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Damage control: How Niger Delta crisis theatened Shell’s global brand home

In 1995, pollution and politics in Nigeria hit the oil giant’s reputation hard

John Vidal: Tuesday 9 November 2010 17.33 GMT

A Shell Oil wellhead spill near Oloibiri Town, Bayelsa, Nigeria. Photograph: Ed Kashi/Corbis

1995 was Shell’s annus horribilis. Even as British environmentalists condemned its plan to dispose of the giant Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea, a greater threat to the global brand emerged in the deep poverty of the Niger Delta where author and Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, along with other tribal leaders, had challenged the company to clean up pollution from its wells and share more of its revenue with the poorest.

By June 1995, the company had been expelled from the delta following a peaceful uprising and was fending off allegations that it had colluded with the military in a series of massacres and human rights abuses. But a bad situation for Shell turned terrible when in November 1995 Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni were sentenced to death on trumped-up murder charges by a military tribunal.

Two weeks later they were hanged at dawn and it emerged that Shell had not tried to plead for mercy for its critics, saying it was a matter for the state.

Outrage spread across the world. There were vigils and demonstrations, Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth and an international boycott of its products hurt the country financially. A reputation for honesty and integrity was shredded. Activists in Europe firebombed Shell stations, there were questions raised in parliaments around the world and the company’s reputation was in meltdown.

In response, Shell turned to the crisis limitation exercises, promising inquiries, offering money to rebuild Ogoni schools and hospitals and to clean up pollution. Within two years it had rebranded itself with “new values of honesty, integrity, respect for people, as well as professionalism, pride and openness, sustainable development and human rights.”

It never admitted guilt for what happened in the delta but publicly maintained that technically, legally and ethically it had acted correctly.

The papers that have shed light on Shell’s attempts to deal with the PR nightmare emerged from last year’s New York trial of the company by Saro-Wiwa’s son and others. The case never came to court because in June, the company agreed to an out-of-court settlement of $15.5m. Once again, the company denied any liability for the deaths, stating that the payment was part of a “reconciliation” process.


RELATED ARTICLE MI6 ‘firm’ spied on green groups for Shell. Part of of the undercover activity related to Ken Saro-Wiwa.

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