March 4, 1999

Nigeria: Shell's Game

Despite environmental and human rights concerns, the oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell plans to invest $8.5 billion over the next five years to drill for oil off the Nigerian coast.

Shell's announcement in early February came as environmental activists from the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria pressed demands that Shell, Chevron and Mobil clean up their drilling procedures.

These demands often have been met by force. In November 1995, the military government hanged nine Nigerian environmentalists, including renowned poet and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.

The activists had been convicted on murder charges, but environmental and human rights groups disputed the case as trumped up. The real crime, these critics claimed, was pressuring Shell about pollution.

Clashes between the Nigerian army and inhabitants of the Niger Delta have increased recently with dozens reported killed. One violent incident left five people dead outside Shell’s Forcados export terminal.

On Feb. 4, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, wrote to the House International Relations Committee and called for hearings to determine the role U.S. multinational oil corporations have played in human rights violations in Nigeria.

Some financial analysts fear that Shell’s investment could deepen Nigeria’s dependence on foreign investment money and undercut a transition to civilian rule. Other analysts, however, see Shell’s investment as an important boost to Nigeria’s shaky economy.

Nigeria's recently elected civilian president, former military general Olusegun Obasanjo, is the first civilian to hold office in 15 years. During that time, Nigeria's economic troubles and government corruption destabilized Africa's most populous country, despite its huge oil reserves.

Obasanjo promises that his first priority will be to restore confidence in the Nigerian government. But, with a $29 billion national debt, and a population sharply divided along ethnic lines, political experts predict a long struggle.

Currently, Shell produces one-half of Nigeria’ daily output of two million barrels of oil.

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