Niger delta: Indigenous people fight Western oil companies

By Shua Garfield

Seventy million cubic metres — equivalent to at least one quarter of the UK’s natural gas consumption — is burnt every day in gas flaring in the oil wells of the Niger River delta. Gas flaring in Nigeria accounts for roughly half of sub-Saharan Africa’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions. The gas flares burn 24 hours a day, sometimes for years, releasing sulphur and nitrogen dioxides, benzene, xylene and dioxins. For the 30 million inhabitants of the delta, this means skin and respiratory ailments, low birth weight and deformed babies and the death of plants and wildlife. Particles from the flares cover everything nearby with a fine layer of soot. The rain that falls almost every day is highly acidic.

If it were not flared, the gas would be worth US$2.5 billion per year, according to Friends of the Earth. But for Shell, Chevron, Agip, Total and other Western oil companies operating in the delta, it is cheaper to burn it off than to invest in the infrastructure to capture and sell it or re-inject it back into the wells. These companies’ main game — oil — is perhaps even more destructive. According to a May 23 article by Patrick Bond and Khadija Sharife published on the zmag web site, “[I]t is estimated that 1.5 million tonnes of oil have spilled since drilling began 51 years ago, the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill each year, costing more than $5 billion in annual environmental damage”. Occasional explosions of poorly maintained pipelines also cause carnage in this densely populated area. In two of the worst examples, at least 1000 people died in an explosion in the town of Jesse in October 1998, while at least 250 were killed in the village of Adeje on July 10, 2000.

In the newly released documentary Sweet Crude, film-maker Sandy Cioffi states: “On my first visit, the students taught me that the rain that falls every afternoon in the delta is toxic enough to destroy a metal roof or fishing net … They explained that the shorelines covered in toxic sludge had once been white sand beaches and that people in the delta used to live well into their sixties. After fifty years of oil production, life expectancy has dropped to forty.”

Shell settlement

By far the biggest corporate criminal in the Niger delta is Shell. Since it discovered oil there in 1956, Shell has been responsible for 2900 spills. As of 2007, it was responsible for at least 20% of the gas-flaring. And when local people have fought to stop the destruction of their environment and to receive a greater share of the wealth produced from their land, Shell has relied on the Nigerian military to terrorise them.

In a rare blow to the world’s second largest company, Shell was forced to agree, on June 9, to an out of court settlement of three lawsuits brought against it and the former head of its Nigerian operations for its role in the killing and maiming of environmental activists in the mid-1990s. Shell will pay 10 plaintiffs a total of $15.5 million. The plaintiffs included relatives of nine activists from the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), including MOSOP’s then president, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who were hanged by the Nigerian military government on November 10, 1995. Other plaintiffs included Michael Vizor, who was tried along with Saro-Wiwa and released, but who remains disabled from the torture he suffered while incarcerated, a woman who lost her arm while protesting the ploughing of her crops by a Shell contractor and relatives of Uebari N-nah, who was shot dead by a military officer who had been brought to his village in a Shell bus.

In financial terms, the settlement is merely a slap on the wrist for Shell — less than 0.06% of its $26.3 billion profit in 2008. But it’s not every day that such a powerful company is forced to settle with its victims. For Shell, settling the case before it went to trial meant avoiding exposure in court of its relationship with human rights abusers in the Nigerian military and courts.

Ogoni struggle

Niger delta people have been protesting the oil industry since 1970. However, this struggle gained international prominence only with the emergence of MOSOP in 1990. MOSOP was based among the 500,000 Ogoni people, who live in a small, densely populated area of Nigeria’s Rivers state. Roughly half of the gas flaring in Nigeria occurs in Rivers. On January 4, 1993, MOSOP mobilised 300,000 people to shut down all of Shell’s installations in Ogoniland. They demanded that the government account for the $30 billion of oil extracted from Ogoniland since 1958 and accord the Ogoni people political and economic autonomy. The government established a special military task force to repress MOSOP’s largely peaceful campaign.

Evidence prepared for the lawsuits reveals collusion between Shell and the Nigerian government and military. For example, an internal Shell memo revealed that, after the incident in which N-Nah was killed, Shell arranged to entertain “26 armed forces personnel for lunch at the restaurant of their choice” to reward them. The memo also “recommend[ed] that the entire team [of soldiers] be paid some form of honorarium as a show of gratitude and motivation for a sustained favourable disposition towards [Shell] in future assignments”.

Other internal memos reveal that Shell requested military support despite its public position that it would not operate under military protection. According to depositions by former Nigerian soldiers, soldiers were paid and fed by Shell and transported in Shell-owned helicopters. In 1996, Shell was forced to admit that it imported weapons for Nigerian police protecting its installations in Ogoniland.

