Eusebius MbidoakaWednesday, May 19, 2004




A Shell control room
il exploration in Nigeria began when Shell BP discovered oil in huge commercial quantities in Bomu - Ogoni Niger delta area of Nigeria, in the late fifties. From 1964 on, well over 125 million barrels of oil have been shipped with an approximation of 100, 000 barrels a day. In 1966, when the Nigeria - Biafra war began the oil issue and its huge revenue stood very much at the center stage. From thence, successive governments have come and gone, benefiting from the oil gains and more or less collaborating with Shell British Petroleum (and vice versa) in virtually neglecting the locality and people in whose environs this exploration has been taking place. A worsening effect of the exploration process has left the land, rivers, creeks, lagoons and the entire area totally polluted. This came to mean that the natives could neither make a living from the land nor from fishing.

The question therefore arises as to whether shell BP has been too blinded to profit maximization that it has lost touch with any trace of ethics in the sphere of business? Is profit making more precious than human lives? Is the human person meant to serve the interest of economic or the economic meant to be at the disposal of the human interest? These and a few more related questions constitute the bulk of my concern in this article.

2. A brief history of the Nigerian military and petroleum deals

Saro Wiwa
As hinted in the introduction, the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta of Nigeria brought more woes than benefits for the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta area. The problem took a serious turn from the Nigeria - Biafra civil war period. During this time, a lone voice among this ethnic minority - Ken Saro-Wiwa tried to highlight the plight of his people. W. Boyd (1995) tried to show how Ken stood against an overpowering Nigeria military that had become corrupt with oil wealth flowing from within the confines of an exploited and neglected people. The military influence had extended right into the 1990s and the Ogonis (including the entire Nigerian civilian populace) had remained hostage to its wild and brute ambition of not only holding on to power but of accumulating ill-gotten oil wealth. In fact, the Ogoni case had become an international eye-saw. However, the determination of the Ogonis themselves constituted a very daring attempt at confronting the much-feared military giant, which would not tolerate any confrontation. Wole Soyinka (1996), a famous Nigerian playwright, could not help offering his sympathies and encouragement. He wrote:

Ogoni land, alas, only has the model space for the actualization of a long term -dreamt totalitarian onslaught on the more liberated, more politically sophisticated sections of the Nigerian polity, which have dared exposed and confront the power obsession of a minuscule but obdurate military- civilian hegemony.

In order to gain a clearer picture, it would be necessary to trace the tracts of militarisation in Nigeria.

2.1.The military and the Nigerian ethnic factor

The Nigerian military game has been one of a show of might and intimidation. Through these avenues, it extorts as well as demands blind obedience from the civilian populace. Through this means it has equally come to be associated with political power. In 1966, a military coup destabilized the new political structure that was striving to grow as an off -shoot of British colonial rule. It equally brought to an end whatever, ethnic political sentiments were beginning to rear its head. The military therefore, took over the political landscape and rather introduced ethnicity within its own ranks. The privileges (of recruitment and promotions) went to the northern part of the country. The Southern part of the country was displaced and constituted the tools of the fast military games for wealth and the stabilization of power, all geared at favouring the north military officers.

Human Rights Watch Africa (1994) has been in close contact with the military politics in Nigeria. It records the political tussle between the powerful oligarchy in the north, which has had full control of the country's military and the advocates of a civilian democracy. The latter group has had some close links with the oil producing areas of the Southeastern region of the country and sought to question the military's negligent attitude toward the minority oil-producing people - the Ogonis.

Negligence in this regard has constituted itself in many ways. The most severe of these has been the pollution of the Niger Delta area. And because the military had favoured the Predominantly Muslim north to the detriment of the rest of the country, the situation was really getting out of hand. And in 1992, Ken Saro-Wiwa dared to raise an alarm:

For 30 years the Niger -Delta people endured military oppression and have watched their environment become polluted by oil. Shell would be slapped with hefty fines if it were to pollute any European or American country one-tenth as much as it did in Nigeria. The Exxon oil spill in 1989 and the reparations afterward are still fresh in our memories.

