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Publication Details

Sharife, Khadija & Bond, Patrick  (2009) An Oil Change is Needed More than Ever. Eye on Civil Society (The Mercury) : -.

Shell's abuses in Nigeria underscore a class of litigation seeking to
establish that corporations have obligations to not be complicit in
human rights violations

'WE sometimes feed conflict by the way we award contracts, gain access
to land, and deal with community representatives, Shell Nigeria
admitted in 2003.

It was a modest confession from a corporate giant that has long
collaborated with the state to access Nigeria's oil and gas resources,
systematically destroying the indigenous ecology through spills,
deforestation, flaring and dumped waste, and in the process fuelling
climate change that threatens our collective future on the planet.

In 2006, the Niger Delta Natural Resource Damage Assessment and
Restoration Project declared the region one of the 10 most important
wetlands and marine ecosystems in the world. Although 20 million people
directly depend on shared natural Delta resources such as fisheries,
fertile land and water sources, Shell is responsible for 2 900 oil spills.

Many have stood up to say enough!, but perhaps it was the Ogoniland
civic leader and writer/poet Ken Saro-Wiwa who is best known for a
courageous socio-environmental struggle against Shell, especially after
mobilising 300 000 non-violent protesters in early 1993.

Veteran activist Dennis Brutus recalls his last meeting with the
54-year-old Saro-Wiwa, at the University of Pittsburgh: Ken was
displaying his new novel Soja Boy, his 28th book. He seemed very gloomy
- even pessimistic: as if he had a foreboding that he would be executed
on his return to Nigeria.

Brutus travelled to Joburg soon thereafter: After a Wits conference in
1995, the US poet Amiri Baraka and I brought a letter to Mandela's
office appealing for a stronger role in preventing his execution. But
the functionary who took the letter was not encouraging.

Saro-Wiwa was executed in a bungled operation, with three attempts,
according to Brutus.

He also said that evidence had emerged that the Nigerian regime of San
Abacha had allegedly acted against Saro-Wiwa on instructions of Shell Oil.

Saro-Wiwa's son and brother are now taking Shell to court in the US
under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a law Brutus himself helped to
publicise as part of a suit demanding apartheid reparations from
multinational corporations that profited from apartheid by colluding
with the white South African military prior to 1994.

Families of Saro-Wiwa and other victims claim that from 1990-1995, Shell
requested and financed Nigerian soldiers to repress a peaceful
environmental justice movement with deadly force. On November 10, 1995,
the Ogoni Nine were executed after being framed for murder and tried
by the military.

On May 26, after 12 years of preliminary arguments, the Ogoni people
finally get their day in the New York courts, supported by Brutus's
anti-apartheid ally Paul Hoffman, the Center for Constitutional Rights,
EarthRights International and Justice in Nigeria Now. Solidarity
protests will be held around the world, including at Solomon Mahlangu
(Edwin Swales) Shell petrol station on the Bluff.

Nearby, Shell's refining operation at Sapref is partly responsible for
the extreme leukemia and asthma rates suffered by Merebank and Wentworth
residents. Shell won the tongue-in-cheek groundWork/CCS Corpse Awards
in 2005, for contributions to mortality/morbidity in the South Durban
basin: thirteen thousand tons of sulphur dioxide and 1.2 million tons
of carbon dioxide as well as the usual heady mix of volatile organic
compounds, the award stated.

A few years earlier, in 2001, according to Desmond D'Sa of the South
Durban Community Environmental Alliance: Sapref's ageing pipelines
ruptured and leaked between one and two million litres of fuel into the
ground beneath local people's houses, and 26 tons of tetra-ethyl-lead
leaked out of a holding tank adjacent to community houses.

The damage pales in comparison to the Niger Delta, where it is estimated
that 1.5 million tons of oil have spilled since drilling began 51 years
ago, the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill each year, costing more
than $5 billion (R42bn) in annual environmental damage. Last year,
Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua finally conceded the obvious:
There is a total loss of confidence between Shell and the Ogoni people.
So, another operator acceptable to the Ogonis will take over.

But Yar'Adua's regime, like others before it, is rife with corruption
and collaboration, and Shell has hung on in a country responsible for 10
percent of its profits. The bulk of Nigeria's wealth is held offshore by
corrupt officials, and is estimated at over $100bn.

Nigeria, considered to be the US's new oil cushion, is the
seventh-largest producer in the world.

Despite Nigeria raking in more than $400bn during the past three
decades, the population living under $1/day has increased from 59
percent (1990) to 71 percent (2008), while the percentage of people with
access to clean water has decreased by 3 percent.

Brutus said: The reparations case against Shell strongly relates to our
South African anti-apartheid case. In the same court, six weeks ago,
Judge Shira Scheindlin found that Daimler Chrysler, Ford, General
Motors, IBM, Fujitsu and Rheinmetall must answer charges in September.

Six years ago, US secretary of state Colin Powell arm-twisted Thabo
Mbeki and then justice minister Penuell Maduna to write a letter
opposing the apartheid reparations case on grounds that it interfered
with SA's own reconciliation process and hence would harm US foreign
policy. Will Jacob Zuma and Jeff Radebe follow suit, given how they have
pledged to foreign investors that there will be no change in economic

Economist Joseph Stiglitz and Archbishop Desmond Tutu testified against
Pretoria's alliance with the corporations. Last month Judge Scheindlin
confirmed that there was absolutely nothing in the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission process that would be impeded by this

As Brutus's co-plaintiffs in the Khulumani Support Group observed: That
ruling has certainly breathed new life into a class of human rights
litigation seeking to establish that corporations have obligations under
international law to not be complicit in human rights violations.

Some of Saro-Wiwa's last words are the most inspiring, and can ring true
with some assistance from the US courts:

I have no doubt at all about the ultimate success of my cause, no
matter the trials and tribulations which I and those who believe with me
may encounter on our journey. Nor imprisonment nor death can stop our
ultimate victory.

Sharife and Bond are, respectively, visiting scholar and director at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.

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