Radio Netherlands: Shell & The Ogoni People?
By Eric Beauchemin,
28 December 2001
Sabotage or Negligence?
Thick black smoke is billowing from at least three oil fires the day I drive towards Ogoni from Port Harcourt, one of the main cities in Nigeria's oil producing region. One of the fires is visible from at least 10 kilometres away. I stop near the blaze with Bari ara Kpalap, a spokesperson for MOSOP – the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People – to speak to the community. The heat is intense, the stench of oil and smoke overpowering, and after a few minutes I have trouble breathing, my throat itches, and my eyes start to burn.
The people tell me that the trouble began in early July when there was an oil spillage on the high pressure pipeline carrying crude oil from fields outside Ogoni to one of the main export terminals at Bonny.
The community say they reported the incident to Shell, who visited the site but did not attempt to carry out a clean-up. Three months later, the spill caught fire, and it has been raging since then. While I am talking with the community members, a Shell Oil production began in the Niger Delta nearly half a century ago.
Local people have seen little benefit from the billions of dollars that have been pumped from their soil: most of the money has disappeared into the pockets of successive military dictatorships, while the region's land and water continues to be polluted by the oil production.
In the early 1990s, the Ogoni people - one of the smaller ethnic groups in Africa's most populous nation – launched a campaign against the Nigerian government and the Anglo-Dutch oil multinational, Shell, for more political autonomy, a greater share of the oil revenues produced by their region, and a clean-up of their environment.
The campaign was led by the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa who formed the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. In 1993, Shell was forced to suspend its operations in Ogoni. In 1995, Nigeria's military rulers executed Ken Sara-Wiwa and eight fellow Ogoni activists after what was generally regarded as a sham trial.
10 kilometres away lies the Yorla oil spill. The day after it occurred in late April, the local community reported the incident to Shell. Shortly afterwards, a fire broke out, and eventually Shell had to call in a Texas-based company that specialises in well control. It succeeded in extinguishing the blow-out, but thick, black oil still covers dozens of square metres. According to Bari ara Kpalap, "Shell has refused to come and clean up the area. Our people are predominantly farmers and we depend solely on the land for our livelihood. The people who live here cannot re-use this land until it has been properly cleaned."
A few days later, I go to Shell-Nigeria's headquarters in Lagos and meet with Basil Omiyi, the external affairs director. He bristles when I tell him about MOSOP's allegations. "The Yorla well site is not the only place in Ogoni that Shell has been asking MOSOP to grant us access to clean up spill sites and create some jobs in the locality. But MOSOP has not allowed us to do this in Ogoni. The reason is that they like to show these sites off to people like you as an example of Shell's environmental irresponsibility."
According to the Anglo-Dutch multinational, spills like the one in Yorla are the result of criminal activities by local youths who are trying to get environmental compensation from Shell. Independent observers say they've seen young people – both from Ogoni and from elsewhere in Nigeria – tampering with wellheads, but even Shell admits that some of the spills have been caused by lack of maintenance since its forced withdrawal from Ogoni in 1993.
A commission investigating the human rights abuses that occurred during nearly three decades of military rule is trying to bring about a reconciliation between MOSOP and Shell. But in the meantime, the environment and people in Ogoni continue to suffer the consequences of the spills and oil fires.
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