Stop Oil From Nigeria: Sanctions, Human Rights and Canada's Foreign Policy


Terisa E. Turner and John McMurtry*

Brief to the Roundtable on Nigeria February 23, 1998


Ministry of External Affairs and International Investment Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development Lester B. Pearson Building 125 Sussex Drive Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0G2


*Terisa E. Turner Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, N1G 2W1 tel: 519 787 0609 EMAIL: Terisa E. Turner is Co-Director of the International Oil Working Group which is a non-governmental organization registered with the United Nations in New York.

John McMurtry Professor, Department of Philosophy University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, N1G 2W1

Appreciation is due to the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for supporting Terisa Turner's research on Nigeria. Appreciation is also due to Jennifer Davis, Deborah Robinson, Steve Kretzman and Diana Barikor Wiwa for their input and contributions to this paper the responsibility for which remains with the authors. Stop Oil From Nigeria: Sanctions, Human Rights and Canada's Foreign Policy

Terisa E. Turner and John McMurtry

February 1998

"The real goal of oil sanctions is to raise the costs of repression, past the point that the regime can bear."


A crisis of democracy is playing itself out in Nigeria. Implicated are international oil companies and the Abacha dictatorship. Protagonists in the fightback against terror and environmental devastation by oil producers are indigenous peoples of the Niger Delta. The Ogoni people have been most prominent but they are now joined by dozens of other nationalities whose deep roots in Nigeria's oilbelt give them grounds for refusing the ecocide with which they are faced. This campaign of refusal has reached the international arena where governments are, in the late 1990s, reshaping their policies on Nigeria. We propose in what follows that the oil companies be required to employ "good oilfield practices," the prosecution of violators of international law be pursued and that the demands of the Ogoni themselves be the basis of a democratic resolution throughout the Delta region and in Nigeria as a whole. We advocate an embargo on Nigerian oil exports as a means of arming diplomacy to secure these ends.

International Law

Unlike other contemporary descents into criminal inhumanity, the Nigerian instance is remarkably well documented. The perpetrators of this heinous chain of brutal murders, rapes, collective terrorizations and systematic destabilization are clearly identifiable. Unlike Rwanda, unlike Bosnia, unlike Algeria, in Nigeria we know exactly who is doing it and we know the chain of command. Because there is sequential witness of the crimes, the Nigerian instances are ones which can legally proceed with full knowledge.

We have the ways available to do this on many levels. There is lawful authority of international accords on crimes against humanity. There are also Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Declaration on the Elimination of Torture, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the Principles of the Nuremberg Charter and Judgement.

There are, moreover, agents of the external countries who are accountable to allied governments and under their jurisdiction, namely the oil corporations involved and their responsible agents (Shell, Mobil, Chevron/Gulf and the other operators). These agents have acted in complicity with, or are alleged to have actually urged, these killings. Again, Nigeria is unlike other terrorized places because we have the exact identities of the agents directly accountable.

The Ogoni Perspective From Inside

So far we have been looking at Nigeria from outside. But we must see all that has been unfolding in Nigeria and in the international arena from the standpoint of the victims themselves. The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) represents virtually the entire Ogoni society. It is a popularly supported, peacefully motivated, civilly responsible force and it is made up of men and women from all generations and sectors of the community.

We know that from several reports that there has been environmental devastation in the Niger Delta including in Ogoniland. We know the double standards that are used in the oil industry in Nigeria compared to what is used elsewhere. We know that of the total number of spills recorded by Shell worldwide, forty per cent have been in Nigeria. We know that in mid-January 1998 Mobil Oil spilled 40,000 barrels of oil into the sea from their offshore operations. And this is threatening 120 coastal communities. The companies have often argued it is not our problem, the circumstances of the oil communities is not our fault because it results from how revenue allocation is done by the government. In fact companies who do business in countries with military dictatorships are responsible for the devastation of lives, human rights and the ecology.

We know that all the oil companies in Nigeria are deeply and structurally connected to the repressive apparatus of the state. All oil companies are required to pay the salaries and expenses of special armed and uniformed national police forces tasked with guarding oil facilities. These are not company security guards but national security forces answerable to the dictatorship. In addition, after years of public denials Shell was finally forced to admit that it has purchased and attempted to purchase thousands of guns and millions of rounds of ammunition for its police contingent known among the people as the Shell police.

According to the United States State Department 1996 Country Human Rights report, all Nigerian security forces engage in widespread and systematic human rights abuses. The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) has charged that the Shell Police have been particularly brutal. Moreover Shell, again, after strenuous denials, had to admit in 1997 that it made special payments to the notorious Rivers State internal Security Task Force, the paramilitary occupation unit engaged in the brutal repression of MOSOP and the minority Ogoni people.

