Oil companies' responses to local communities' protests

1. Lack of compensation and clean ups

Oil corporations take advantage of weak laws and lax enforcement in Nigeria to avoid responsibility for the environmental damage their operations cause. Communities complain that although it is common for companies to blame spills on sabotage, companies rarely provide evidence to support accusations of sabotage, and no sabotage claim has ever been proved in court.

The delegation heard many stories of spills which Shell allowed to continue unabated, while the affected communi-ties received no fair compensation. In some cases, Shell apparently alleged sabotage as the cause of spills, even before carrying out investigation on the site. From our own observations of existing above-ground pipelines, it appeared plausible that the rust and corrosion affecting some of these pipes could result in leaks and spills.

Staggering under economic impacts, poor health and broken promises, communities have little recourse under the Nigerian legal system. They are afraid to sue for clean-up and compensation because history shows that oil companies will appeal repeatedly until the plaintiffs run out of money, give up, or die.29 Going to court is something companies have no reason to fear, because they can extend a case indefinitely.30

In Eleme, Ogoniland, we saw the site of a pipe blowout and massive oil spill that took place in 1970 and according to Shell has been "cleaned up". A 6-foot thick crust of car-bonized oil material covers the soil, turning the area into a wasteland where only a few plants have been able to survive. Since villagers can't afford bottled water and often have access to no other water source, they have no option but to drink water that is visibly polluted and slick with oil. In 1984, the community took Shell to court but community members report that no settlement has yet been reached to this date and Shell still has done nothing to clean up water and soil.31

Even when the oil companies do provide compensation for damage caused by spills and leaks, their system of assessment and payment are often very unsatisfactory. In January 1998, 40,000 barrels of light crude oil (or 1.6 million gallons, according to other estimates) were spilled into the Atlantic Ocean near Mobil's primary facility in Eket, Akwa Ibom State.32 It was the biggest spill in Nigerian history. Mobil's reaction to the spill was so slow that the oil reached the shores of Lagos, nearly 500 km to the west. Vast coastal areas were devastated. Mobil agreed to pay compensation to resi-dents in oil-producing communities, but only to those indi-viduals who were able to submit claims, which in many cases required potential claimants to make a long and costly journey to Eket. Given that very few roads reach the villages affected, and people do not own and cannot afford to rent vehicles or bicycles, this proved impossible to many of the potential claimants. Moreover, compensation was only grant-ed to oil-producing communities, whereas many non-oil-pro-ducing communities were affected just as much.

2. Broken promises: Behind the whitewash PR

Our group visited several communities where multinational oil companies make claims of community development pro-jects. In many communities, residents related stories of promises made and broken by multinational oil companies.

In Iko the delegation witnessed several cases where PR claims made to unsuspecting Western observers appeared misleading. Iko residents told us how Shell's nearby facility had greatly degraded surrounding mangrove areas on which the community was dependent. In the late 1980s, after community members noticed a decline in fish stocks, which they attributed to Shell's oil spills, the community started protesting and requested electricity and clean water.33 Years later Shell promised to provide a "fish pro-cessing plant," an ironic measure considering the impact of oil spills on aquatic life. Oil slicks are visible in some water bodies. Though Shell claims on its website that the company-built facility has been operational since 1996, the facility (an impressive and large building, definitely photo-worthy) stands unfinished, and the community says it has never functioned. A generator was never provided to run it.34 Another example of such a fig-leaf project in Iko is a manual cassava grating unit Shell donated (as a large sign in front of it clearly indicates), but which Iko residents said worked for one week.

I want to mention [a few things] in the area of community development and then human resources development [by] the Nigerian Agip oil company . . . Since 1964, to the present day, we don't have a single structure to be proud of. We don't have a single structure [by] Nigerian Agip oil company . . . A period of 35 years, from 1964 to 1999, you can imagine. Then the area of human resources development, normally they [Agip] do give out scholarships to students in post primary and tertiary institutions. But on our own part they did not just refuse to give us a scholarship, they issue out the scholarship with names of their own relations bearing Epubu community as their host community. So on one of our trips on one of our dis-cussions we asked them [Agip] to make available documents they were claiming they have given people from Epubu com-munity scholarships, but all along they have been unable to produce these documents. That is just to tell you how they have been neglecting our people . . .

