BY BRIAN ALCORN
The media spotlight on the execution of Nigerian playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa has also shed light on one of the dirtiest corporate secrets in the world - Shell Oil's complicity in maintaining Nigeria's corrupt dictatorship.
And as the world's fury over Saro-Wiwa's death vents itself in sanctions and condemnations against the Nigerian government, Shell faces punishment as well, in the form of a U.S. consumer boycott that seems to gain strength with every new revelation that comes out of the bloodstained Niger Delta.
Saro-Wiwa, a popular writer and longtime critic of Shell's Nigerian operations, was hanged by the government in November on trumped-up murder charges. Eight other activists were also executed after an outrageous, private trial before a government tribunal. Witnesses who testified against Saro-Wiwa and the others later said they were paid by the government for their testimony.
The murders shocked the international human rights community. While governments, including the Clinton administration, decide on the appropriate response against dictator Sani Abacha, gasoline buyers in the U.S. are already boycotting Shell, which supplies Abacha's military government with more than half its total income.
"We've never had such a unanimous response from our members on a boycott," said Stephen Mills, human rights and environment campaign director for the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club hasjoined a coalition of international human rights and environmental groups in urging the boycott. The coalition also includes Greenpeace, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Demonstrations at Shell stations and headquarters are planned across the country. Celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Danny Glover also have lent their names to the cause.
"Shell was one of the few companies to refuse to leave South Africa," Mills said. "They didn't care about apartheid, and they don't care about this unholy alliance with a murderous dictatorship. They have shown they will stop at nothing to keep the oil flowing, and all they care about is money."
If anything, the problems in the Niger Delta are even more acute than in South Africa. In addition to political oppression, the people of the delta, an ethnic minority known as the Ogoni, have suffered catastrophic environmental damage as a result of Shell's operations there.
No independent study has yet been conducted on the effects Shell's drilling has had on the delta, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Ogonis complain that toxic-gas flares burn right in their villages. Overland pipes run close by their homes. Leaks and spills are more common here than in any of the other 100 countries where Shell conducts business, though the company claims this is mainly due to sabotage.
In 1992, a U.N. conference on indigenous peoples labeled the Niger Delta and coastlands, which include Ogoniland, the most endangered delta in the world.
A 1994 report by Greenpeace states, "While [Shell] operations in developed regions are usually accompanied by environmental impact assessments, social and environmental policies - and not to mention a great deal of effort to appease the justified concerns of local communities these practices are not exported to lesser developed regions where little or no media attention is paid and where accountability is unheard of."
Far from being accountable, Shell has taken whatever it wants from the Ogoni, with little or no compensation. Though Shell has made billions from its wells on their lands, the farmers and fishermen of Ogoniland live in abject poverty, the poorest ethnic group in the 13th-poorest nation in the world. They have no running water, no electricity, no hospital and inadequate schools. Ogonis claim their once-fertile farms have been co-opted by Shell without so much as a by-your-leave - all with the consent and protection of the government.
Shell has been pumping oil out of the rich, marshy fields of southern Nigeria since the late '50s. Its 900,000-barrel daily production there accounts for 14 percent of its worldwide output and nets Shell roughly $170 million a year.
For the Ogonis, decades of resentment over this exploitation awaited only a leader to become revolution. Saro-Wiwa, a charismatic, ambitious man already wellknown for his novels and a long-running television show that discreetly lampooned the government, stepped to the fore. In 1990, he and other community leaders formed the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). At its height, MOSOP claimed a membership of nearly 300,000 - more than half the Ogoni population. Through its rallies and demonstrations, some of which turned violent, MOSOP caused Shell to pull its employees out of Ogoniland in 1993.
That's when Abacha struck back, ordering his roving death squads to break the back of the Ogoni resistance.
There seems to be no doubt about Shell's involvement in what followed, only a question of degree. The company denies encouraging or ordering the military into Ogoniland, saying it only asked for protection for its employees and equipment. The Ogoni tell a different story.
