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Kelpie Wilson IV: Nigeria's Oil Killing Fields

Nigeria's Oil Killing Fields

Kelpie Wilson Interviews Simon Amaduobogha
t r u t h o u t | Special
Wednesday 16 March 2005

At the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Oregon, held March 3-6, I was able to hear about the work of environmental lawyers and activists from around the world. The most deeply affecting panel I attended was on the human and environmental costs of multinational oil and gas development. Afterward I was able to interview Simon Amaduobogha, an attorney with Community Defence Law Foundation in Nigeria.

Kelpie Wilson: The title of your talk today was Terrorism: Oil and Gas Exploitation in Nigeria. What do you mean here by terrorism?

Simon Amaduobogha: Terrorism is a situation where people are attacked. They are being oppressed and they are being intimidated into submission by oil companies and the government of Nigeria so companies can have their way. There is a lot terror when it comes to oil operations in the Niger Delta, resulting in the destruction of property and the life of the people in these communities.

K.W.: You mentioned in your talk that terrorism presents different faces there.

S.A.: Yes, there are four different faces of terrorism. Number one is the issue of spilling the oil through poor maintenance of pipelines, thereby resulting in over 100 oil spillages a year, which is abnormal. So you cannot say it just happened. It is intentional, the way we now see it. Two is the destruction of farmlands through the laying of pipelines in the best places, and three, this destroys the livelihood of the people. Fourth is the gas flares burning the people, making it uncomfortable to live nearby. They affect the respiratory system and even the crops.

K.W.: How do the gas flares affect the crops?

S.A.: The gas is burned within the vicinity of the people, resulting in acid rain, which is not good for the crops, and at the same time it affects pollination because when the heat is so much, agents of pollination, insects, will not be able to pollinate the crops. Then you cannot get good yields.

K.W.: Nigeria is hot anyway; it's on the equator, so to have gas burning all the time must be unbearably hot.

S.A.: Very hot, very hot. And the sound - it is like hell. About 20 percent of the gas flares globally are in Nigeria. These communities are so poor they don't have electricity. They have gas flares instead that light up the night.

K.W.: As you said, a hundred spills a year is not normal. It also seems abnormal that the occasional spills in the northern hemisphere receive so much press coverage while these 100 spills a year in Nigeria are completely ignored in the international press.

S.A.: There is no news and no money for cleanup. The last oil spill in Alaska - about a billion dollars was spent to clean it up. That tells you how important it is, what the impact of oil spills is. But in Nigeria, when there is a spill, for months there is no clean up. Most times they just scoop the oil away from the surface. There is no restoration. So it is just a different situation in Nigeria.

K.W.: The picture you showed in your slide show of the little children playing on the leaking oil pipes - that made me cry. Crude oil is so corrosive and toxic. I don't think most people realize that - they think of it as like the motor oil in their cars. I worked on the Exxon Valdez cleanup and I remember how foul the stuff was. So, the question is: why does the Nigerian government not do more to reign in these oil companies who are terrorizing people?

S.A.: The Nigerian government is unable to do so because these oil companies are doing everything possible to corrupt every sector of the Nigerian government. Definitely everyone loves money, but as Jesus would say: "It is better to tie a stone around their necks and throw them into the sea than to tempt these little ones to sin." What I mean is that the oil companies who come to tempt the Nigerian officials with bribes are to blame for the corrupt situation that has kept us where we are. Our judges are corrupted by these oil companies and the entire situation is so bad. Yes, the Nigerian government should have done something, but the external forces have kept the country captive by corrupting the morals. When you get gratification from people who have given you money, it is difficult to implement laws against those same people to force them to operate in an environmentally friendly way

K.W.: The bribes they are getting from oil companies must be a large percentage of the officials' income.

S.A.: The officials are making a lot of money. For instance, we know that Kellogg Brown & Root, as well as Halliburton, gave bribes of $171 million between 1999 and 2002. A lot of money is involved. That is just one case that we know of. We do not know what Shell has been doing, or other major oil companies. This one came to the limelight because, compared to Shell, these companies are newcomers and do not have the networks to hide the evil they are doing. Companies like Shell have been in Nigeria since independence.

K.W.: Which was when? What year?

S.A.: 1960. Oil exploration started in 1958. So they've been on the ground and they know the ins and outs. If you remember when Ken Saro-Wiwa - the environmentalist from Ogoni land - was facing the kangaroo court trial, Shell as an oil company retained the services of a senior advocate of Nigeria to hold a watching brief during the criminal trial. So what is the concern of Shell in this trial if they do not have an interest in ensuring that the man is killed? For Ken Saro-Wiwa prevented them from continuing oil exploration in a terrorist manner in this community. They've been there for years and the people are dying of gas flares, pollution and everything. So he said, look, leave our land, and he was successful in mobilizing his people. There were a lot of deaths and arrests, but he was still successful in mobilizing the people to prevent Shell from continuing. So what they did was make sure that that man was killed by whatever means. Shell was interested in ensuring that he was convicted, and when he was convicted, the law under which he was tried allowed 30 days within which to appeal against the conviction. The government did not even wait for the 30 days to elapse before it executed him.

K.W.: I remember that.

S.A.: So this is how you see direct involvement of oil companies in these atrocities. Obviously nobody is against business. Business is expected to bring wealth and development to the community. But when you are doing business where there is no development for the community, it is criminal.

K.W.: You mentioned that the oil companies don't hire local people.