With the involvement of Shell BP, the matter had taken a different turn. And from the foregoing, this international business concern had become a collaborator with the corrupt military governments in Nigeria. Wiwa was therefore echoing what stood as an established fact and calling attention to the fact that Shell BP should have abided by international business ethical rules. Therefore the view J. Verstraeten in this regard calls attention to the credibility of those who engage in business deals. Accordingly therefore: "A business is just more than a society of capital goods, it is also a society and community of persons."

But to what extent could Shell BP be held responsible in a situation where even the government of the country showed no concern? This leads us to considering the phenomenon of Shell neglect.

2.2. Shell Neglect

Retrospectively, the phenomenon of neglect focuses more on the fact that the Ogoni people are among the poorest in Nigeria. This was the case in spite of the fact that the nation's wealth flowed from their immediate environment. And if the military government was far away from the people's plight, at least Shell BP was closer and directly involved with and in the life of the people. Actually, Shell claimed to be offering some compensation by way of royalties. But the people's sufferings far out -weighed the meager compensation being offered. Thus Wiwa, as far back as in 1968, could not help expressing his disappointment. For instance, he wouldn't, " accept that (italics mine) the only responsibility which Shell BP owes our nation is the spoliation of our lands to satisfy the company's needs for the silly sum of five shillings for an acre in an area where 1,200 people live on each square mile of land, and the only source of income as well as subsistence is agriculture."

Clearly, Shell BP paid a deaf ear to the people's sentiments and plights. J. Hammer carefully developed some statistical data, which portray this. Following this data, 1, 27 % of Nigeria's oil production for the past forty years has amounted to something close to 15 million barrels of crude oil per annum. This goes for .001% of the county's area. This only goes to show how intense the exploitation of oil has taken place in Ogoni land, and for a long time. Statistics also show then that there are 96 oil wells, 4 oil fields, 1 petrol chemical plant, 1 fertilizer plant and 2 refineries all confined within 400 square miles of Ogoni land.

Furthermore the case was brought up by the Ogonis, requesting Shell BP to offer some reasonable compensation for the oil spillage which deprived the people of fertile land for farming and fresh water for fishing. The company turned down the request on the supposed grounds that much (estimated at 60%) of the spillage was due to sabotage. But Olukoya (1995) has kept tract with the Ministry of Petroleum's report on the official rate of spillage by Shell BP. Following this record, for 2,676 cases of oil spillage between 1976 and 1990, 38% has been due to malfunctioning of the equipment. Of that same figure, sabotage has accounted for only 18%.

Olukoya has also followed the mode of operation adopted by Shell BP in most other, though more advanced, countries. The result shows the company operates in some 100 countries. Of these, 40% of the spillage is produced in Nigeria. And the immediate cause of the spillage is mainly due to the fact that the equipment: pipes, pipeline and other materials are out dated.

A further consideration would be to investigate into the extent and effect of the spillage phenomenon.

3. Ecological problems

The problems caused by spillage as would be further shown constitute only part of the ecological disaster created by the very presence and operation of Shell's activities. In the course of its operation so much soot (black and thick smoke deposits), for instance are accumulated on house roofs around the environment. With the rains, these accumulations are washed off the rooftops onto the soil. These are believed to possess some chemicals, which adversely affect the fertility of the soil. Further studies undertaken by the worldwide Fund for Nature in Nigeria, shows that the gas emissions from these operations greatly contribute to global warming. Due to excessive operation, wild life in Ogoni land is virtually non-existent. Saro-Wiwa decried this great evil and natural deprivation, which for him constitutes a dual war on the Ogonis. He said:

In this most sophisticated and unconventional war, no bones are broken, no blood is spilled and no one is maimed; yet men, women and children die; flora, fauna and fish perish, and finally, the land dies.

Olukoya also traces further ecological problems with the construction by Shell of a four-kilometer stretch of canal. The idea is to afford Shell (heavy) equipment for work safe passage to the various locations where the company intends to drill oil. But this constituted another form of environment deprivation. According to Olukoya (basing this on reliable environmental information) this venture would drain off the entire fresh Water River in the area. With fresh water eliminated, the ecosystem is greatly altered. This implies that most plants that sustain the ecosystem system would die off with a heavy concentration of chemically polluted water. And even though the company clearly knew about the risks, the blind pursuit for profit maximization prevented it from making these risks known or enable it to provide some preventive measures.

