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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Nigeria: The Price of Oil

Nigeria: The Price of Oil
Date distributed (ymd): 990226
Document reposted by APIC

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Region: West Africa
Issue Areas: +economy/development+ +political/rights+ +security/peace+
Summary Contents:
This posting contains a press summary and excerpts from the summary of a new report by Human Rights Watch (Africa) on the involvement of international oil companies in Nigeria. For the full 200-page report, see the HRW web site (

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Links for Updates: With one day remaining before the Nigerian presidential elections, election monitors are warning about indications of irregularities, fraud and voter cynicism. As the document below indicates, serious issues will remain to be addressed even if the transition to civilian rule continues on-track. For updates on election monitoring and other news, see:

For additional background and links to more sites visit:

Human Rights Watch Press Release

For more information: In Lagos: Bronwen Manby (2341) 584-0288 (c/o Civil Liberties Organisation), In New York: Peter Takirambudde (212) 216-1223; In New York: Arvind Ganesan (212) 216-1251; In London: Urmi Shah (44171) 713-1995; In Brussels: Jean-Paul Marthoz (322) 736-7838

For further information, contact Human Rights Watch, 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor, New York, NY 10118-3299 USA. TEL: 1-212-290-4700, FAX: 1-212-736-1300 E-mail:; Web Site Address:

Oil Companies Complicit In Nigerian Abuses

February 23, 1999

Lagos - The following document was released by Human Rights Watch: On the eve of Nigeria's presidential elections, multinational oil companies investing in the Niger Delta are failing to respond adequately to serious human rights abuse in that region, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released today.

In its eight months in office, the government of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar has released many political prisoners and relaxed some restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. But the 200-page Human Rights Watch report documents how Nigerian security forces are using brutal methods to suppress dissent in the Niger Delta.

"The oil companies can't pretend they don't know what's happening all around them," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring group based in New York. "The Nigerian government obviously has the primary responsibility to stop human rights abuse. But the oil companies are directly benefiting from these crude attempts to suppress dissent, and that means they have a duty to try and stop it." Roth noted that recent events in the Niger Delta, especially the crackdown on Ijaw communities over the New Year's weekend, indicate that the Nigerian government is continuing to use violence to protect the interests of international oil companies.

In one particularly serious incident on January 4, soldiers using a Chevron helicopter and Chevron boats attacked villagers in two small communities in Delta State, Opia and Ikenyan, killing at least four people and burning most of the villages to the ground. More than fifty people are still missing. Chevron has alleged to a committee of survivors of the attack that this was a "counterattack" resulting from a confrontation between local youths and soldiers posted to a Chevron drilling rig. Community members deny that any such confrontation took place. In any event, the soldiers' response was clearly disproportionate and excessive.

"Whoever wins this presidential election will have to cope with growing violence in the Niger Delta," said Roth. "The oil companies and the new government should commit to taking a new approach in the region, one that is based on zero tolerance for human rights abuse by the police and military."

Roth noted that the presidential campaign has included little serious debate over events in the Niger Delta and the role of the oil companies in human rights abuse there.

In the report, Human Rights Watch describes numerous other incidents in which the Nigerian security forces have beaten, detained, or even killed people who were involved in protests over oil company activities and individuals who have called for compensation for environmental damage. Victims include youths, women, children, and traditional leaders. In some cases, the abuse occurs after oil companies have requested that security forces intervene.

The report charges that multinational oil companies are complicit in abuses committed by the Nigerian military and police because they fail to condemn them publicly and to intervene with the Nigerian government to help ensure that they do not recur. In many cases, Human Rights Watch found that the oil companies had made no effort to learn what was done in their name by abusive local security forces seeking to keep oil flowing in the face of local objections.

Human Rights Watch strongly criticized the oil companies for excessive secrecy, and called upon them to make public their security agreements with state entities. It urged the companies to insist on screening all security staff assigned to protect company property, to investigate violent incidents, and to publish the results of those investigations. The companies were urged to take all necessary steps to ensure that their legitimate need to safeguard their facilities and personnel does not result in abuses against members of the communities where they operate.

