Urhobo Historical Society

Professor Terisa E. Turner's Assessment of the Aftermath of Shell's Oil Spill Disaster At Ogbudu, Niger Delta:

'Oil Companies Lie, Deceive, Play Ethnic Card to Divide Host Communities'

Terisa E. Turner is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology, at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Professor Terisa Turner last week paid a fact-finding visit to some controversy-ridden Niger Delta oil communities to verify the accusations and counter-accusations being traded by oil companies and their host communities.  A Shell crude oil pipeline explosion at Ogbudu, Rivers State and the subsequent inadequate response with emergency relief aid, convinced the Canadian professor who teaches at University of Guelph near Toronto, that the oil companies lie and play ethnic deceptions to divide the communities.  In a post-visit interview in Lagos, the UN-based International Oil Working Group expert from New York, explains these resource control and other issues to CUDJOE KPOR.

NATIONAL INTEREST: You were in Nigeria nearly two decades ago as a university lecturer.  Now, you are back as a United Nations expert on a fact-finding mission in the conflict-ridden Niger Delta oil producing communities.  What similarities and differences strike you most in an era of the debate about resource control?

TERISA TURNER: What strikes me best is that there is a clear, conscious, internationalist group of intellectuals, activists and concerned citizens who are now taking it upon themselves to achieve local resource control, which does not mean just more money for the Federal Government or in the hands of often corrupt government officials.  But resource control which means something much more fundamental: Actual control of resources by the people who live in the communities with these resources.  In fact, when we speak of resource control, what is meant is the actual resources necessary for the support of life.  For example, the petroleum, the natural gas and other sub-soil minerals which can be controlled by people.   We also mean water, fishing, mangrove swamps, sacred forests, farmlands, indigenous knowledge, herbal medicines, spirituality - all these different resources which are essential for the maintenance of life.  People who I met are now seeking to bring all these under popular control.  This is most encouraging. And I have seen a tremendous expansion in the levels and style of consciousness, of politics and of the numbers of people that are concerned about these objectives and goals since I was here in 1985.

NI: Resource control has become a very divisive issue in this country with an aspect of it taken all the way to the Supreme Court.  Opponents say it is a clever ruse by the oil rich states to arrogate to themselves what is for all Nigerians.  Why would anyone else from outside the Niger Delta support it?

TT: I would want to redefine the terms of the debate, being a person from outside Nigeria and not having any personal interest myself in the manipulations of tribalism which stem from USAID and the imperial governments and imperial states of United States and its allies on the one hand and on the other, from the international oil companies and other transnational corporations.  They have, historically until today, been playing the race card, the ethnic card, provoking the inaccurately described, so-called ethnic clashes, ethnic cleansing, all of which are class struggles.  I would want to redefine the terms of the resource control debate as not a conflict between people in the oil belt, or the Niger Delta versus people elsewhere in Nigeria.  But much more broadly, we have to recognise that the Niger Delta people have taken direct action for a cause they gave to the entire humanity.  In recent years, they commemorated the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight Ogoni colleagues, among the many who had died in the struggle to bring resource control and good petroleum exploiting practices to the Niger Delta.  With the recent commemoration of these sacrifices, the people of the Niger Delta gave what they called a gift to humanity when they attempted to shut down the natural gas flares and thereby halt the single, largest civilian source of global warming pollution.  That is, the burning of natural gas in the Niger Delta.

There is nowhere else in the world that we have such a massive scale of the burning of the natural, non-renewable resource and it is criminally negligent of Shell, Texaco, Agip, Elf and the other oil companies.  It is criminally negligent of these transnational corporations, hand in hand with NNPC, to be flaring natural gas and on this massive scale.  More so when that burnt natural gas is destroying the ozone layer and it is depleting the sub-soil pressure in the hydrocarbon reservoirs and thereby reducing the amount of pressure which will be available to drive up the precious crude oil when drilling.  Further-more, it is depriving the people of the Niger Delta of natural gas-based electricity.  All this natural gas could be directly fed into a generator when the gas comes out from the ground.  The generated electricity could be fed into the community and to those living further afield.  It could be fed into the NEPA grid for the use of all Nigerians including those living in the West and in the North.  So, far from the resource control initiative being sought by the people of Niger Delta being a sectarian, ethnic bid that it is supposed to be against the people of Nigeria, it is a bid that has internationalist, world focus.  That is, it is in the interest of the people of the whole world.  We can all be broad-minded enough to recognise that once the people of Niger Delta establish control, they will not drink that oil.  They may conserve a great deal of it which would be good for everybody and would encourage a move to solar energy and away from hydrocarbon fuel-based energy.  We should not be burning oil.  It is depleting.  It is non-renewable.  We should be using more solar power.  We only have a little bit of oil left in the world and we should keep it in the ground for permanent, very valuable end-uses.  The people of the North and the West of Nigeria will have every opportunity to trade with the people of the Niger Delta for the things they need.  I am sure about the high consciousness of the social forces that are helping to co-ordinate the struggle at the grassroots, or the popular forces in the various communities of the many nationalities of the Niger Delta.  They will help to co-ordinate the struggle in the interest of all Nigerians, indeed, of all West Africans, of all Africans and of all people of the world.

