Three weeks ago in the oil rich but impoverished Niger Delta, the Nigerian military reportedly attacked several villages, leaving hundreds, possibly thousands dead. It is the latest incident in the ongoing struggle between armed insurgent groups and the Nigerian military for control of the creeks, lowland rainforest, and mangroves from which flow 80 percent of Nigeria's oil.
This week, in a United States District court room in Manhattan, Royal Dutch Shell will go on trial for crimes against humanity surrounding its role in the execution by hanging of author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.
These events, separated by an ocean and fourteen years, are intrinsically linked. To understand either, one needs to understand the environmental disaster that the oil industry has caused in the Niger Delta.
Oil accounts for eighty percent of export earnings for Nigeria, and ninety-five percent of government revenue. Shell is the largest multinational presence in the country, and has been since the days of British colonial rule. It is the sole operator of a joint venture that is responsible for the majority of Nigeria's oil production.
The most visible impact of the oil industry on the Niger Delta is the constant presence of gas flares. Hundreds of flares higher than buildings, and louder than 747s, burn night and day. In some cases these flares have roared continuously for 50 years since oil was discovered in Nigeria.
Natural gas is a by-product of oil drilling. In most of the world, this gas -- called "associated gas," because of its association with oil production -- is either used for energy or re-injected into the well. In Nigeria, Shell and other oil companies burn it in a process known as gas flaring. Enough gas is flared every year to meet much of the local energy needs of Nigeria and neighboring countries.
And then, there are the spills. Roughly 1.5 million tons of oil has spilled in the Niger Delta ecosystem over the past 50 years -- equal to about one "Exxon Valdez" spill each year. Many of the spills have taken place in sensitive habitats for birds, fish and other wildlife, leading to further loss of biodiversity and, in turn, further impoverishment of local communities. The spills pollute local water sources that people depend on for drinking, cooking, bathing, and fishing. They also release dangerous fumes into the air, sometimes rendering villages uninhabitable and causing serious illness for those who are unable to relocate. Many of the oil spills can be attributable to poorly maintained infrastructure such as aging pipelines.
Community efforts to end this situation began in 1970, when local leaders first complained to the Nigerian authorities about the oil companies, and Shell in particular. They were rebuffed, as were other communities around the Delta, for the next twenty years.
In 1990, the Ogoni, a small ethnic group within the Delta, drafted what they called their "Bill of Rights", which included the "right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradation". Led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni were vocally nonviolent in their struggle. By early 1993 they had organized so effectively that Shell was forced to abandon their flares and wells in Ogoni.
What happened over the next few years, and exactly what role Shell played, is what the jury in lower Manhattan must examine. We know Ogoni villages were attacked, and hundreds, perhaps thousands were killed. We know that President Clinton made a last minute appeal for Saro-Wiwa's life. We know that Saro-Wiwa and eight others were tried and hanged by a military tribunal that was widely condemned by human rights organizations and the British government as unjust.
We also know, unfortunately, that the message these actions sent - loud and clear - to the people of the Niger Delta was that nonviolence wouldn't work, and could get you killed. What has followed is a descent into a spiral of violence that continues to this day.
The issues that communities have been bringing forward for forty years are still ongoing. Spills are still commonplace, flares continue unabated, and poverty is rampant in the midst of the extraction of billions of dollars of oil wealth. Clearly Nigeria's federal government is failing its people, but it is also important to ask why Shell, the largest company in Nigeria, continues to operate in an area where the price of its oil operations is so tragically high.
On May 22, Nigeria's Parliament passed a resolution authorizing President Yar'Adua to widen the military offensive against the Nigerian villagers who have taken up arms. Shell's stock rose slightly in early trading.