“Nothing has changed,” says Patterson Ogon, founding director of the Ijaw Council for Human Rights in the Niger Delta. “Since 1995 when Ken Saro-Wiwa was hung, [Shell's] public relations and glossy reports seem to indicate that they’re doing so much in the Niger Delta. But we are still waiting to see any practical change.”
Over a decade has passed since the Nigerian government killed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists. Saro-Wiwa led a non-violent struggle against Royal Dutch Shell and other oil multinationals whose operations in the region were devastating the environment and livelihoods of local people. In a statement made to the court before his verdict, Saro-Wiwa predicted that the end of the struggle was near, but warned, “Whether the peaceful ways I have favoured will prevail depends on what the oppressor decides, what signals it sends out to the waiting public.”
Ten years later, the Niger Delta is once again making international headlines. The struggle remains the same but the tactics have changed. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) is a well-armed, well-organized group of youth who aim to localize control of the Niger Delta’s oil wealth and are demanding compensation for communities environmentally devastated by oil operations.
MEND is targeting the oil multinationals that export 2.5 million barrels of oil from the region each day, specifically Shell, which is responsible for nearly half of those exports. The group kidnapped four foreign oil workers on January 11th and nine more on February 18th. MEND is threatening to bring oil exports from Nigeria to a halt.
The group has already shut down nearly one fifth of the country’s oil production; a significant feat considering Nigeria is the eighth largest oil exporter in the world. “Violent attacks by militants in the Niger Delta” are having an effect on oil prices, the New York Times noted on February 20th.
The “violent attacks” referred to in the article are the blowing up of oil infrastructure in the region, including pipelines and loading platforms. Not mentioned in the article are the Nigerian soldiers which have been killed during skirmishes between the military and MEND. According to MEND, they “deeply regret” the deaths. In an email sent on January 17th MEND states, “We understand and sympathize with soldiers being sent into this conflict, that they are there without choice. We do not wish to kill them unless absolutely necessary and urge them to be passive observers so they do not share the fate of their colleagues in Benisede [an attack which destroyed one oil flow station and two military house boats].”
Ten out of the thirteen hostages taken have been released unharmed and MEND has publicly stated that it has no intention of killing hostages. “The hostages are being treated as well as we possibly can,” read an email statement MEND released on January 20th, “But they must live under the same conditions we have been subjected to for the last 48 years.”
These conditions, argues Ogon, are a different kind of violence imposed daily on the people of the Niger Delta. The region’s environment has been devastated by oil operations, “It has affected agricultural and fishing yields,” he says. “When people can no longer depend on fishing and farming, when they can no longer depend on the land, when they can no longer depend on the rivers and creeks that have fed them and their fathers and grandfathers… What do you expect them to do?” he asks. “We are talking about the security of the future.”
“People feel like they are pushed against a wall,” explains Annie Brisibe, founding Director of Niger Delta Women for Justice. Though she does not condone the hostage-taking, MEND’s tactics do not surprise her. “It’s come out of frustration, anger, and complete marginalization,” she says from her home in the United States where she is now living. “This has created a lot of anger in the young men and women of the Niger Delta… People are forced into doing things that they’re not supposed to do because of poverty.”
Despite the region’s oil wealth, seventy percent of people living in the Niger Delta survive on less than $1 US a day.
There have been many attempts to non-violently address the harsh inequality in the Niger Delta. Most recently, Ijaw communities took Shell to court. “They wanted to take a judicial path,” explains Ogon. Nigeria’s public assembly had previously passed a resolution compelling Shell to pay 1.5 billion for ecological damage. The case went to court after Shell refused to pay.
One of MEND’s central demands is that Shell pay the 1.5 billion. In an email statement released on January 20th, MEND stated, “This money is to be paid directly to the affected communities and we ask no part of it. Shell must pay this sum or in the alternative, provide a firm commitment of its desire to settle this claim immediately. ”
At the end of February, the federal high court in Nigeria ordered Shell to pay the 1.5 billion to communities in the Niger Delta for damage caused to their environment by Shell’s activities. Shell is appealing the decision.
Although MEND’s tactics have caught international attention, neither their demands nor the government’s reaction to them are anything new, says Brisibe. “Retaliation is always the same,” she says. “Always with force.”
Two weeks after the first four hostages taken by MEND were released, Nigerian military helicopters attacked what the government says were barges used for smuggling oil. MEND accused the military’s attack, dubbed”Operation Restore Hope,” of targeting civilians, however, and accused Shell of providing the airstrip as the staging post for the helicopter attack.
This does not surprise Brisibe, who notes that the Nigerian military provides Shell with security. “The government has a better relationship with the multinational corporations than it has with its own citizens,” she says. “Shell provides the guns and the helicopters and the pay and the government provides the military.”
Ogon reports that the government response to MEND has had a far graver impact on communities than the tactics of MEND itself. “It’s worse when federal troops invade local communities and subject innocent people to all forms of harassment and extrajudicial killings. It has made it really difficult for local people who depend on fishing and farming to go about their normal business.”
According to a 2005 report released by Amnesty International, this kind of government response is not unusual . “Government security forces continue to kill people in the Niger Delta with impunity. Excessive force is used to protect the oil industry and restore law and order–and the human rights of communities are regularly violated.”
Effectively confronting the impacts of oil multinationals in the region is almost impossible with a corrupt government that is benefiting from the oil wealth, says Brisibe. “The international community needs to pressure the government,” she says. “All we’re asking for is good governance. A government that respects human rights and eradicates corruption.” That said, she continues, the international community has not often been a positive force in ending corruption and oppression in Nigeria. “The truth is the international community has a double standard when it comes to Nigeria. If you put pressure on Shell it will have to conform to international standards, which will decrease their profits. Is the international community ready to do this?”
In the meantime says Ogon, Shell is doing everything it can to project a facade of corporate responsibility. A recent posting on Shell Nigeria’s website says that the company “is concerned about the likely effects on the environment of the oil spills resulting from the recent attacks on its pipelines and manifolds… As soon as it is safe to do so, we will commence immediate assessment of the environmental impact of such attacks and take necessary steps to clean up the affected areas.”
Ogon is confident that Shell’s glossy pamphlets and tokenistic “development” projects no longer fool the people of the Niger Delta. “The level of understanding and coordination in the communities gives me hope,” he says. “They are saying ‘We cannot let this go on.’ They’re not sitting down and allowing it to go on.”
Hillary Lindsay Managing Editor The Dominion Canada’s Grassroots Newspaper www.dominionpaper.ca