Oronto Douglas is Deputy Director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria. A human rights attorney who was on the defense team of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Douglas has been arrested and tortured by the brutal Nigerian Military regime. That has not stopped him from speaking out. Most recently he has been supporting “Operation Climate Change,” a protest by the Law Youth Council against foreign oil companies operating in the Niger Delta. The group has reportedly shut down 40% of foreign oil production in Baylesa State, one of Nigeria’s main oil producing regions. In response to the Youth Council’s demand for environmental justice, Nigerian troops have killed at least 26 protestors. Unconfirmed reports put the death toll at nearly ten times as many.
Douglas visited Corporate Watch’s San Francisco office in September of last year and spoke with CorpWatch Radio about the connections between human rights abuses, environmental and cultural destruction and foreign oil company operations in Nigeria.
CW: You’ve described Nigeria as being not a country, but rather a geographical region formed by corporations. Can you talk a little bit about the way in which corporations have shaped the history of Nigeria, and continue to shape the politics and the human rights landscape in Nigeria.
OD: It was created by multinational companies and continues to be governed by multinational companies. Just one example: 90% of Nigeria’s resources come from fossil fuels. And the fossil fuel industry is controlled by companies like Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, Mobil, Texaco, and Elf, so on and so forth. So, these companies actually dictate in which direction the country should go. There is a symbiotic relationship between the military dictatorship, the civilian dictatorship, and the multinational companies, who grease the palms of those who rule, because they need to be there. All strategies towards the capture of political power in Nigeria are aimed and directed at the capture of oil wealth and oil wells.
So you find the situation where anyone that plans a coup in Nigeria plans that coup because they want to have their hands on oil. The multinational companies are in a strategic role to say, ‘ look you officer, you cannot come into power. You have not been following us.’
CW: Most people in the United States, Europe, Canada, and the rest of the developed world became aware of Shell’s role in Nigeria, through the Ken Saro-Wiwa trial, which resulted in his hanging. You represented him and were part of his defense team. Some people have said that Shell was responsible for his death. Can you tell us concretely what (the Saro-Wiwa execution) did within Nigeria, and how it helped to focus world attention on (human rights abuses.)
OD: Ken Saro-Wiwa decided to mobilize the Ogoni people, who number about 500,000, in a non-violent way to demand ecological justice, to demand the restoration of the environment, to demand corporate responsibility in ethics and business in the way they deal in Ogoniland. The strategic response from Shell was to demonize Ken Saro-Wiwa. When that did not work, they decided, in collaboration with the military dictatorship, to create a problem within Ogoni by killing four Ogoni chiefs. You can quote me as saying that the four moderate Ogoni chiefs, who were pro-government, were killed by the state security service and Shell knew about their killings.
But before then, the Shell Company had been driven out of Ogoniland, by popular mass-action-direct action. Over 300,000 Ogoni people came out on the 4th day of January 1993, to demand that Shell leave Ogoniland. And that forced Shell to leave.
Shell became very scared. Their public relations and executives met and said, ‘Look, if this Ogoni virus–‘ what they called the Ogoni virus-‘spreads to other ethnic nations in the Niger Delta, that will be the end of the oil business.’ In fact in London, Shell had a meeting with the Nigerian High Commission, and they met and strategized, and said, ‘Look, wherever Ken (Saro-Wiwa) goes, follow him. And shortly thereafter, they arrested Ken Saro-Wiwa.
They put him in jail for more then a year in an underground prison and nobody knew where he was. They chained his legs, his hands and feet were manacled, and tortured (him). Finally, because of international pressure from environmental groups and human rights groups, they were forced to bring him to trial. Shell was not called. It was not among the witnesses; it was not among the defense. But Shell decided to hire a lawyer to (represent the company at) the trial. I was in the trial. I was one of the defense lawyers. It became clear as the trial went on, that Ken Saro-Wiwa would not get justice.
I tell you, you need to see what happened when he was hanged. He was hanged 5 times! Can you imagine — the noose there dangling, and they put your neck (in it), they draw the rope, and you are dangling in the air, then they bring you down, discover you are not dead, they stand you up again, they put the rope, they draw the rope again, and then you are dangling there. They check a third time, you are not dead. Five times this innocent man was hanged. On the fifth time, he said, “Oh Lord, take my soul, but the struggle will continue.”
CW: Bring us up to date. What’s going on with Shell with Chevron and the struggles for environmental justice in Nigeria, since the 1995 hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa.
