Having written about Shell in Nigeria for over fifteen years, we have known that there was huge internal disquiet about the company’s operations in the country.
In the aftermath of the murder of Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, Shell was pilloried in the international press for being complicit in his death and for being an integral part of the vortex of violence tearing the Niger Delta apart.
Amidst the criticism, the company has always tried to keep its employees on side. The morning after Ken’s murder a letter was on the desk of every Shell employee telling them how Shell was not to blame for his death.
Over a decade may have passed, but Shell has not managed to extricate itself from the violence of the Niger Delta. And finally the internal tension of Shell’s Nigerian problem has, it seems, gone public.
Late last week a letter was supposedly leaked from 116 employees from Shell’s core countries: The UK, The Netherlands, and the US and sent to various environmental groups. It was then sent to the Financial Times. What has made the headlines is that fact that the letter was leaked with all the email contacts of Shell’s 170,000 staff.
The actual content of the letter has been glossed over in the furore over data protection.
If the remarkable letter is genuine and I stress we do not know if it is yet, it is truly remarkable.
In the letter, the employees say they are remaining anonymous “so that we don’t get fired by Shell’s brutal elite”. But they are asking for “to push for meaningful, sustained change on behalf of Shell’s exploited and abused victims in Nigeria.”
The letter says: “We are extremely concerned regarding Shell’s behaviour in Nigeria that they label “disgusting” and “repugnant.”
They do not mix their words and accuse Shell being “responsible for mass murder and human rights abuses against many different ethnic groups and communities in Nigeria through Shell’s assistance, employment, and financing of various military and paramilitary groups.”
“From as recently as 1999 to today, more than 20 communities have been wiped out completely and more than 50,000 people killed in the Niger Delta by a Shell-sponsored military,” they say.
“Ever since Shell started producing oil in Nigeria in the late 1950’s” they argue “it has operated in Nigeria with no respect for people and the environment. Any improvement in Shell’s operation has been insufficient, and to this day, Shell is still operating in a very abusive fashion in Nigeria.”
“We are disgusted by the injustices that Shell is committing in Nigeria. Shell’s repugnant behavior in Nigeria includes:
• general environmental abuses (such as gas flaring, oil spills, and improper oil waste disposal);
• unacceptable human rights violations (such as condoning / employing brutal military oppression); as well
• as the massive poverty and suffering that engulfs the vast majority of Nigeria due to mismanagment
• and waste from Shell’s production revenues to the government.
There is nothing new about these accusations – NGOs have been levelling them at Shell since the early nineties. But what is new is that the criticism is coming from within not from outside.
Finally the internal disquiet has become external disquiet.
Take one of the most emotive subjects: gas flaring. A whole plethora of Nigerian communities and environmental groups have been arguing for years to switch off the flares. But Shell has refused to do so.
But according to the employees: “The best solution with regards to gas flaring is to enforce an immediate end to gas flaring and an end to exploration and new oil field development until Shell constructs appropriate facilities for the utilization of all associated gas”.
Shell employees calling for an immediate end to gas flaring – this is a big step forward.
The employees argue that “It is of our opinion that the only people who know the truths as to what Shell is doing in Nigeria are a few activist groups, Shell’s brutal management elite, and nobody else.”
However they argue that “the reality is that Shell will do next to nothing (or very close to nothing) for as long as it can, for as long as it can get away with it. We strongly believe that general public (and insider) ignorance and apathy is by far the largest reason why Shell can keep getting away with the way it is behaving in Nigeria.”
They argue that “the only way to have real, meaningful change within Shell is to launch and sustain a peaceful Royal Dutch Shell Corporate Revolution”, that includes a public boycott of Shell’s products, and investor disinvestment.
Meanwhile Shell said that it does not believe the letter is genuine.
But then Shell would say that, wouldn’t it…
We may never know if it is genuine, but if it is, it shows the level of concern inside Shell.