by Jean Damu and David Bacon


Since the execution in Nigeria of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company has been at great pains to explain to the world that it urged its military rulers not to kill him. The corporation's protestations belie the reality of the role which it and other oil companies play, not only in Saro-Wiwa's case, but in all of Nigeria's economic and political life.

Although the Nigerian government has imprisoned hundreds of trade unionists, human rights activists, and political opponents, Ken Saro-Wiwa became a symbol of resistance to the military regime. Like his fellow countryman Wole Soyinka, now in exile, he was an author and playwright, whose works were widely known both within and outside Nigeria.

Saro-Wiwa became active in the struggle of his own ethnic group, the Ogoni inhabitants of the Niger River delta, and helped to build the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Since 1958, Royal Dutch Shell has extracted U.S. $30 billion in oil from the delta, but most Ogoni communities have no pipe-borne water, electricity, hospitals, roads or even schools. At the same time, there have been over 2,000 oil spills, with over 2 million barrels poured out over Ogoni farmlands. MOSOP demanded that Shell clean up the area where its wells have polluted the Niger River delta, and use part of the oil revenue to lift the Ogoni people out of grinding poverty.

For his work, Saro-Wiwa was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and received the Goldman Environmental Prize. But he also earned the enmity of the government and its oil partners. Shell blamed the protests of the Ogoni faction headed by Saro-Wiwa, for the loss of 3.5 million barrels of crude oil in 1992, and another 12 million in 1993. At a protest rally last year, four Ogoni politicians, former MOSOP leaders who disagreed with Saro-Wiwa, were killed. The government used this as a pretext for imprisoning Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP leaders to whom he was allied. They were held without charge from mid-1994 to June 1995, and were declared prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. They were tried last fall in a judicial proceeding outside the normal Nigenan judicial system, convicted, and hanged .

Standing before the generals' judges, condemned to death, Saro-Wiwa fearlessly defied them. "In my innocence of the false charges I face here, in my utter conviction, I call upon the Ogoni people, the peoples of the Niger delta, and the oppressed ethnic minorities of Nigeria to stand up now and fight fearlessly and peacefully for their rights. History is on their side. God is on their side.

He declared that "Shell is here on trial . . . There is no doubt that the ecological war that the company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner or later and the crimes of that war will be duly punished." Saro-Wiwa condemned the influence of Shell over the Nigerian government. "On trial also is the Nigerian nation," he said, "its present rulers and those who assist them. Any nation which can do to the weak and disadvantaged what the Nigerian nation has done to the Ogoni, loses a claim to independence and to freedom from outside influence."

Through one military coup after another, through civil war and urban unrest, the lifeblood of its economy continues to flow up from under the earth, and onto the huge tankers which carry it to refineries in New Jersey and California. Over $12 billion in oil is pumped out every y ear, and most of it goes to the U.S. But instead of lifting living standards, nearly 30% of Nigeria's national income now goes to service a foreign debt of over $30 billion, under a structural adjustment program mandated by the International Monetary Fund. The value of Nigerian currency has plummeted as unemployment has skyrocketed.

Behind its military rulers. five companies tower over the country-the British/Dutch Shell, the Italian AGIP, the French Elf Aquitaine, and the U.S. giants Chevron and Mobil. They operate in partnership with the Nigerian National Petroleum Company, a government-run corporation. Control of the NNPC is rumored to have made General Sani Abacha, head of the country's military junta, a billionaire, and his military associates millionaires. According to Emmanuel Abisoye, a retired general who headed a 1994 investigation into oil-related corruption, "the unwritten code in the NNPC style of management therefore would appear to be everyone for himself and God for us all, make hay while the sun shines, and loot all lootables."

But despite corruption and heavy-handed terror, so long as successive governments have protected the smooth flow of oil and money, the companies have been happy. That began to change in the wake of the election in June 1993 of Moshood Abiola as president, who won majorities in 22 of Nigeria's 33 states. The election was an important move towards democracy. Nigeria has been ruled by a long succession of military governments since independence from Britain in 1960. But General Ibrahim Babangida, who ruled Nigeria when Abiola was elected and who had promised a return to civil authority, annulled the elections and appointed a weak, caretaker civilian government. Then, in Sani Abacha took power in another military coup, and called a complete halt to the democratization process. Abacha appointed an army-dominated Provisional Ruling Council, did away with federal and state elected bodies, and prohibited political activity.

Abacha like Babangida and their military predecessors, used Nigeria's oil income as a source of personal wealth and power. Corruption escalated so far that by the spring of 1994 the NNPC owed its foreign partners nearly $1 billion in operating fees. The companies began to shut the oil rigs down to force the government to pay up.

Fed up with political repression and the wildfire of corruption, Abiola and his supporters decided to challenge the military regime. On June 11, 1994, he declared himself the legitimate head of State. On June 23 he was arrested. Abiola, like the labor leaders, remains in prison today.

On July 4, the oil workers struck, calling for Abiola's release, and his installation as the legitimately-elected leader of his country.

The blue-collar NUPENG. and the white collar staff union, PENGASSAN , are decisively situated in Nigeria's economy, which gave their strike great power. oil provides 90% of the West African nation's foreign earnings, and has made Nigeria one of the continent's most industrialized countries. As head of NUPENG, Kokori could effectively turn the foreign dollar spigot on and off, which he periodically did in order to win higher wages for his members. Kokori and his colleagues believed that a democratic government could end the corruption, preserve their jobs and wages, and redirect the flow of the oil wealth in a way that would build up the country's economy, rather than line the pockets of a few rich generals. Milton Dabibi, a leader of PENGASSAN, called the strike "a patriotic struggle born out of the need to save the oil industry and the nation from collapse. "Our struggle for economic emancipation cannot be separated from the political struggle for democracy and accountability in government."

