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View From Abroad – Shell And Nigeria: 1996 Ogoni 9 Crisis

Article from Tempo newspaper Nigeria published 2 Jan 1996, page 16, under the headline: “View From Abroad -Shell And Nigeria”. Basically a reprint of an article published by The New York Times under the headline: Shell Game in Nigeria

View From Abroad

Shell And Nigeria

Royal Dutch/Shell, the world’s largest oil company, suggests that it is merely a benign bystander to the tyrannical rule of Nigeria. After the indefensible execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other members of the minority Ogoni tribe, Shell’s position is untenable. If the company is determined to remain in Nigeria, it must use its considerable influence there to restrain the Government.

Since the hanging of Mr. Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni dissidents last month, Shell has proceeded with plans to build a $4 billion natural gas project in partnership with Nigeria’s ruling generals. As protests swelled, Shell, normally reticent, replied with a flurry of press releases and paid advertisements. Shell insists that it pleaded quietly for the dissidents’ lives and that pulling out of the gas project would punish all Nigerians.

The London and Hague-based corporation had the gall to suggest that public pressure to cancel the executions only hardened the Nigerian military, as if those who protested the killings were somehow responsible for them.

There is no evidence that Shell intervened privately on behalf of the Ogoni defendants before their trial. After Mr. Saro-Wiwa was found guilty, the company said “it is not for a commercial organization to interfere with the legal processes of a sovereign state.” But Mr. Saro-Wiwa was not even near the scene of the crimes alleged against him. Only when the hangings were imminent did Cor Herkstroter, Royal Dutch/Shell’s chairman, write to Nigeria’s rulers asking for clemency. To defend this sorry record, Shell now insists that corporations must not meddle in affairs of state. Shell, surely, has never hesitated to use its influence on matters of Nigerian tax policy, environmental rules, labor laws and trade policies.

Public disgust with Shell’s behavior seems to have flustered its American subsidiary, the Shell Oil Company, which has set up a “Nigeria hotline.” A taped message states that the American company has no operations in Nigeria. In New York, a spokesman for Royal Dutch/Shell brazenly noted that South Africa’s Nelson Mandela urged “quiet diplomacy” to deter the hangings. Invoking Mr. Mandela is offensive. Shell was a major sanction-breaker during the apartheid era, and Mr. Mandela rebuked Shell for failing to do enough to pressure the Nigerian leadership in the Saro-Wiwa case.

Shell’s critics are not urging the company to pull out of Nigeria. They accept Shell’s contention that by staying it can benefit the Nigerian people. There can be little doubt that Nigeria’s dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, would give Shell an audience. Oil accounts for 90 percent of Nigeria’s exports and Shell produces half the country’s output.

But Shell can no longer pretend the political life of Nigeria is none of its business. Summary executions, fraudulent trials and brutal suppression of dissent are not practices a responsible corporation can ignore. It will take more than company press releases to make a difference in Nigeria.

The New York Times original article appeared in print on , Section 4, Page 14 of the National edition with the headline: Shell Game in Nigeria.

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