Shell in Nigeria – a living hell

FRFI 216 August/September 2010

Anglo-Dutch company Royal Dutch Shell has operated in Nigeria since 1956 and has the largest foreign interest in Nigerian oil. The oil, drilled on land, in swamps and out at sea, is serviced by a network of mostly 40-year-old pipes that criss-cross the land and have made the lives of the people in the Niger Delta, where the industry is concentrated, a living hell. In the last 50 years an estimated 1.5m tonnes of oil have been spilled, the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez disaster every year. There are currently 2,000 official major spill sites, plus thousands of smaller ones waiting to be cleared up. In 2009, Shell admitted spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil, but blamed the victims, saying 98% of all its oil spills are caused by vandalism, theft or sabotage by militants. Local communities and environmental groups blame the rusting pipelines and storage tanks, semi-derelict pumping stations and old wellheads.

Shell operates in over 100 countries, but 40% of its oil spills occur in Nigeria. In addition, the practice of gas flaring is widespread in the Niger Delta. Only Russia flares more gas. Gas flaring produces thick plumes of smoke, releasing over 250 toxins including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, dioxin, benzene and methane. Nigeria accounts for 23 billion cubic metres of gas flared annually, equivalent to 30% of EU gas consumption, more than enough to meet the energy needs of Nigeria and the neighbouring countries. Gas flaring in Nigeria contributes more greenhouse gases than the rest of sub-Sahara Africa combined. As well as contributing to global warming, it produces acid rain that pollutes rivers and ponds, and damages vegetation. It also damages human health, causing respiratory illnesses, asthma, blood disorders, cancer and chronic bronchitis. For the 31 million people who live in the Niger Delta region, life expectancy has fallen to around 40 years. Deadlines for phasing out gas flaring have been ignored by the oil companies, despite a Federal High Court of Nigeria ruling in 2005 ordering that gas flaring be stopped because it violates fundamental rights to life and dignity. For a company like Shell that collaborated with the South African apartheid regime, the right to life and dignity means nothing; they would rather pay the insignificant fines than invest in the infrastructure needed to stop gas flaring.

And so in 1990 the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) began organising for political, economic and environmental justice. 300,000 people marched against Shell in 1993, where writer and MOSOP leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa stated ‘The march is against the devastation of the environment. It is against the non-payment of royalties. It is anti-Shell. It is anti-Federal Government, because as far as we are concerned the two are in league to destroy the Ogoni people’. Shell and the Nigerian government unleashed a murderous onslaught against the peaceful protesters. Soldiers and the Mobile Police Force (known as ‘Kill and Go’) were sent to the area, where they used Shell’s helicopters, speed boats and buses, and were paid ‘field allowances’ by Shell. This repression resulted in 2,000 Ogoni dead, 30,000 made homeless, and countless others tortured and raped.

In 1995 Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP leaders were framed and murdered by the Nigerian state, with Shell and the British High Commission colluding with the dictator General Sani Abacha. Shell was involved in bribing two witnesses, and told Saro-Wiwa’s brother in a secret meeting that they could help get him freed if they stopped the protest campaign abroad. Last year, after 13 years and numerous attempts by Shell to have the case thrown out, the lawsuit Wiwa v Shell was due to be heard in a New York court. Shell quickly reached a $15.5 million settlement to end the lawsuit. Shell reported earnings of $4.8 billion for the first quarter of 2010.*

Repression continues in the Niger Delta region to this day. Armed resistance by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta resulted in a 28% drop in oil production between 2006 and 2009, after which a ceasefire was agreed, only to be abandoned after three months because the Nigerian government refused to consider demands for local control of resources and land.

David Hetfield

* For more details of the evidence see and


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