The Ogoni have expressed their sense of the situation and the requirements they see as necessary for a minimum restoration of the conditions of life for their community. As is well known, since about the mid-1980s the Ogoni have organized locally, nationally and internationally and found many supporters in large part due to the obvious humane morality of their cause. These actions on the part of the Ogoni and other nationalities in Nigeria's oilbelt have stimulated the formation of a civil society with the capacity to generate the rule of law, which alone can bring these communities and the national society into a condition of integration.

In 1990 the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), representing the half a million Ogoni living in the Port Harcourt oilbelt in eastern Nigeria, brought forward a list of demands in the form of a Bill of Rights. Its terms are as follows:

1. Political control of Ogoni affairs by Ogoni people,

2. The right to the control and use of a fair proportion of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development,

3. Adequate and direct representation as a right in all Nigerian national institutions,

4. The use and development of Ogoni languages in Ogoni territory,

5. The full development of Ogoni culture,

6. The right to religious freedom,

7. The right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradation.

A Three-Pronged Approach

Actions are listed in order by the criterion of what is immediately accessible and actionable.

1. The adoption of "good oilfield practices" be compelled by governments as a condition for petroleum exploitation. Good oilfield practice would instantly ease the situation in Nigeria's oilbelt and would include the companies refraining from producing down-well water when there are no ecologically sound ways of disposing of this down-well water with its dangerous toxins. It would also include the repairing and replacement of seriously deteriorating pipeline networks. The cleanup of existing oil spills and seepages is another priority.

2. The international community, led by Canada, must publicly express its resolve and commitment to stop the criminal reign of terror by the government of Nigeria.

3. There must be a good-faith commitment to move forward to restore the conditions of life for all Nigerians, essentially through positive response to the Ogoni and some 27 other nationalities' programs for restoration of civil order.

From the standpoint of the rule of law, from the standpoint of the international community and from the standpoint of the Ogoni people, the way ahead is to use existing legal and civil instruments to stop the reckless, systematic and flagrant violation of the most basic norms of right and law governing the community of nations by the military dictatorship of Nigeria and the oil corporations from which it receives its financial inducements.

The Threat of International Pubic Contempt for the Rule of Law

With the 1995 hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others on totally fabricated charges, the military dictatorship of Nigeria has expressed its open and public contempt for the rule of law, the life-security of its peoples and the most elementary principles of civilization. Throughout it has been supported and financed in its day-to-day rule by the revenues of U.S. and Anglo-Dutch oil corporations (almost 50% of the extraction of Nigeria's oil is by U.S. Mobil and Chevron/Gulf). For this internationally visible reign of terror to continue with no U.S. or G-7 condemnation of its leadership, invocation of international law, or application of legal sanctions and embargo on the responsible government and participating oil corporations is tantamount to public confession of complicity. Such a posture on the part of the key governments can only earn the deepest revulsion of world public opinion. The public murder of Saro-Wiwa, and of the civil bonds of the Ogoni people which he represented, is a crime which not only attacks the people of Nigeria, but disgraces the international leadership of the Commonwealth and G-7 so long as it persists with impunity.

Canadian Policy Towards Nigeria

Three actions to positively address the Nigerian situation have been noted: use of good oilfield practices, an end to the government's reign of terror and the implementation of programs put forward by oilbelt nationalities themselves. The second action requires elaboration. Canada's contributions to ending the Nigerian regime's reign of terror have been significant. To build on these accomplishments the following steps should be taken:

1. The study and implementation of a unilateral oil embargo by Canada and support for a multilateral oil embargo;

2. The expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth in 1998 failing a definitive move to democratic practice and the release of political prisoners;

3. Political sanctuary and landed immigrant status for many more Nigerians who have fled the regime's terror;

4. Assistance to the devastated Ogoni and other communities through a range of channels including non-governmental organizations;

5. Regular visits to political prisoners by parties representing the Canadian government in Nigeria.

Stop Oil From Nigeria: Sanctions, Human Rights and Canada's Foreign Policy

The first step noted above to end the Nigerian government's reign of terror is the imposition of an oil embargo against Nigeria. Sanctions are a crucial element of an effective Canadian foreign policy and as such they warrant further consideration.

Given the regime's dependence on oil exports for its economic survival, the Nigerian human rights and democracy movements have called for international oil sanctions to secure the release of political prisoners, return the military to the barracks and implement the 1993 election results. The Ogoni people's organization, MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) have declared Shell persona non grata in Ogoniland and called for a moratorium on all oil activity. But sanctions have been dismissed by the private sector, by governments and by many policy analysts as variously 'unwise, 'politically impractical' and 'functionally ineffective.'

