Oil Companies are not Divesting in Nigeria, they are Fleeing Accountability and Justice
Being text of a media briefing by We the People during the presentation of its new report ‘Dirty Exit’ in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State.
15th April, 2023.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen of the media, we welcome you to this media briefing specifically
organized to discuss the divestment moves of multi-national oil companies in the Niger Delta, and present We the People’s research report on the same subject.
After 64-years, the Nigerian crude oil sector is passing through an unprecedented twist in the investment direction of key transnational oil companies. In May 2021, Shell announced that it plans to sell off all its onshore oil assets and go into ‘deep waters’, as part of moves it describes as ‘divestment’. In April of the following years, Total also announced that it was selling off its onshore and shallow water assets. Earlier in 2019, ExxonMobil had made public that it will be putting up for sale its oil and gas field and has since concluded plans to divest to a Nigerian company called Seplat Energy for $1.2 billion. In the same year, news emerged that Chevron was equally selling off several of its oilfields located in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.These major oil companies blame their decision to leave the Niger Delta- an area they have operated in for over 6 decades- on growing acts of resistance by communities. According to Total’s CEO, their plans to leave is because “disruption of local communities are sources of great concerns”. For Shell, their CEO claims, they are divesting because investing in the Niger Delta now represents “an exposure that doesn’t fit with our risk appetite anymore” They also claim that Niger Delta communities are making too much demand on them for handouts.
Clearly, the consensus among international oil companies operating in Nigeria’s Niger Delta is to sell off their onshore assets (oil assets on land, shallow waters and in close proximity to communities) and leave the region. While they publicly claim that their divestment moves are driven by security concerns, the reality is that these companies have never been bothered by security and community resistance. Their operations have always been guaranteed by the might of the Nigerian armed forces who characteristically repress communities to protect the interest of these fossil companies. In 1990, the people of Umuechem in Rivers state, a place where Shell has extracted crude oil from since 1958 demanded environmental justice and more benefits from the crude oil taken from their lands, Shell summoned the ‘Mobile’ tactical unit of the Nigeria Police, known at the time for their extra dose of brutality. The peaceful protest of the Umuechem people was met with violence; large parts of the community was razed and 100 people murdered. In the 30 years following the Umuechem Massacre, nobody has been held to account and Shell continued to extract crude oil on its terms in Umuechem.
The Ogoni experience of state repression is better known. Organized under the banner of Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, the people nonviolently demanded the remediation of their environment and some benefits from oil extraction. Again, acting on the instruction and in the interest of Shell, the Nigerian military unleashed terror on the Ogoni people. Thousands of community people were killed, raped and exiled. The leadership of MOSOP including Ken Saro Wiwa was executed on the recommendations of a stage-managed military tribunal amidst global outrage. Till today, several Ogonis remain in exile, too traumatized to return. Shell and its Nigeria partners have never been held to account for the atrocities committed.
The same trajectory continues till this day in several communities in the Niger Delta.
Extracting with Impunity
While oil companies prefer to describe the places they extract crude oil from as ‘host’ communities, the reality is that these are ‘occupied’ communities where farmlands, rivers and creeks from where the people traditionally made a living, have been taken over by companies without the free, prior and informed consent of the people. At no time in the history of oil extraction where the indigenous people of the area consulted. From the very start, oil extraction operated as a deadly mix of corporate profiteering and military repression.
Oil extraction operations are tremendously impactful on communities who live around places where these activities take place. In the case of Nigeria, this has been made worse by the fact that some of the richest oil and gas fields are located in the homestead of millions of indigenous people. Several of them are in the lands communities have farmed on for generations, in the rivers they fish in, and the wetlands they gather their aquatic livelihoods from. The 7000 kilometres of rusty oil conveying pipes that crisscross the Niger Delta poses a major threat to the survival of the people. Regularly, these pipes rupture and release crude oil that pollute farmlands and rivers, destroying the ecosystem, wildlife, farmlands, fisheries and lives. In the 6- year period between 2015 and 2021, there were 4,919 documented oil spills in Nigeria. Several more spills, especially those offshore and farther away from community scrutiny are never reported officially.