Although it was legal, the strike was a direct challenge to the government. Once it moved from place to place as they led it, while the generals searched for them in their headquarters in Lagos, and in union offices around the country.

The strike paralyzed most of Nigerian industry. Up to 95% of the factories shut down. Government losses in oil revenue were calculated at $34 million per day. Government workers walked out on strike in support. In Nigerian cities, students and others built barricades blocking roads, and were brutally dispersed by troops. Lacking oil to fuel the generators, electric power plants began to stop operations, and cities began to suffer blackouts. Air traffic ground to a halt as airplanes could not be refueled, and air traffic controllers joined the protest.

After weeks of waffling back and forth, the Nigerian Labor Congress, with close ties to the government, was forced by the pressure of its oil members into declaring a general strike throughout the country. Although its leaders called it off after just one day, many others refused to go back to their jobs.

The European oil corporations AGIP and Elf-Aquitaine sympathized with the strikers and cut production to 60% of normal. Shell maintained its regular volume. But California-based Chevron, and New York-based Mobil, flew in additional foreign workers to keep the oil flowing, and actually increased production 120%.

Their operations guaranteed continued income and saved the life of the Abacha military regime. According to Dabibi, military troops occupied oil installations at the companies' request. The strike produced windfall profits, when shortages raised the price of light crude oil from $14 to $90 a barrel.

Oil workers reacted bitterly to the betrayal of the strike which was, in part, fought to ensure payment to those same companies. NUPENG's president Wariebi Agamene, declared that "we cannot fold our arms watching those who are not only sabotaging the progress of our march to democracy in our country, but who are also colluding with our Illegal authority to steal our oil in an unmeasurable quantity."

Seeing his own ruling clique starting to fracture, Abacha made his move. But instead of negotiating an end to the strike, he ordered the army to take control of all oil union offices, and those of the Labor Congress as well.

At 10 pm on the evening of August 19, Kokori walked into a trap set up through a friend, and was seized by the military. The same day, Agameni's car was stopped by six soldiers on Badagry Road in Lagos and he was arrested. PENGASSAN leaders Francis A. Addo and Fidelis Aidelomon went to a meeting with government representatives, where they were arrested as well. In the days that followed, workers were forced back to their jobs by a combination of military threats and economic deprivation.

The union leaders have been in prison ever since. They are moved constantly to keep their whereabouts a secret. Kokori was found earlier this year incarcerated in Abuja prison, a long distance from his home in Lagos. He was then moved to Bama prison in northern Nigeria, the regional support base of its military rulers. The generals took over control of the unions and occupied their offices. No charges have ever been formally made against the union leaders, and no trial held. In the wake of the execution of Saro-Wiwa and his associates, human rights activists are very concerned over their fate.

The repression of Nigeria's oil workers did not create a stable situation in the country. On the strike's anniversary last June, soldiers arrested dozens more political and human rights leaders, including Beko Ransome-Kuti, head of the Campaign for Democracy, fearing that they intended to mark the occasion with demonstrations. The military claimed it discovered a plot to unseat Abacha, and 23 officers were arrested, along with retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, the only military ruler in Nigeria's history to hand power over voluntarily to democratic civilian authorities. Obasanjo and the 23 officers were tried in secret for a coup attempt which many observers believe the military itself invented. Finally, Saro-Wiwa and eight associates were executed.

In the meantime, no word has come from Kokori or the other imprisoned union leaders. Their continued incarceration, and the military takeover of the unions, has sparked a brush fire of protest from oil unions in the U.S. and Europe. Last September, the national convention of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) called for Kokori's release and a return to democracy. Heeding an appeal from the International Chemical and Energy Workers Federation (ICEF). OCAW president Bob Wages sent letters to Abacha, assuring the regime that repercussions would follow the disappearance of the prisoners. The Africa Fund has circulated the appeal to other unions across the country.

On May 4, Randall Robinson, director of TransAfrica, and ten other labor and community leaders were arrested for blocking the gates of the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, D.C.. For a decade Robinson and others made their arrests at the South African Embassy a symbol of resistance to apartheid. The events at the Nigerian Embassy were consciously intended to remind Congress and the Clinton administration that a commitment to democracy in Africa should not stop at South Africa's borders.

Condemnations of human rights violations in Nigeria have also come from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch/Africa. Greenpeace has produced an hour-long video documenting the repression of the Ogoni people's movement.

A big question remains regarding the attitude of the Clinton administration. During the oil strike, President Clinton sent Rev. Jesse Jackson to Nigeria to try to find a solution to the conflict. But the intentions of the U.S. government were met with mistrust by democracy supporters, and Abacha was unwilling to make any concessions.

Military assistance to Nigeria has been halted because of human rights violations, and accusations that the military has been ineffective in stopping narcotics traffic. Supporters of democracy, however, have appealed for economic sanctions. They suggest freezing the assets of Nigerian generals and companies, and call for putting U.S. oil payments to Nigeria in escrow. Their list of targets highlights the Bank of America and Citibank, which are tied to Chevron and Mobil, respectively.

'The real question is," according to OCAW vice-president Calvin Moore, "whose interests determine U.S. policy-those of oil companies or those of the people of Nigeria?"


from The Black Scholar, Volume 26, Number 1

Boycotts page

Transnational Corporations & the Third World

Oil watch