ourEconomy: Interview

'Oil companies owe a debt to the lives destroyed'

In this interview, Ken Henshaw explains why Nigerians are demanding reparations for over 60 years of Shell oil extraction

Ken Henshaw Freddie Stuart
27 December 2021, 8.00am
An Ogoni woman participating in a Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) rally in the Niger Delta
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Adrian Arbib / Alamy Stock Photo

Ken Henshaw is the executive director of We The People, a nongovernmental organisation based in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Henhaw works closely with local communities to expand civic engagement and organise around environmental and ecological justice.

In this transcribed interview between Henshaw and journalist Freddie Stuart, Henshaw discusses the history of British colonialism in Nigeria, the legacy of the multinational oil company Royal Dutch Shell in the Niger Delta, and the local indigenous front-line communities demanding reparations for the destruction caused by crude oil extraction.

Segments of this interview originally appeared in the ‘Planet B’ podcast series as part of the Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal project from the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Freddie Stuart: In your piece for Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal you outline the historical context of corporate profiteering and state repression in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. In particular you cite the 1895 British burning of Brass – a thriving trading site in the Delta – in order to secure a palm oil monopoly for British companies. Can you tell us more about this incident and how it is representative of the broader history of British colonialism in Nigeria?

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Ken Henshaw: British colonialism in Nigeria was overtly tilted in favour of European traders over local Nigerian communities. When the Niger Delta kingdoms tried to break the monopoly of the Portuguese they were brutally repressed. When the king in Brass tried to get a fairer trade agreement it resulted in a massacre. This relation of production between European traders and local traders in Nigeria has continued into the fabric of the relations of production in the oil sector.

The major drivers have always been Europeans, while the locals were seen as hewers of wood and drawers of water – getting the short end of every business deal.

There are many instances where European traders – working alongside European nations – repressed local businesses to give an edge to European businesses. This continued until colonial times when the relations of production became more formal in support of British colonialism. At that point, what we saw was the establishment of formal colonialism in Africa to the extent that Africans became subjects of the British crown.

Under British colonialism, again, the relations of production were overtly tilted in favour of Europeans. All infrastructure established during the colonising mission fed into the existing relations of production that supported the British.

For example, when rail lines were built in Nigeria, they all began from the hinterland and ran to the coast to promote the movement of goods to be exported to Europe. Even the Nigerian police force which the colonists created – and in 1960 independent Nigeria inherited – was established to create order while the pillaging and exploitation continued. Even governance structures were created in that manner: governments in Nigeria do not reflect a genuine and sincere need to speak to the needs of the people. Instead, governance is created to serve the purposes of protecting an elite, either locally or internationally.

FS: Can you tell us about the growth of oil extraction in the Niger Delta in the 1950s, and how the new oil economy took on these same colonial patterns of commerce you just outlined? In particular, can you talk about the role of multinational corporations in creating and maintaining these neocolonial systems of oppression?

KH: In the early 1940s it was discovered that Nigeria was a promising place for oil extraction. Drilling licences were awarded by the colonial authorities, with the first given to Shell, which was the first to discover crude oil in commercial quantities.

From the start of the extraction, there was no conversation with the local communities in the Niger Delta, where the crude oil was deposited. The conversation existed only between the colonial authorities and oil companies owned by the colonialists.

The agenda was not to find ways of tapping this new resource to impact the people of the Niger Delta in any meaningful way. The conversation was how this resource could be channelled out of the country to contribute to the economy, welfare and development of Britain and Europe. While it's fashionable today to say that before any resource project is established you need to have prior and informed consent of the people – that never happened here. Oil extraction was always an imposition from without. An imposition against the people. And that's why the people feel they have been completely alienated from the oil industry in Nigeria.

When Nigeria became independent in 1960, the oil companies had to enter a relationship with Nigeria’s government to sustain the same relations of production and extraction. In this new relationship, the same level of protection was extended by the Nigerian security forces, judiciary and ruling elite to the oil companies over and above the interests of locals.

