Nigerian Shell Games

Ogoni people protesting Shell in Nigeria. Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan.

Ogoni people protesting Shell in Nigeria. Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan.

The Niger River is the third-longest African river and also has the largest river delta in Africa which rests in southern Nigeria. Of the 27 million people living near the Niger Delta, about 75 percent of the population relies on the environment for their livelihood. This region of Nigeria is also known as Ogoniland, which has a population of 832,000. Once a vibrant source of diverse wildlife and fish as well as a lush landscape, the area surrounding the Niger riverbanks is now vastly different, causing hardship for the people who rely on it for subsistence.

Royal Dutch Shell is a multinational Anglo-Dutch corporation that reported earnings of $18.9 billion in the first three-quarters of 2012. While bringing in these profits, Shell has simultaneously committed crimes against humanity, decimating one of the world’s most important deltas and destroying the health of entire communities while passing blame to local Nigerian governments.

Shell has been producing oil in Ogoniland since 1958 and in the past 50 years an estimated 1.5 million tons of oil has spilled into the Niger Delta. The oil spills have decimated the habitats of birds, fish and other wildlife, polluted local water sources and released dangerous fumes that have turned the air into a cancerous perfume.

Shell also engages in the dangerous practice of gas flaring, a process where natural gas is burned instead of used, which sends huge toxic plumes into the air. Despite multiple attempts to stop Shell from gas flaring, it’s been reported as recently as 2010 that the company has actually increased gas flaring in the Niger Delta.


Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of nine Ogoni community activists executed after a grossly unfair trial in 1995. Photo courtesy of Modern Global Communities.

As bleak as these realities are, the Ogoni people have been actively trying to reclaim their land. In 1990 Ken Saro-Wiwa — a Nigerian writer and environmental activist — founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).  Between 1990 and 1995 MOSOP led demonstrations, presented the government with an Ogoni Bill of Rights and succeeded in getting Shell to stop exploration and production of oil in the Ogoni region. Unfortunately, its pipelines, facilities and infrastructure remain which have allowed for many more oil spills — the latest of which was in 2009.

Yet these victories came with a bloody cost. Though Saro-Wiwa was committed to nonviolent action, at Shell’s behest, support and bankrolling, the Nigerian military conducted deadly raids against the Ogoni people to repress the growing movement. As a result, four community leaders were killed and Ken Saro-Wiwa–along with other MOSOP leaders–was arrested on trumped-up charges and ultimately hanged in 1995. There is a damning level of evidence to suggest Shell’s complicity in these murders including a $15.5 million settlement with the Wiwa family to stop publicly accusing the corporation of having any complicity in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death.

Shell is guilty of environmental devastation, crimes against humanity, conspiracy, torture and terrorism while only peripherally accepting blame and being marginally penalized for its atrocities.

While the people of Ogoniland live in poverty, the CEO of Shell made 15.3 million dollars in 2011. The Niger Delta is one of the 10 most important wetlands and marine ecosystems in the world and yet Shell continues to dodge any mention of compensation to Nigerians for the destruction of this land. It seems that corporate accountability in this profit-maximizing age is nonexistent. Shell seemingly gets a free pass in dismantling the lives of poor, rural Black people who have lived and worked on this land for thousands of years.

Just over two months ago a Dutch court acquitted Shell on four out of five allegations regarding its hand in the Niger Delta region. This outcome is bleak at best, but there are many organizations that are dedicated to fighting this injustice and holding Shell accountable for their actions. Groups like Earth Rights International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Justice in Nigeria Now and MOSOP have been consistent in their condemnation of Shell’s presence in the Niger River Delta.  In addition, in 2011 the United Nations Environment Programme released an extensive assessment of the situation in the region and describes the unimaginable scope of land, air and water contamination, species endangerment and growing public health crises occurring on the ground in Ogoniland. Wondering what you can do? Boycott Shell and Lift Up Your Voice in Protest.

by Shannon Shird

Editor’s Note: Many of the facts and figures mentioned in this article were gathered from the United Nations Environmental Program “Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland” which can be downloaded here.

Leave a comment


  1. Jacquie Brethen

     /  May 1, 2013

    How did they acquire the land?


  2. Lauren Silver

     /  May 9, 2013

    The author’s comment, “Shell seemingly gets a free pass in dismantling the lives of poor, rural Black people who have lived and worked on this land for thousands of years” holds true not only in this context, but more widely throughout international human rights violations that consistently disproportionately effect minorities, the poor, and the disenfranchised. This article brought to light that the legacy of colonialism is frighteningly pervasive.


  3. Amanda Crabbe

     /  February 17, 2014

    I recently read an article for my International Black Social Movements Class titled “Cross-National Environmental Injustice and Human Rights Issues” by Francis Adeola. Much of the article discussed issues on environmental injustice and human rights violations, specifically related to the Ogoni People. In addition to your statement: “While the people of Ogoniland live in poverty, the CEO of Shell made 15.3 million dollars in 2011.”, I found that not only are monetary compensations missing in this unequal relationship, but standards for a healthy lifestyle are non-existent. For example, while Royal Dutch Shell “have taken more than $30 billion from Ogoniland, leaving behind ecological devastation, destitution and environmentally induced illnesses”, there is no input back into the community to create more infrastructure, such as safe roads, hospitals, schools and electricity. Seems to be increasingly obvious that this is a one-sided relationship. Now, how to make the multinational oil corporations see it too?


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