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Corporate irresponsibility in the Niger Delta

27 February 2012

Natasha Horsfield, MRG’s Research/Publications Intern, sees the case brought against oil giant Shell by Nigeria’s Ogoni people as a reflection of wider corporate abuse of minority and indigenous rights around the globe.

On 28th February 2012, the US Supreme Court will rehear a landmark case brought against Royal Dutch Shell by 12 members of the Ogoni minority community of the Niger Delta, in which the Ogoni allege that Shell was complicit in serious human rights abuses committed against them by the Nigerian military regime in the early 1990’s.

This case will determine whether corporations can be sued and held legally accountable for their complicity in human rights abuses, and if successful, will have important implications for the future of corporate accountability in the field of human rights.

The Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. case runs in companion to another case brought against the company by the Ogoni community in the name of prominent Ogoni activist and founder of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Ken Saro-Wiwa, and his 8 companions, for Shell’s alleged complicity in their extrajudicial murders in 1995 by the same regime. Shell, whilst denying any complicity, settled the case in 2009 with a ‘humanitarian gesture’ of US$ 15.5 million. Shell has also been named in several other law suits relating to the impact of the company’s extractive activities on the rights of minority and indigenous communities, including the Tar Sands project in Canada, termed a ‘slow industrial genocide’ by the first nation communities affected.

Site of the first oil well in the Niger Delta, drilled by Shell in 1956. Credit: Rhys Thom.

The Ogoni people are no stranger to run-ins with this oil giant. In addition to the company’s connection to the abuses suffered by the Ogoni at the hands of the former military regime, the ongoing pollution in Ogoniland caused by Shell’s oil extraction activities have had disastrous impacts on the environment and health of the Ogoni for decades.

In August 2011, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report on the effects of oil pollution in Ogoniland in the Niger Delta, home to the Ogoni people. The report concluded that Shell had consistently failed to clean up oil pollution effectively in the area, severely affecting the health and livelihoods of the Ogoni people. At the same time last year, Shell admitted liability in a court case for two major oil spills which occurred near the Delta town of Bodo, Ogoniland in 2008, and which have since destroyed the livelihoods of many locals. UNEP also reported that the scale of pollution in Ogoniland is so extensive that it will take at least a quarter of a century to reverse its effects, and consequently recommended the creation by the Nigerian government of an Environmental Restoration Fund of US$ 1 Billion to begin the clean up process.

Oil pollution in the Niger Delta has destroyed the livelihoods of minority groups across the oil-rich region. Credit: Sosialistisk Ungdom – SU

The Ogoni people have been opposed to the devastation which the oil industry has brought to their land and livelihoods for decades, and in 1993 Shell was expelled from Ogoniland following protests by Ogoni communities over the disastrous impact which oil extraction had on their land. Although Shell has not directly extracted oil from Ogoniland since the expulsion, its infrastructure remains and continues to be used to transport oil across Ogoniland, resulting in the continued suffering for the Ogoni people.

The level of oil pollution in Ogoniland and the resulting rights violations inflicted on the Ogoni people is also synonymous with the situation faced by the various minority groups across the oil-rich Niger Delta. In an area where over 60 per cent of the population relies on the environment for its livelihood, oil pollution has continued to destroy the means of survival of individuals and minority communities for many years.

However, despite Shell’s acceptance of liability and the findings of the UNEP report, the people of Bodo and wider Ogoniland are still awaiting the clean-up of oil pollution, or indeed the funding necessary for it to begin. Although the Nigerian government should not escape blame for its failure to regulate Shell’s activities in the area and protect the rights of the Ogoni people, Shell must bear a large portion of responsibility for its failure to prevent and respond satisfactorily to oil pollution, and is thus facing demands spearheaded by Amnesty International that it pay the full US$ 1 Billion needed to establish the clean-up fund.

The suffering the Ogoni people have experienced as a result of Shell’s interests and activities in their oil-rich land highlights the battle which many minority communities and indigenous people are currently facing with extractive industries around the world. As MRG’s 2012 annual report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples will report later this year, minorities and indigenous peoples on every continent are having their rights violated or their way of life destroyed at the hands of rapacious companies, often working in cahoots with the state. In many instances, both seek to profit from natural resource extraction but all too often escape accountability for their activities, which damage the lives of some of the most marginalised communities. In recognition of this, the theme of MRG’s 2012 publication will be natural resources with a focus on the role of extractive industries in human rights abuses.

It waits to be seen if Shell will answer international calls to fund the cleanup of the damage it has caused in Ogoniland and if the company is held accountable for the violations it has inflicted on the Ogoni people. If this is the case, then the implications this could have on corporate responsibility to respect the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples around the world who are adversely affected by extractive industries will be ever more pertinent.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.