3. 1. A general out look on the effects of environmental pollution

The sad aspect of these environmental problems is that it has affected communities mostly situated in poor countrysides where the people are not literate enough to provide any reasonable form of protection for themselves. Saro-Wiwa reflects on the situation of the Ogonis who have had to live under gas emissions, in 24 hours and for more than 35 years. Ogoni land has been virtually devastated by such hazards as acid rains, oil spillage, and other forms of accidents that have caused great harm to their lives. Dan Agbese (1995) paints a pathetic portrait: "The land that yields the crude oil yields itself to oil. Oil polluted rivers and kills fish."

Pipeline Fire
Olukoya also reports about an event of oil spillage in the Nembe creek of Ogoni. The oil flowed freely into the mangrove-wooded area. A woman was torched to death after exposing a lighted bush lantern to the spillage. The entire creek was reduced to ashes. Borrowing from this grim experience, Boyd (1995) reflects on communities that teemed with farmers and fishermen, but now reduced to wasteland despoiled with sulphur, creek and waterways poisoned by huge amounts of oil spillage.

The very fact of pipelines crossing the towns and villages of Ogoni land implies that the people must always live in the face of danger. This also points to a lapse in the manner in which Shell situates these pipelines irrespective of the fact that these are installed in living environments and as such creates great risks for the people living around. This situation is exceptional in Nigeria for the simple reason that it is one of the few countries where pipelines are recklessly placed without regard for the well-being of the people who live around. Greenpeace cites an example where Shell was to lay pipeline in the UK, from Stanlow in Cheschire to Mossmoran in Scotland. Great caution had to be taken. In the first place, "Different environmental studies were commissioned before a single turf was cut." It is regrettable to note that in Nigeria, no such visibility studies are done. If any at all are done, the results are not made known to the public.

Some implications emerge here. First of all, there is military hegemony, which favours more a certain ethnic group over the others. Next there follows the phenomenon of political marginalisation. But perhaps the more painful aspect of the situation is the ecologic/environmental problems created by oil spillage. But of greatest importance to us is the immediate situation, which highlights Shell's attitude to business among a vulnerable people who lack the technical knowledge/awareness of the ecologic risks facing them. Further, the fact that such an international business venture operates so freely within the framework of a corrupt government portrays that it is exploitative and equally corrupt in its orientation. But how should international business ventures carry on in a way considered to be ethical? This leads one to making an ethical evaluation.

3.2. Ethics in Business: Shell BP and the Ogoni case

In this section, we seek to view shell BP's functioning in light of the contribution of Business Ethics to the practice of business. We have so far delved into a lot of factors, particularly environmental, which have rather worked against the interest of the Ogoni people. An evaluative analysis should take us into other related negative effects that have arisen from the presence of this company's business activities in the Niger-Delta area of Nigeria.

3.3. Shell's collaboration with past military dictatorship

Naturally the people of Ogoni wouldn't sit by and watch their whole land been polluted and their lives deprived of a meaningful future. It had become clear that the oil company was collaborating and assisting, particularly the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. Therefore by way of providing some home support for their rights and background against the ills committed by both Oil Company and the military, the Ogonis formed a pressure group MOSOP, the Movement for the Support of the Ogoni People. Under the leadership of Ken Saro-Wiwa this group sought to publicize to the international community its plight as a people.

All through its functioning and meetings, Shell kept the Federal Military Government informed of this group's activities, singling Saro-Wiwa out as a potential risk. In response, the government in May of 1994 deployed the Nigerian Security Task Force in to the locality which then attacked and destroyed thirty Ogoni villages, killing more then a hundred persons and arresting hundreds more. The Ogonis found themselves in the midst of two evils - Shell BP and the military dictatorship. Shell had become an extension of the military dictatorship. The Daily Observer, in its publication of 28th January 1996 confirmed that:

Shell, the multinational oil giant, has admitted importing weapons into Nigeria to help arm the police. The company revealed to the Observer that the weapons are to help protect its oil installations. However, we accuse Shell of arming the dead squads who have been brutally suppressing the Ogoni people. The admissions come in the wake of reports in Nigerian newspapers that Shell placed tenders in Nigeria for the importation of arms.

