The oil giant Shell stands accused of complicity in the judicial murder of the author Ken Saro-Wiwa at the hands of the Nigerian Government and creating environmental damage on the Ogoni land.
It is accused not in any court of law but in the court of public opinion – often a much harsher arena. One where the consumer can have a direct effect on the company’s bottom line. But the Shell case has wider implications for other multinationals who could also face worldwide pressure to accept ethical and social responsibility for their actions around the world.
The list of Shell’s accusers reads like a Who’s Who of international pressure groups and the coalition they have formed is threatening the largest worldwide consumer boycott since Barclays Bank and other companies were forced to quit South Africa during the Eighties.
The threat of a worldwide consumer boycott – the picket of stations on Saturday was the opening shot – is part of a broader campaign for an oil embargo and political sanctions against Nigeria. At the moment, Shell could be especially vulnerable as the threatened boycott coincides with an intensification in the UK retail petrol market, where a price war is already under way.
The oil giant is defending itself through press ads challenging the claims made by groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International and Body Shop International, which has co-ordinated the campaign by the Ogoni people for a share of the oil revenues swallowed up by their own government.
Shell denies that it has any influence on the regime of General Abacha and that it would have been wrong to interfere on behalf of Saro-Wiwa because it was a criminal case. Publicly, Shell is adamant that a consumer boycott will not have any effect on its business or activities in Nigeria or any other market. Its advertising also highlights the $100m (64m) investment Shell has made in environmental projects in Nigeria this year.
However, it is investment of a different kind which has made Shell public enemy number one. Its decision to put $4bn 2.6bn) into a liquefied natural gas project in Nigeria just days after Saro-Wiwa was executed has been interpreted by some as giving the green light to the continuation of the regime’s violent methods. And the green light to a consumer campaign against Shell.
At the heart of the campaign is the allegation, refuted by Shell, that it operates double standards. Allowing practices in developing countries which would be unacceptable in the UK or any other western nation. All companies make decisions on how and where they operate, based on economic, political and social reasons. Shell has been in Nigeria for more than 50 years, produces more than 50 per cent of the country’s oil and has outlived at least 11 different regimes.
“The most unpalatable thing about Shell and other multinational companies is the double standards they employ in different countries,” claims Friends of the Earth executive director Charles Secrett. “They are only concerned about their responsibilities to shareholders and the bottom line. Shell must take its social and environmental responsibilities seriously. Until it does that it will always face difficulties.”
Earlier this year, Shell was accused of environmental negligence for attempting to dump the Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea. European politicians withdrew their support in the face of huge public opposition orchestrated by Greenpeace, and the platform was shipped to Norway for dismantling. Ironically, the success of the Greenpeace media campaign on that occasion has made the media more sceptical about its claims against Shell.
“Brent Spar was not a particularly significant ecological issue,” says veteran environmental campaigner Jonathon Porritt. “Nigeria is much more significant. In Nigeria, Shell has caused environmental devastation. It is complicit in the suppression of the Ogoni people and, ultimately, must take some of the responsibility for the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others.
“How do you market an international logo with blood dripping from it? Shell will complain that it was not its job to get involved in Nigeria politically. By its economic involvement, even by paying taxes, to the government, Shell is politically involved in Nigeria.”
The arguments between the pressure groups and Shell have deteriorated into claim and counter claim – both sides alleging that the other is trying to manipulate the media. After Saturday’s picket, the pressure groups claimed 100 stations were affected and Shell responded by asking: “What picket?”
But Porritt believes that the Shell case has a wider resonance among other multinationals. “Global companies such as Shell can no longer have it both ways. They cannot on the one hand support a very good environmental record in European markets and on the other wreak environmental devastation in other parts of the world. The world is now a much smaller place and global companies are no longer able to get away with this kind of practice.”
There is a difference between Shell’s situation and that of, for example, Exxon – whose tanker caused a slick off the Alaskan coast. Such environmental damage is caused by accident; Shell stands accused of causing damage through its everyday actions, and of supporting a politically corrupt government.
Shell’s advertising has concentrated on the investment for the Nigerian people represented by the new project – 6,000 jobs will be created. These benefits are disputed by exiled Ogoni leaders who support the international sanctions and a boycott of Shell.
“Shell does not employ double standards – it has been caught in the crossfire,” claims a Shell International spokesman. “Because the Ogoni people had difficulty in having their demands addressed by the Nigerian government, they decided to use allegations of environmental devastation against Shell.
“There have been environmental problems but not devastation. And Shell has taken responsibility for some of those problems.”
The challenge for the coalition is to raise the stakes. In other European countries, the drive against Shell is already being intensified through poster campaigns, direct lobbying and one-off protests. But the coalition does not want to over-stretch itself and is also acutely aware that there are a further 21 Ogonis facing trials in Nigeria on similar charges to those for which Saro-Wiwa was executed.
While Shell was signing a $4bn (2.6bn) cheque for fresh investment, the Commonwealth was kicking Nigeria out of its little club. At the end of the day, the decision to pull out of Nigeria might not be in the hands of the Shell board. As pressure mounts on governments for an oil embargo, it might be forced out by political pressure. But a more likely scenario will see governments stalling and campaigners turning their full force on Shell.
Dan Suleiman, from the political opposition movement in Nigeria NADECO, poses a more worrying threat to Shell. “But for Shell, Abacha would have thought more clearly about Saro-Wiwa. If Abacha falls, then Shell will lose out.”
That should concentrate the mind of the company even more than the threat of consumer action.