Shell, exploitation and murder: Nigeria’s double-edged attachment to oil

Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Before the 1990s, he was perhaps most well-known for being the producer of Basi & Company, an incredibly popular African sitcom which aptly parodied the ‘get rich quick’ mentality and corruption present in oil-rich Nigeria. However, during the 1990s, he was better known for his activism on behalf of his people in Ogoniland, located in the South East of Nigeria. Even after Nigerian independence in 1960, the Nigerian government allowed Shell to extract oil from Ogoniland which had disastrous impacts on the lives of the Ogoni people. Oil equating to millions of barrels was spilt; roads were destroyed by the weight of machinery; agricultural activity in some areas all but ceased to exist because of Shell’s work in the area.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and his organisation MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) sought to end years of unchecked exploitation of their land, work which gained international support but also put him in direct conflict with the Nigerian government, which relied on the foreign payments of companies like Shell for its revenue. Moreover, Nigeria’s government during the 1990s consisted of a series of military dictatorships, led by generals who did not take lightly to his increasingly subversive tactics designed to force the government into action. In the end, the action that they took ended up being fatal for Saro-Wiwa. It was General Sani Abacha (leader from 1993 to 1998) who decided to put a permanent end to his activism as, after being framed for inciting the murder of 4 Ogoni chiefs by a mob of youths, Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned and later hanged along with 8 other MOSOP leaders, known as the Ogoni 9.

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s story was a harrowing microcosm of Nigeria’s overall system beset by corruption and kleptocracy, facilitated by exploitative foreign companies. The question is, have things changed? Nowadays, Nigeria is no longer governed by military dictators but rather the nation has a federal democratic system with elected presidents. Shell has announced that it is seeking to offload all of its remaining onshore assets in Nigeria which means their activities should not ravage any more Nigerian communities. Furthermore, this August, it was reported that Shell will pay £80m to a community in Ogoniland over a catastrophic spill in 1970 when an oil well exploded and led to widespread and long-term pollution of both water and land. These new events suggest that things have changed and, to some extent, they have.

However, Nigeria’s government still depends heavily on oil and whilst there is no longer a military dictatorship, current President Muhammadu Buhari was a military dictator between the end of 1983 and August 1985. The offloading of Shell’s onshore assets in Nigeria simply means that they will most probably be sold to Nigerian energy companies that can still act with little consideration for local communities and their environment. Finally, the large sum of money offered by Shell does not automatically translate to a reversal of the profound consequences of the oil spill. Thus, it is clear to see that whilst Nigeria has changed, it does not necessarily mean that the issue of oil and its effect on communities has been solved.

One of the reasons why oil can still have such a negative effect on Nigerian communities is that it is still vital to the Nigerian economy. Crude oil accounts for roughly 80% of Nigeria’s total exports, it also accounts for half of Nigeria’s government income as well as 90% of foreign-exchange earnings. These statistics paint a picture of almost complete dependency and yet they were much worse as little as 10 years before. Nevertheless, these revenues from oil production can’t be expected to benefit the majority of the population as most of the riches go to a small elite. This is why, in 2018, the Brookings Institution said that Nigeria was home to the world’s largest population of people living in extreme poverty with 87 million citizens living on less than $1.90 a day. Therefore, whilst the land on which they live is being exploited, the population still don’t get to reap the benefits of the resultant income.

Some would perhaps argue that Nigeria simply needs to stop focusing on oil and invest in other aspects of the economy, however, this is easier said than done. The decline of oil revenues in recent years did force the Nigerian government to seek economic diversification, particularly targeting the revival of the agricultural industry. However, the previous statistics go to show that this process, if it is occurring, is an incredibly slow one. More pertinently, it is one that President Buhari seems to have turned his back on this August as a law was passed which cut taxes levied on energy companies to attract foreign investment and increase Nigeria’s current production of 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to 4 million barrels. Included in this law change is the requirement that 3% of companies operating expenditure must go towards ‘local upliftment projects’ but this is a far cry from the 10% requested by community campaign groups and is a sign that community development is not (as it never has been) the focus of Nigeria’s use of its oil.

So, with this renewed emphasis on oil production, where does Nigeria go from here? It seems that pragmatism and innovative policies are both essential. A poorly-conducted move away from oil production would reduce oil’s lucrativeness whilst likely increasing the country’s inequality. Any leader seeking to tackle this issue must understand that, for some time yet, oil is still going to play a significant part in Nigeria’s economy. It is likely that, for the problem to be tackled innovatively, policymakers must find ways to connect the oil industry to local services which are related to the sector. Now would be a very fitting time for such an approach considering the sale of Shell’s onshore assets which opens the door for Nigerian energy companies to work with, rather than despite, the local communities. Beyond this, however, the income from oil also needs to be re-invested well so that permanent and considerable economic diversification occurs. Without this, Nigeria’s economy will remain unstable and dangerously reliant on international demand for a singular commodity.

Admittedly, these recommendations are much more easily said than done. Nigeria’s relationship to oil is not just resistant to change due to its importance to the economy but also the significance of oil to the corruption within the nation’s governance. Long-lasting change to Nigeria’s relationship with oil can only be feasibly seen alongside significant changes in how the government approaches corruption. Once again, this is an onerous problem for which there is no definitive solution.

From a development perspective, it is possible to see this double-edged (and rather oily) sword as an impossible challenge to overcome. However, if this is the case then development in many countries must also be seen as a lost cause. Instead, such issues demonstrate that development can never simply be community-focused or government-focused but rather approaches need to incorporate each level of society. It is necessary to work with both the federal officials and the local farmers struggling with their infertile land. Consulting MOSOP’s leaders should be accompanied by talking to Shell’s. In the end, the task would likely extend beyond the boundaries of Nigeria and need to tackle resource exploitation on a worldwide basis. Yet, when the problem seems insurmountable, one must remember that this is not just an issue of economies or governments, but one of people. One must remember Ken Saro-Wiwa’s final words:

‘Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues’

By Samuel Ajakaiye