Nigeria and Oil

Author and Page information

  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

There is a symbiotic relationship between the military dictatorship and the multinational companies who grease the palms of those who rule….

They are assassins in foreign lands. They drill and they kill in Nigeria.

Assassins in Foreign Lands, A CorpWatch Radio Interview with Human Rights Activist Oronto Douglas

The Niger Delta in Nigeria has been the attention of environmentalists, human rights activists and fair trade advocates around the world. The trial and hanging of environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other members of the Ogoni ethnic minority made world-wide attention. So too did the non-violent protests of the Ogoni people. The activities of large oil corporations such as Mobil, Chevron, Shell, Elf, Agip etc have raised many concerns and criticisms.

A series of repressive and corrupt governments in Nigeria have been supported and maintained by western governments and oil corporations, keen on benefiting from the fossil fuels that can be exploited. As people and transnational oil corporations have been fighting over this dark nectar in the delta region, immense poverty and environmental destruction have resulted.

Map of Nigeria

The Ogoni, Ijaw and other people in the Niger Delta, those who have been worse affected for decades have been trying to stand up for themselves, their environment and their basic human and economic rights.

The Nigerian government and the oil companies have responded by harshly cracking down on protestors.

Shell, for example, has even been criticized for trying to divide communities by paying off some members to disrupt non-violent protests.

According to Human Rights Watch, multinational oil companies are complicit in abuses committed by the Nigerian military and police.

An investigation and report by Essential Action and Global Exchange found that:

  1. Oil corporations in the Niger Delta seriously threaten the livelihood of neighboring local communities. Due to the many forms of oil-generated environmental pollution evident throughout the region, farming and fishing have become impossible or extremely difficult in oil-affected areas, and even drinking water has become scarce. Malnourishment and disease appear common.
  2. The presence of multinational oil companies has had additional adverse effects on the local economy and society, including loss of property, price inflation, prostitution, and irresponsible fathering by expatriate oil workers.
  3. Organized protest and activism by affected communities regularly meet with military repression, sometimes ending in the loss of life. In some cases military forces have been summoned and assisted by oil companies.
  4. Reporting on the situation is extremely difficult, due to the existence of physical and legal constraints to free passage and free circulation of information. Similar constraints discourage grassroots activism.

While the story told to consumers of Nigerian crude in the United States and the European Union—via ad campaigns and other public relations efforts—is that oil companies are a positive force in Nigeria, providing much needed economic development resources, the reality that confronted our delegation was quite the opposite. Our delegates observed almost every large multinational oil company operating in the Niger Delta employing inadequate environmental standards, public health standards, human rights standards, and relations with affected communities. These corporations' acts of charity and development are slaps in the face of those they claim to be helping. Far from being a positive force, these oil companies act as a destabilizing force, pitting one community against another, and acting as a catalyst—together with the military with whom they work closely—to some of the violence racking the region today.

Oil For Nothing: Multinational Corporations, Environmental Destruction, Death and Impunity in the Niger Delta, Essential Action and Global Exchange, January 25, 2000

There have been many clear examples of corporate influence in the Nigerian military repressing the protestors. The military have been accused of thousands of killings, house/village burnings, intimidating people, torture and so on. From Shell’s involvement in the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa to Chevron-marked helicopters carrying Nigerian military that opened fire upon protestors, the corporations are facing harsh criticisms for the way they have been handling (or encouraging) the situation.

Criticisms abound about the way the oil companies have neglected the surrounding environment and health of the local communities. The Niger Delta is the richest area of biodiversity in Nigeria, but regular oil spills that are not cleaned up, blatant dumping of industrial waste and promises of development projects which are not followed through, have all added to the increasing environmental and health problems.

The latest government has tried to be more democratic and open, which provides hope. However, there are still a number of problems to be solved, including corruption and religious tensions between Muslims and Christians. There were riots and killings, for example, at Muslim calls for imposition of Sharia, Islamic criminal law.

Most of the above was written in 2000. Well, into 2004, things have generally not improved. For example, the International Herald Tribune reports on a study titled Peace and Security in the Niger Delta where amongst other things, the following was noted:

  • Shell companies have worsened fighting in the Niger Delta through payments for land use, environmental damage, corruption of company employees and reliance on Nigerian security forces.
  • The action of Shell companies and their staff creates, feeds into, or exacerbates conflict.
  • Voilence in the Niger Delta kills some 1000 people each year, on par with conflicts in Chechnya and Colombia
  • With over 50 years of presence in Nigeria, it is reasonable to say that the Shell companies in Nigeria have become an integral part of the Niger Delta conflict.

In response to this, Shell had said that they remained committed to corporate social responsibility, whereas the report was saying that they had not acted that way! Furthermore Shell made a weak concession and recognized that their development activities in the past may have been less than perfect. Compare this to the accusation from the report of being part of the conflict for so long and even making things worse, this admission can be regarded as very weak. To the credit of Shell, this December 2003 report was actually commissioned by them. Usually if people are found to be complicit in acts of crime etc, then some sort of criminal justice is expected. One doesn’t expect Shell to have a criminal case of any sort brought against them. The Tribune article didn’t even raise this as an issue.

Conditions throughout the past few years has not been much better according to Human Rights Watch’s 2010 report. They note although free speech and independent media remain robust and there have been some anti-corruption efforts. However, this is overshadowed by religious and inter-communal violence that has seen Muslims and Christians killing each other and by Nigeria’s political leaders’ near-total impunity for massive corruption and sponsoring political violence.

Human Rights Watch also summarizes the conditions and situation in the Niger Delta:

An amnesty for armed militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta led several thousand men, including top militant commanders, to surrender weapons to the government. Since the latest escalation of violence began in early 2006, hundreds of people have been killed in clashes between rival armed groups vying for illicit patronage doled out by corrupt politicians, or between militants and government security forces. Armed gangs have carried out numerous attacks on oil facilities and kidnapped more than 500 oil workers and ordinary Nigerians for ransom during this period. The amnesty offer, announced in June 2009, followed a major military offensive in May against militants in the creeks of Delta State, which left scores dead and thousands of residents displaced.

The government’s blanket amnesty, cash payouts to armed militants, and a proposal to give oil-producing communities a 10 percent stake in government oil ventures bought some respite from militant attacks, but further entrenched impunity and failed to address the government corruption, political sponsorship of violence, and environmental degradation that underlie the violence and discontent in the Niger Delta. A similar amnesty granted to rival armed groups in 2004 failed to end the Niger Delta violence.

Nigeria, World Report 2010, Human Rights Watch

In mid-2010, the US had its own oil scandal; the massive offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It has received a lot of media attention because of the enormous environmental and economic damage caused in the region. Although not as big, there have been oil spills in Nigeria too, and as this short news report notes, it has been a long and hard struggle for affected locals to get any notice:

Fight continues for Nigeria oil spill victims, Al Jazeera, June 8, 2010

For more information, the following are good places to start:

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created:
  • Last updated:

Back to top

Document revision history

Small update on the condition in Nigeria and the Niger Delta
Shell companies have worsened fighting in the Niger Delta according to a recent report. An update added regarding this. (Remainder of document remains largely untouched since July 2000.)