OD: Shell has actually imported weapons into Nigeria and given them to the military and paramilitary organizations to suppress people. We are aware, for example, that Chevron is actually doing exactly the same thing. On the 28th day of May last year, Chevron actually hired soldiers to invade local protestors. Two people were shot dead immediately and 15 others seriously injured by Chevron’s hired soldiers. And these violations have continued.
CW: Tell us about your organization, Environmental Rights Action and why the struggle for environmental rights is so imbedded in the struggle for human rights in Nigeria.
OD: Human rights are essentially looked at from an individualistic point of view. If you look at the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, for example, you find that that method of advocating for individual human rights does not cover collective rights. It does not cover the protection of forests, the protection of water, the protection of the air, which are essential to the survival of the human being. We felt that, we have to take steps to rectify this, by bringing human rights and the environment together.
We found that if a woman’s farm land, or a fisherman’s waterways are polluted – if they don’t have fish to catch, if their crops no longer grow– you have violated their rights to life. Because if they don’t eat, they will die. And we also felt that the forest is where the people have their medicine. And since in that part of the world, they don’t have hospitals, if you destroy the forest they will lose their source of health. We felt then that a strategic response should be put in place, that will advocate in a collective way in line with the aspirations of cultures of these indigenous peoples to demand ecological integrity. So we set up the Environmental Rights Action on the 11th of January 1993.
CW: Environmental Rights Action and other groups in Nigeria are calling for divestment as a strategy, for people in this country to pressure for divestment. It certainly was a strategy that was effective in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Why are you calling for divestment from Nigeria?
OD: We have used every means necessary to demand justice. We have used the shareholders’ meetings, working through the ecumenical community for corporate responsibility. (We have used) direct action demonstrations in cities around the world. We have called for people to join hands with us to demand that these companies should not support the military dictatorship. Yet these corporations still buy weapons, still violate human rights; still invite soldiers (to put down protests), as happened just on the 28th of May by Chevron. They continue to pollute the land and so on and so forth. So they don’t want to listen to us.
So we sat down and reflected on this, and we felt that it is important that we divest. Divestment here means that all the oil companies who are responsible for the pollution of our lands; who are responsible for the desecration of our shrines; who are responsible for the destruction of our indigenous cultures; who are responsible for initiating violence on our land; who are responsible for destroying our future, our forests, our wildlife, those companies should be recalled back home. They are assassins in foreign lands. They drill and they kill in Nigeria.
CW: You yourself have paid a high cost for your activism. You’ve been jailed. You can’t leave through the airport like any tourist. Do you want to talk briefly about the costs you’ve paid for your activism?
OD: For the past 5 years or so, I have not flown out of Nigeria. I have had to go through neighboring countries to be able to get out to the United States. The reason being that a lot of us have our names penciled down for arrest, for our passports to be seized, for injustice to be visited on our persons. A lot of us who are active, fear for our lives. I have been in jail a couple of times. The last time was on the 26th of June 1994.
I went to the military camp as a lawyer, with a lawyer colleague of mine, to visit a prisoner from Ogoni, who was then the Deputy President for the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. Our mission was to find out where Ken Saro-Wiwa was being kept. Because the world, at that time, did not know where he was being kept. But when we went there, the then military commander of the internal security task force ordered that we be arrested.
We were thrown into jail, tortured and flogged. After four days we were released. It was a most horrible experience that I don’t wish for anybody. When you have to be flogged with a 6 millimeter electric cable. When you have to be kept in a tiny little cell with no light, on a bare floor, no blanket, cold. Cut off from the world, from your family from your friends. It is that horrible. And when I came out as a result of campaigns around the world and within Nigeria, I told myself that I do not want to go back to prison. I told myself that I have to work underground, that I have to work incognito, that I had to continue to do what I have to do, and speak out. And so, I have been doing that. And I will continue to do that, because if we stop–people are dying everyday.
But time is running out. As we preach non-violence, the multinationals are preaching violence and suppression. Their spin-doctors at presenting a non-violent people as violent. They present the defenseless and powerless Ogoni people as violent. Yet it is now clear, that their ugly underbelly will no longer be hidden. The people’s power, I believe, will rise in the United States, and demand justice. And that is why we are calling for divestment.
CW: I want to thank you, Oronto Douglas, for joining us on CorpWatch Radio. Thank you for all your courage and good work.