FS: In 1992, the Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa said, “The Ogoni have been gradually ground to dust by the combined effort of the multinational oil company, Shell, the murderous ethnic majority in Nigeria and the country’s military dictatorships.” Can you outline how this relationship exists today, and what role the international community has played in perpetuating this dynamic?

KH: In the 1990s, the Ogoni ethnic nationality, located in a part of the Niger Delta where some of the largest oil fields are owned and extracted by Shell, demanded a better deal from the Nigerian government and the oil company. They simply said that we have not seen any benefits from oil extraction in our community. On the contrary, what we have seen is a system of environmental destruction that denies the people their livelihoods. The people are fishermen and farmers, and oil extraction has polluted our farmlands, made it impossible to put seeds in the ground and for those seeds to germinate at the right time and produce food for the people. We have fishermen who can no longer go fishing because the rivers are dead with no form of aquatic life.

By 1990, the Ogoni people had become completely destitute because of oil extraction. The environmental rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa demanded to redefine that relationship [between local people and the oil company]. The people were simply saying, “listen, you either clean the mess you’ve made here, or you stop extraction so that we can see if our land can heal.”

Debt for us means that the people who destroyed people’s lives and livelihoods bear responsibility for fixing what was destroyed

The same repression between the state and the oil companies kicked in. Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) were violently repressed by the Nigerian state. Thousands of people were wounded or killed, women were raped, properties were destroyed, and today Ogonis still live in countries outside Nigeria as refugees seeking political asylum. I've been in a community called Ouidah in Benin where there’s a large settlement of Ogonis still too traumatised to come back home to Nigeria. They remain there essentially out of trauma.

But surprisingly, for the first time in the history of people’s fight against multinationals, the Ogonis were able to stop Royal Dutch Shell from continuing the extraction of crude oil in their territory.

Shell’s activity on Ogoni land followed a textbook alliance between the repressive state and the oil companies. We saw oil company officials actually deploy troops. We saw Nigerian forces doing the bidding of oil companies. We saw a situation where, at one point, Nigerian forces were armed and clothed by oil companies. We saw a kangaroo trial with Shell representatives sitting in the courtroom, observing the proceedings, influencing the process of the trial and ensuring it achieved the end they desired.

This happened on Ogoni land. But we have seen the same pattern in other parts of the Niger Delta. We have seen situations where communities have made resilient acts of dissent, asking for a better deal for the oil industry. And the response of the state at the invitation of the oil company has always been the same level of repression.

With the oil industry in Nigeria, what we have is a single column with two faces. One face is white, it’s neat. It has a corporate image. It has a corporate identity. It has its base in Europe and it pretends to be holy. The other face is armed, repressive and rough. But they are one coin. One exact coin. They operate and drive towards the same benefits. The Ogoni people suffered the sharp end of this unholy alliance. And many other ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta continue to suffer this until today.

And unfortunately the international community has not done as much as it should to address these kinds of concerns. We have seen a new pattern where local communities in the Niger Delta, who feel they have been deprived and abused by oil companies, seek justice outside Nigeria. They go to The Hague and elsewhere looking for justice because the unholy alliance between the repressive state and the oil companies will not give them justice in Nigeria. In two or three cases, they’ve actually been able to get justice. But these are just a few instances. In the overwhelming majority of instances, oil companies continue to repress people, continue to abuse rights and destroy livelihoods.

The international community needs to take those landmark cases they are hearing in Europe as indicators of far larger actions happening on the ground here on a daily basis. The international community needs to start being proactive and realise that what is happening here in Nigeria, between the government and the oil industry, is not business. It is criminality.

FS: Can you tell us about the indigenous people of the Niger Delta whose livelihoods depend on the land and rivers in which crude oil is found, and explain how these people have been systematically excluded from any decision-making over what happens to the land they live on?

