Shell, the FT and the Niger Delta

Amnesty International raised money from personal donations to pay for a full-page ad in the FT today, timed to coincide with Shell’s AGM. However, the FT refused to publish it and a twitter campaign is under way.Here’s a link to it.

Shell’s record in the Niger Delta is appalling. Environmentally, this is just as sensitive an area as the Mississipi delta now threatened by the Horizon spill; but it’s in Africa.  Actually, it’s in Nigeria. It’s in the country that would have been called Biafra, had its secession movement that led to the 1960s Nigerian civil war succeeded.  Oil is controlled federally, and memories of the civil war still linger, particularly the chilling phrase uttered by the Yoruba prime minister at the time, Obafemi Awolowo: “starvation is a weapon of war”.  There are many smaller ethnic groups  in the Niger Delta, between Port Harcourt in the east and Warri in the west. It’s a land of creeks and mudflats, mangrove swamps, rainforest  and palm-oil, mahogany and rubber plantations in varying states of decay, and it has been neglected by the Federal government largely because of the population equations. Nigeria, like much of Africa, still votes on ethnic lines.  The poet and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa campaigned against Shell’s operation; he was hanged by the last military government. Shell claims that it complies with Nigerian law; it pays the Federal Government and its officials for its drilling permits; it doesn’t need to deal at a state or local level.  So it doesn’t; and activist groups like MEND – the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta – have spawned some armed resistance and have kidnapped oil workers on the offshore platforms.

Shell would only have to spend a tiny fraction of what its rival BP is now spending in Louisiana to employ local people to clear up the mess coming from its activities and restore its credibility locally.  It wouldn’t take much to turn round the local economy in the Delta: it should be the most prosperous region in the country, as it has both the oil and the rainfall. Nigeria isn’t an easy place to do business –  it’s practically impossible to do anything without bribing someone somewhere along the way – and standards become more compromised the more you engage with local people and local businesses.  But Shell’s approach, in cahoots with the Nigerian Federal Government, is destroying people’s lives. It is shameful.

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