35 The emperor with no clothes

Written in January 2011 after a Dutch Parliamentary hearing o Shell’s ecological footprint in the Niger Delta[1]

The Dutch parliament yesterday placed the Royal Dutch Shell before the mirror in a ground-breaking act of scrutiny over the severe environmental and social footprint of the oil giant on the Niger Delta.

Shell may be the only one being grilled but that does not by any means suggest that the likes of Chevron, Exxon, ENI and Total are not mired in the serial abuses in the region. The spotlight at The Hague needs to be replicated in Washington, Rome, Paris, Oslo, and elsewhere.

The Dutch parliament’s action is very significant and illustrates how lawmakers should keep their ears open to the cries of the peoples they represent. It should send a signal to their counterparts in Nigeria who prefer to keep a blind eye to the destructive extractive practices going on in the country.

It is widely acknowledged that Shell’s operations in Nigeria fall far short of international standards. They do not only spill huge volumes of crude into the marshlands and creeks of the delta, they have also been stoking the air with toxins and greenhouse gases for decades with no sign that this will stop.

It should be noted that the Dutch parliamentarians are not examining Shell’s actions based on mere hearsay; some of them had to come to the Niger Delta to see things for themselves. As has been said, the evidence of the eyes speaks far more than what is merely told and heard. It is also significant that these parliamentarians did not merely visit the area but also spent time with the oil giant, hearing their stories and probably having helicopter rides over the incredibly ravaged area.

That some of the parliamentarians came to the Niger Delta must be seen as an indication of their commitment to seek information that should guide their decisions and positions in the face of warnings that the region is a no-go area and should not be visited by foreigners.

Discovery mission

One of such parliamentarians to come on a fact-finding visit is Ms. Sharon Gesthuizen, of the Socialist Party. She is also the spokesperson of the economic committee.

When she visited in December, we went to Oben, Edo State, with her, community people, and Sunny Ofehe of the Hope for Niger Delta Campaign (HNDC). Our mission was to see a typical gas flare. And we did.

The facility was set up by Shell over 30 years ago and has been noisily belching toxic elements into the atmosphere all this time. But officers of the Joint Military Task Force (JTF) would not allow us to leave the location. They kept us there until almost midnight before letting us off.[2]

The worst part of this illegal restriction of Nigerians and a foreign parliamentarian was that the soldiers refused to notify their superior officers of their actions and instead resorted to a series of threats, literally at gunpoint. Regrettable as that incident was, it helped to underscore the insecurity in the region and the serious curtailment of the freedom of movement of the people.

If there is one thing that oil companies hate, it is being placed in a situation where they have to respond to issues relating to their activities in the oil fields they bestride as conquerors. This is understandable seeing that the world is so dependent on crude oil and national energy security has been equated to overall security of nations.

Indeed, the oil companies hold the ace in international politics and have the ears of players in state houses and can even chew those ears if and when they wish. At their behest, wars are fought and at their behest policies are shaped to ensure that their wishes come through.

The embedded nature of the companies in the seats of power provides them the audacity to ride roughshod over environments and local peoples in the most blatant ways imaginable.

While the Dutch parliament is examining the situation, Friends of the Earth International, Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) and Amnesty International have filed a complaint against the oil company before the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) over the company’s outrageous claims that oil spills in the Niger Delta are almost entirely due to acts of the local communities.

The complaint was filed with the Dutch National Contact Point to the OECD and brings up questions on the non-transparent, inconsistent and misleading figures that Shell has given with regard to the causes of oil leaks in Nigeria. The complaint pushes the position that Shell’s claims are unjust and that the figures are random and are not independently verified.

One must say that this is not the first time that the company has been challenged over serious statistics. They were challenged in the past over related spills  percentages used in advertisements in the United Kingdom. They backed down after the challenge and stopped their advertisements that sought to lay the bulk of the blame on third party actions.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) officials, with regard to their research work in Ogoni, picked up current figures cooked by their propagandists. Whereas UNEP thereafter sought to distance itself from the  percentages cooked by Shell, the oil company still insists on referring to UNEP as having validated their position about the victims being the guilty ones.

It is hoped that Shell’s day in the dock of the Dutch parliament will help the world to see the danger of having corporations continue with impunity on the ground and then use random figures to attempt to hoodwink the world.

As we watch events unfold, the question must be asked: when will our lawmakers wake up to the environmental and human tragedies in our nation?


  1. http://nigeriang.com/money/oil-politics-the-emperor-with-no-clothes/7216/ (accessed June 2016)
  2. This incident is documented in my book, To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extractions and the Climate Crisis in Africa. Oxford, Pambazuka Press, 2012

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