KH: The people of the Niger Delta live mostly along the delta of the River Niger, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and around the Gulf of Guinea. It’s mostly fishermen who live around the creeks and on marshy lands. And those who live inland, on more firm ground, are farmers.

Historically these fishermen and farmers lived in a territory where, as far back as 1957, a colonial government identified their case as special and said in a report that the needs of the people who live in these creeks and swamps are very different from those who live elsewhere – meaning that the development needs of the Niger Delta people were more complex than those of other people. Unfortunately nothing has been done.

Before crude oil was found in commercial quantities in Nigeria, the people made a very decent living from their fishing activities. They extracted palm oil. In fact, in pre-colonial times, palm oil was the major product coming from this area. This was part of what fuelled the industrial revolution in Europe.

But when oil came, it deflected attention from those places and livelihoods. What used to be very fruitful and fertile farmland became massive oil fields. What used to be massive forests dedicated to hunting by indigenous people got destroyed by gas flaring that has continued in the region unabated for over 60 years. What used to be the people’s source of fish, crab, shrimps and other aquatic life have gotten polluted by oil extraction and oil spills that continue non-stop.

Since the extraction of crude oil started in Nigeria, there has never been a time when there are no ongoing oil spills. In 2011, after extensive examination of the soil on Ogoni land, the United Nations Environment Programme declared that the Ogoni environment had been so terribly devastated that it could take up to 30 years to bring it back to a healthy state – which may amount to the largest environmental remediation exercise ever embarked on by man. Just starting the cleaning process will cost about $1bn. The whole Niger Delta, with oil extracted non-stop for more than 60 years, suffers from the same environmental pollution.

If you take the example of the UN report on Ogoni land, you can work out that it would take perhaps trillions of dollars to clean up the mess the multinational oil companies have made in this part of the country as a whole.

And any time the people demand better they are repressed. From being very rich fishermen and farmers, the people of the Niger Delta region have become destitute. You go to communities in the region and you find that the only major source of entertainment over the weekend are burials. You drive into a community and you see posters of people who are dead, announcing, “Thank God for a life well spent.” And you see that the life well spent is just 28 years, 30 years, 40 years – because of the poisons of oil extraction, life has become poor, nasty, brutish and very short in the Niger Delta region.

In 1990, the people of Umuechem decided that after 20 years of oil extraction in their lands, the promises that Shell had made to them about infrastructure development, job opportunities, scholarships and schools had not come to fruition. After several messages were sent to the company to demand to know what had become of the promises, the people decided that the best way to get the attention of the oil company was to step out and protest.

They chose a location that is kilometres away from any oil infrastructure, and went on peaceful mass protests. Shell again invoked the unholy alliance between it and the Nigerian state and called in the mobile police force. At that time, this was the country’s fiercest police unit, often referred to as ‘Kill and Go’. So Shell invited the Nigerian mobile police force, which came into the community and unleashed what remains one of the biggest terrors in the history of Nigeria. People were killed and dumped in the river. Some people ran into the palace of the community’s king and locked the door. The king came out to his balcony and tried to persuade the security forces to cease their fire and they killed him. The house was locked from outside and set ablaze, and several more died.

A panel of inquiry found that the Nigerian security forces had used excessive force in dealing with the Umuechem people. Damages were awarded and cheques were issued to people who had suffered the impact of that terrible incident. However, the cheques bounced.

Again, the Umuechem people of the Niger Delta had been cheated. There are many, many instances of this unholy alliance in action, where the oil companies and the Nigerian state have aimed at doing just one thing: cheating the people, extracting as much crude oil as they can, making maximum profits, while the livelihoods, the environment, the health and the lives of the people of the Niger Delta region are destroyed.

FS: You write that for these indigenous people, “Any kind of transition must depart from the rather narrow fixation on jobs; it must address the consequences of decades of reckless and mindless oil extraction.” What must be the central focus of this healing process? What would a truly just and fair system of reparations look like?