The Ogonis, therefore, remained powerless in the face of police brutality and repression. Mere peaceful demonstrations often provoked a brutal police response, which was often fatal - many lives were lost in the process. Thus:

In occasions, when villagers have protested against the activities of Shell, the Nigeria police have been called in very swiftly and sometimes with fatal results to the protesting villagers. So, we have been to a very large extent powerless, powerless in the context of Nigerian politics where a small group of people, a minority who have no protection under the constitution, because its organized banditry which goes in the name of government in Nigeria does not provide for minority rights at all

This gradually led to the silencing of the people's voice - Ken Saro-Wiwa.

4. Gross violation of human rights: the trial and execution of Saro-Wiwa

The events of Saro-Wiwa's execution began with an awareness of the fact that within the Ogoni community were found perpetrators who sold the people's image to the military dictatorship and to Shell BP. Prominent among these were four Ogoni Chiefs who thrived in what they accomplished and profited by collecting bribes from the enemies of the Ogoni cause. When this came to public notice, fuelled by Saro-Wiwa himself, these men were immediately rounded by the Ogoni youths, and with public sentiments running high, they were torched to death. Of course, the military government was looking forward to an opportunity of this sort, in order to clear off Ken Saro-Wiwa from the scene. In May of 1994, he and thirteen other Ogoni activists were arrested and tried by a military tribunal. Of course the trial was merely stage-managed. While prosecution witnesses admitted being bribed possibly by Shell, the police physically attacked the defense lawyer who stood in for the accused men.

Human Rights Watch closely followed the trial. And from its reports, international legal standards were grossly violated and the defense lawyers were given a very hard time whenever they presented themselves in public.

In mid June of 1995, the defense lawyers withdrew as a mark of protest and of intimidation. A renowned jurist remarked on the nature of the judgment that was later handed down to Ken and his fellow activists:

The judgment of the tribunal is not merely wrong, illogical or perverse. It is downright dishonest. The tribunal consistently advanced arguments, which no experienced lawyer, could possibly believe to be logical or just. I believe that the tribunal first decided on its verdict and then sought for the arguments to justify them. No barrel was too deep to be scraped.

This trial went on for six months after which the men were executed, amidst international pleas for clemency from Human rights groups and world leaders.

Within this framework of events, one wonders whether, in fact, Shell BP respects their responsibilities to the community or society in their area of operation.

5. Ethics of Social Responsibility in Business

Geometric Mapping
Verstraeten calls attention to the fact that there has arisen in recent times, awareness regarding social responsibilities on the part of business concerns. And bringing it down to concrete life situations he portrays how these business concerns can actually serve society outside the sphere of profit making. Thus: "Some companies portray themselves as philanthropists, selflessly donating part of their income to social causes. In other cases, responsibility takes the shape of a more commercial oriented sponsoring."

Following this brilliant idea of business relations with the society and judging from our discussion above, one is only left with an empty situation, which has rather brought woes on the Ogonis. Can one in any way trace the slightest acceptance by such a community/society of a business concern, which has proved to be so antagonizing to the people? Shell has no legitimacy within the sphere of its business operation as far as the Niger - Delta situation is concerned.

Following Verstraeten's exposition, the idea of a social contract comes into force. He borrows from Donaldson, who links corporate citizenship to the social contract. In this scheme, any reasonable form of social contract is preceded by an original situation in which the business concern involved, finds social acceptability within the human confines of its operation. Accordingly therefore:

The moral and practical obligations of corporations with regard to society need to be considered from the perspective of the fundamental raison d' etre of productive organizations, a raison d' etre, which is the ultimate foundation of their social legitimacy.

This presupposes that such an acceptance constitutes the basis of any legal terms or contracts to be reached before a company begins its operation in any locality. Above all the good of the community is of paramount importance.

Calling attention once more to the Ogoni situation, it is evident that Shell at least had no meaningful social rapport with the people prior to its functioning in Ogoni land. This oil company had probably capitalized on the people's initial ignorance of events (which did not last for long), aided by the dominant military dictatorship, to entrench itself in the Niger -Delta.

