Date: Fri, 1 Dec 1995 01:09:41 GMT
Sender: Activists Mailing List <>
Subject: Oil, Labor, Nigeria & Shell

/** 193.0 **/
** Topic: Oil, Labor, Nigeria & Shell **
** Written 7:34 PM Nov 22, 1995 by labornews in **
From: Institute for Global Communications <>

/* Written 6:07 PM Nov 12, 1995 by dbacon in igc:labr.petrochem */
/* ---------- "oil rules nigeria" ---------- */

Oil Rules Nigeria

By David Bacon. 22 November, 1995.

Since last week's execution in Nigeria of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company has been at great pains to explain to the world that it urged its military rulers not to kill him. In the past, however, Shell blamed the movement of the Ogoni people, which Saro-Wiwa headed, for the loss of 3.5Jmillion barrels of crude oil in 1992, and another 12 million in 1993. The Ogoni have demanded that Shell clean up the area where its well's have polluted the countryside, and part of the oil revenue to lift Ogoni people out of grinding poverty.

Shell's protestations belie the reality of the role which it and other oil companies play, not only in the case of Saro-Wiwa, but in all of Nigeria's economic and political life.

Oil rules Nigeria. Through one military coup after another, through civil war and urban unrest, the lifeblood of its economy continues to flow up from under the earth, and onto the huge tankers which carry it to refineries in New Jersey and California. Over $12 billion in oil is pumped out every year, and most of it goes to the U.S. But instead of lifting living standards, nearly 30 percent of Nigeria's national income now goes to service a foreign debt of over $30 billion, under a structural adjustment program mandated by the International Monetary Fund. The value of Nigerian currency has plummeted as unemployment has skyrocketed.

Behind its military rulers, five companies tower over Nigeria Q the British/Dutch Shell, the Italian AGIP, the French Elf-Aquitaine, and the U.S. giants Chevron and Mobil. They operate in partnership with the Nigerian National Petroleum Company, a government-run corporation. Control of the NNPC is rumored to have made General Sani Abacha, head of the country's military junta, a billionaire, and his military associates millionaires. According to Emmanuel Abisoye, a retired general who headed a 1994 investigation into oil-related corruption, "the unwritten code in the NNPC style of management therefore wouldJappear to be everyone for himself and God for us all, make hayJwhile the sun shines, and loot all lootables."

But despite corruption and heavy-handed terror, so long as successive governments have protected the smooth flow of oil and money, the companies have been happy. That began to change last year, in the wake of the election as president, and then the imprisonment, of Moshood Abiola. Corruption and incompetence escalated so far that by the spring of 1994 the NNPC owed its foreign partners nearly $1 billion in operating fees. The companies began to shut the oil rigs down to force the government to pay up.

Nigeria's two oil workers' unions, NUPENG and PENGASSAN, mounted a national strike to stop the layoffs. The blue-collar NUPENG, and the white-collar PENGASSAN, are decisively situated in Nigeria's economy, which gave their strike great power. Oil provides 95 percent of the west African nation's foreign earnings, and has made Nigeria one of the continent's most industrialized countries. NUPENG's general secretary, Frank Kokori, could effectively turn the foreign dollar spigot on and off, which he periodically did in order to win higher wages for his members.

Kokori and his colleagues believed that a democratically-elected government would end corruption, preserve their jobs and wages, and redirect the flow of the oil wealth to build up the country's economy, rather than line the pockets of a few rich generals. Milton Dabibi, a leader of PENGASSAN, called the strikeJ"a patriotic struggle borne out of the need to save the oilJindustry and the nation from collapse. Our struggle for economic emancipation cannot beJseparated from the political struggle for democracy andJaccountability in government."J vAlthough it was legal, the strike was a direct challenge to the government. Once it started, Kokori and other leaders had to go underground. For the first few weeks, they moved from place to place as they led it, while the generals searched for them in their headquarters in Lagos, and in union offices around the country.

The strike paralyzed most of Nigerian industry, and cost the government $34 million per day in lost oil revenue. Government workers joined the strike, and in Nigerian cities, students and others built barricades blocking roads, and were brutally dispersed by troops. Lacking oil to fuel generators, electric power plants began to stop functioning, and cities began to suffer blackouts. Air traffic ground to a halt as airplanes couldn't be refueled, and air traffic controllers joined the protest.

After weeks of waffling back and forth, the Nigerian Labour Congress, with close ties to the government, was forced by the pressure of its own members to declare a general strike throughout the country. Although its leaders called it off after just a day, many workers refused to go back to their jobs.

The European oil corporations AGIP and Elf-Acquitaine sympathized with the strikers and cut production to 60% of normal. Shell maintained its regular volume. But California-based Chevron, and New York-based Mobil, flew in additional foreign workers to keep oil flowing, and increased production 120%.

Their operations guaranteed continued income, and saved the life, of the Abacha military regime. According to Dabibi, military troops occupied oil installations at the companies' request. The strike produced windfall profits, when shortages raised the price of light crude oil from $14 to $20/barrel.

Oil workers reacted bitterly to the betrayal of the strike which was, in part, fought to ensure payment to those same companies. NUPENG's president Wariebi Agamene, declared that "we cannot fold our arms watching those who are not onlyJsabotaging the progress of our march to democracy in our country,Jbut who are also colluding with our illegal authority to steal ourJoil in an unmeasurable quantity."

The generals moved to crush the strike, and arrested Agamene, Kokori and PENGASSAN leaders Francis A. Addo and Fidelis Aidelomon. They have been in prison ever since, moved constantly to keep their whereabouts secret. The generals took over control of the unions and occupied their offices. No charges have ever been formally made against the union leaders, and no trial held. In the wake of the execution of Saro-Wiwa and his associates, human rights activists are very concerned over their fate as well.

The repression of Nigeria's oil workers did not create a stable situation in the country. On the strike's anniversary last June, soldiers arrested dozens more political and human rights leaders, including Beko Ransome-Kuti, head of the Campaign for Democracy, fearing that they intended to mark the occasion with demonstrations. The military claimed it discovered a plot to unseat Abacha, and 23 soldiers were arrested, along with retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, the only military ruler in Nigeria's history who ever voluntarily handed power over to democratic civilian authorities. Obasanjo and the 23 officers were tried in secret for a coup attempt which many observers believe the military itself invented. Finally, after another trial outside of Nigeria's normal judicial process, Saro-Wiwa and eight associates were executed last week.

On May 4, Randall Robinson, director of TransAfrica, and 10 other labor and community leaders were arrested for blocking the gates of the Nigerian Embassy. For a decade, Robinson and others made arrests at the South African embassy in Washington DC a symbol of resistance to apartheid. The events at the Nigerian embassy were consciously intended to remind Congress and the Clinton Administration that a commitment to democracy in Africa shouldn't stop at South Africa's borders.

During the oil strike, President Clinton sent Jesse Jackson to Nigeria to try to find a solution to the conflict. But the intentions of the U.S. government were met with mistrust by democracy supporters, and Abacha was unwilling to make any concessions.

Military assistance to Nigeria has been halted because of human rights violations, and accusations that the military has been ineffective in stopping narcotics traffic. Supporters of democracy, however, have appealed for economic sanctions. They suggest freezing the assets of Nigerian generals and companies, and call for putting U.S. oil payments to Nigeria in escrow. Their list of targets highlights the Bank of America and Citibank, which are tied to Chevron and Mobil respectively.

Supporting their demand is the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, which represents U.S. oil workers. According to OCAW vice-president Calvin Moore, "the real question is: whose interests determine U.S. policy - those of oil companies, or those of the people of Nigeria?"