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Shell to Start Talks With Nigeria, Ogoni Activists

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Shell to Start Talks With Nigeria, Ogoni Activists



May 31, 2005; Page A7


LONDON — Royal Dutch/Shell Group will start reconciliation talks with the Nigerian government and representatives from Ogoniland that could lead to its return to Nigeria’s oil-rich region and could help resolve one of the worst chapters of Shell’s history in that nation.


Shell left the region in 1993, following violent protests there. The ensuing government crackdown led to the execution of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.


In statements to be issued today, Shell, the Nigerian government and the Ogoni activist group founded by Mr. Saro-Wiwa known as Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, or Mosop, will commit themselves to talks organized by the International Center for Reconciliation, based at Coventry Cathedral in the United Kingdom. The Rev. Matthew Hassan Kukah, a Nigerian Roman Catholic priest, will oversee the process.


Apart from helping Shell’s business, the talks, if successful, would be a public-relations coup for the oil company. Shell has been accused of human-rights abuses and faces lawsuits in connection with Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s death. Anti-Shell sentiment in Nigeria has cast doubts on the company’s long-term ability to do business in the country, which accounts for 16% of Shell’s global oil production of 2.2 million barrels a day and about 4% of its total natural-gas production.


Shell used to pump 30,000 barrels a day in Ogoniland before it pulled out in 1993 under pressure from Ogoni activists after protests turned violent. This is the first time the federal government has backed such talks, and they could lead to production being resumed, though all sides are playing down that sensitive topic.


Shell still pumps the largest amount of oil of any company in the country from fields in other parts of southern Nigeria. Still, by pulling out of Ogoniland, Shell not only lost access to the region’s oil but also has difficulty maintaining and repairing the main trunk pipelines that pass through Ogoniland, carrying as much as 250,000 barrels a day of crude oil from Shell’s inland oil fields. The company says its priority is to clean up vandalized and aging wells that have leaked oil into the swamps for more than a decade.


There also is a chance the Nigerian government could revoke Shell’s license in Ogoniland as part of a wider program to reclaim unproductive oil licenses and give them to other operators, a Nigerian oil official said.


“We will continue to do everything we can to ensure that this process reaches a successful conclusion to the benefit of all stakeholders,” said Basil Omiyi, managing director of Shell’s joint venture with the Nigerian government, Shell Petroleum Development Co.


Shell’s return could herald a much-needed victory for the Nigerian government’s efforts to bring stability to a region where ethnic violence, gangs of oil thieves and political rivalries threaten the source of about 3% of the world’s oil supplies. Activists hope the talks could inspire greater conviction in nonviolent solutions to the myriad of other conflicts in the region.


Success is far from guaranteed. Divisions among the Ogoni people and deep distrust on all sides will cause problems, as will unrest in politically linked gangs fighting for power ahead of the 2007 presidential elections. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo called for reconciliation talks between the Ogoni people and Shell in December.


“This is the fourth attempt to talk…you can see where I’m coming from if I sound pessimistic. We have said it repeatedly, we are open to dialogue,” said Ledum Mitee, president of Mosop and onetime cellmate of Mr. Saro-Wiwa.


The sides haven’t been able to agree on signing the same memorandum of understanding. Shell, Mosop and the government each will issue separately worded statements, in part to avoid appearance that the sides that have long been at odds have jumped into bed with each other.


“The statements are not a final resolution of the Ogoni conflict, let alone the problems in the Niger Delta as a whole. They represent a significant first step,” said Canon Justin Welby, director of the International Center for Reconciliation.


Oil and trouble have a long history in Ogoni. Shell has been pumping oil there since 1958. Soon after the ill-fated Biafran war for independence, Ogoni leaders were asking the central government for a greater share of the oil wealth generated in their fields.


The movement came to a head under Mosop, led by Mr. Saro-Wiwa, a colorful former government official and writer. Mosop’s calls for greater freedoms, oil royalties and compensation for pollution eventually sparked violence, forcing Shell to abandon its operations there.


In the ensuing government crackdown, Mr. Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists were executed by the government Nov. 10, 1995, after a trial condemned by the international community.


Shell and the government still face calls for compensation from other groups in the region, and the government hasn’t found a workable solution to distribute the oil wealth to encourage local development.


Separately, two Shell employees and 35 contractors were killed on the job last year world-wide, the company said in its annual social and environmental report. The company noted its fatal-accident rate was its lowest ever reported and stated that “improving our safety performance is a top priority for 2005.” For 2003, Shell reported that five staff members and 40 contractors died. The Anglo-Dutch oil giant’s disclosure comes amid heightened concern about safety in the oil industry following the deaths of 15 people in a late March explosion at a Texas refinery operated by British rival BP PLC.


Write to Shai Oster at [email protected]


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