The people, as a matter of fact had the rights to protest against such inhuman business practices. Of course there is no part of the civilized world in which a heinous business practice of that sort could be tolerated. Therefore, Verstraeten's further remark is very much in place in this regard:

If a given situation is such that a society would be better off without certain corporations, then there is no reason why they should have any legitimacy at all. Society as a contractor can accept business organizations only in so far as they contribute to enhancing the situation of all that are affected by the organization's activities. This implies not only the rule of non-maleficence and the rule of beneficence. There is more: respecting a social contract implies necessarily a respect for fundamental and inalienable human and environmental rights.

Verstraeten's outline clearly demonstrates that, in our case studies, the activities of Shell BP in the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria stand out as a disgrace to the international business community. Undoubtedly, there are other parts of the third world, which have or are still undergoing a similar experience. Resistance in any reasonable form would serve as a fitting response to situations of that sort.


Nigeria is today blessed with a promising democracy. But at the same time, what happened during the military regime may still repeat itself in perhaps a different form. Furthermore, the re-entry of democracy into the Nigerian political scene does not imply that the Ogoni environmental and other related problems are finally solved. In fact, the advent of another democratic trial in Nigeria provides an opportunity for Shell BP and other such companies to make up for the damages done to the lives of the people in these oil-producing areas (Ogoni in particular). This is a great social responsibility, which the shareholders of Shell must not overlook if the image of their company is to be redeemed.

Another important aspect is that the world has become a 'small' global village where nations share their concerns with each other. Therefore the term 'Globalization' is been provided with a wrong understanding when viewed primarily from the perspective of capital accumulation and enrichment of the wealthier nations - most often at the expense of the poorer ones. Therefore, the Nigerian-Niger Delta story continues to be told in similar terms in other parts of the third world where some international business concerns sacrifice human life and dignity at the expense of profit maximization. Thus the international community must bring pressure to bear on Shell and other oil companies in other parts of the third world to respect the ethical norms of business - on a social concrete level. Again, for the environmental disaster so created, some concern can be shown by way of deploying medical, environmental and agricultural expertise to help bring back some meaningful livelihood for these devastated peoples, and to at least heal some of these 'painful memories'.

Selected Bibliography

AGBESE, D., "Progress and Problems", in, NewsWatch, 22, 1995.

BIMBAUM, A., Travesty of law and Justice: An Analysis of the Judgment in the Case of Ken 1995.

BOYD, W., "Introduction," in, Saro-Wiwa, A Month and a Day, A Detention Diary, SOYINKA, W., The Open Sore of a Continent: A personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, New York, Oxford, 1996.

BRAITHWAITH, S., "EarthArc, Eyewitness Account After Site Visit", January 47, Daily Sunray, 1995.

DUDLEY, B. J., Politics and Crisis in Nigeria, Ibadan, 1973.

DUODU, C., "Shell Admits Importing Guns for Nigerian Police", Observer 28/ 1/ 96.

GILMAN, A., "The development of Social Stratification in Bronze Age in Europe", in, Current Anthropology, 22 1981, (1- 24).

HAMMER, J., "Statistics", cited in, BASTIAN, M. L., Buried Beneath Six Feet of Crude Oil and the Absence Body of Ken Saro- Wiwa: A Paper presented to the University of Africanist Conference; "The Struggle for Civil Society in Post Colonial Africa," May 31 - June 2, 1996.

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH/ AFRICA, Nigeria, 'The dawn of a New Dark Age': Human Rights Abuses Rampant as Military declares Absolute Power, 1994, (2 - 26).

OLUKOYA, S., "Why the seethe: Oil Producing Communities in Nigeria and Oil Producing Companies are not doing Enough for them", NewsWatch, 22, (10 - 15).

SARO - WIWA, K., Shell in Ogoni and the Niger Delta, Emiroaf, 8 December 1992.

SARO-WIWA, K., Ogoni Movement of Truth, Port Harcourt, 1994.

SARO-WIWA, K., Oil Tragedy in Nigeria, (Port Harcourt: 1992), 11 - 13.

SARO-WIWA, K., The Ogoni Nation Today and Tomorrow, Port Harcourt, 1992.

VERSTRAETEN, J., "From Business Ethics to the Vocation of Business Leaders to Humanize the World of Business", in, A European Review, 7 (April 1998) 2, 111 - 124.