The private sector position can be understood as self-interest. Interests within the policy establishment argue that sanctions cannot work because:

(1) Nigeria could over the medium term, find new markets in Asia to replace lost sales in the United States and Europe;

(2) only multilateral sanctions can be effective and there is no consensus among the great powers;

(3) enforcement would require a naval blockade of Nigerian ports.

They argue instead for the maintenance of largely ineffective diplomatic sanctions currently in place in North America and Europe with the addition of a freeze on the personal assets of members of the regime, which is unlikely to be very effective. These measures would be further weakened by normalized, vastly expanded diplomatic contact including direct military to military contacts with the regime and thereby tacit support for Abacha's transparently fraudulent 1998 transition exercise.

The Abacha regime's absolute dependence on oil exports for survival and North America's dominance of the Nigerian petroleum economy as both producer and consumer make it a much stronger case for sanctions than South Africa's relatively diversified economy ever did. The case for sanctions is further strengthened by the 1997 commitment of the ICEM which includes oil workers' unions internationally, to embargo Nigerian oil exports. The lessons which ICEM has drawn from its one-month experiment with oil sanctions in November 1997 are being applied to refining a sanctions initiative by oil workers' unions which would be enforced until Nigerian unionists are released from prison and fundamental human rights restored. For many of those who worked to implement sanctions against South Africa it was evident that the end of apartheid was hastened crucially by two developments: (1) the global mass mobilization of citizens and especially workers to enforce a no-trade policy with corporations doing business with the racist regime and (2) the corporate imperative of both South African and other firms to operate internationally free from anti-apartheid sanctions. Both developments pertain today to the Nigerian equation and constitute serious arguments for Canadian government action to stop oil from Nigeria.

At the heart of the case for sanctions is the understanding that Abacha does not have a "medium term" in which to reroute Nigerian oil to alternative markets. Asia is in an economic crisis of vast proportions and has already dramatically reduced its energy demands. China, often pointed to as a likely replacement market for Nigerian oil, is committed to coal for energy production and lacks both the capital and the preference to convert to oil. Moreover there are significant retooling costs associated with converting refineries geared for heavier Middle-eastern crude to Nigeria's lighter petroleum grades. Adding to Abacha's difficulties in locating new markets is the large and growing glut of crude on the world market, an over supply likely to grow with the return of Iraq to the market, and the coming online of the Caspian Sea fields along with the ready abundance of North Sea and other crude grades comparable to the quality of Nigeria's sweet, light exports. At best Abacha would have to market his oil at a sharp discount to attract buyers, further weakening his ability to finance his corrupt regime of terror.

Fewer dollars to spend and increased international diplomatic support for democracy can force Abacha to release prisoners, and open a dialogue with the democratic movement to resolve the crisis. Abacha is clearly feeling increasing domestic pressures as indicated by his mass arrests of "coup-plotters" including a second-in-command, and the outpouring of people in Abacha's northern political stronghold to mark the death in prison of popular democracy leader Shehu Yar'adua in December. At the point where he is unable to pay off the Nigerian military and civilian elites, his regime is doomed. The real goal of oil sanctions is to raise the costs of repression, past the point that the regime can bear.

Canadian diplomacy combined with determined action can build multilateral support for sanctions. But given the extraordinary U.S. and North American dominance of the Nigerian economy, North America can act unilaterally and should do so if necessary. While the U.S. market is vitally important and we believe irreplaceable to the dictatorship, Nigeria accounts for less than seven per cent of American oil imports. The U.S. can easily and cheaply find new sources of Nigerian oil, a view confirmed by a 1994 General Accounting Office report, but Abacha cannot find ready markets for half of his exports. It is worth restating that two U.S. companies, Mobil and Chevron produce nearly half of Nigeria's oil, while the single largest producer, Shell, is also vulnerable to U.S. pressure because the U.S. is its single largest profit center. The U.S. therefore has the capacity to act effectively and unilaterally against Nigeria and should be encouraged by Canada to do so, with Canadian support.

The companies can argue that others will replace them should they withdraw, but only a handful of corporations have the capital and the technical capacity to maintain Nigeria's huge production and they too are American. What seems lacking now is not an analysis to support the imposition of sanctions, but rather the will to act. It is vital in the meantime to continue involving human rights and environmental groups in the current review process and avoid being paralysed by a combination of corporate lobbying and Nigerian buying of political influence. Canadian diplomats and world leaders from Nelson Mandela to Bill Clinton to John Major and other Commonwealth heads of states have engaged in protracted diplomacy to resolve the crisis in Nigeria and avert a bloody repetition of the Biafran civil war. But without sanctions, diplomacy has been ineffective. There must be a real consequence for the regime if it continues its bloody war on its own people and real consequences for the oil companies if they continue to finance military dictatorship in Nigeria.

February 22, 1998 Fergus, Ontario

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