Much of the protest against oil companies' activity in Nigeria has surrounded issues such as environmental pollution and corruption, which lie outside the mandate of Human Rights Watch. But the need to respect civil and political rights, such as freedom of expression and association, fall squarely within the international human rights treaties that Nigeria has signed, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa, pumping more than two million barrels a day. This oil is produced by multinational oil companies operating in joint ventures with the Nigerian government. The Dutch-British corporation Royal Dutch/Shell accounts for nearly half of this production and has faced the strongest criticism of its corporate behavior. Perhaps for that reason, Shell responded most fully to questions from Human Rights Watch about its policies and practices and about specific incidents of human rights abuses connected with its operations. The U.S.-based oil corporations Chevron and Mobil also answered some questions, while France's Elf Aquitaine and Italy's Agip provided almost no information at all. None of the oil companies responded to requests to provide details of security arrangements with the Nigerian government.

Excerpts from summary section of "The Price of Oil"

For the full 200-page report, see the HRW web site (

I. SUMMARY [Excerpts only]

This report is an exploration of human rights violations related to oil exploration and production in the Niger Delta, and of the role and responsibilities of the major multinational oil companies in respect of those violations. The Niger Delta has for some years been the site of major confrontations between the people who live there and the Nigerian government security forces, resulting in extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detentions, and draconian restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. These violations of civil and political rights have been committed principally in response to protests about the activities of the multinational companies that produce Nigeria's oil. Although the June 1998 death of former head of state Gen. Sani Abacha and his succession by Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar has brought a significant relaxation in the unprecedented repression General Abacha inflicted on the Nigerian people, and General Abubakar appears committed to ensuring the installation of an elected civilian government in May 1999, human rights abuses in the oil producing communities continue and the basic situation in the delta remains unchanged. As this report went to press, the fatal shooting by security forces of tens of youths demonstrating for the oil companies to withdraw from Nigeria was reported, and the deployment of large numbers of soldiers and navy to the delta to suppress such protests.

Since the death of Abacha, there has been a surge in incidents in which protesters have occupied flow stations and closed production or taken oil workers hostage. In the context of increasing threats to the safety of their workers and of damage to their property, oil companies legitimately require security for their personnel and property; but equally there is an even greater need for companies to ensure that such protection does not result in further human rights abuses. The oil companies share a responsibility to oppose human rights violations by government forces in the areas in which they operate, in addition to preventing abuses by their own employees or contractors. Companies have a duty to avoid both complicity in and advantage from human rights abuses, and a company that fails to speak out when authorities responding to corporate requests for security protection commit human rights abuses will be complicit in those abuses.

Human Rights Watch traveled to the Niger Delta in 1997 to investigate human rights violations in connection with the suppression of protest at oil company activities. We found repeated incidents in which people were brutalized for attempting to raise grievances with the companies; in some cases security forces threatened, beat, and jailed members of community delegations even before they presented their cases. Such abuses often occurred on or adjacent to companyproperty, or in the immediate aftermath of meetings between company officials and individual claimants or community representatives. Many local people seemed to be the object of repression simply for putting forth an interpretation of a compensation agreement, or for seeking effective compensation for land ruined or livelihood lost.

We subsequently corresponded with the five multinationals with the largest share of Nigerian production, asking them to comment on our findings about particular incidents at their facilities, as well as their approach to human rights and community relations in general and their relationships with the Nigerian authorities in respect of security and other issues. This correspondence has continued during 1998. The most ample responses were received from Shell, a Dutch-British company, which has faced the most high profile international focus on its responsibilities in Nigeria. Responses on several cases were also received from Chevron and general information was provided by Mobil: both companies have faced pressure in the U.S., where they are based, concerning corporate responsibility in Nigeria. Elf, headquartered in France, answered most of our questions, though it avoided some, without giving much detail or taking the opportunity to provide background information on its operations; while Agip, an Italian state-owned company, provided an uninformative two page general response to our inquiries and failed to answer many questions. The difficulty that Human Rights Watch, a well known international organization with access to the press worldwide, has had in getting several of the oil companies to pay attention to its concerns appears to be representative of their response to local communities. ...

