Deeper than the pipelines – Oil exploitation in the Niger Delta and the legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa

Written for the Free Word Centre- 30/05/2015

The average life expectancy in Nigeria is less than 50 years

– United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2011

“It is genocide. I accuse the oil companies of practising racism because they do in Ogoni what they do not do in other parts of the world.”
– Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1993

The story of oil exploitation in the Niger Delta is one of severe injustice.

Before oil was first discovered in commercial quantities by Shell in 1956, the Niger Delta, home to approximately 31 million people and over 40 ethnic groups, was sustained by a system of rich agriculture and natural resource. Inhabitants also benefited from one of the largest and most important wetlands and marine ecosystems in the world, with an estimated 75% of the Niger Delta population relying on the environment for farming and fishing as a means of sustaining their livelihoods.

It is crucial to remember that though oil production began in 1956, imperialist structures, stemming from the beginning of the twentieth century, facilitated this process. In 1937, under the rule of the British Empire, Shell was given exploration rights to the whole of Nigeria. Therefore, though the discovery of oil was thought to increase the wealth of Nigeria, in a global market desperate for crude oil, the move to oil production wasn’t based on the needs of the indigenous communities of the Niger Delta, but rather part of the expansion of British imperialist powers, which have continued to the current day.

 To date, over $600 billion has been generated from Nigerian oil exports since 1960 and yet the majority of people from the Niger Delta have been left impoverished. The infrastructure implemented for oil production was prioritised over the region’s agricultural dependence, with pipelines built in front of homes and across farmlands. As the pipelines have aged and have been poorly maintained, the area has suffered from constant oil spills, leading to farmlands and forests covered in oil, severely reducing the capacity for growth of crops.

In Ogoniland, an area in the south of the Niger Delta, there were an estimated 2,976 oil spills between 1976 and 1991. Despite the vast quantities of oil being produced in the area, Ogoni villages have no clean water, little health care provision and have received no form of reparation, leaving locals with neither the revenue from oil production, nor the agricultural resource afforded to them previously.

The heavy pollution of water sources has led to a loss of the biodiversity that the Niger Delta was so renowned for, as well as contaminating water used for cooking and bathing, with drinking water containing carcinogens up to 900 times above World Health Organization standards.

Also, contrary to Nigerian law, Shell burns off excess natural gas, a by-product of oil drilling, which creates walls of flames so large that some can be seen from space. Some of these flares have burned non-stop for over 40 years, leaving locals to contend with the constant heat and light from the flames, which among other ailments, can cause sleep deprivation and insomnia.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to catastrophic detrimental health affects for the people of Niger Delta. With an average age expectancy of under 50, people are significantly more prone to suffer from respiratory problems, gastro-intestinal disorders, malnutrition as well as various forms of cancer.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ogoni protest

The Ogoni community have historically led fierce opposition against the resource exploitation undertaken by Shell. A well-known figure who was pivotal in peaceful protests against Shell was writer, satirist and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. In 1990, as president of The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), he was central to the creation of the Ogoni Bill of Rights which called for the self-determination of the Ogoni people and which shone a light on imperialist structures at force. The Bill also paved the way for other indigenous communities worldwide to produce similar manifestos.

Moreover, MOSOP, led by Ken, mobilised 300,000 people to protest against the actions of Shell, calling for environmental justice and reparations for the damage done to Ogoniland. This was the biggest protest of its kind against an oil company, forcing Shell to stop oil extraction in Ogoniland in 1993. However, in response, Shell allegedly colluded heavily with the Nigerian military government, who consequently accused Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists – Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine – of murder, conducting a bogus trial for their condemnation. They were executed in 1995. After a lengthy legal battle lasting 14 years, Shell finally paid $15.5 million in compensation to the families of the Ogoni activists killed.

Legacies of Saro-Wiwa

The legacies of Saro-Wiwa and the eight Ogoni activists (otherwise known as the Ogoni nine) leave a heavy but hopeful burden. Whilst their execution was and still continues to be a devastating and terrifying loss, they pay testament to the strength of community leadership and activism. The protests of the Ogoni people prevented Shell from returning to area and have provided inspiration to communities around the world who continue to resist multinational companies. Moreover, protests do continue and organisations such as Social Action, the People’s Advancement Centre, and Environmental Rights Action continue to campaign with and for Nigerians affected by multinational oil exploitation, striving to keep the issue on the international agenda.

However the challenges persist and evolve; the execution of the Ogoni nine showed the extent to which the military are involved in Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta and research has shown how Shell regularly colludes with armed militants, offering financial incentive to violently suppress opposition to the oil operation.

Though there has been no oil production in Ogoniland for over 20 years, oil spills still occur regularly. Though the chief executive of Shell, Ben van Beurden, has recently paid lip service to cleaning up the region, the company continues to show no real commitment to doing so, ignoring the report from UNEP in 2011 which confirms that the Niger Delta has been extensively damaged by Shell’s actions.

Moreover, the reputational damage incurred from the execution of the Ogoni nine means that Shell has adopted the language of sustainability, referring to ‘alternative’ and ‘clean’ sources of energy, under the guise of corporate social responsibility. This serves to soften their image and cultivate a veneer of respectability. In considering the challenges of oil production in the Niger Delta, Shell’s focus on the crude oil theft in the region, without considering the root causes, is again an attempt to stretch the narrative beyond their own corruption. This is further compounded by their association and sponsorship of cultural and educational institutions which, again, serves to soften their image and encourage us to disassociate them from their actions in Nigeria.

Whilst considering the challenges that continue to plight the lives of people in the Niger Delta, it’s crucial to contextualise the situation within the neocolonial structures at force. How has Shell been able to continue these actions for the past 50 years with the complete disregard of the Nigerian people? With more oil spilled in the Niger Delta each year than that of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, whose lives continue to be more important than others and why? How would we react if a similar situation were happening in Norway, for example, or Scotland?

The people of the Niger Delta are living in a state of paralysis. Being denied the benefits of their own land and means of livelihood is keeping them, as Saro-Wiwa described, in a state of slavery. What was so powerful about the protests of MOSOP and the Ogoni nine was that they called for more than an end to oil exploitation, but for the real autotomy of Nigerians – they called for Nigerians to be seen and heard. And this remains the biggest threat to the current neocolonialist structure, which remains rooted in the archaic notion that the people of Africa cannot and should not be in control of their own land. It is this fear; of the loss of neocolonial powers and the notion of meaningful autonomy for the people of Niger Delta, benefiting from their own resources, that runs deeper than the pipelines