Over the past decade, Shell Oil Company’s Nigeria operation has been complicit in human rights abuses, caused inexorable environmental harm, injected cash and resources into an armed militia groups, and fueled the communal tensions that are tearing the region apart.
This is not news–but a report released this week by a consortium of NGOs and led by Platform, a British based non-profit–laid out the names, numbers, and details of the misconduct in a way that has transformed the conventional wisdom into unavoidable fact. Platform’s report, “Counting the Costs,” recounts the examples of specific communities within the Niger Delta where Shell’s presence and involvement has exacerbated–and even created–conflict.
Over the last 50 years of oil exploration, the Niger Delta region has yielded some $600 billion in revenues. Even long before the long oil boom began, Shell has been an integral part of this story; the company began its work in Nigeria in 1937. In the years since, Shell has always led the growing pack of multinationals operating in Africa’s most populous country–not least in the extent of its misconduct.
“Counting the Costs” lays out several ways in which Shell has become a part of the Niger Delta conflict:
1) Cash contracts to armed groups: Shell’s strategy for pacifying militant groups in the region can be simply summed up: buy them off. Over the last decade, the company has offered cash contracts–in the form of either “community development” or “security” grants–to armed groups in exchange for their directing their violence away from Shell facilities. Young men are employed on a temporary basis either to ‘guard’ Shell facilities–which basically means they promise not to attack them. “Shell and other companies have made huge payments to a wide range of groups in order to buy compliance and stave off hostility,” the report explains.
It’s hard to know where to begin describing the backwards incentives that this creates. Since it’s often the most violent groups who catch Shell’s eye for a payout, the company’s tactics have incentivized the militarization of the region’s youth population (who, by the way, have little chance of coming across any other jobs.) Some 9,000 youth are temporarily employed at any time, the report estimates.
As soon as temporary contracts “expire,” armed youth often turn their weapons back against the company in a means to coerce them to renew the security contract payments. The moment the payments from Shell stop, the violence starts. In one particularly striking incident, youth whose contracts were revoked sabotaged a pipeline and released an oil spill one-forth the size of the Gulf of Mexico incident. Production of 300,000 barrels per day was taken offline; the security contracts were almost immediately re-instated.
These cash contracts also create deadly rivalries between armed groups and between impoverished communities, whose youth are eager to win contracts. Because the deadlier groups are often the victors of the security funding, the cycle of violence escalates. And with each injection of cash into these armed militias, their power over the local communities–and their monopoly of violence–only grows.
2) Corrupted community relations: To facilitate these contracts and other community relations, Shell has created a network of local representatives that are intended to mediate between villages and the oil company. Unfortunately, many of these local representatives are implicated in granting contracts corruptly, encouraging militants to sabotage pipelines in order to win more Shell security funding, and being complicit in oil bunkering (a process through which oil is drained from pipelines and sold on the black market.)
In all of this, none of the actual disputes with communities are solved. Land conflicts, in particular, are left hanging. Countless acres of farmlands, taken over by pipelines or oil spills, have essentially been confiscated this way, with little or no mechanism for redress by the local communities.
3) Complicity with undisciplined conduct of Nigerian security forces: In recent years as the security situation in the Delta has deteriorated, Shell has increasingly relied upon a Joint Task Force of Nigerian military and police to maintain security. Shell has offered both logistical and military support to the operations and paid for the Nigerian military to guard its operations. These same armed forces, however, have been implicated in extra-judicial killings, local-level corruption, and overly aggressive tactics that are used against unarmed civilians. (This isn’t unique to the military and police in the Delta–it’s a country-wide problem.)
Shell also relies on contractors, which the report claims are unaccountable and undisciplined as well. Here too, there are perverse incentives for violence: consultants might garner higher payments if they are operating in hazardous security situations, a fact that may encourage some to stoke inter-communal tensions.
This report wasn’t about oil spills–though that is certainly a huge piece of the Shell legacy too. Earlier this summer, a U.N. Environment Program report implicated widely multinationals in the environmental damage spotting the region–a stark contrast to a Shell claim that 90 percent of oil spills are caused by militants and local communities. Today, so many spills have devastated the region, many of them left virtually uncleaned for decades, that the water in the Delta carries a thick sheen of oil and farmlands won’t grow crops anymore. The cost of cleaning up those spills is estimated at $500 billion.
Shell has often relied on a common explanation for its embroilment with local conflict in the Delta: it is just an outside player, trying to do business, and not at fault for the environment in which it operates. It is, the story goes, a victim of local conditions that it cannot control. This report compellingly argues the opposite: “While Shell tries to separate itself from the ‘external environment’ in Nigeria, there is clear evidence that Shell has played an active role in various conflicts.”
If there’s one piece of good news from the half-century of oil-fueled violence in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, it might be that it has spawned some of the best, brightest, and most passionate human rights work in the region. I know many of these organizations personally, and I wasn’t surprised–though I’m always impressed–when they released some of their best work yet this week. Perhaps this time it will finally prove to compelling a truth for Shell, the Nigerian government, and consumers of Nigerian oil–that’s the United States–to ignore.