Excerpts from our interview with Mr. Okumo Epidence, Sept. 9, 1999.
Given the scarcity of roads throughout the Niger Delta, a common request from oil-producing communities is the development of roads. Reading oil company literature leads one to believe that roads are a large part of development plans for oil-producing communities. However, as we discovered throughout our travels, roads primarily lead to the flow stations and oil facilities, not necessarily serving the communities.

An even more telling example of corporate misrepresentation of aid is the Gokana General Hospital in Ogoni. Officially supported by Shell, the facility displays shockingly unsanitary conditions, and lacks basic amenities such as electricity and potable water. Although Shell installed a water well for the hospital, the head doctor and nurse told us the well pump never worked, and patients have to drink water from an open well instead, with the risk of acquiring parasites. We were also told that the first shipment of pharmaceuticals sent to the hospital by Shell was composed of expired drugs, and that presently drugs are sold to patients at higher prices than at street pharmacies.35 Since the hospital provides no food, patients' families must come and cook for them. A recently delivered autoclave stood on its crate wrapped in plastic at the hospital's entrance, because no one knew how to operate it, and there was no regular supply of electricity to run it. Nor was a generator provided. Both the head nurse and head physician explained that for the last six months they had not been paid the portion of their salary that Shell had promised to pay.36 We were also told that there was no anesthesia for surgery, there were no bed sheets, and that patients often returned home to recover from illnesses contracted at the hospital. We met a woman who had undergone a caesarean section without anesthesia two days before our arrival.

3. Policy of divide and rule

Instead of investing in genuine community development pro-jects, oil companies apparently put their money into dividing communities and destroying effective organizing for human rights. For example, in August 1999, Elf Oil Company report-edly paid 40 youths $2000 each to aggressively break up a protest by 5000 women from the Egi Women's Movement who had shut down the neighboring Elf facility for one day.37 The women were protesting non-violently for clean air and water, and demanding Elf's involvement in community development projects. Elf then reportedly paid the youths another $75,000 to sign an agreement with the company claiming that their youth group represented the entire Egi community.38 According to the women's group, this agreement laid out substantially weaker demands than those pre-ented by the Egi Women's Movement. Elf did not respond to requests for a meeting with this delegation.

Another case of suppression of grassroots justice campaigns involves Nigeria Agip Oil Company. On July 13 and 14, 1999, after having denied Agip permission to carry out drillings in communal lands, the village of Epubu was attacked by mem-ers of neighboring communities. Three people were killed, and many others were injured, and the village was almost totally destroyed by fire. Most of Epubu's population of 7,000 had to seek refuge in neighboring villages. Members of the community claimed that during the attack they could easily identify the boats carrying the attackers as belonging to Agip, because they were used to seeing them on a nearby Agip facility. Though the Nigerian police were summonned to the site of the attacks, they didn't respond in time to avoid the killings. On July 21, attackers came back on the same Agip boats and kidnapped a pregnant woman and two other resi-ents of Epubu, who are feared to have been murdered.39

Animosity between neighboring communities may also arise or be fueled by the differential treatment towards one community by oil companies in matters of compensation, reparation, development projects, and employment opportunities.

4. Concerted repression to organized protests

When communities organize to protest against the destruction of their land, homes, and livelihood as a result of the operations of the multinational oil companies, or to campaign for their right to control their own resources, they run the risk of becoming the victims of outright repression and violent acts. While this was more common under previous dictatorial regimes, it is still a reality under President Obasanjo. Our dele-gation visited two communities where demonstrations against Shell by local people had been violently stopped by military intervention, allegedly at Shell's request, and ended in the loss of many lives.40 We also interviewed individual community leaders who gave us firsthand accounts of the torture and vio-lence they had suffered due to their activism.