NI: Resource control or not, the reality is that Nigeria gets 90 percent of her foreign earnings from crude oil exports.  So anything which disrupts its extraction and export goes for the nation's jugular, so to speak.  You have read, heard and now seen the conflicts and controversies in the Niger Delta. How best do you think the oil companies and the restive youths in the communities can coexist harmoniously?

TT: I want to restate the problem.  I don't think there is any basis for harmonious future relationship between the transnational corporations and the people of the Niger Delta - the elders, the youths, the women.  I think the Niger Delta people have made it abundantly clear that they would want to control their own hydro-carbon resources.  There is absolutely no need for the foreign oil companies to be present in Niger Delta any longer.  The people elsewhere in the world in oil-rich areas are quite capable of running their oil industry.  We saw it even during the 1967-70 civil war, the secessionist government of Biafra was not only producing its own crude oil, but it was also refining its own oil.  There are tens of thousands of competent oil technicians and personnel at all levels including economists, lawyers, environmentalists, publishers and artists, people in Nigeria who are quite capable of running all aspects of the oil industry and who will give priority to the number one need which is, oil clean-up and the replacement of rusted, deteriorated pipelines and other technology which is now giving way and which Shell, for example, has falsely claimed that it did replace in 1995,  but that the deteriorated pipeline is much older than the normal 20-year lifeline.  The deteriorated pipeline is bursting, it is exploding, it is developing pin-prick leaks to the very serious detriment of the waterways, the further depletion of the farmlands, the virgin forest areas of the Niger Delta.  So, the people of Nigeria can run their oil industry in a much more environmentally friendly and ecologically sustainable manner and the petroleum products themselves will be produced in a safer fashion.  This would have to be tied in with debt repudiation.  That is, the oil revenue has to stop going into paying a foreign debt which has been paid many times over, but has never benefited the ordinary people of the country and which has to be repudiated as part of the international campaign to say, "No!" to further payment of the debt.

NI: When did Shell say it had replaced its pipelines?  And is it true?

TT:  In 1995.  And it is all false.

NI: So, the current explosion is a consequence of Shell's falsehood that it had replaced the pipeline, a predictable accident waiting to happen?

TT: Exactly.

NI: In other words, when Shell says the community youths are sabotaging or vandalising the oil pipelines to siphon oil, the accusation is all false?

TT: The claim of sabotage is patently false.  I would encourage the communities to take class action lawsuit against the oil companies because they are liable.  There has been almost no arrest for sabotage of petroleum pipelines.  Much less prosecution of any accused.  The oil companies have been claiming that the oil spills, the pipeline explosions were all caused by sabotage.  But there is no evidence to this so far.  These are just lies, distractions, shirking of responsibility on the part of the oil companies - and Shell  here is the most serious culprit.  Shell has not replaced its pipelines, has not carried out proper maintenance.  It is very well known to any petroleum engineer or high-pressure fluid technologist, that should the pipelines not be replaced within 20 years or even sooner, then inevitably, they will leak, they may explode any day.  Let us take the case of Yola in Ogoni, for instance.  Even Shell was warned about the pipeline in Yola.  I visited Yola last June.  I saw the absolutely horrendous ecological devastation resulting from the spill of tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil into the pristine farming environment, watershed and wetlands. Monkeys were dead, vegetation was dead, no birds, there were no insects, the area was in a very shoddy manner. It was cleaned up, although I would not call it a proper clean-up.  It so happened in the case of Yola that Shell jumped to the false accusation and the cowardly denial of responsibility by citing villagers guilty of sabotage.  This false accusation was then proved false by the very contractor - Boots and Coots - that Shell brought in from Texas to install a new X'mas tree which regulates the flow of crude oil in the pipelines.  So then we have the petroleum experts showing the claim of sabotage to be false.

