The oil companies and the communities they operate in occupy two different worlds, geographically overlapping but conceptually light-years apart. The oil companies see themselves as carrying out a legitimate business, which makes a major contribution to the Nigerian economy. They regret, at least officially, the lack of democracy in Nigeria, the abuses carried out against the oil producing communities by the security forces, and the failure of the Nigerian government to spend the oil wealth wisely, in particular in the oil producing communities themselves, but represent these problems as essentially nothing to do with the commercial companies that produce the oil. Nevertheless, as a gesture of goodwill, as they would see it, and in partial recognition of the deficiencies of the Nigerian government, they invest substantial amounts of money in development projects in the communities where they operate. While they admit there are some negative environmental consequences of oil production, the oil companies argue that these are both exaggerated and in any event entirely outweighed by the benefits they bring. Despite this contribution, oil company managers state that they operate in Nigeria in a thankless, even hostile political environment. Although their relations with the federal government have recently improved, they still face difficulties in obtaining payment of the sums due to them under their joint ventures. Furthermore, oil company personnel state that they see no reason why they should answer to the communities in which they work, when they are simply carrying out their normal activities, for which they have received government licenses. They view community protests as unrealistic demands on them to take on responsibilities that are properly the domain of the government, protests which at times amount to simple criminal extortion, sabotage, or intimidation.
For the communities, on the other hand, the oil companies and their contractors are often the most visible manifestation of central government in their areas. They know that the oil companies are operating joint ventures with the government; they see the oil installations guarded by federal police or soldiers, and the rapid response from the federal or state government if there is any threat to oil production. They draw the conclusion that the oil companies and the government are so closely linked as to be effectively the same thing, an idea backed by the government’s own comments. They accordingly make their demands for greater revenue allocation to the delta—as well as for compensation for the damage wrought by oil production—of the oil companies as they do of the government, and blame the oil companies as they do the government for the repression with which their demands are met. The communities are well aware that the oil companies are making large profits out of what they see as “their” oil, and believe that these profits bring with them responsibilities towards the traditional landholders. At thesame time, they see that a few individuals in their communities, the contractors and traditional rulers, have profited handsomely from oil production—during the same period that land has become less fertile and fish catches declined. Communities want compensation for loss of livelihood caused by land expropriations, oil spills, and other effects of oil production, yet find themselves forced to accept assessments of compensation valued by the oil companies themselves, with no meaningful way of obtaining an independent determination of their loss. The few school blocks and unfinished water schemes do not satisfy their view of what an “oil producing community” should look like. In these circumstances, while most requests for compensation or assistance are settled peacefully, even if not to the satisfaction of all sides, community members do sometimes resort to actions such as shutting down flowstations, taking hostages, or committing criminal damage—actions they regard as political statements of their right to participate in the prosperity currently restricted to a small elite.
In the face of the threat to oil production caused by some of these protests, the Nigerian government has created a number of special task forces handling security in the oil producing areas, of which the most notorious and brutal is the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, created in response to the Ogoni crisis. While the Internal Security Task Force has been recalled to barracks, the paramilitary Mobile Police remain deployed in the delta, as throughout Nigeria; Operation Flush and Operation Salvage, anti-crime forces created in Rivers and Bayelsa States, are still in operation; and the navy is used to maintain order in the riverine areas. The oil companies operating in Nigeria also hire “supernumerary police,” recruited and trained by the Nigerian police force, but paid for by the oil companies; as well as private firms for routine security provision at entrance barriers and other duties at their premises, and local “guards” from among landholders across whose land pipelines run or where other facilities are built.
Nigeria’s new head of state, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, has greatly reduced the repression enforced by his predecessor, Gen. Sani Abacha, who died in June 1998, releasing many political prisoners and relaxing restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association. Nevertheless, the response of the security forces to threats to oil production continues to be heavy handed, and in the oil regions human and environmental rights activists report little change. As in the past, there continue to be incidents in which the paramilitary Mobile Police, the regular police, or the army, have beaten, detained, or even killed those involved in protests, peaceful or otherwise, or individuals who have called for compensation for oil damage, whether youths, women, children, or traditional leaders. In some cases, members of the community are beaten or detained indiscriminately, irrespective of their role in any protest. The decrees are still in force that allowdetention without trial and establish special tribunals to try cases of “civil disturbances” or sabotage without due process protections.
There can be no solution to the simmering conflict in the oil producing areas of the delta until its people gain the right to participate in their own governance and until the protection of the rule of law is extended to their communities. The injustices facing the peoples of the delta are in many ways the same as those facing all Nigerians after decades of rule by successive military regimes, yet in the oil producing regions the suppression of political activity, the lack of legal redress for damage to the environment and the resulting loss of livelihood, and the sheer ubiquity of human rights abuses by the region’s security forces have generated greater protest, in turn generating greater repression.
The first responsibility for resolving these injustices lies with the Nigerian government. Yet the multinational oil companies operating in Nigeria cannot avoid their own share of responsibility. It is not enough simply to say that the political environment in Nigeria is as difficult for the oil companies as it is for anyone else, and that the oil industry does not have the power to alter government policy towards the oil regions: the oil companies in many respects contribute towards the discontent in the delta and to conflict within and between communities that results in repressive government responses. Companies have a duty to avoid both complicity and advantage from human rights abuses: the oil companies in Nigeria must take all steps to ensure that oil production does not continue at the cost of their host communities simply because of the threat or actual use of force against those who protest their activities.
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