Despite the repression, Ogoni resistance continued. An April 21, 1994, memo from Major Paul Okuntimo, the chair of Rivers internal security, detailed: “Shell operations [are] still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken”. The memo recommended “wasting operations during MOSOP and other gatherings” to target “leadership cadres [and] especially vocal individuals”.

The memo also mentioned division within the Ogoni leadership, implying that this could be used to the military’s advantage. On May 21, 1994, four Ogoni chiefs who had sided with a conservative wing opposed to Saro-Wiwa’s strategy were murdered. Although Saro-Wiwa had been denied entry to Ogoniland by the military government on the day, he was arrested along with several other MOSOP activists and charged with the murders. Under the pretext of searching for the murderers, Okuntimo’s forces began their “wasting operations”: looting and burning homes, raping women and detaining, torturing and murdering suspected MOSOP supporters. Eventually, 102 Ogoni villages were attacked, resulting in an estimated 2000 dead and 30,000 homeless.

Shell’s collusion with the military government continued during the trial of the MOSOP activists. Two witnesses who testified that Saro-Wiwa was involved in the murders later signed affidavits saying they had been bribed by the government and Shell. According to the June 9 edition of Democracy Now, Owens Wiwa, Saro-Wiwa’s brother, alleges that Brian Anderson, the head of Shell in Nigeria at the time, told him: “We can free Ken Saro-Wiwa … if you will guarantee to stop the … international campaign against Shell”.

Struggle continues

The struggle against the oil companies’ pillage of the delta did not end with the execution of the nine MOSOP leaders. Nor did the end of military rule in 1999 resolve the problems. Beginning in May 1998, youth from the Ijaw people of Bayelsa state, angered by the destruction of drinking water supplies, rose up to demand that oil operations cease and that the military leave Ijawland. They raided oil platforms and pumping stations, expelling company staff and turning off gas flares and oil pumps. By October of that year, more than 20 installations, mainly owned by Shell and Chevron, had been shut down, reducing Nigeria’s oil output by 33%.

Like the Ogoni, the Ijaw were met with brute force. On December 30 of that year dozens of protesters were massacred in the capital of Bayelsa. In another incident on January 4, 1999, a delegation of villagers in Delta state visited a Chevron-owned oil rig to request facilities for the community. Soon afterwards, soldiers arrived in the village in a Chevron helicopter and murdered several people. This repression culminated in a November 20, 1999 massacre in which the military destroyed all but three buildings in the Ijaw town of Odi and indiscriminately murdered more than 100 people.

Because of the military’s response, since 2003 the struggle against oil companies has become increasingly militarised. The oil companies have contributed to this by flooding the region with weapons for militias. Cioffi told the May 21 edition of Democracy Now, “[I]n an area where you have the amount of money and the amount of corruption that you do … you actually have had companies that have armed young groups against each other in their interests in keeping control over the Niger Delta”. But some of the weapons have ended up in the hands of groups that oppose the oil companies.


One armed group, which appeared in 2006, is the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). MEND leader Tompolo explains in Sweet Crude: “It is not part of our philosophy to use guns and weapons. But ... Shell and Chevron, with the collaboration of the federal government, have given the struggle arms ... Anytime we rise up to make demands, they send the Nigerian military to suppress us, to kill our people. And, of course, you will agree with me, you cannot sit down and fold your hands and watch your people be killed and destroyed.”

MEND’s tactics, which include attacks on the military, bombing of oil pipelines, raids on oil platforms and abduction of foreign oil workers, have reduced oil production. Chevron was forced to shut down some of its operations in 2007. On June 20, 2008, MEND reduced Nigeria’s oil production by 10% in a single blow by raiding and shutting down Shell’s Bonga platform, 120km offshore.

These tactics have brought renewed violence from the military, which launched a major offensive in the delta on May 13, after MEND destroyed nine gunboats and captured three others. Journalists and human rights groups were banned from the area while the military engaged in what MEND described as “indiscriminate aerial bombardment on the defenceless civilians ... Casualties are mostly women, children and the elderly who could not get away quickly into the bush or high sea.” Denzil Kentebe, chair of the Lagos chapter of the Ijaw National Congress, told the May 21 Democracy Now that in the first week of the assault, almost 500 people were killed. “Thousands … of people are living in the forest, as we speak. Without access to any kind of food, water, clothing, they’re living in the big forest … children inclusive.” At least four villages were burned to the ground in May.

