Stories of Struggle

Plunder and Impunity in Ogoniland


In the southeastern corner of Nigeria, in the Niger Delta region lies the territory known as Ogoniland. Home to the Ogoni People, Ogoniland was a land of promise. After Nigeria gained independence in the 1960s, the land’s massive oil reserves were touted as the key towards propelling the Ogoni People and Nigeria towards modernity. After over 50 years of extractive industries, the once fertile Ogoni Land, teeming with agricultural and fishing activities have now been transformed into a barren landscape. As one walks in the land where the rivers meet the sea, oil sleek smudges one’s feet. What were once lush green vegetation dotting the landscape has now been transformed into skeletal black frames of dead trees, shrubs and mangroves. Even as oil pollutants have seeped into the ecosystem, some of the locals continue to fish in the surrounding waters, desperate for a day’s catch. How did this land of promise transform into one of death and destruction? Who are accountable for such devastation?

In the words of Mr. Fyneface Dumnamene Fyneface, the Project Officer of Ogoni Solidarity Forum (OSF) Nigeria, “Ogoni environment was productive, life was flourishing in the area and the economic activities of smallholder farmers/fishermen who depend on the environment for their livelihoods booming till Shell came and destroyed our environment and the peoples’ means of livelihoods through their oil production activities carried out without observing international best practices as required. Till date, the people of Ogoni continue to suffer as the environment has not been cleaned up despite the release of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report on Ogoniland since August 4th, 2011″.

Prospecting for Development: History of Oil Explorations in the Area

The Ogoni People have lived in what is now known as Ogoniland for almost two thousand years. During the late 19th Century, Nigeria was colonized by the British, disrupting the sustainable cultural systems that have been largely intact for thousands of years. Rapid integration into Western colonial norms, global markets and colonial modes of resource extraction has dislocated the Ogoni people from their traditional ways of living.

The livelihood of the Ogoni people was traditionally centered on agriculture, supplemented by other economic activities such as livestock herding, salt production, fishing and palm oil cultivation. But the economic potential of Ogoniland lies in location in Nigeria’s largest oil reserves. The Niger Delta Region accounts for 90% of Nigeria’s oil reserves and the exploitation of this resource has catapulted Nigeria into one of the world’s largest oil producers. The history of oil production in the region started in 1956 when the first commercially viable oil field was discovered in the area by a joint-venture between Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) and the British Government. Oil production in what is now Ogoniland commenced in 1958, marking the start of a tumultuous relationship between Shell and the Ogoni people. The Nigerian Government became the main partner of Shell after it the former declared independence from the British government.

During the course of its operations from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s, Ogoniland has produced a total revenue of US$30 billion for Nigeria, facilitated by a joint venture agreement between the Nigerian government as the majority partner and Shell as the largest private partner (30% ownership). Oil has become the lifeline of Nigeria’s economy, and the partnership between the Nigerian government and Shell has become integral to this arrangement. Eighty percent of the government’s revenues were derived from oil production and this also accounted for 90% of the country’s foreign exchange. The Shell Petroleum Development Corporation, the Nigerian subsidiary of Shell, together with the Nigerian Natural Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) produced 40 % of Nigeria’s crude oil. (Cayford, 1996)

Due to its profitability, oil extraction was presented as a remedy that will address the problems of poverty and underdevelopment that hounded the Niger Delta Region. The promise of oil was the age-old refrain of the purported benefits of development – the creation of infrastructures, improved access to health care and educational facilities, ensure improvements in the water supply of the local communities and spur economic growth due to job creation and revenues from the oil extraction. However, Ogoniland continues to be mired in the same conditions of underdevelopment that hounded the area almost half a century ago. The region is characterized by high levels of poverty and unemployment, lack of basic infrastructure and high cost of living. Worse, environmental degradation and human rights violations have accompanied the expansion of the oil extraction architecture in the region.

Dark side of oil: Environmental Degradation in Ogoniland

Shell and the Nigerian government were able to profit immensely from oil production in the Niger Delta Region at huge environmental costs. The oil production infrastructure was characterized by poorly maintained networks of above ground pipelines that routinely leaked oil into its surrounding environment. From 1976-1991, it was estimated that a total of 2.1 million barrels of oil was released into the environment as a result of approximately 2,976 oil spills in this period (Ellis, 1995 cited in Cayford, 1996). In addition to oil spills, air pollution stemming from continuously burning gas flares became a problem not only locally but also globally. Gas flares in the Niger Delta Region releases 35 million tons/year and 12 million tons of methane, making Niger River oil fields one of the largest contributors to global warming (Cayford, 1996).