Now, take the more recent case of Ogbudu, again in Rivers State.  On June 25, there was an immense explosion in the 150,000-strong community.  A pipeline which was buried six feet underground broke open and the oil erupted, pouring thousands upon thousands of barrels of crude oil into the waterways which virtually surround the riverine community of Ogbudu.  The community's economy is based on fishing, on soil extraction for construction and on palm oil production.  Then a terrible fire broke out.  Shell was extremely negligent.  It took Shell days before sending anybody to investigate the situation.  Then it set up a criminally inadequate clean-up operation.  We couldn't accurately or honestly describe it as a clean-up operation.  It was a token initiative.  There were very small amount of crude oil on top of the water being removed by a petroleum lorry tanker parked in the water.  The operation was a 9am to 5pm operation. It stops.  There were no floodlights.  It was not a 24-hour evacuation of spilt crude.  The oil continued to float on the surface of the waterways to surrounding communities and it continued to pollute the waters of this rather wealthy and rather strong, subsistent political economy. Several people had died.  It was reported to me at a chief's meeting on July 14, that three persons had died of causes directly related to petroleum spill. The air was unbreatheable.  The few hours in the environment caused illnesses even among our investigative team which included representatives from Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Niger Delta Women for Justice, myself from the UN-based International Oil Working Group from New York and from University of Guelph near Toronto, Canada, as well as other lawyers and human rights representatives from organisations based in Port Harcourt.  All of us became very ill by merely two or three hours' exposure to the atmosphere which was filled with petroleum fumes. The insects which should be congregating normally throughout the region became more concentrated in the area of human residence because they were fleeing the concentrated fumes.  So, at dusk, a large number of mosquitoes and sunflies migrated rapidly into the areas of human habitation.  Now, more children are getting malaria at a high rate.  There is tremendous amount of illnesses.  Children are covered with insect bites.  I myself got a good number of sunfly bites which were covering every bit of my exposed skin in a matter of minutes. There is no clean water.

Shell has indulged in a very criminal and very reprehensible attempt to put forward a public relations smokescreen whereby Shell is claiming to have provided relief supplies such as mobile medical clinic, water and food.  But these are very, very small supplies of water, not enough for even one family, much less 150,000-strong community.  The very small amount of water is supplied into the 15 very small plastic tanks which Shell has supplied to the community.  The supply is depleted within 10 minutes.  You can see that the children had not received their bath; their hair was not combed; they were not clean; people have not been washed.  You can see that there is a life-threatening shortage of water.  The food donated by Shell to the community is an absurdly small quantity, an insult to the people's  intelligence.  In the morning of July 13, the chief reported that Shell officials came with a few token bits of food, which was an insult compared to the tremendous need for it. The chief told Shell to take away the despicable token.  Shell then went to deposit the few bags of rice and dumped them at the local police station.  I myself tried to interview the three para-medical workers, who denied being doctors, who accompanied the Shell mobile clinic.  I found that they were there for only a few hours that day.  They did not plan to be there on Sunday, the 15th. In fact, no medical doctor was sent to the community.  The three gentlemen claimed to be public health officers working with Shell.  In fact, these public health officers refused to disclose any details of their work.  And the villagers claimed that they were not able to obtain the medical treatment required.  They were vomitting, they could not breathe, the babies had diarrhoea, there were reports of miscarriages, there were sufferers from asthma, from coughs, from abnormal bleedings, from allergies, from many, many ailments.  These were obviously directly associated with lack of water, lack of cleanliness, polluted environment and the general crisis of inhaling smoke-filled, fumed air.   These people need to be evacuated immediately. They need to have emergency water, medical care and food.  In the immediate to long term, they need a proper mechanism to extract full compensation for their medical, emotional, economic, social displacement, hardship and loss of income.

And I must say that one of the most disgusting and criminally negligent aspect of the way Shell has been relating to the Ogbudu disaster caused by the explosion of its deteriorated  pipeline is that Shell has been conflicting 2 separate aspects of the response that Shell must make to the crisis.  The first aspect is the emergency life support for people facing death.  The second aspect being the long term compensation, remediation and reparation payment.  Shell, according to the chief's meeting of July 14, is about to present to the community, a draft memorandum of agreement (MOA) which Shell is pressurising the chiefs to sign in order to supply the community with reparations, with compensation.  This is not the time to pressurise that community - a community in crisis, a community stunned, a community burying its dead, a community struggling for the survival of its members, for its life.  This is not the time to force on the community, a memorandum of agreement.  The International Oil Working Group  recommended to the people of Ogbudu, through their chief, that they demand that Shell provides to the chief as soon as possible within one week, the last five MOAs that Shell has negotiated with oil-spill victims in communities in specific countries that are occupied by Europeans.  That is, the five most recent MOAs which Shell has signed with communities in countries of Western Europe and North America.  So that the people of Niger Delta and the specific community should use those five European communities' agreements to formulate an international standard compensation agreement for the oil communities and as a model for other communities in the Niger Delta.  And that international attention be focussed on the community, not only for immediate life support assistance, but also for long term adequate reparation in order to get away from the path that has been so long travelled as environmental racism in the hands of Shell and other oil companies.