S.A.: Yes. Oil companies find it difficult hiring local people. The people are not educated. Sometimes what they will do is pay the local youths money and say don't come to work. Come and collect a given amount monthly.

K.W.: Just to get them off their backs?

S.A.: Yes. That is what the practice has been. After a lot of agitation, they are now hiring some graduates, but the number is insignificant. You may have 50 people working for the oil company on a platform, but you will have just 2 or 3 people from that community. What impact does this have on the community over many years? They try to set up the employment system so they do not employ local people.

K.W.: You said in your talk that it is as if the oil companies just want the people to disappear. I wonder if you would even use the term genocide?

S.A.: Yes it is like genocide. Slowly, gradually, they want to ensure that those people don't even exist. Because obviously, you take away their land to lay pipelines; you pollute the remaining part of the land that they use for farming and you don't clean up or restore it; you pollute the streams and rivers where they fish - and these people depend on farming and fishing for subsistence. The people are sick. There are no functional hospitals in those communities. What you expect for those people is for them to die, gradually. Last Christmas, I was home and I saw my people and they were all looking sick. They don't look good. People were prematurely aged because of lack of food. And that is the situation in my community. It has got to the point where people cannot afford to buy rice and eat. At this level of development rice is seen as a luxury.

K.W.: Please tell me more about the role of the military and what they do to repress people and protesters.

S.A.: In the Niger delta, you now have what they call Operation Restore Hope. It's a combination of the army, the navy and the mobile police force. It is a response to the agitation of youth for change. It is war. Anytime that people agitate now about conditions, the oil companies are free to call on this force to come and push people away. And the first thing they do is shoot and kill people. The Bush administration has given money to buy fast speedboats for this military force. Chevron in recent times has been very prone to calling the military to come and kill people who just want to meet with them.

K.W.: So people come for a meeting thinking they are going to talk and they get shot?

S.A.: Yeah. Something happened in one of our communities this year where people went to an oil platform for a meeting. They shot and killed seven people.

K.W.: I have to ask you: in your work do you fear for your life?

S.A.: Definitely one's life is always threatened when it comes to oil. We are starting gradually - with these issues, the more you press hard the more you are threatened. Ken Saro-Wiwa started small, and he was gaining ground when they saw this man was going to succeed and they killed him. So definitely, as we begin to gain more successes there will be greater threat to one's life. That is obvious. That is why I am here. Because the impression oil companies give back home is that they are good people, environmentally friendly and that is what the people of the United States and United Kingdom think their oil companies to be. They don't know what is happening in the developing world in places like the Niger Delta. That is why we need people here in the U.S. to engage on moral grounds. Because the law for the most part is in the hands of the privileged for the oppression of the poor, so if you want to do things based on law it can never be fair to the general people because a few have power to make those laws to benefit them and their cronies and business partners. On moral grounds the average American should be looking at what these companies are doing for the love of oil. It is criminal

K.W.: There are a lot of American churches that have missions in Africa. It strikes me that they would be responsive to a moral appeal. Have you tried to work through American churches?

S.A.: I don't know which churches are American or otherwise, but what I understand the churches to be doing these days is their charity work. They are not interested in politics. Because the government will say you are now being political, you are against government. There is a lot of poverty resulting from the oil companies, so the churches do their best to heal the wounds of poverty and destruction. They are doing well in that respect. I don't expect them to do much else.

K.W.: Someone asked during your panel why you don't go to the company headquarters in Europe or America and sue them there for their bribing and corruption of the Nigerian government.

S.A.: The issue of suing the parent company has a lot of legal obstacles. That is why I say the law is oppressive. Under the law, they will say that is a separate legal entity. For example, Kellogg Brown & Root. They will say the U.S. division of KBR does not know what the Nigerian division is doing, so that you cannot hold them responsible. And you cannot prove most of these things. We may know very well that the company made a phone call to bring in the police to kill people, but how can we prove that? There are too many legal bottlenecks to achieving justice. Only when there is an excessive amount of violence in the community do we have a chance. Chevron is on trial right now for a killing that happened 6 years ago. There is also the expense. Even environmentalists in the U.K. cannot afford to bring legal actions against oil companies there. And then there is international law which has refused to recognize the right of individuals to sue companies. If companies as legal entities can move from nation to nation freely to do their business, then individuals should also be seen as international people. The individual should have the right to sue companies for injuries wherever they think they can do it. Now they just to tell us to go to Nigeria to sue.

K.W.: But the companies have totally corrupted the Nigerian courts, so they've locked you in. They've put you in a box

S.A.: That is the situation, but there a few judges that may not be corrupt and we have a chance, but what we really need is a change of attitude. Compensation is not enough. We need environmental restoration.

K.W.: What percentage of U.S. oil consumption comes from the Niger Delta?

S.A.: I don't know the percentage, but Nigeria seems to be the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States

K.W.: So what would you ask American people to do?

S.A.: What I want American people to do is to put pressure on the government of America to hold the oil companies responsible for the damage they have caused in the Niger Delta and ensure that henceforth the companies act responsibly. The world looks up to the Americans as a people who are civilized, who are democratic and who are positive in their thinking. The American people should be able to rise up to correct this criminal behavior on the part of their oil companies.

K.W.: And the companies we are talking about are?

S.A.: We are talking about Exxon/Mobile, Chevron/Texaco - these are the major American oil companies. There are also the contractors: Halliburton and Kellogg Brown & Root.


Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she writes from her solar-powered cabin in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon.

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