The effects of oil spills are immediate and devastating. A few barrels of oil spilled into the river kills off
fishes and other aquatic species, sending numerous fishing families into starvation. The same impacts are felt by farmer-folks when the spills occur on land. Communities trace health risks including unusually early menopause in women, some as young as 25-years old, respiratory and heart related symptoms, rise in cancer cases etc. to the impacts of oil extraction. In a region where medical care is scarce, the impact on mortality has been alarming. While life expectancy in Nigeria is one of the lowest in the world at 54-years, in the Niger Delta, it is between 41 and 46 years.
If there was ever any doubt about the devastation of oil pollution on indigenous communities, it was put to rest in 2011 when the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP concluded an assessment of some oil impacted areas in Ogoniland. The UNEP assessment report showed how pollution had contaminated drinking water sources, and exposed communities to severe health risks. Drinking water was found to contain high levels of a cancer causing chemical called benzene 900 times above permitted levels. Following the ‘polluter pays’ principle, Shell and the Nigerian oil Company were asked to pay for cleaning up the area, an exercise expected to cost $1billion and last between 25 and 30 years.
It is the fear of being legally demanded to pay for cleaning up 6 decades of ecological damage that is
driving oil companies to hurriedly divest. The timeline of events leading to Shell’s announcement of its
divestment plans in May 2021 tells a compelling story. In November 2020, a Nigerian court ruled that the company was liable for destruction caused by oil spilled from its facility in Rivers State which destroyed farmlands. Shell was asked to pay a compensation of 800 billion naira to the plaintiffs and immediately remediation the polluted sites. Two months after in January 2021, a Dutch appeal court ruled that Shell was responsible for several oil spills from its pipelines in the Niger Delta. It was ordered to pay damages for the attendant contamination and loses. The ruling was the outcome of a suit instituted by 4 farmers in the Niger Delta and the Friends of the Earth in 2008. For oil companies accustomed to operating with impunity and zero accountability, these rulings have been a major turning point. Distraught by the legal demand for accountability, Shell announced it was divesting four months later.
Divesting to Escape Justice
For decades, oil companies have operated recklessly with devastating ecological and social footprints.
Several investigations have indicted international oil companies in cases of environmental pollution that have eroded livelihoods, poisoned communities, and created conditions for human rights abuses that have resulted in displacements, incarceration and deaths. For many victims, seeking justice in Nigerian courts was not an option. The courts and the Nigerian state have always tended to side with oil companies who operate above the law. To demand justice, abused communities opted to take their cases against oil companies to courts in the home countries of those companies. In 2013, the Dutch lower court ruled that the parent company of Shell could not be legally held responsible for abuses committed by its Nigerian subsidiary. When this pronouncement was appealed, the decision was overturned, affirming that it was within the jurisdiction of the court to handle cases involving the Nigerian subsidiary of Shell. Since that landmark ruling on the responsibility of the Shell parent company to answer for the crimes committed by its Nigeria wing, there has been a new wave of litigations in Nigeria and in the home countries of oil companies demanding justice for abuses. For communities in the Niger Delta, there is finally the opportunity to hold oil companies accountable for decades of destruction. It is anxiety over these mounting demands for justice that is driving international oil companies to divest. In the thinking of these oil companies, selling off their assets will technically pass the buck of responsibility for fixing their mess to Nigerian firms who are ignorantly buying them.
For occupied communities who have lost everything to oil extraction in the last 6 decades, what oil
companies are doing is not divestment, but criminal flight, attempting to abdicating responsibility for
several years of poisoning the environment and people of the Niger Delta. They must never be allowed to simply run off.
Our demands and recommendations are as follows;
1. The federal government should immediate place a moratorium on all oil company divestment in the Niger Delta, pending the ascertaining of issues of community concern.
2. The federal government needs to immediately produce a framework and guide for how oil
companies disengage from areas where they have operated. This guide should be developed by a
multi stakeholder group including communities and civil society organizations. The divestment
framework must contain the following requirement for oil companies;
i. A scientifically developed post hydrocarbon impact assessment report that establishes the exact ecological and livelihoods impacts of oil extraction.
ii. A health audit of people located in close proximity to extraction sites, and others exposed to oil contamination and gas flaring. This audit will aim at unravelling the negative health
impacts of exposure to hydrocarbons.
iii. A detailed plan and costing for remediating the ecological, livelihood and health impacts of extraction.
iv. The establishment of independent frameworks for remediating all identified impacts.