Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A case study of the allegation of Shell Nigeria's complicity in human rights violations.


This paper will discuss the allegation that oil companies have often been accused of complicity in human rights violations. The paper will include a case study of the multinational Royal Dutch/Shell Petroleum company’s activities in Ogoni in the Niger Delta and their involvement in the torture and murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other activists with the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), who opposed oil drilling on their lands, and accused Shell in Nigeria of complicity in what it alleged was the genocide of the Ogoni people (Manby, 1999). The paper will briefly examine the history of the multinational oil company’s involvement in the Niger Delta and the devastation it caused to the local Ogoni peoples, outlining the destruction caused to the Niger Delta natural environment as a tragic abuse of human rights. The paper will also cover the formation of MOSOP and their legitimate protests against Shell Nigeria, and the allegations that Shell Nigeria was involved with the Nigerian military in efforts to stop protests in situations were civilians where killed. The paper will conclude with a look at the changing worldview of Nigeria since the Ogoni crisis, and question the ethical implications of Western consumption of Nigerian oil in the face of human rights violations inflicted in the oil’s production.


Royal Dutch Shell made the first discoveries of commercial quantities of oil in Nigeria in 1956 in Oloibiri in the Niger Delta region and over the following years they set up oil terminals and connecting pipelines so that large-scale production could begin in earnest by 1965 (Frynas, Beck, and Mellahi, 2000). Today, the petroleum sector comprises more than 40 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), continuing to provide more than 95 percent of exports (IMF Staff Country Report, 1998).

Estimates of Nigeria’s proven oil reserves are currently at 35.2 billion barrels (EIA, 2005), but unlike the majority of large oil fields around the world situated in the arid expanses of the Middle East or Texas, or under the waters of the North Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, the oil patches in the Niger Delta were situated under fragile waterways that sustained the livelihoods of thousands of people, primarily through pristine farmlands and fisheries (Shah, 2004). Whether it would have been possible to develop these fields without massive disruption is unclear, however such issues were not formally considered. It was the Nigerian military authorities that signed the deals with the oil multinationals to develop more then two hundred oilfields in the delta’s villages (EIA, 2005).

Environmental damage

Communities of the Niger Delta first began to seriously feel the effects of the oil companies with the dredging of waterways and the construction of dams, roads and pipelines through the fragile Delta flood plains. These projects, built to save the oil companies time and money, often destroyed buildings, plantations and ancestral graves and holy ground during construction. (Okonta and Douglas, 2001).

In an interview with a senior male elder of an Oloma village, Fentiman (1996) highlights the ways in which the oil companies have disrupted the lives of the Delta’s villagers, vividly described by the village elder:

“It wasn't until Shell started dredging the creek that everything started to go badly. For example, erosion of land. Before, there was a beautiful sandy beach; but look, it no longer exists. In the back of my house there was a big playground called ogbo-ngelege, but that land has eroded, and now our houses are eroding. Our traditional livelihood is fishing, but there are no more fish. We now buy tinned fish or stock fish. The chemicals from oil spillage have ruined the fish as well as the esem (periwinkles) and mgbe (mangrove oysters). We receive nothing from Shell. For example, no electricity, no piped water, no health facilities, nothing to make us happy. They were supposed to build a fish pond, but look around you, there is nothing. They destroyed our land and dredged our creek.”

According to a study by Human Rights Watch (1999), the environmental problems identified in the Niger Delta include flooding and coastal erosion, sedimentation and siltation, degradation and depletion of water and coastal resources, land degradation, oil pollution, air pollution, land subsidence, biodiversity depletion, noise and light pollution, health problems, and low agricultural production, as well as socio-economic problems, lack of community participation, and weak or non-existent laws and regulations.

Environmental damage as a violation of human rights

It should be noted that massive environmental damage impacts different communities around the world in different ways. While the destruction of an old growth rainforest in a developed nation such as Australia for example, will raise protests from environmentalists as a travesty, such environmental damage does not strongly impact on the lives of the people living in that country. These citizens may miss their rainforest, but its destruction will not result in poorer living conditions or economic disaster for the countries citizens. This kind of environmental damage is not necessarily a violation of human rights.