KH: Unfortunately the global conversation about a Green New Deal hardly ever reflects a deal that is also just. When we talk about transition, it's mostly around jobs – creating jobs that are greener, that are less destructive of the environment.

Unfortunately that narrative is gaining prominence even in Nigeria, where the conversation around transition has forgotten the role of justice. I think that in thinking about the Green New Deal, in thinking about transitions, we need to ask everybody: where are they currently? What are they transitioning from and what are they transitioning to?

So when you speak to the people of the Niger Delta region, who have lost jobs due to oil extraction, who have their wealth expropriated by the oil industry on a daily basis, whose agency and strength have been weakened by the oil industry – if you ask them what a just transition means for them, there’s no prospect for them around new green jobs. No, there are no new green jobs to go to, because their jobs, their livelihood sources of fishing and farming, have been taken away from them. They can't turn back to the land, because the land has been destroyed. So where are they going back to? What are they transitioning to?

And before transition, there first needs to be justice. There first needs to be reparations. For the people in Niger Delta, transition and reparations must necessarily involve cleaning up the years of oil pollution; restoring the people's ability to live off the land; reinventing the people's strength and sense of pride.

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This was taken away from them by the oil industry in the 1950s. They have been kept repressed, destitute and starving for over 60 years. If they are going to transition, we need to first start asking the question: what has been the impact of oil on these people, their health, their livelihood, their environment, their way of life? And we need to repair it. We need to make reparations for those issues and to the region. This is the real meaning of transition, not moving jobs. It’s giving people back their lives, which have been taken away from them.

The conversation around transition is a conversation that must be had differently with different people. ‘Transition’ means something totally different in Europe and in industrial societies where extraction is limited, where welfare benefits are available, where people live a life that's considered decent and fairly OK. That conversation is essentially different from the conversation you need to have with people who live in a third world community that has been deprived for centuries – where oil has been extracted non-stop; where their livelihood sources have been destroyed and they have no education, no power supply, no security, no welfare; and where they have been in conflict for upwards of 20 years. The conversation is totally different.

FS: In the context of Nigeria, in the context of oil extraction and repression in the Niger Delta, what does debt mean? What do reparations mean for the people of Nigeria?

KH: Debt, in the context of Nigeria, in the context of oil extraction, in the context of Niger Delta communities, is not necessarily financial – debt involves reparations and restitution.

We cannot simply run away from years of destruction. The oil companies cannot literally invade a country, destroy the environment, extract their resources mindlessly and ruthlessly for over 60 years, and then when they are done, pack their bags and go away leaving the people with holes in the ground, destroyed livelihoods, destroyed rivers, destroyed farmlands and destroyed psyches. No.

Debt for us means that the people who committed environmental atrocities are held to account for the actual atrocities they committed. Debt for us means that the people who destroyed people’s lives and livelihoods bear responsibility for fixing what was destroyed.

Currently, most of the oil companies in Nigeria are now involved in something called divestment. They are changing their names, and no longer calling themselves oil companies, but energy companies. Most of them are selling off their assets and leaving the country. They are selling assets, but not their liabilities – their environmental, ecological and livelihood liabilities. They’re leaving those for us.

The companies who did these things owe a debt to the lives destroyed. A debt to fix the lands destroyed. For us, the conversation around movement away from the age of oil is incomplete without restoration of what was destroyed in the age of oil.

There is no way we can dance around this argument. Oil destroyed the lives of countless communities and people in the Niger Delta region and left a debt which has to be repaid. It is a debt of clean-up, a debt of restitution, a debt of accountability. And it is a debt which the people in the Niger Delta region are poised, dedicated and focused on receiving.

But unfortunately, to reach out to these companies, and demand accountability for their years of extraction is difficult because they continue to be protected by that same old wedlock, between the repressive state and mindless oil companies.

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