The Role and Responsibilities of the International Oil Companies

The multinational oil companies operating in Nigeria face a difficult political and economic environment, both nationally and at the level of the oil producing communities where their facilities are located. Successive governments have misspent the oil wealth which the oil companies have helped to unlock, salting it away in foreign bank accounts rather than investing in education, health, and other social investment, and mismanaging the national economy to the point of collapse. At the same time, the government has in the past failed to fund its share of the joint ventures operated by the multinationals, and has played the different oil companies against each other so that it has not been easy--even for Shell, the industry giant--to insist that the government contribute towards the investment needed to keep the industry functioning. At the community level, the companies are faced with increasing protests directed at oil company activities and the lack of development in the delta; these have included incidents of hostage-taking, closures of flow stations, sabotage, and intimidation of staff. ...

Acknowledging the difficult context of oil operations in Nigeria does not, however, absolve the oil companies from a share of responsibility for the human rights abuses taking place in the Niger Delta: whether by action or omission they play a role.

In countries characterized by severe human rights violations, like Nigeria, corporations often justify their presence by arguing that their operations will enhance respect for rights, but then adopt no substantive measures to achieve that end. Corporations doing business in these states take on a special obligation to implement proactive steps to promote respect for rights and to ensure that they do not become complicit in violations. The dominant position of the oil companies in Nigeria brings with it a special responsibility in this regard to monitor and promote respect for human rights. Given the overwhelming role of oil in the Nigerian national economy, the policies and practices of the oil companies are important factors in the decision making of the Nigerian government. Because the oil companies are operating joint ventures with the government they have constant opportunities to influence government policy, including with respect to the provision of security for the oil facilities and other issues in the oil producing regions. All the oil companies operating in Nigeria share this responsibility to promote respect for human rights.

In addition to these general responsibilities, the oil companies operating in Nigeria have specific responsibilities in respect of the human rights violations that take place in connection with their operations. These responsibilities must be seen against the context of oil production in Nigeria and the fact that the security provided to keep the oil flowing benefits both the Nigerian government and the oil companies, since disputes which threaten production affect the revenue of both.

Many of the cases investigated by Human Rights Watch which have led to security force abuses concern claims that oil companies have not abided by environmental standards or provided compensation in accordance with the law for damage resulting from oil exploration and production. ...

Oil companies are legitimately concerned to prevent damage to their facilities and to the environment and to protect their personnel. Security arrangements between the oil companies and the Nigerian government are inevitable, as are internal oil company provisions for security responses in the event of incidents of hostage taking, sabotage, or intimidation. At the same time, the companies emphasize their commitment to avoid violent confrontations between community members and security forces, while underlining a legal obligation to inform the Nigerian authorities when there is a threat to oil production.

However, Human Rights Watch is concerned at the level of secrecy that surrounds the arrangements relating to security for oil installations: not one of the oil companies with which we corresponded responded to our requests to be given access to the parts of the Memorandum of Understanding or Joint Operations Agreement with the Nigerian government governing security, nor to internal guidelines relating to protection of their facilities. Given the abuses that have been committed by the Nigerian security forces in protecting oil installations, most notoriously in Ogoni, it is all the more important that there be transparency in these arrangements and clear commitments from the oil companies to monitor security force performance related to their operations, take steps to prevent abuses, andpublicly protest violations that do occur. ...

Often, based on Human Rights Watch's correspondence, the companies claim to be unaware that arrests, detentions and beatings have taken place in the vicinity of their facilities, despite assertions that they are concerned to maintain good relations with the communities where they operate.

Human Rights Watch believes that the oil companies have responsibilities to monitor security force activity in the oil producing region in detail and to take all possible steps to ensure that human rights violations are not committed. These responsibilities are reinforced when the company has itself called for security force intervention, especially by the military or by notoriously abusive forces such as the Mobile Police, or if the company has made payments to the security forces in return for protection.

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC). APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa, by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups and individuals.

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