However the same cannot be said for village communities living in developing nations, such as the Ogoni people. As these communities have their local environment destroyed, they also have their livelihoods destroyed. There is a direct relationship between the standard of living for these kinds of communities and the condition of the environment. As environmental damage increases, standard of living decreases.

The United Nations also see the important connection between human rights and the environment. The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment declared that "man's environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights--even the right to life itself." (OHCHR, 1972). And the African Charter 1981, article 24 proclaimed that the right to a satisfactory environment for development is a human right. The court also recognised that environmental degradation can give rise to a violation of human rights. (African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, 1981).

Movements against the oil multinationals

The Niger Delta’s Ken Saro-Wiwa was a successful author and businessman, who became a central activist for the rights of the Ogoni. Saro-Wiwa wrote that since the first well was drilled in 1958, the oil companies Shell and Chevron extracted an estimated $30 billion worth of oil from the Niger Delta, where 500,000 Ogoni people live on 404 square miles of land (Mohindar, 2005).

"Yet, the Ogoni have received no royalty for the oil, nor do they have any electricity, pipe water, telephones, education or health facilities. Instead, 30,000 Ogoni have been displaced, 1,000 Ogoni massacred and eight villages razed." (Saro-Wiwa, 1990).

To combat the damage of the oil companies on the environment and livelihoods of the Ogoni people, in 1990 activists set up the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), with Ken Saro-Wiwa as one of the movements key leaders and founding figures. MOSOP’s demands were directed at the Nirgirian government for their collaboration with the oil multinationals at the expense of the Ogoni people, and at the Shell Corporation, seeking compensation for the devastation done to their lands and people. These demands were set out in 1990 in the “Ogoni Bill of Rights”, which expressed Ogoni determination to secure their political, economic and environmental rights. MOSOP’s first act was to present the Ogoni Bill of Rights to the Nigerian government in 1990 (Humans Rights Watch, 1999).

Initially the Nigerian government largely ignored MOSOP’s demands, so Saro-Wiwa began to use his international connections as a well known author to bring the bill to the attention of the UN, the African Human Rights Commission, and several international environmental and human rights NGOs (Osaghae, 1995). Throughout the following two years MOSOP continued to seek international support to pressure the Nigerian government and Shell to recognize Ogoni rights.

MOSOP’s efforts were given very little attention, even from the environmental groups in London that Saro-Wiwa approached for support (Shah, 2004). As Saro-Wiwa’s son Ken Wiwa remembers, the groups Saro-Wiwa approached for support ushered him out the door, “with a polite but condescending look that suggested he come back when a few more people had been killed” (Wiwa, 2000).

During 1991 and 1992 Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP continued to seek support and raise awareness of the plight of the Ogoni people, though their efforts were largely unsuccessful, having received no reply from the Nigerian administration. So in 1992 MOSOP decided to deliver their demands directly to the oil multinationals Shell, NNPC and Chevron. They demanded the companies pay U.S. $10 billion in royalties and compensation for environmental damage, put an end to environmental destruction, and negotiate for further oil production on acceptable terms with an effective environmental protection program (Cayford, 1996).

The initial MOSOP demands were ignored, and so two months later on the 4th of January 1993, Saro-Wiwa led an estimated 300,000 Ogoni, a significant percentage of the Ogoni population, on a peaceful protest march against oil exploitation. This initial rally was met with no immediate conflict with police, however subsequent mass demonstrations continuing over the following months and encountered increasing arrests and police harassment. At the end of April a protest against a Shell pipeline by 10,000 Ogoni was met by the Nigerian military, brought by Shell contractors, and the troops opened fire on the unarmed crowd killing one young man and wounding eleven people. (Cayford, 1996).

