Hired guns

by Steve Kretzmann

In These Times magazine, February 3 - 16, 1997

It's not a holiday that will appear in your new date hook, but January 4 is a very special day for the Ogoni people of Nigeria. On that day in 1993, 300,000 people-three fifths of the total population of Ogoni-converged on the town of Bori to demand their environmental rights and protest against Royal/Dutch Shell. It was the largest demonstration ever against an oil company and, given the travel restrictions and constant military surveillance the Ogoni face, a remarkable feat of non-violent organizing. The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) had arrived.

"We have woken up to find our lands devastated by agents of death called oil companies," said then MOSOP leader Garrick Letorl to the crowd on that original Ogoni Day. "Our atmosphere has been totally polluted, our lands degraded, our waters contaminated, our trees poisoned, so much so that our flora and fauna have virtually disappeared. We are asking for the restoration of our environment. We are asking for the basic necessities of life- water, electricity, roads, education. We are asking, above all, for the right to self-determination so that we can he responsible for our resources and our environment.

Since forcing Shell to withdraw most of its operations from their 404-square-mile home land four years ago, the Ogoni have moved to the front line in Nigeria's struggle for democracy and in the global movement for corporate accountability. That first Ogoni Day, says Ledum Mitee, acting president of MOSOP, "marked the beginning of our worsening season of suffering."
An independent report by the World Council of Churches estimates that since 1993, at least 2,000 Ogoni have died, 30,000 have been internally displaced, and another 1,000 have fled Nigeria and live in miserable conditions in camps in neighboring countries. Ogoni author and MOSOP activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged last year after being framed for murder. Today Saro-Wiwa's colleagues are scattered throughout Europe and North America.

Accounting for about 40 percent of Nigeria's economy and 45 percent of its foreign exchange, Shell's activities underpin General Sani Abacha's reign of terror. MOSOP has maintained for years that in addition to the environmental damage the company has caused, Shell has financed military operations in Ogoni, armed soldiers, bribed witnesses at Saro-Wiwa's trial and provided logistical support to military operations. Until recently, Shell always hotly denied these accusations, maintaining that its role in Nigeria was purely commercial. But now the company is furiously back-pedaling as new, incriminating information comes to light.

In the year since Saro-Wiwa's execution made global headlines, Shell and Nigeria have moved in for the kill. While both entities have spent millions retaining public relations firms, conditions have got worse in Ogoni. According to MOSOP, over the last year, Nigeria's military government judicially executed 36 people, detained 286 others and conducted fatal raids on 19 communities. Today Ogoni is an occupied land. The Rivers State Internal Security Task Force (ISTF), a special military unit that was created in 1994 in response to MOSOP, is more active than ever. Ogoni families awoke on New Year's Day 1997 to find 1,000 more troops stationed in their communities with orders to prevent early observance of Ogoni Day. Dusk-to dawn curfews have been in place since late October 1996.

As the military tries to beat the Ogoni into submission, MOSOP fears that a full resumption of Shell's operations can not be far behind. Shell maintains that it will not return to Ogoni unless invited, and that it will not work behind a "security shield." However, it appears that Shell already has plans underway to return to Ogoni. On October 17, the Nigerian daily, the Guardian, disclosed Shell's "Ogoni re-entry plan," estimated to cost $39 million. The Nigerian government's military administrator, Col. Musa Shehu, apparently approved the plan after a meeting with Shell Nigeria's managing Director Brian Anderson. The first stage of the plan would reportedly focus on limited amounts of cleanup and community assistance. In later stages, however, the company would get down to business: The plan sets an ambitious goal of bringing production back up to 20,000 barrels per day within four years.

MOSOP is adamant that no negotiations or discussions take place prior to the withdrawal of troops from Ogoni. "We cannot negotiate with guns pointed at us," says Mitee. Activists report that in mid-October, ISTF soldiers approached two prominent Ogoni chiefs with a memo that the soldiers said urged Shell to resume its business in Ogoni. Upon being presented with this document and asked for his imprint, the first chief, who cannot read, requested that a literate colleague be present. The ISTF soldiers refused, demanding his immediate support and threatening him with reprisals if he refused. The second chief asked to get his reading glasses, was refused, and was also forced to sign the memo. Shell officials claim that they have no knowledge of these events, and that they have no plans to re-enter Ogoni.

Similar strong-arm tactics are being used on those who are simply seeking compensation for environmental damage. In mid-1994, the Yorla flowstation, a Shell facility, blew up, spilling thousands of gallons of oil onto Ogoni farmland. A group of Ogoni filed suit against Shell for damages. In late February 1996, Shell called the Ogoni plaintiffs, without the knowledge of their lawyers, to a meeting where they were "offered" a settlement. This offer, according to a letter of protest subsequently sent to Shell by Lucius E. Nwosu, one of the Ogoni's lawyers, was made "under an environment of full combatant military personnel." Nwosu and Partners immediately resigned from the case, noting that they were not used to negotiating "in terrorism" and that they feared "an engineered conflict may be visited on our clientele."

U.S. courts may offer a better shot at redress. On November 8, 1996, the families of Ken Saro-Wiwa and John Kpuinen filed suit in New York District Court against Shell for its role in the detention, trial and subsequent hanging of the two activists. The complaint, which was filed by attorneys from the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), says that Shell bribed witnesses at Saro-Wiwa and Kpuinen's trial. The plaintiffs point to links between Shell and the military regime that show the influence the oil giant had on Nigerian policy. Shell faces charges that include wrongful death and crimes against humanity. "Companies that profit from crimes against humanity shouldn't get to do business as usual in the United States," says CCR staff attorney Jennie Green.

Shell recognizes that it has a problem, but it has consistently tried to correct its image rather than its behavior. In response to the execution of Saro-Wiwa, Shell formed a "Nigeria Unit," headed by Nnaemeka Achebe, who has spent the last seven months following MOSOP activists and supporters, giving Shell's side of the story at forums around the world. Achebe, a former general manager of Shell Nigeria, once defended the company by explaining, "For a commercial company trying to make investments, you need a stable environment; dictatorships can give you that." While the Ogoni left in Nigeria continue to fight for their rights, MOSOP activists in exile are broadening their campaign against Shell. In late November, MOSOP representative Komene Famaa journeyed to the Camisea region of the Peruvian Amazon where Shell plans to invest $2.7 billion over 40 years in a gas project. The first wells are set to he drilled over the next few months.

The Camisea project is of particular concern because much of Shell's activity is planned for inside the Reserve for Nomadic Kugapakori and Nahua Peoples-two of the last peoples left on the planet who have had almost no contact with the Western world. Famaa met with members of the neighboring Machiguenga community. He told them about "the nonviolent way of resistance" and decried Shell's double standards. "What they are doing in South America, Africa and Asia, they dare not try in North America or Europe," says Famaa.

To date, oil profits have proved more powerful than people or principles. But the Ogoni have not despaired. "Your courage," Mitee said in his 1997 Ogoni Day address, "has demystified the oppressor. Your agonies attracted world attention and deprived the oppressor of a slumbering conscience. Your discipline in the face of provocations has inspired hope and rewarded faith in nonviolence as a weapon for fighting oppression. There is no doubt about our ultimate victory."

Steve Kretzmann is campaign coordinator for Project Underground, an organization that supports communities facing the mining and oil industries. For more information, contact them at project_underground~moles.org or l847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94703

Transnational Corporations & the Third World