Oil exploration and production has damaged the sustainable forms of livelihood of indigenous communities that were centered on agriculture. An independent study has discovered high levels of heavy metals such as lead, zinc, copper and iron in root crops planted near Port Hartcourt, the capital city of Rivers State (Hart et. al. 2005 cited in Kingston, 2010 ). The United Nations Environmental Programme report (2011) stated that when farming resumes in lands affected by oil spill, crops typically show signs of stress and harvests are characterized by low yield. The same report also indicated that expansion of oil production in the area has denuded mangroves – vital to the ecosystem as fish nurseries and filters for natural pollution which may eventually contribute to an irreversible decline of mangrove habitats in the area. The destruction of mangroves in the area as well as the widespread pollution near the coasts has affected the livelihoods of fishermen as fishes have moved to areas where they can find new habitat as well as move away from polluted areas.

Apart from these massive signs of environmental destruction, activities associated with oil production cause pose serious health risks to the local population. Routine oil spills as well as wastage from the transportation of oil products seep into the groundwater, contaminating the water supply of local communities. The UNEP report indicated that the local population at Nisisioken Ogale derives their drinking water from a community well contaminated by benzene, a carcinogen. The level of benzene in the wells is 900 times above the limits set by the World Health Organization. Hydrocarbon contamination was indicated in 28 wells located in 10 communities. According to the evaluation, 7 of the 28 wells contained hydrocarbon levels at least 1,000 times higher than the Nigerian drinking water standard of 3 μg/l. While the locals are aware of the water pollution and associated health risks, they continue to use these water sources for their everyday activities since they have no other alternative.

The State-Oil Nexus: Converging Interests in the Plunder of Nigerian Oil Reserves

Royal Dutch Shell Corporation is the largest transnational oil corporation operating in Nigeria, accounting for almost 50 percent of the country’s crude oil production. The base of its operations is located in the Niger River Delta, where they extract 80% of their total crude oil in the country (Kingston, 2010). Shell has been responsible for the numerous oil spills that have affected the ecological health of the Niger River delta. Some of the oil spills occurred due to infrastructural neglect, with some of the pipelines used in 1957 barely maintained or replaced (Ibid). Despite the numerous oil spill incidents, Shell has avoided shouldering responsibility for environmental clean-up. One of the strategies deployed by Shell is to claim that these spills are the products of farmers and other groups sabotaging the pipelines (Cayford, 1996). Many environmental groups dispute this claim by Shell. By arguing that these spills are products of sabotages, Shell will not be liable for compensation under the Nigerian law on sabotages. Another strategy that Shell deploys is to shift the responsibility to the Nigerian government. As the majority partner of the venture, the Nigerian government will shoulder 55% of environmental costs (Cayford 1996, p. 184). This highlights how transnational companies utilize public funds in subsidizing costs related to rehabilitating environmental externalities caused by their projects.

The Nigerian government became the majority partner of Shell’s operations in Nigeria after the country has been declared independent in 1960. The government structure is largely dominated by elites from the dominant ethnic groups in the country. The colonial administration created a system wherein the ethnic elites would compete with one another through the consolidation of regional ethnic blocs. Traditionally, ethnic blocs from the North dominated the political and economic resources of Nigeria although spaces were allowed for the elites from the South to be incorporated in the government. The resources and largesse offered by oil exploration in the south have been primary incentives in consolidating the interests of the State behind the interests of Shell. A political system based on elite dominance has marginalized sentiments from grassroots communities affected by oil production activities (Cayford, 1996 p. 185-186).

The Nigerian government has facilitated the operations of Shell and has ensured that these operations will not be impeded by elite and grassroots opposition. In order to maintain their control over the oil fields, Shell and the Nigerian government have been complicit in the use of physical coercion and violence in order to quell peaceful opposition against oil extraction activities. In 1990, one of the earliest public demonstrations against Shell’s oil extraction was held in Umuechem, east of Ogoniland. In order to disperse the protesters, Shell acquired the services of the Nigerian Police Mobile Force, a paramilitary arm of the Nigeria Police Force. The paramilitaries used tear gas and gun fire to disperse the protesters. The following day, they fired at nearby houses, killing 80 people and destroying/damaging 495 houses (Crayford 1996, p.189). In 1994, the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force raided Ogoni villages following the arrest of Ken Saro-Wiwa, prominent author and leader of the Ogoni resistance against Shell (See below for further discussion). Human rights violations were committed during these raids as police and soldiers resorted to indiscriminate firing, physical beatings of villagers, rape of women and extortion. These raids resulted in the death of 2,000 people and the displacement of more than 80,000 (Terminski, 2011). These harassment and coercion was a strategy to induce “peace and order” in the area as Shell has ceased operations in 1993 due to mounting protests from the Ogoni people.