The violence escalated and in July 1993 the Nigerian military unleashed devastating violence on the people of the Delta. 132 unarmed Ogoni men, women, and children were massacred, and then again in August 247 more were killed, and in September over 1000 people were murdered (Shah, 2004. 97).

At first it appeared that this violence was the result of ethnic conflict in the region. However experts brought in to bring peace found no evidence of this claim. Human Rights Watch/Africa (1999) has since acquired evidence that the soldiers were led to believe that they were repelling an armed invasion from Cameroon. One soldier interviewed stated: "When we arrived they told us to shoot everyone who crossed our path. I followed my orders until I realized that the approaching civilians were Nigerians."

In 1994 Saro-Wiwa and several other key MOSOP members were arrested in connection with the murder of four traditional leaders, despite a lack of evidence. On 10 November 1995 the military government hanged Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP activists after a trial that violated international standards of due process and produced no credible evidence that he or the others were involved in the killings. Manby (1999) argues that it was clear that Saro-Wiwa and his co-defendants were being silenced as a result of their success in mobilizing Ogoni anger at oil production and the threat that this mobilization posed to the military and civilian elite who benefit from the oil wealth.

Shell, because of its economic power in the country, could have stopped the executions, say MOSOP and international activists. A Human Rights Watch study (1999) implicated Shell in planned “wasting operations” by the Security Task Force, with evidence stating that the oil companies should pay the costs of these operations. The head of the Task Force several times publicly claimed to be acting so that Shell’s oil production could resume. Alligations against Shell also include several claims that Shell police deliberately created conflict, intimidated and harassed MOSOP protestors, and participated in brutality against detainees. Activists also allege that Shell continue paying field allowances to soldiers deployed to it’s facilities.

The international view of Shell Nigeria
Shell's role in human rights abuse in Ogoni has been the cause of increasing international concern since Saro-Wiwa's murder. In 1997, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights voted to appoint a special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Nigeria. As stated by Sierra Club (2001), the United Nations Special Rapporteur's report claims:
·Shell is responsible for environmental devastation of the Niger Delta;
·'Issues relating to environmental degradation in the River Delta region alleged to be caused by the operations of SPDC have received insufficient attention' [Shell Petroleum Development Corporation is Shell's Nigerian subsidiary];
·Shell is colluding with the military in suppressing non-violent protests;
·'The Nigerian authorities have put at SPDC's disposal a mobile police force to suppress protest';
·Shell is directly guilty of human rights abuses;
·'[Shell has] a well armed security force which is intermittently employed against [protesters]';
·And the Special Rapporteur supports MOSOP's call for an independent agency to 'determine all aspects of environmental damage due to oil exploration and other operations'.
After several years of activist attempts to make Shell answer to charges of human rights violations, in 2002 the U.S. federal court decided to allow a lawsuit to proceed, accusing Shell of complicity in human rights abuses in Nigeria. The allegation is of Shell Nigeria’s involvement in the torture and murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other activists with MOSOP. Plaintiffs against Shell argued the company gave money and weapons to the Nigerian government to crush the protest movement. They further accused the military regime of bribing witnesses to give false testimony against Saro-Wiwa and other activists (Knight, 2002).

This lawsuit brings Shell’s actions in Nigeria to international attention, and plaintiffs against Shell stated they where optimistic that the company would eventually be made to answer for their actions in U.S. courts.

This case study of Shell Nigeria’s activities demonstrates the company’s blatant disregard for the well being of the Ogoni people and the company’s involvement in human rights violations. The destruction of the Niger Delta environment without compensation by the practices of Shell and the other oil multinationals in itself is a massive violation of human rights. However there are also the alligations of Shell’s involvement of more obvious and immediate human rights violations in the accusations of Shell supporting militant groups in the violations and abuses of thousands of Nigerian citizens.