Despite this, MEND and other armed groups have continued attacks that have crippled the oil industry. Chevron’s exports were cut by 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) after a May 26 attack on a trunk line. MEND claims to have attacked Shell and Agip pipelines in June. Shell’s exports have dropped from 360,000 bpd in 2008 to fewer than 200,000 currently. On June 16, Shell announced a force majeure on exports from its Forcardos facility until the end of July; this is a legal clause that allows companies to miss export obligations due to circumstances beyond their control.

Attacks have cut Nigeria’s oil exports by over 20% since 2006, according to a June 17 article on According to the June 14 Observer, oil production in the delta is currently 1.6 million bpd, only half of capacity. Nigeria’s exports are down to 1.23 million bpd, according to a June 23 Thisday article, well below Nigeria’s OPEC quota of 1.67 million bpd. Under this pressure, the government has openly blamed the oil companies’ environmental vandalism for the crisis and offered amnesty to militants who cease armed struggle. But, as of June 23, military operations in the delta continue.


The situation in Nigeria is a product of colonialism and imperialism. In Sweet Crude, Cioffi explains: “Oil was discovered in the Niger delta in the last days of British colonial rule in the late 1950s. When the British left, their colonial power structure remained. That was the same moment that the oil companies were coming in to set up their own system. They began funneling billions of dollars into a succession of military governments in exchange for the promise of extracting oil in an unregulated environment.”

Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara described this form of economic “development” in a 1961 article: “We are countries whose economies have been twisted by imperialism, which has abnormally developed in us those branches of industry … needed to complement its complex economy. ‘Underdevelopment,’ or distorted development, brings dangerous specialization in raw materials, inherent in which is the threat of hunger for all our peoples. We, the underdeveloped, are also those with monoculture, with the single product, with the single market. A single product whose uncertain sale depends on a single market that imposes and fixes conditions, that is the great formula for imperialist economic domination.”

Gas flaring is an example of the underdevelopment of industries not directly related to the imperialists’ needs. As of 2007, 70% of Nigeria’s oil fields still flared gas despite it being illegal. The Nigerian Civil Society Platform Against Gas Flaring explained in a memorandum to the Nigerian House of Representatives: “If the Government were to invest in a way to capture, use and sell this natural gas, it would … provide cheap power to the people of the Nation. However, since the government thinks they will lose the revenue from the flaring fines they charge, they are not willing to make the long-term investment.” Meanwhile, as Friends of the Earth point out, “communities living around the gas flares … rely on wood for fuel and candles for light”.

Oil exports provide 20% of Nigeria’s GDP, 90% of its foreign exchange earnings and 65% of government revenue. Almost half of Nigeria’s oil is exported to the US. Oil revenues have totalled over $700 billion since the late 1950s. But just 1% of the population receives 80% of the oil revenues. An estimated $100 billion is held offshore by corrupt officials. In an interview with Pacifica station WBAI in New York a month before his arrest, Saro-Wiwa explained: “Each time [Shell] come under pressure from local people, their wont has always been to run to the Nigerian government and to say … ‘Oil is 90 percent of your foreign exchange earning. If anything happens to oil, your economy will be destroyed. Therefore, you must go and deal with these people, these troublemakers.’ And most times, the government will oblige them and visits local communities of poor, dispossessed people with a lot of violence.”

Nigeria’s average life expectancy — 47 years — ranks 171st out of 191 UN member states. Its child mortality rates are the 13th worst in the world. Nearly half the population lacks access to potable water, and 32% are illiterate. These statistics are even worse in many parts of the delta, where 80% of Nigeria’s oil is produced. In Sweet Crude, Mason Hawkins, a contractor for Shell who was kidnapped and held for two weeks by militants in April 2006, relates that his captors “wanted us to … look at these little villages. They all had dirt floors. And there was [sic] no schools. It was a pitiful life to live. I didn’t like being a captive. But then, looking back on it, I think those people did what they thought they had to do to try to get … something out of all of that billions of dollars. And I can’t … hold it against them. They want their fair share … And it’s not unreasonable.”

An end to underdevelopment and imperialist distortion of Third World economies will require an end to capitalism in the imperialist countries. But in the mean time, Third World nations can still make significant gains if their governments genuinely represent the interests of workers, farmers and the poor. As in Nigeria, Venezuela’s massive oil wealth used to benefit only an elite minority. But in Venezuela, since the revolutionary reinstatement of the Chavez government in April 2002, this wealth has been used to fund programs that have abolished illiteracy, extended free education and health care to the poor, begun to repair the natural environment and reduced extreme poverty rates from 42% in 1998 to 9.5% in 2008.