In 1987, when deteriorating environmental and economic conditions in Iko due to Shell's operations had become unbearable, the community approached Shell to peacefully "ask for our rights", as the local chief explained. The com-plaints were centered around two facts: One, that Shell's operations had led to the closure of the creeks where fishing used to be practiced, and two, that gas flares posed a health hazard to the community. The community was demanding jobs for the youth in the community, and a general improve-ment in the local environmental conditions. The Nigerian military then burned down many of the houses in Iko. Eight years later, in 1995, a new protest was organized by the com-munity, and the Mobile Police (also known as the "kill and go") invaded the village at night, burned down many houses, and killed a schoolteacher. This surprise attack taught the community a hard lesson—one it would not soon forget. 41
The truth about the whole situation is that Epubu was attacked through the sponsorship of Nigerian Agip oil company. We are appealing to the international community to come to our aid. Specifically to rehabilitate the people of the community. All our wealth is burned down. People are dying daily of starvation and hunger. All our schools are closed . . . We are going back to the primitive primordial days where people don't go to school anymore. And for fear of possible attack, . . . teachers are afraid to go there. [W]e are completely cut out from the state. Transport boat[s] no longer apply. They don't go to Epubu community. You have no communication with the outside world. So we are appealing to the international community to come to our aid by providing boats that will enable us [to] communicate with the outside world, because we are completely cut out. And also to assist [in] establish training schools, so that our children can go to school and we too will know that is happening. Because if you are not educated you cannot come here and talk the way I am talking. So that is our passionate plea to the international community. Plea to the international community by His Royal Highness, Chief Nikuman Ebe Obom, the Paramount Ruler of Epubu, Sept. 9, 1999 , Port Harcourt
We heard a similar story (one that has been recorded in multiple reports and academic articles)42 in Umuechem, where Shell began operations in 1959. Like most communities where the oil companies operate, this community remained underdeveloped and suffered from oil-related environmental woes. In 1990 the community staged a peaceful demonstration to voice its complaints. Community members told us that during the demonstration they were carrying simple placards and dancing. Shell requested that the Nigerian police come to control the situation, and this time the result was an outright massacre. From Oct. 13 to Nov. 1, 1990, the village was constantly bombarded by the mobile police. We learned that over 100 people were killed during this time including the chief, who was shot at the entrance of his house as he came out to try and calm the situation. Houses were burned and looted, and the police occupied the town for months while most of the community was forced to flee.43

But Shell is not alone in this. Chevron too has employed the military to repress community protests of its own negligent practices.44 On May 25, 1998, a group of about 100 people of the Ilaje community went to the Parabe platform (an off-shore drilling facility in Ondo State operated by Chevron) to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the company's practices. The unarmed group peacefully occupied a part of the barge that was attached to the platform for 3 days, during which time they did not interrupt operations on the platform. On May 27, 1998, an agreement was reached with Chevron representatives that a meeting at the village would be held two days later if protesters would leave the platform the next day. However, rather than wait to participate in the agreed meeting, on May 28, 1998 at dawn, before the protesters could start leaving, Nigerian military troops were transported to the platform on two helicopters belonging to Chevron, and staged an attack on the protesters, killing two of them and seriously injuring another two. After the attack, 11 protesters were seized and held in inhuman conditions for several weeks.45

