One hundred days after a damning report on the Niger Delta, Amnesty International has released a review of the impact of their findings. Although the situation is showing some flimsy signs of improvement, Amnesty believes that we are far from a tangible solution. Oil companies, particularly Shell, are thought to be responsible for serious violations of human rights, alongside a brutal and corrupt partner, Nigeria.
“As I got out of the plane, I inhaled a breath of fresh air for the first time in my life….”. Journalists and humanitarian officers at the Amnesty International offices in Paris, who have made it their habit to complain about air pollution in the French capital, could not help but laugh at Celestine AkpoBari Nkabari’s statement. The Nigerian activist, last Friday, recounted the extent of pollution in the Niger Delta to a stunned audience.
The burning of gas flares and the uncountable oil spills in the region have accelerated an already intensely degraded environment, in a region where more than 60% of the population earn a living from their natural surroundings. The air is stifling. The situation is even the more tragic knowing that dwellers hardly ever benefit from the immense wealth generated at their expense. According to a report by the Economic and Financial Crimes commission (EFCC), quoted by Celestine AkpoBari, 26 years of national income has been “stolen from the population and siphoned into accounts abroad”.
In June this year, Amnesty released a damning report accusing both local and international partners of their role in the southern Nigeria “tragedy”, as a result of intensive exploitation of oil deposits in the delta. One hundred days after the report, reactions are still mediocre. Francis Perrin, a spokesman for Amnesty, however, sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
Black gold and political power
The debate has been intense in Nigeria, both in the media and within the political circles. Many of those elected into political offices had their campaigns funded by oil companies. Despite this fact, some political figures have dared to act differently. The National Commission on Human Rights in Nigeria intends to take a legal action against Western companies. The Interior ministry on the other hand sees any such action as an affront to their economic interests.
An important law entitled “Petroleum Industry Bill” is currently being debated in Parliament. This legislative initiative could, in theory, be an opportunity to end the countless abuses denounced by NGOs. But “despite our lobbying, and that of other organizations, this is not the case,” Francis Perrin regrets.
It is a difficult task to defend the rights of his Ogoni ethnic group. Celestine AkpoBari explains: “When an action is taken, even peaceful ones, oil companies pick up their phones and the army intervenes!” Celestine AkpoBari often refers to Ken Saro-Wiwa as his mentor. Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged in 1995 alongside eight others after a fast-track trial “because his commitment bothered the political power”. Celestine says he has often been hindered in his efforts by the military.
Oil exploitation begins with the signing of joint ventures; merging one or more Western companies with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). But although the state holds majority share, the balance of power is out of the government’s hands and in that of the established western companies, thus lying with other governments. According to Celestine AkpoBari, “Nigerian leaders are invited to expensive dinners in London and made to sign contracts which they do not understand”.
Shell stands accused
Amnesty has also made contacts with exploitative oil companies; foremost among them is the Anglo-Dutch firm Royal Dutch Shell. Symbolic actions are being undertaken to exert ample pressure, but for now they have had little success. According to Amnesty, Shell believes that 85% of the pollution is as a result of sabotage, which is “absolutely false, as we have demonstrated.” They have urged us to think about the future instead of brooding over an omnipresent past. But for the time being the so-called clean up is almost non-existent. Celestine AkpoBari laments: “Water, land and air are polluted, we are only left with poverty, hunger and disease!”
Governments of states where the headquarters of these companies are based have also been approached, but the magnitude of taxes dished out makes Western politicians tread with caution on the subject matter. Despite the economic pressure, the Dutch government, recently, decided to launch a survey on the impact of its five largest companies in terms of human rights, reported a representative of Amnesty, though the main Dutch company concerned is none other than Royal Dutch Shell itself …
In spring 2009, a New York trial was halted in its tracks by a settlement. Shell had pledged to payout 15.5 million dollars. The company had been accused of complicity with the Nigerian government in the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa. According to Celestine AkpoBari, this is another proof of their guilt.
In Francis Perrin’s opinion, it is crucial that the Nigerian case is resolved sooner than later as numerous oil deposits await to be exploited in the region in the near future: 2010 in Ghana, Uganda in 2011 … The Democratic Republic of Congo will most probably soon be concerned. Mid-September this year, oil was discovered offshore Sierra Leone. “It is vital to react so as not to export the Niger Delta tragedy,” he concludes.