A NIGER DELTAN LIKENS SHELL'S FALSE PUBLIC
RELATIONS IN NIGERIA TO "AGAMA" LIZARD,
A SELF-PRAISING CREATURE
BY JASON OSAI
Sunday, March 17, 2002.
PAGE 23 of Tell magazine (January 7, 2002) featured a full page, well-edited burst shot photograph of the Chairman/Managing Director of the Shell Petroleum Development Company Limited (SPDC). That photograph showing a boy next door with a salesman's smile on a freckle-face served as the curtain raiser of a special feature titled "SHELL: A Model of Community Development." The feature took 16 glossy pages and showcased 18 well-edited colour photograghs. The next edition of Tell (January 14, 2002) also showed the same curtain raiser, took 16 pages and beat the earlier effort by seven photographs. This time around, the feature was titled "Shell: A Model in Partnership," and on page 29, Shell repeated the claim to "Leader(ship) in community development."
For someone who is very familiar with Shell's operational and organisational efficiency, the claim of "Model in Partnership" is whole-heartedly accepted since I am not privy to any wrangling amongst the partners. Naturally, the interlocked equity participation of most of the prospecting multinationals in Nigeria holds the promise of appreciable degree of honesty in the affairs of the partners.
Back to what I consider Shell's "redheadism". I disagree unequivocally with the claim to "Leader(ship) in Community Development" and "A Model in Community Development." Granted that the feature is an all expense-paid public relation stunt, which is aimed at painting the image of the company in luminous colours, it becomes counter productive to make claims that can easily be debunked. Leadership implies being ahead of others in a race or an endeavour and assumes some form of objective performance evaluation by a neutral body. So I ask, who conducted the performance evaluation amongst oil companies during which Shell emerged leader? What is Shell's basis for that claim?
I write this piece in the triple capacity of someone who has travelled through the length and breadth of Rivers and Bayelsa and some parts of Imo and Abia States on the specific mission of feeling the pulse of oil-producing communities. This I did as secretary of the defunct Association of Mineral Producing Areas of (old) Rivers State under the able chairmanship of HRH J.R. Dappa-Biriye. I was privileged to travel from Aseasaga through Ekpeaga to Otuasega; from Eleme to Elemebiri, from Oloibiri to Ogboinbiri, from Sangatama to Akakumama; and from Obrikom to Obrigbene. Second, a social critic who has watched the operations of multinationals in the Niger Delta region with keen interest for more than two decades. And a person who has taken an incisive interest in the contrast that is evident in the infrastructural development between Egbema, Imo, and Egbema, Rivers State - two communities that play host to Shell and the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) respectively.
Shell's claim as "a leader in community development" is ridiculed by the state of desolation in Oloibiri, a community that has been shamelessly declared the "Millennium City" by the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN). Oloibiri and Shell are two names that heralded the discovery of oil in commercial quantity in Nigeria. Today, the only sign of Oloibiri's glorious past is a rust signpost that is overgrown by weeds. The business boom of Shell and the State of Nigeria translated into the doom of Oloibiri, which is now like an empty Shell, (if you will excuse me). Life in Oloibiri community is like living in hell - some uncanny, if not instructive, rhyme here.
Shell's claim of leadership can only find justification from the point of view of English Grammar: "a" leader not "the" leader, in which case there are other leaders in community development. However, if we revisit the brief discourse on the process through which a leader emerges, we note that it is a product of some comparative analysis; and assessment by an unbiased third party. Perhaps, Shell should have said "a key player in community development." That would have painted a humble pen-portrait of the company and would have therefore been acceptable.
We are informed that "a report commissioned by Shell but prepared by independent consultants makes depressing reading...the (consultants) concluded that less than a third (of Shell's CD projects) has been successful." (The Community Spokesman, January 25, 2002:4). Applied to an academic setting, this translates to 34 per cent, at best a failure by every standard, even in the Nigerian educational system. So where is the leader or model?
