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Musings on the Shell/Nigeria/UNEP story

I know it’s not socially acceptable to defend Shell over Nigeria at many dinner tables.

The campaigners have them continually in their sights, fifteen or so years after the murder of Ken Sawo-Wiwa by the brutal dictator Sani Abacha and the highlighting of the plight of the desperately poor peoples of the Niger Delta.

As many of us know, one of the major issues these days is the combination of pollution and poverty that has led to groups such as MEND taking matters into their own hands, no doubt for a variety of reasons, in the Niger Delta.

I won’t try to get into the rights and wrongs of MEND here. As with any such group, there are no doubt legitimate concerns about the motives and actions of some, or many members.

The environmental activist community is currently “outraged” by a forthcoming report from the UN’s Environmental Programme (UNEP), according to John Vidal at the Guardian. He writes today that:

“The $10m (£6.5m) investigation by the UN environment programme (UNEP), paid for by Shell, will say that only 10% of oil pollution in Ogoniland has been caused by equipment failures and company negligence, and concludes that the rest has come from local people illegally stealing oil and sabotaging company pipelines.”

In another piece, Vidal says that, ten years on from a previous visit:

“We tried to find the source of one spill in a creek near the fishing village of Otuegwe. The further we swam into the warm shallow waters the more we became covered in a sheen of grease. The light brown and yellow liquid was coming from a buried, rusty pipeline.”

And that:

“The UN study has identified more than 300 spills, many years old. But communities across the delta complain of frequent oil spillages from rusting, poorly maintained equipment.”

The question I have here, aside from wanting to know why UNEP thought it would be a good idea to take money from Shell to look into, er, Shell itself, is why don’t the NGOs who campaign against Shell and for the peoples of the Delta, discuss the illegal bunkering of oil from the region?

As the Guardian’s Vidal points out in his cleverly worded article: “Shell said 98% of spillage was caused by vandalism, theft or sabotage by militants”

Now, this may, or may not, be true. We know that the network of onshore pipelines in the Delta is old, (as is much oil and gas equipment from the North Sea to the Gulf of Mexico) and that spills happen. Pipes corrode, oil gets spilled, it’s a dirty business.

But even if say 30-40% of the spills are Shell’s fault, that still would leave 60-70% coming from vandalism, theft and sabotage.

The BBC pointed out a couple of years ago just how organised and widespread this theft is across the Delta, and hinted at how deep its tentacles go.

But aside from the BBC, very few media outlets, and NGOs themselves, are willing to talk about this problem, and what can be done to fix it.

Look for yourself, search Google News for “Nigerian oil bunkering” and similar terms and you find page after page of African and Nigerian websites covering the story, but very few Western ones.

It’s time Amnesty International and the other NGOs campaigning against Shell acted more like Global Witness and focused on the bigger issues at hand: State and military complicity in massive theft, pollution and widespread institutional corruption.

Of course, it’s much harder to do that than bash Shell. It involves pain-staking and time consuming research, rather than writing press releases and making web-pages.

But as Global Witness have shown with their pioneering and often-effective work, it might help the people of Ogoniland and the Niger Delta more, if the NGOs and the Western media woke up this problem, and what needs to be done to tackle it, as much as they do to reports about Shell’s historic and current oil spills.

Awful as they are, whether they are 2% or 30%, they are not the biggest issue in Nigeria.

1 Comment

  1. Toby,

    let's say you were living in a poor area of Cornwall and oil was discovered underneath the ground.

    The British government (which bears more resemblance to a Soviet "elected" dictatorship than anything recognised as a democracy in Europe) takes money from Exxon, in return allowing Exxon to drill wells, spill oil and flare gas night and day – with the protection of British Army soldiers.

    The little farming and fishing culture the Cornish people were previously maintain in this area to do is destroyed by the activity and pollution, not to mention the land expropriated from farmers.

    Exxon hires mostly American engineers to do the work, and the Cornishmnen working there are few, mostly janitors. Exxon gives the Nigerian govt its cut, of which most goes to fat cats in London.

    So now you've got a bunch of poor Cornishmen with few options. Their previous livelihood is gone, and they are still relatively poor, although their land is producing wealth that makes people rich in London and Houston.

    If a few minority of these destitute Cornishmen in a decimated Cornish community attempt to steal oil from the pipelines and it spills, adding to the pollution of oil spills from Exxon, not to mention the gas flared everywhere 24 hours a day by Exxon, would you conclude that Exxon is only 10% at fault for pollution and poverty in Cornwall……or that the pollution and poverty of Cornwall is 100% the fault of Exxon's immoral alliance with the dictators who control the British govt?

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