In an interview, Bola Oyimbo, one of the leaders of the Ilaje protest, narrated to us how he was tortured by being hung by his wrists from a ceiling fan for refusing to sign a confession that he was a pirate. 46 Also, a delegation of U.S. lawyers we met with while in Nigeria report that a Chevron security person was on the third helicopter to land on the platform, and so would have been able to see the soldiers open fire on the unarmed protesters. The Chevron employee apparently did nothing to stop the attack.47
Chevron operates in our area, in Ilaje area in Ondo State. During their operation we've not got one thing for development apart from a wooden six-classroom block, and a potable drinking water system that was not working from the first day that is was commissioned. So, there was nothing coming to us, so we decided to write [Chevron] a letter to call them to dialog. The writing of letters began [in] 1989. Then in 1998 we decided to go to government to report our case to government directly. We wrote a letter to the deputy governor. [H]e invited Chevron and us to a meeting but Chevron refused to turn up. . . . So we now invited them a second time again, on the 15th of May [1998]. When they refused to turn up, saying they have no office in our state we decided to protest to their working zone. On the 25th of May we made a peaceful demonstration to their place, when we got there we talked to the naval personnel that was hired for security and the mobile policeman. They decided to call Chevron to tell them that the Ilajes are around. When they called them, [someone from] public relations [wanted to speak] to us but we refused to speak to him, we wanted to talk to a decision-maker, we wanted to talk to Kirkland who is the managing director here. So later they linked us to Lagos where they have their head office, we talked to [the Community Relations Manger] he said he was coming over but we said we would not listen to him if we don't see Kirkland . . . So on the 26th [the Community Relation Manger] came on board the barge saying what [Chevron] wanted. We told him we can not discuss with him, he insisted that he should dialog with us. We said no, he should go back and either call Kirkland or he should go back to [our] community to discuss with the elders . . . On the 27th they went to our community where they had a meeting . . . [Our community] gave them our proposal: we need portable drinking water, employment, [we want Chevron] to resume their pledge of scholarship - because they always promise to give us scholarships without paying, and we need a medical facility. Since our water has been polluted they should compensate the people in the area for the damage to the area . . . [The Chevron representatives said] that before they could take any decision we should leave the barge and they . . . [would] arrive at a good conclusion on the 29th. So on the night of the 27th they sent news to us on the barge that we should prepare to leave the barge so we could meet with . . . [the Community Relations Manager and] be part of the discussion [in our community] on the 29th. But surprisingly on the 28th, as early as 6:45 in the morning before the sun could come up, what we saw was choppers with military men, soldiers, and mobile police inside. They started shooting before they even landed, start shooting indiscriminately . . . The end result was that we lost two of our boys and a lot of them got injured . . . Some of them jumped overboard and they were later rescued. Then the balance of us, we refused to [leave the barge]. Personally, I refused to go because if you can kill two why not add me? So they decided to arrest 11 of us. We were first taken to a Nigerian naval base at Warri. We were kept for four days in a cell. Then on June 1st they transferred us to another cell [in a different town] before taking us to the state security service at the Fort of Ortacuri where we were detained for 22 days before being released again . . . Chevron . . . first accused us of sabotage . . . And then later, I don't know if they induced the police but [Chevron] asked them to make me sign an undertaking that we destroyed their chopper, vandalized their equipment—which was a lie. [Then] I was hanged up by the handcuffs on my wrists on the hook on the ceiling fan. They asked me to sign a statement that I lead a team to the Parabe platform and that we vandalized the things there . . . but I refused . . . The day they took us to Warri naval base, one of [the soldiers] was telling us that [Chevron] promised them each 10 thousand Naira to come and do the shoot-ing. But after I was released, because I knew some of them I went to them and asked, "why did you have to come and shoot us"? They said that it backfired because they promised them 10 thousand Naira but they only ended up giving them 3 thousand Naira (approx. 30 US dollars). When they brought us to the naval base the Chevron representative handed them their money and actually there was a row between them, there was a disagreement that was not the amount they had agreed on.

Excerpts from our interview with Bola Oyimbo, Sept. 20, 1999, Lagos. Mr. Oyimbo also told the delegation that soon after he had spoken to some lawyers from the United States, Chevron offered money (700 thousand Naira) to members of his community so that they would not speak to the lawyers.
On January 4, 1999, Chevron again apparently aided an attack by military forces on the villages of Opia and Ikenyan in Delta State, in response to ongoing public protests about environmental damage caused by oil extracting operations, and demands for reparation and compensation. In both com-munities the military killed and injured people, destroyed churches, religious shrines, and water wells, burned down homes, killed livestock, and destroyed canoes and fishing equipment.48 According to the lawsuit filed in California against Chevron,49 the military acted at the request of and with the participation and complicity of Chevron's person-nel. As with the Parabe incident above, recent data included in the lawsuit reveal that Chevron provided helicopters and sea trucks (large boats) with pilots and other crew members to transport its own personnel (including company security officials) along with the Nigerian military and/or police to those communities. The helicopters are housed within Chevron's facilities at Escravos, in Delta State.50