In this particular PR stunt, Shell has come across as the Agama (redhead) lizard, which nods in self-acclaim. Granted that Shell has more landlord communities than its competitors, its reaction time to brewing crisis and community relations outreach need re-evaluation and overhaul. If the quantum of petrol-dollar expended on CD projects is the yardstick for assessment, I must quickly point out that that is a reflection of interplay of factors which include the enormity of the total size of its oil blocks, the degree of honesty of the project executors, etc. With "an oil-mining lease area of about 31,000 square kilometers (spread from Edo, Delta, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Cross River, Rivers, Ondo and Imo States)... over 6,000 kilometres of flowliness (sic), 87 flow stations, eight gas plants and more than, 1,000 producing wells," Shell is evidently the biggest in the industry. This accounts for the fact that it produces "nearly half of Nigeria's oil and about 95 per cent of (the nation's) commercial gas requirements." Naturally, therefore, Shell's CD expenditure must be highest than those of other oil companies that collectively produce slightly more than half of Nigeria's energy. However, the pertinent questions to ask are; what percentage of Shell's annual budget does CD account for? What is Shell's value of production-community development expense (VOP-CDE) ratio? Again, we ask, to what extent is Shell applying its acclaimed technological and structural know-how in the design and construction of the school blocks, town halls, (a.k.a civic centres) and other infrastructure it donates to its host communities? Evidently, the designs of the buildings reflect a clear departure from the user-friendly structures that British colonial officers resided in.
Talking of the impact of gas flaring on the environment, in 1984/85, I was part of a team of professors and graduate students from the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Port Harcourt that undertook a field trip to what is now called the Orashi Region. I guided the team to the gas flare site at Obagi, Obrikom, Ebocha, Ukwugba and Izombe. From one site to another, we took sample of cassava and other crops; we observed the plantains, palm trees and the general vegetation within a certain radius of the gas flared racks and we noted that though the cassava stems and leaves looked unaffected, their tubers were rotten. We also observed a pathetic degeneration from the lush vegetation with giant trees that used to be a rustic meadow; giant racks, spewing roaring flames into the sky had taken the place of the giant trees. These findings were published in Newswatch. It is, therefore, an insult on the collective intellect of the peoples of the Niger Delta for Shell to aver that "gas flaring is not detrimental to the immediate environment." Matter-of-factly, the statement is an insult on the collective intellect of humanity, which is facing imminent extinction as a result of the depletion of the ozone layer - a phenomenon that gas flaring contributes immensely to. Incidentally, I did my administrative internship in 1977 at the Cleveland Division of Air Pollution Control, Cleveland, Ohio, USA and I think I learned quite a bit about pollution and its negative impact on the environment - immediate or otherwise.
As Shell laboriously strains to distance itself from the "assassination of Saro-Wiwa" and others, it should be realised that "corporate images are as hard to clean up as oil spills." And until independent performance evaluation based on VOP-CDE is conducted amongst oil companies in the Niger Delta, the claim to leadership in CD should be left alone. It is a very sensitive issue, which touches the raw nerves of those who crave for justice and equity in the Nigerian enterprise and the enlightened people in whose community Shell exploits oil.
Amon avis, the amount put into travelling, gathering, writing, editing and publishing thirty-two glossy pages with forty well edited colour photographs in a major news weekly should have been applied in providing some community development service or project at the grassroots. A conservative estimate of the cost of that PR stunt is put at not less than N5m. This amount would have had a better socio-economic impact if it had been used to further the provision of services and infrastructure at any of Shell's numerous impoverished and infrastructure starved host communities. This would have certainly attracted real applaud rather than the opprobrium associated with self applaud.
Finally, the NGOs, the Nigerian government and the international community, especially Shell International, are invited to visit the two Egbemas and other communities mentioned in this presentation to ascertain the validity or otherwise of the claims made herein.