the necessary means to quell the
articulate voice of poet Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight fellow Ogoni activists.
These nine Ogoni environmentalists were hanged in Nigeria following a sham
trial that attempted to end protests against the government and Shell. Saro-Wiwa,
who founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, had led these
peaceful protests for almost two decades. One would have hoped that these activists'
sacrifice, and the accompanying international outrage, would have led to an
era of corporate responsibility and respect for human rights. Instead, a decade
later, Niger Delta communities still struggle to survive as oil companies protect
their own single-minded interests.
Case in point: According to a recent Amnesty International report, Chevron
has failed to pursue an independent inquiry into Nigerian soldiers' use of force
against more than 200 protesters at its Escravos oil terminal in Ugborodo, which
resulted in 30 serious injuries and one death earlier this year. Similarly,
an alleged security arrangement between a Shell Nigeria subcontractor and a
criminal group in Odioma led to the murders of 17 people, the rape of two women,
and the razing of 80 percent of the homes in the area. Neither the company nor
the Nigerian government has investigated the incident.
The international outrage following the 1995 executions led the extractive
and energy industry, in partnership with the U.S. and U.K. governments and international
non-governmental organizations, to develop Voluntary Principles for Security
and Human Rights. Though Shell and Chevron both claim to support the principles,
there is little evidence of their compliance with them in Nigeria. Of greater
significance, the U.S. Department of State has failed to monitor such compliance.
Nigeria is the largest African producer of oil and the United States is the
largest purchaser of Nigerian oil. At the same time that polluted water and
soil make a sustainable life of fishing or farming increasingly rare in the
Niger Delta, many indigenous oil workers see no oil revenues. And men and women
continue to die from violent exchanges at oil sites, while all incidents go
uninvestigated by the oil companies and both the Nigerian and United States
governments. Unless there is an end to the ecological assault upon the Niger
Delta and the inequitable distribution of oil revenues, violence is bound to
continue and escalate.
The Voluntary Principles for Security and Human Rights specify that companies
should make public their policies regarding human rights conduct to security
providers, and work to see that security is provided in a manner consistent
with those policies. Shell and Chevron must immediately investigate and report
on the incidents this year in Odioma and Ugborodo. In addition, the United States
needs to guarantee that our oil companies in the Delta comply with the Voluntary
In the final words of Ken Saro-Wiwa: "Whether the peaceful ways I have
favored will prevail depends on what the oppressor decides, what signals it
sends out to the waiting public. Come the day."
Dee Burton is Nigeria country specialist for Amnesty International
USA and adjunct associate professor of urban public health at Hunter College,
City University of New York. Founded in 1961, Amnesty International is a Nobel
Prize winning grassroots activist organization with over 1 million members worldwide.
Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) is the U.S. Section of this international
human rights movement. www.amnesty-usa.org
– A photo of Dee Burton is available CLICK