Shell Games

02.03.2004 | BOOKS

Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights and Oil in the Niger Delta
By Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas
Verso, 267 pages, $24

If one were to judge purely by its inventory of natural resources, it would be hard to understand why the country of Nigeria is not rich. Regions with far less have done far better. The American Southwest, to give but one example--empty of water, forests and minerals--has one of the most powerful economies on earth, and Nigeria has everything the Southwest lacks. It has woodlands and rivers and fertile soil, and beneath its fertile soil is an estimated 20 billion barrels of oil. Silky Nigerian crude, coveted worldwide and considered some of the finest raw petroleum on Earth, should have guaranteed the nation's prosperity.

But Nigeria is not rich; in fact, it is very poor. In Where Vultures Feast, a compelling and imperfect book, Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas attempt to explain why. Looming large is the fact that while Nigerian oil has made many people rich, none of them lives in the Niger Delta where the oil is produced. The Delta, home to an indigenous group called the Ogoni, functions as a kind of rentier state whose resources are removed, processed and sold by others. The profits are amassed elsewhere, and what gets left behind is pollution, poverty and, for the Ogoni, a mosaic of pain and betrayal. Free-market economists would call the situation a disequilibrium of externalities--one group gets the benefits while the other is saddled with the costs. Marxists, always a pithier group, would call it neocolonialism.

The majority of Nigeria's oil is extracted by Royal Dutch/Shell, the British petroleum company that, in most of the world, wears a benevolent and environmentally responsible face. (It is deeply involved, for instance, in alternative energy, and is leading the effort to make Iceland a hydrogen-powered society.) In Nigeria, Shell wraps itself in less civic-minded clothes and essentially does whatever it can get away with, which happens to be quite a bit. Under the terms of its mining agreement, it gives 90 percent of its oil revenues to Nigeria's murderous military government, which might seem overly generous until one understands the dependency such generosity fosters. The junta exists on opulence and force, and it is Shell that makes both possible, providing the money for private jets, lavish mansions and alarming accumulations of weaponry. Almost none of the wealth is reinvested in the country's people; Shell's 10-percent take still runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Shell's power in Nigeria is quiet but difficult to overstate. This is so for a few reasons, not least of which is that in the turbulent world of Nigerian power, the company has been a rare constant. Since oil was first discovered in 1956, governments have come and gone, violently taking power and then violently being overthrown, but Shell has always been there. All of the governments have done business with Shell, and Shell, to its eternal discredit, has done business with all of them. The company provides almost half the government's revenues, which gives it colossal influence over Nigerian affairs. What is good for General Motors may no longer be good for the United States, but what is good for Shell is still essential for anyone wishing to govern Nigeria.

It is little surprise, then, that when Shell comes into conflict with the Nigerian people, the government tends to intervene on Shell's behalf. Shell has not been kind to the Ogoni people, nor to the Niger Delta. Much of the equipment it uses there is old and would be illegal in other parts of the world. It does not bury its pipes underground, but runs them brazenly through villages and backyards. Excess oil gets spilled into rivers, and gas is flared throughout the night, depriving people of sleep.

The Ogoni have frequently protested these practices, to which the government has frequently responded by shooting the protestors. Ogoni leaders have also been arrested and tortured. In parts, Where Vultures Feast becomes little more than a catalog of massacres: villagers being machine-gunned, women being raped, homes being burned. Whether Shell has explicitly ordered these attacks, as the authors insist, or whether it has simply not objected to the government's vigor on its behalf, is difficult to prove--and almost immaterial. Regardless of whether Shell initiated the violence, there is little question of why the government is repressing its people, and little question the company could make it stop.

Shell has instead chosen to sit on its hands, a decision that's invited little criticism. What happens in Africa stays in Africa, after all--who in the "developed" world pays any mind to the goings-on of a far-off and violent nation? Those of us who rely on Shell's gasoline, our interaction with the transnational oil trade a twice-weekly stop at the pump for regular unleaded, have little conception of what happens in the places where it is produced, and little time to meditate on its human costs. Shell ran briefly afoul of the world press in 1995, when a group of Ogoni activists was executed after a disgusting show trial (Shell refused to intervene), but this, too, was the act of a distant dictatorship, and passed quickly from our headlines. The need to fill up, by contrast, is a more mundane constant.

The authors of Where Vultures Feast are both deeply involved in the Ogoni movement; one of them served as a lawyer for the executed activists. This proves, ironically, to be the book's great weakness, because in its passion it sometimes forgets credibility. Where Vultures Feast is less an investigation than a frantic polemic, unbalanced and overwritten, prepared to yield nothing and, in prosecutorial style, searching always for a conviction and only sometimes for the truth. Along the way some obvious facts are bungled. Shell is named, for example, as a member of the odious Global Climate Coalition, but the company left the GCC in 1998. A small detail, to be sure, but also an easy one, and one that should have been gotten right.

Compounding these problems is the fact that no one from Shell is ever interviewed, and many of the company's denials--that the company does not pollute, that it doesn't condone terror--are dismissed on grounds that they "could not be independently verified." That this logic is similar to the reasoning used by the United States in its dealings with Iraq (no one could independently verify the absence of illegal weapons) seems not to trouble the authors, but it should be disheartening to those who believe in due process. What is wrong in the hands of right-wing demagogues is no better when used by leftist idealists.

Fortunately, Where Vultures Feast succeeds in spite of itself, for behind its overwrought prose and authorial posturing is a story that will not go away: the story of a land and a people subordinated by violence to the needs of a foreign corporation. It's no more or less than that, but that is enough. The book's weakness lies in thinking that it's not enough, that in order to be compelling Shell must be guilty of more. At one point, almost in passing, the authors accuse the company of genocide, which is not just an overreach but also a grave misdiagnosis of the problem. Genocide is defined by an overriding intent and a perverse, irrational concern. The Jews were Hitler's obsession; in the end he sacrificed the war to accelerate their demise. There was likewise no money to be made by hacking hundreds of thousands of people to death in Rwanda. The only goal was to kill; the only motive was hate.

None of this holds true for Nigeria. Shell has neither hatred toward nor an obsession with the Nigerian people or the local environment. But it's willing to destroy both in order to get oil. It's not hateful but careless, and so in its actions we find not genocide but a primer on the dark side of capitalism, of what transpires when prices become more important than values. In Nigeria, which suffers because much of the world wants cheap gas, we see a reminder of what some people pay for our decisions to be who we are, and to want what we want. It is as banal as it is awful, this violence that sleeps beneath our everyday lives, and the fact that it's not genocide should be of little solace to us, for it's certainly little solace to them. The tragedy of human rights is not that they are often spectacularly violated, but that violating them often requires nothing spectacular at all. We need lessons anew in the tedium of wickedness: It needn't be genocide to be evil, and we needn't hate people to hurt them.

Originally published in New York Press.

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