In the face of such human rights violations as those that Shell is involved with, an important issue to consider is the price being paid for oil. Oil is one of the most important commodities to developed nations, and when we think of its cost we generally think in terms of U.S. dollars per barrel. However if large quantities of the oil we consume come from locations as damaged by the oil companies as Nigerian communities are, then we must also consider the price of oil to be related to the suffering of the people in these communities. When considering the ethics of an oil company’s involvement in human rights abuses, it may also be important to consider the ethics in wide scale consumption of the oil company’s product. By purchasing oil which is produced cheaply at the expense of countless lives and the living conditions of these nation’s citizens, then perhaps the developed nations consuming this oil are also at least partly responsible for the violations of human rights that the oil multinationals are accused of.



African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. 1981. African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. (accessed September 23, 2005).

Cayford, S. 1996. The Ogoni uprising: oil, human rights, and a democratic alternative in Nigeria. Africa Today, June 1996. 43 (2): 183. (accessed October 12, 2005, from EBSCOhost: Academic Search Elite).

Edokpayi, E., A. 2005. Shell Oil Company and social justice in the Niger Delta: The case of Shell in Ogoni, Nigeria. Morgan State University, August 2005 (accessed October 6, 2005, from ProQuest: Multiple databases).

Energy Information Administration. Country Analysis Briefs: Nigeria, accessed 6th October 2005.

Fentiman, A. 1996. The anthropology of oil: The impact of the oil industry on a fishing community in the Niger Delta. Social Justice, Winter 1996. 23 (4): 87 (accessed October 4, 2005, from EBSCOhost: Multiple databases).

Frynas, J., G., Beck, M., P. and Mellahi, K. 2000. Maintaining corporate dominance after decolonisation: The ‘first mover advantage’ of shell-BP in Nigeria. Review of African Political Economy, September 2000. 27 (85), 407. (Accessed October 10, 2005, from ProQuest: ABI/INFORM Global database).

Human Rights Watch. 1999. The Price of Oil: Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights Violations in Nigeria’s Oil Producing Communities. (accessed 28th November, 2005).

Imondu, A., M. 2000. The cry for justice in Nigeria: A look at MOSOP and the effectiveness of its nonviolent tactics. Duquesne University, October 2000 (accessed October 6, 2005, from ProQuest: Multiple database).

Knight, D. 1998. New Accusations of Arrest and Torture. Inter Press Service, January 15 (accessed October 10, 2005, from ProQuest: Multiple database).

Lobe, J. 2002. Rights-Nigeria: Commission Orders Gov’t to Pay Ogoni Damages. Global Information Network, July 3 (accessed October 10, 2005, from ProQuest: Multiple database).

Manby, B. 1999. The Role and Responsibility of Oil Multinationals in Nigeria. Journal of International Affairs, 53 (1): 281. (Accessed October 10, 2005, from EBSCOhost: Academic Search Elite).

Mohindar, M. 2005. Nigeria: Son of Executed Activist Memorializes Father’s Legacy. Global Information Network, (accessed October 6, 2005, from ProQuest: Multiple database).

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 2001. Human Rights and the Environment. (accessed October 13, 2005).

Okonta, I., and Douglas, O. 2001. Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights and Oil in the Niger Delta. San Francisco: Sierra Club, pp81-83.

Osaghae, E.E. 1995. "The Ogoni uprising: Oil, politics, minority agitation, and the future of the Nigerian state." African Affairs, 94:325-44.

Oster, S. 2005. Shell to Start Talks With Nigeria, Ogoni Activists. Wall Street Journal, May 31, 6 (accessed October 7, 2005, from ProQuest: Multiple database).

Saro-Wiwa, K. 1995. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Final Address to the Military-Appointed Tribunal. Earth Island Journal, 11 (1): 25. (accessed October 10, 2005, from ProQuest: Multiple database).

Shah, S. 2004. The Story of Oil: Crude. Maryborough: McPherson’s Printing Group.

Sierra Club. 2001. International Campaigns: Nigeria. (accessed October 12, 2005).

Universal Declaration for Human Rights. 1948. The Universal Declaration for Human Rights website. (accessed September 26, 2005).

Wiwa, K. 2001. In the Shadow of a Saint. South Royalton: Steerforth Press.


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