"Shell helicopters used to fly over the villages," said Barika Idamkue, a MOSOP spokesman now living in Los Angeles. "That's how you knew you were about to be raided."
The Ogonis say the smoking gun is a now infamous memo from the military leader in Ogoniland to his superior, saying "Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence."
Tensions reached the breaking point In May 1994, when four Ogoni elders were murdered while attending a private meeting. MOSOP was immediately accused by the government of inciting the crime, and Saro-Wiwa, who was in police custody at the time of the killings, was charged with murder. Eighteen months later, he was hanged.
The military crackdown has been brutal throughout Nigeria, where a fledgling pro-democracy movement has taken root. Journalists have been killed, and newspapers critical of the government have been shut down. Whole villages have been burned to the ground. MOSOP leaders estimate that 2,000 Ogoni have been killed in the past three years. The resistance leaders themselves have had to flee the country or face the same tribunal Saro-Wiwa faced.
Nineteen MOSOP leaders are waiting to stand trial for the same killings Saro-Wiwa was accused of inciting - based on evidence given by the same corrupt wltnesses.
At times, the ruthlessness of the dictatorship has bordered on the ridiculous. Saro-Wiwa's mother was arrested and detained days after his execution. Her crime? Wearing black to mourn her dead son.
Meanwhile, as the wrath of the international community builds, Shell's answer men in the U.S. and Europe are scrambling for explanations that will soothe critics without alienating Abacha, thereby keeping the oil flowing. At first, the company denied all of the charges put by the Ogoni. Then, earlier this year, it admitted to supplying guns to government "security guards," but insisted that such was common practice in Nigeria. More recently, Shell officials admitted it was a mistake to involve the government in its security operations at all - but insisted they did not know the soldiers would massacre the Ogoni and destroy their villages.
Ogoni leaders display a mix of satisfaction and contempt over Shell's contortions, particularly the claim by the U.S. branch that it has nothing whatever to do with the Nigeria operations and should not be subjected to a boycott.
"Shell is Shell," said Idamkue. "There is no other Shell in the world." Idamkue also points out, and Shell does not dispute, that the company did nothing to prevent the murders of Saro-Wiwa and the other activists, even though a Shell lawyer attended the trial. Even now, with the weight of world opinion solidly against it, Shell has not condemned Abacha's actions and, in fact, is about to enter into a partnership with the government on a $3.8 billion natural-gas project.
Dr. Owens Wiwa, the playwlight's brother and a member of the MOSOP steering committee, says he had three meetings with the head of Shell's Nigerian operation, begging for intervention on his brother's behalf. According to Wiwa, the executive told him he would ask the government for clemency, but only if MOSOP put an end to its demonstrations and issued a press release absolving Shell of all responsibility for environmental damage in Ogoniland.
"I just said, 'How can I do that? You mean for me to tell the world that what we've been saying since 1990 is a lie?' There is no way I can do that," Wiwa said.
Shell concedes that the meetings with Owens Wiwa took place, but denies making any quid pro quo offers for his brother's life. When asked why Shell did not intervene to save Saro-Wiwa, a spokesman for the company said, "It is not for commercial organizations like Shell to interfere in the legal process of a sovereign state such as Nigeria."
MOSOP leaders are hoping consumers won't buy Shell's attempt to wash its hands of the mess in Nigeria. Dr. Wiwa, now in exile with his family in London, recently completed d tour of the U.S., drumming up support for a boycott that he hopes will force the U.S. government to embargo Nigerian oil.
The U.S. imports about half of the oil produced in Nigeria. However, Nigerian oil only constitutes 3.5 percent of total U.S. consumption. Therefore, much as was the case with South Africa, an embargo would not drastically affect the domestic economy. "It is economically possible and morally imperative," said the Sierra Club's Mills.
"The campaign in the U.S. is very important," Idamkue said. "The [Nigerian] government is very fragile. It depends entirely on the money supplied by Shell. "We have tried everything peacefully to get the government to respect human rights," he said. "Unless the grip of Shell Oil is broken, democracy will never come.
March 1, 1996
Los Angeles Weekly