Oil on troubled waters

In a dusty house in Ogoniland, a picture of executed activist Ken Saro-Wiwa hangs on the wall. Nearly a decade after his controversial death, the Ogoni people are embroiled in a new struggle.

Local people accuse Casella, a company contracted by oil giant Shell to clean up a spill, of giving funds to Chief Fabian Gberesan of the Ogoni town of KDere, who pays gangs to attack his opponents.

Casella, admitting to the payments, says the money was earmarked for community development and legitimate homage payments.

At the heart of the dispute lies the fate of Shell’s crucial trans-Niger pipeline, an artery pumping 185 000 barrels of crude a day.

There have been numerous leaks from old and run-down equipment and in 2001 a rupture in the pipeline spilled 3 601 tonnes of crude.

Shell has not been able to do maintenance on any of its installations since it was chased out of Ogoniland 10 years ago amid protests over pollution and human rights abuses.

At Shell’s request, four mobile police, nicknamed ”Kill and Go” in Nigeria, are stationed at KDere to protect a manifold on the nearby pipeline. Three weeks ago, more policemen arrived.

Locals have accused the police of beating and robbing people, and providing support to Chief Gberesan.

Samuel Muubana still bears the scars on his skull from an attack last August. ”A gang of about 15 set on us,” he said. ”They were armed with bottles, machetes and iron bars. Most of us fled, but I was hurt.”

Muubana was slashed on the hand and the head, opening his scalp to the bone. After two days in hospital, he begged to go home, frightened that the gang — a group of youths known as the 17 Brothers — might return. ”They claimed they have been enlisted and are funded to attack anyone who opposes Shell in the community,” said Muubana.

”The illegal and immoral payments from Casella have divided the Ogoni community,” says Ledum Mittee, president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People.

”Shell is using Casella’s environmental clean-up contract as a cover to carry out pigging [maintenance] on their pipelines without the approval of the local people.”

Western multinationals have a bad reputation for bribery and corruption in Nigeria. A consortium of companies, including a subsidiary of United States giant Halliburton, is currently under investigation for paying bribes to officials totalling $150-million. Local people, still bitter from the clashes of the early 1990s that culminated in the hanging of Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists, oppose the re-entry of Shell engineers and state security agents into the area.

Resentment over Chief Gberesan is widespread. Sources say that the chief has asked for a palace, a jeep and a helicopter for the work to proceed.

In the meantime, the people of KDere count themselves lucky if they receive an hour of electricity every two weeks.

Casella has admitted that during the first phase of the project, it paid Chief Gberesan 100 000 naira as an introduction fee, 20 000 naira a week for facilitation services, and bought the chief a 700 000 naira car.

But within the context of the massive bribery scandals that periodically engulf Nigeria, the sums in Ogoniland are small.

”We have not done anything wrong,” insists Jerry Ellis, technical head of Casella Nigeria. ”We are putting a lot of money into community development. In phase one of our clean-up, we spent 21-million naira locally in project expenses and wages. ” However, Ellis admitted, ”We dribbled the money out like you’d give dope to a dope fiend.” Chief Gberesan himself demanded cars and cash from reporters before he granted interviews.

In the meantime, Shell has suspended the clean-up contract until a more ”conducive environment” is available. ”Our entire land production passes though Ogoniland,” said Mutiu Sunmonu, Shell’s general manager of production (East).

”We need to be careful … it [pollution] is a lesser evil than allowing Casella to go in there and have bloodshed in Ogoni.”

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Katharine Houreld
Guest Author

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