A guest blog from Ben Amunwa, campaigner with oil industry watchdog Platform.
A recent video published online shows a Shell executive admitting that the oil giant could easily be funding what he describes as “warlords” and militants in Nigeria. You can watch the video here, (see 57mins - 1hr). The admission comes soon after the announcement that 11,000 Nigerians are due to take Shell to court in London over two major oil spills in the town of Bodo in 2008 to 2009. Shell has refused to pay adequate compensation for the destruction caused to the environment and livelihoods of local residents.
The new video shows the Managing Director of Shell Nigeria, Mutiu Sunmonu, speaking in central London on 9 February 2012. During the question and answer session, Tom Burgis of the Financial Times asks Mr. Sunmonu about the company's financial relationships with armed militant groups in the Delta. Mr. Sunmonu responds:
"I believe that some of the things we do in the Delta could indeed unintentionally provoke conflict."
Those "things", says Sunmonu, include awarding contracts to militant groups:
"[…] as far as Shell is concerned, our business principle is very clear. We do not pay protection money. However, you also have to admit, that except a guy has a label on his foreheard say[ing] “I'm a militant”, you do not know who is a militant and who is a genuine contractor. So there could be cases in the past where you have thought you were employing, you know, a genuine, bona fide contractor, and yet he is probably a militant or a warlord. So I will not argue that such a situation, you know, could have arisen in the past. But it's always with the best of intentions."
This is extraordinary for several reasons.
Firstly, Sunmonu goes closer than ever before to admitting that Shell substantially contributed to the funding of armed militancy in the Delta during a decade of intense conflict which claimed an estimated 1,000 lives a year. Several independent investigations between 2003 and 2011 have confirmed that Shell has exacerbated conflict by awarding contracts and "protection money" to groups responsible for or linked to human rights abuses in the Niger Delta. But for Shell to effectively admit that it could have been "employing" militants and warlords sends a disturbing message about how much the company’s efforts to prevent adverse social impacts from its operations, let alone its environmental devastation in the region.
Secondly, the claim that Shell is unable to distinguish between genuine contractors and militants is not credible. Shell has extracted oil from the Delta for 58 years. By now, it has extensive knowledge of the region. The company has well-resourced departments for "Community Relations” and "Security". The job of these departments, at least in theory, is to identify threats to Shell's operations and to resolve conflicts with local communities. Even if militants don’t wear “labels on their foreheads”, Shell should know better.
Shell also maintains a network of informants in the Delta. According to a Shell manager I interviewed in September 2011:
"we call them ‘information gathering’ contracts. What this means [is] people working in the community there. They give us information as to what is actually happening and what is not happening, so we can manage the situation."
It is obvious that Shell was aware of who it has been funding in the Delta. They simply turned a blind eye to the consequences.
In the town of Rumuekpe, in the heart of Rivers State, the consequences of Shell’s practices were dire. Shell awarded ongoing contracts worth thousands of dollars and one-off payments worth $57,989 during an armed conflict between militant groups. The entire town was destroyed in the violence that ensued, and at least 60 people were killed. Throughout, Shell workers visited the community on a regular basis and Shell's Community Relations Department closely monitored the situation. Even if Shell’s central management was somehow unaware of the violence, local media reports were publicly available. Members of the community even wrote to Shell to request that the company stop awarding contracts to gang leaders. Despite the denials, Shell knew exactly what was going on - as Platform’s report, Counting The Cost, documents.
And finally, Sunmonu's statement illustrates a stunning failure of "due diligence". Under the UN Framework for Business and Human Rights, Shell has a duty to avoid human rights violations regardless of how challenging the "external environment". In conflict-zones like the Delta, this duty requires heightened due diligence and enhanced preventative measures to ensure that company conduct does not worsen conflict and abuses. That Shell has the "best of intentions" is irrelevant. No amount of good intentions and community development projects can absolve Shell from the harm it has caused to local residents, directly or indirectly. For that harm to be undone, timely and adequate remedies are required for Shell’s victims, be they in Bodo and Rumuekpe, or First Nations communities in Canada.