NI: Finally, does the community have the bona fide legal representation to enable them demand justice in the law courts from Shell or any other oil company for that matter?

TT: The representatives of ERA, the lawyers from human rights groups and others from Niger Delta Women for Justice were saying that they could provide assistance and advice.  So, it was up to the chiefs themselves to contact them so that they can negotiate with Shell.  We only urged the chief not to make any quick negotiation, not to sign a Shell draft memorandum of agreement and to avoid community division in order not to allow Shell to continue what it was already doing, that is, divide the community.  Shell has already said, falsely, that youths in the community prevented Shell from entering for clean-up.  Which is totally false.  The youths and the chief denied that there had been any blockade or any sanction or hostility of any sort.  To the contrary, their representatives had gone to Shell immediately following the discovery - everybody had heard the explosion - and asked Shell to come immediately. So, there are several levels of falsehood here. The community includes many educated people, many competent people.  It is a wealthy community.  There are highly competent people capable of carrying out the kind of careful documentation of losses and proper, painstaking, careful environmental clean-up.

It would be very expensive.  It would likely be on the scale of the Valrez clean-up in Alaska, USA.  It would take years before that community is restored.  It used to be a pristine, tropical rain forest community.  Prior to the oil spill, crystal clear waters with large fishes could be seen with naked eyes, standing on the bank of the water.  So, the people used to have enough protein from their own aquatic sources.  The people are quite competent.  If they remain united and they take advantage of the assistance available from the many NGOs with the expertise, stay away from the vultures, the exploitative lawyers who have already descended on the community trying to make blood money from their suffering, offering quick representation for litigations with Shell which, of course will be settled out of court behind closed doors, in the hallways and bathrooms.  The lawyers are asking for 30 percent to 50 percent settlement which, of course, will be a tiny fraction of what the victims should be entitled to.  If the community can withstand the terrible life-threatening conditions, the sudden impoverishment; if they can get emergency life-support from the Federal Government, the Red Cross, World Council of Churches, World Food Programme, WHO or UNDP, the governments of The Netherlands could urgently fund relief assistance for the community that is so critically threatened.  It is a matter of hours and days.  Lives can be saved.  So that the Dutch Government takes responsibility for Shell's negligence.  And the British government, too.  Shell is in London as well. The US government, too.  Other governments which have all benefitted so much from the economy of Nigeria should come to her aid in an expeditious manner to provide the needed life-support assistance for the devastated people.  In the medium to long term, the community must insist that Shell and other oil companies should replace their rusted equipment, support the initiative for resource control, environmental restoration and rehabilitation of the people of the Niger Delta.

I must say that I was deeply pained, deeply indignant, I was outraged about how vulgar, how false, how criminally negligent Shell could be, making claims about its sustainable environmental development when, actually, it is making billions and billions of dollars from a shoddy, substandard, environmentally racist practice of oil production, transport and exploitation.  Shell violates all conventions of petroleum operations, violates all oil company best practices codes, violates all codes of conduct which govern transnational corporation activities, violates all the principles of human decency, human rights, of social justice and of common sense and is criminally indicted here.  I will not rest.  My organisation will not rest.  And I call on others, concerned individuals and organisations, to join us in the struggle to boycott Shell internationally, to renew the embargo on all Shell products until justice is done in the Niger Delta as stated by the peoples and organisations themselves - and not by Shell.  We cannot trust Shell's words.  We cannot trust Shell's public relations campaigns on which it is spending millions and millions of dollars.  We cannot trust the lying websites of Shell until the people's organisations of Nigeria's oil belt are themselves declaring satisfactory clean-up of their environments, satisfactory replacement of rusty, dilapidated oil and gas pipelines, until the people of the Niger Delta say that compensation has been paid adequately, that the clean-up has really occurred satisfactorily, that the deaths, the killings, the maimings, the illnesses have been recognised, all medical rehabilitation have been effected, apologies made and compensations paid.  Until all these steps have been taken, I urge all concerned individuals and organisations to stand with the International Oil Working Group, with the Niger Delta Women for Justice, with Environmental Rights Action (ERA), with all of these social forces and individuals to end foreign exploitation, despoliation of the environment and human rights abuses and for a new day when resource control will be the law of the land.