Africa, Headlines

NIGERIA: Shell Under Renewed Pressure To Withdraw

IPS Correspondents

LONDON, Nov 15 1995 (IPS) - Oil giant Shell came under renewed pressure to halt its operations in Nigeria Wednesday but continued to defy the critics, maintaining that its “quiet diplomacy” was the appropriate way to try to handle the military regime.

Emeke Achebe, a Director of Shell Nigeria, told the BBC that his company did “what we thought was right” in making a low key appeal for clemency for writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other human rights activists. All nine were hung last Friday.

Saro-Wiwa’s son Ken Wiwa denounced the company’s efforts as inadequate. Addressing the European parliament in Strasbourg Wednesday he said Shell had shown an “absolutely astonishing” disregard for the international outcry against the nine executions.

The Conservative group in the European Parliament called for an oil embargo against Nigeria. The European Union is to freeze all aid for Nigeria which did not directly benefit its people, and intends banning arms exports and tightening existing visa restrictions instead.

The World Bank official responsible for West Africa, Oliver Lafoucade, has cancelled a planned visit to Lagos this week.

South African Broadcasting has reported that South African president Nelson Mandela has said he intends to issue a direct appeal to the United States and Britain to impose oil sanctions.

Replying to Ken Wiwa’s complaint that Shell wrote only one letter calling for clemency, Achebe said the company “wrote immediately after the judgment was passed and before the ruling council confirmed it. That was the only time you could intervene.

“We would have liked Ken Saro-Wiwa not to have been killed and everyone would have done what they could to prevent that,” Achebe told the BBC. “But we did what we thought was right to quietly persuade and to avoid getting mixed up with the political and legal process.”

Writing in the London Independent, Shell regional coordinator with responsibility for Africa, Dick van den Broek, argued that the worldwide threats against the Nigerian regime may have had more to do with the rapid execution of the nine activists.

He said that Nigerian authorities always reacted badly to threats. “Did the protestors understand the risk they were taking (in challenging the regime)? Did the protest become more important that the purpose?”

Shell is the major producer of oil and gas in Nigeria, running about half of the West African state’s oil output of 1.7 million barrels a day. It successfully weathered years of protests and boycotts to pull out of South Africa during the apartheid era.

It maintains that it cannot interfere in Nigerian internal politics, while expressing “deep regret” at the killings.

“There is no way Shell can avoid culpability,” said Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, in an interview published by the Los Angeles Times Wednesday. “I believe a worldwide campaign should be launched against Shell products until they change their stance.

The oil giant has consistently denied any responsibility for the deaths of Saro-Wiwa and the other campaigners for rights for the 500,000-strong Ogoni minority who live atop one of Nigeria’s richest oil fields. It also rejects charges that its operations caused environmental damage to the Ogoni homelands.

“The only way Shell can wash its hands clean of blood is to stop all negotiations with the regime on their liquefied natural gas project that is so dear to Abacha’s bulging pockets,” he added.

But Shell says it will press on with the four billion dollar liquefied natural gas project, Africa’s biggest-ever single project investment deal. Shell has avoided a strong reassertion of its commitment to the scheme in public statements since the execution, but it has continued to stress its value to the people of Nigeria.

“Let’s be clear who gets hurt if the project is cancelled,” wrote van den Broek. “Not the Nigerian government. Revenues won’t start flowing until the next century. But a cancellation would hurt the thousands of Nigerians who will be working on the project and the tens of thousands more working in the local economy.”

So far major oil buyers have stopped short of endorsing an oil boycott. Europe and Japan are heavily exposed to an estimated 30 billion dollars in Nigerian debt, which makes both unwilling to put new squeezes on Lagos.

Without a total worldwide ban, Nigeria would easily find buyers elsewhere for its high quality sweet crude oil. And the U.S. has a problem with adding a Nigerian oil boycott to its existing ones against Iraq, Iran and Libya. Nigeria is the fifth largest oil exporter to the United States.

Last September Shell and others among Nigeria’s foreign business partners agreed to raise exploration and production investment following a pact with the state Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation over outstanding debt repayments.

The pact was supposed to resolve a string of production disruptions blamed on political uncertainty surrounding Nigeria’s foreign joint ventures, sabotage, a two-month strike last year that left lingering technical problems and a technology and investment switch in favour of gas projects.

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