Perhaps the most controversial case of human rights violation was the farcical trial and execution of author and president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP)  Ken Saro Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders were arrested under the pretext that they incited the murder of pro-Government Ogoni leaders. Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders were held in detention for eight months before being charged before a military tribunal. However, the government has already deemed them guilty even before the trial has begun, with military personnel intimidating the lawyers and witnesses for Saro-Wiwa and the other detained personalities. Witnesses for the prosecution later revealed that Shell and the Nigerian government bribed them with money and jobs in the oil fields in exchange for false testimonies against the accused. The tribunal sentenced Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders to death.

In the years that followed, relatives of the Ogoni 9 filed charges against Shell, accusing it of conspiring with the Nigerian government in detaining and executing the detained Ogoni personalities. They also accused Shell of providing the Nigerian Army with logistical support it conducting harassment of communities opposed to oil production. In 2009, Shell agreed to pay US$15.5 million in settlement to the relatives of the victims, stating that its focus is on “the future of the Ogoni People” (Pilkington, 2009). While Shell has maintained that it was innocent of the charges, environmental advocates stated that this settlement marked as a victory for a small community up against a giant transnational company. They likewise noted that the settlement indicated that Shell was not interested in a trial where its complicity in the environmental damage and human rights violations that occurred in the Niger River delta will be made public (Green, 2009).

People’s Resistance and Demands

The worsening conditions of the environment as well as the increasing poverty of the Ogoni people due to the continued oil production in the area has resulted in the political consolidation of the various ethnic groups living in Ogoniland. In 1990, elders of the Ogoni people formed the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) as an organization that will coordinate and direct campaigns and demands for control over oil and gas resources being extracted from their land, the right to self-determination of the Ogoni people and faciliating economic development in Ogoniland. The MOSOP represents a progressive break from the elite dominated traditional politics in Nigeria as they placed emphasis on giving voice to grassroots communities in the region (Cayford 1996, p. 187)

One of the landmark institutional strategies launched by the MOSOP was the creation of the Ogoni Bill of Rights which contained key demands such as key demands such as ensuring political and economic autonomy, representation of the Ogonis in all Nigerian national institutions, preservation of Ogoni culture and language, and protection of the Ogoni environment from further degradation. The MOSOP, especially under the leadership of Ken Saro-Wiwa launched numerous popular demonstrations attended by tens of thousands of people demanding US$ 10 billion (consisting of US$ 6 billion in royalty for past oil production and US$ 4 billion as damages for the environmental degradation) in compensation as well as putting a halt to their operations in the area. Shell stopped their operations in Ogoniland in 1993 because of intensified opposition from affected communities.

Currently, the MOSOP is engaged in campaigns to support the enactment of the recommendations of the UNEP team that investigated the environmental conditions of Ogoniland in 2009. The report recommended measures that will enable environmental clean-up in the area among which includes the creation of the Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority and the Environmental Restoration Fund for Ogoniland which will be used for activities related to the environmental restoration of Ogoniland. Capitalization for this fund is estimated at US $1 billion, to be sourced from government and oil industry contributions. MOSOP has likewise mobilized over the re-entry of oil producers, including local oil firm Belema Oil Limited to take over oil production from Shell. Ogoni communities have slammed proposals for the resumption of oil production, especially as the damage brought about by 30 years of unregulated production has not been addressed.

The MOSOP believes that sustainable development in Ogoniland will be achievable through total cleanup of the environment. Addressing the pollution caused by Shell can help revive the local economy, spurring sustainable growth by providing local employment to the Ogoni people. In the spirit of international solidarity, we can support the struggle of the Ogoni people to achieve environment and development through the following: funding the activities of MOSOP and other organizations working for Ogoni such as Ogoni Solidarity Forum in order to enhance campaigns and advocacy that will address the demands of the Ogoni; lobbying and pressuring the Shell and the Nigerian government to implement the UNEP Report on Ogoni; contributing in the training and capacity building of organizations and activists working on the Ogoni issues and campaigns; and lastly, building a coalition and network of international civil society organizations which can support campaigns for the Ogoni people.

The demand for corporate accountability of Shell by the Ogoni people constitutes one of the pillars of development justice: enforcing accountability for corporate and state actors that have committed serious violations of human rights and environmental degradation. For a post-2015 development agenda to be an instrument of development justice, it must not evade the realities of corporate and state abuse, especially those committed against the poor and the marginalized. Otherwise, it becomes an instrument for further exploitation of the people and the environment.


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