Shell Accused of Human Rights Abuses in Nigeria

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An investigation by the oil industry watchdog Platform has revealed the Anglo-Dutch energy giant Shell has been indirectly involved in a shocking range of human rights abuses in Nigeria. They paid ruthless armed gangs to defend their interests in the country despite knowledge of their brutality, fuelled violence in local disputes and have failed to make real efforts to clean up the widespread oil spills they have produced. All this from a company that boasted £11.5bn profits last year.

Nigeria has has a troubled history, since gaining independence in 1960 brief interludes of peace have been shattered by a series of dictators that have assassinated their way to power and held it with military rule. Recent history has seen an attempt at democracy but elections in 2003 and 2007 were both condemned by international observers as highly corrupt. Nigeria’s divided population is made up of many ethnic groups with different interests and conflicts between them are many-layered.

Commercial extraction by Royal Dutch Shell began in Nigeria in 1956, it is estimated that they have taken $600 billion of oil from the country since then. Despite this the country has seen little benefit as the oil money has often gone to corrupt dictators and warlords. Shell owns over 6000km of pipelines, 90 oilfields, 1000 oil wells, 10 gas plants and two major export terminals in Nigeria. The Platform report released last week details how their management of their holdings has been the cause of numerous human rights breaches and how their status as a global corporation protects them from reprisal.

In order to protect their pipelines and installations shell hires an army of Mobile Police (MoPol) known as the “kill and go”, western private military and security companies, 1300 Joint Task Forces (JTF) made up of Nigerian police, navy and army, and 1200 SPY internal police. In addition to this is a vast network of informers. In allowing government forces to secure their assets, providing them with money, accommodation and vehicles, Shell becomes complicit in brutal government and police crackdowns on the population. Failure to punish or attempt to prevent this brutality had led to a legacy of abuse.

JTF forces guarding Shell assets shot and killed Bariara Vurasi, after he fled from a dispute between soldiers and Shell workers. They beat and horsewhipped William and Priscillia Nkoo on no provocation. Soldiers guarding a shell camp at Kolo Creek routinely subject villagers to cruel and humiliating treatment at military checkpoints around the facility, once rounding up 30 people and forcing them at gun point to perform manual labour, including ground clearance along a Shell pipeline. This represents just a miniscule fraction of the day to day harassment faced by Nigerians.

Larger abuses include collusion by Shell in the death of writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, he was responsible for organising 300,000 people to demonstrate against huge oil leaks in the area, approximately a quarter of the size of the gulf of Mexico spill. Government forces, encouraged by Shell officials, hanged Saro-Wiwa and eight other organisers after a brief trial described as “judicial murder”, when taken to court over the killings Shell settled for a landmark $15m.

In September 2004 JTF forces, including those hired by Shell to guard the nearby Soku plant, attacked the village of Oru Sangama with helicopters and gun-boats, killing two and looting and burning many houses. It was part of a larger government offensive to “flush out insurgents” which caused the deaths of over 500 people in just three weeks. The JTF’s raid was disproportionate and took the form of collective punishment. If Shell knew, or could have known about the attack and failed to warn the village then it is complicit in gross human rights abuses. Arguing that Shell had no knowledge is implausible as 200 Shell workers were airlifted from nearby facilities hours before the raids and leaked diplomatic cables boast that “Shell had seconded people to all the relevant [government] ministries and that Shell consequently had access to everything that was being done in those ministries”

Other acts by Shell that have escalated tensions in the Niger Delta are their awarding of “security contracts”, these go to over 9000 youths who are put in charge of guarding pipelines and manifolds. These contracts are given to gangs with the most “coercive power” in the area as they are supposed to be best able to protect Shell investments. Instead of paying money directly to the people, it gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to local “leaders” magnifying their power and making them feudal barons. Brutality is rewarded as rival gangs fight eachother to control the areas surrounding pipelines. In Rumuepke this resulted in gangs demolishing 8 villages, killing over 60 people and displacing many thousands. When contracts are withdrawn the thugs often sabotage pipelines and so require more money to pacify them.

Estimates put Shell’s contributions towards “community development” at $200m a year, but an independent audit found that 70% were of the projects were non-existent or failing. Those that remain only cause to further aggravate local tensions. In Rumuepke only three of the eight villages were provided with water and electricity, causing rivalry between local factions. In Joinkrama 4 a local leader Chief Walter, vocal in his demands that Shell give back more to the villgage, suggested development money be shared equally between the four communities living there. He was ignored and money was given only to one, Shell then backed a rival faction to Chief Walter who took power by force and ruled the town through terror for three years. Intentionally or not shell financed this regime in over $150,000 of contracts and development funds.

Shell also has a terrible reputation for environmental damage in the Niger Delta. It is estimated that 1.5m tonnes of oil have been spilt directly onto farmland and into waterways in the last 50 years. Some estimate that more oil is released in a single year than in the entire Deepwater Horizon spill. For the farmers and fishermen that live in the area is has a disastrous effect and has cost many their livelihoods. Shell is required to clean up any spill regardless of the cause but can escape paying compensation if the cause is sabotage. They claim that 98% of all spills are due to foul play, but most of the pipelines are over 40 years old and highly corroded. Cleanup efforts are largely done by local contractors who simply scoop up the surface oil and burn it without making real efforts to repair the damage done.

Other environmental hazards are gas “flares” where natural gas is separated from extracted oil by simply burning it at the source, a practice that is actually illegal in Nigeria but can be performed with a special licence. One notorious flare has burned night and day for 50 years subjecting the locals to huge amounts of carcinogens such as benzene. Despite a 2005 Federal high Court ruling Shell to stop onshore flaring on the basis of “a gross violation of the constitutionally-guaranteed rights to life and dignity” Shell has continued with the practice.

What I have re-reported here is merely the tip of the iceberg, the original Platform report goes on for some 50 pages and even they admit that is represents merely a fraction of the abuses that are going on every day. Any one of these atrocities would land their perpetrator straight in jail (or on death row) if they were committed by an individual, but as a corporation blame can be diluted across it’s thousands of workers until all that is required to “repair” any damage is a fine, tiny in comparison to the total profits.

We should be calling to our governments to make corporations truly accountable. For too long companies have preferred the quick and dirty fix rather than trying to address the real problems caused by their behaviour. When peoples lives and their environment are at stake, no amount of compensation can repair the damage.

And a little extra reading:

Counting the Cost: Corporations and human rights abuses in the Niger Delta - Ben Amumwa for Platform

WikiLeaks cables: Shell's grip on Nigerian state revealed - David Smith for The Guardian

Shell profits soar to £11.5bn - Jamie Grierson and Graeme Evans for The Independent

Photo by Flickr user Jenn Farr

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