The restoration of civilian rule in Nigeria has not produced a reduction of human rights violations in the oil producing regions of the Niger Delta, even though the location and types of abuse have changed to some extent. Since the inauguration of President Olusegun Obasanjo in May 1999, the government has continued to show a disturbing willingness to deploy indiscriminate lethal force in response to criminal activity, ethnic conflict, or protests related to oil production. In November 1999, soldiers killed hundreds of people in an assault on the community of Odi, where twelve policemen had been killed by an armed gang. Soldiers, naval personnel, and paramilitary Mobile Police deployed across the delta carry out summary executions, assaults and other abuses on an ongoing basis. In Ogoniland, a small part of the Niger Delta, although the blanket repression of the military government of Gen. Sani Abacha is past, the security forces continue to target those who oppose the resumption of oil production, suspended since 1993. At this writing, no one has been held accountable for these abuses.
The end of military rule has allowed greater debate over the issues feeding the ongoing crisis in the Niger Delta, in the National Assembly and elsewhere, but there is a growing frustration among those who live in the oil producing communities at the failure of the executive and legislature to respond to their demands for compensation for the damage done to their land and livelihoods by oil production and for a greater share of the oil wealth. Although the 1999 constitution provides that 13 percent of the revenue derived from onshore oil production should be paid to the states where it is produced, there have been substantial delays in calculating and paying these sums. Groups from across the political spectrum in the so-called south-south zone have also demanded rather that the oil producing states assume "full control" over their natural resources, and pay tax from those revenues to the federal government. President Obasanjo has rejected the idea of any negotiation surrounding the further reallocation of revenue under the constitution, emphasizing instead the creation of a Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), which will disburse funds for development projects. Many of those living in the oil producing communities reject the NDDC as an answer to their demands, charging that it is likely to be as corruption-ridden as previous similar bodies, and does not address the central issue of resource control. Frustration at what is seen as a lack of movement in addressing the concerns of the oil producing communities has fed ongoing protests, ranging from demonstrations of small groups waving placards to attempts to close down production of oil at particular facilities in an attempt to draw attention to the demands of local communities. Oil company staff are regularly taken hostage by semi-organized groups of youths from the riverine areas of the delta, sometimes using armed force. Hostage-taking has in some cases had the aim of raising the profile of local demands, but often has served to extort high ransoms for the release of oil workers - though all the oil companies deny publicly that ransom money is paid. In the most high profile recent incident, 165 oil workers on a drilling rig contracted by Shell's Nigerian subsidiary were held captive between July 31 and August 5, 2000, by some one hundred young men in Ekeremor local government area, Bayelsa State. Violence between neighboring ethnic groups and communities, often triggered by disputes over the siting of oil facilities and distribution of benefits related to the oil industry, continues to flare on a regular basis, leading to dozens of deaths over the past year.
The rupturing of fuel pipelines owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), usually by commercial operators who siphon off fuel for sale on the black market, has increased. Both NNPC and the Petroleum Products Marketing Company (PPMC) have dismissed workers accused of facilitating the vandalization of pipelines for the purposes of stealing fuel. The result of these operations is not only to exacerbate Nigeria's chronic fuel shortages, but also, tragically, the death of hundreds of people engulfed in explosions as they try to scoop fuel from the leaking pipes after the commercial operators have left. In the most serious such fire, in October 1998, more than one thousand people died in Jesse, Delta State, but similar explosions have continued to take place. Several hundred people died in July 2000 in a fire in Adeje, near Warri, Delta State, and dozens died from smaller explosions throughout the year. Shell has also reported increasing theft, or "bunkering" of crude oil from its facilities, resulting in the loss of up to 32,000 barrels per day of production recently. In response to this situation, the government has repeatedly announced new security initiatives for the Niger Delta, including the creation of a task force on the vandalization of pipelines, partly funded by NNPC. However, the security forces have often failed to protect property from damage or civilians from violence, and have themselves carried out serious and widespread violations of human rights in response to such incidents. The pipeline vandalization task force has reportedly carried out several extrajudicial executions of persons suspected of vandalizing pipelines or stealing petroleum products. In November, the government reportedly threatened to reintroduce the death penalty for those convicted of pipeline vandalization.
Lack of Accountability for the Destruction of Odi
On November 4, 1999, an armed gang killed seven Nigerian policemen in the community of Odi, Bayelsa State. Five other police were killed in subsequent days. President Olusegun Obasanjo wrote to the governor of Bayelsa, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, threatening to declare a state of emergency if those responsible for the murders were not apprehended within two weeks - though responsibility for policing is, in fact, a federal duty in Nigeria. Before the deadline could expire, soldiers from the Nigerian army moved into Odi, a community of 15,000 people or more, engaged in a brief exchange of fire with the young men alleged to be responsible for the deaths of the policemen, and proceeded to raze the town. The troops demolished every single building, barring the bank, the Anglican church and the health clinic, and left graffiti that included ethnic slurs and reflected views that the town and the whole Ijaw ethnic group must be punished for the crimes committed by their sons.
One year later, information collected by community leaders from former residents of Odi indicates that perhaps as many as 2,000 people were killed by the army in this operation - described by a presidential spokesman as "a carefully planned and cautiously executed exercise to rid the society of these criminals." People were killed in their homes by mortar shells; in summary killings, especially of young men captured by the soldiers as they advanced into the town; or following torture and rape. Though young men were especially targeted, many, perhaps most, of those who died were old people or young children. Dozens of young men are believed to have been summarily executed by soldiers over the subsequent days and weeks after being picked up at road blocks and identified as Ijaw by characteristic tribal markings.
There has been no government-supported independent investigation of these events, and no military personnel are known to have been prosecuted for the atrocities committed in Odi. Indeed, although President Obasanjo has expressed "regret" for what happened, the officers who commanded the operation have reportedly been promoted. More than forty men are held in detention and have been charged with murder and conspiracy in connection with the original killings of the twelve policemen, and their trials are still pending. Only minimal relief has been distributed by government agencies to Odi residents, and such reconstruction of the devastated town as has occurred has been at the expense and on the initiative of those residents that have returned to rebuild their homes. In an attempt to obtain some redress, the victims are bringing civil suits against the Nigerian government for compensation.
The Ogoni, an ethnic group perhaps half a million strong, led the upsurge in protests at oil production over the last decade and demands for greater benefit from oil to be returned to the areas where it is produced. Ogoniland, their homeland, is close to the city of Port Harcourt in Rivers State. The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), created in 1990 and led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, organized mass demonstrations which resulted in the closure of oil production in Ogoniland in 1993. In response, the military government of General Sani Abacha cracked down on MOSOP's activities, detaining dozens of activists for extended periods, deploying a specially created military task force to Ogoniland, and setting up a special tribunal which convicted Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP leaders after a trial that blatantly violated international standards of due process. The "Ogoni Nine" were executed in November 1995. Following the death of General Sani Abacha in June 1998, the interim government of General Abdusalami Abubakar disbanded the military task force that had been deployed to Ogoniland and released the remaining Ogoni political detainees. For the first time in years, Ogonis were free to meet and express their political views.
Although the situation in Ogoniland improved with the end of military rule, there are continuing human rights concerns. In March and April 2000, for example, repressive force was once again used in Ogoniland, when paramilitary Mobile Police deployed to the village of K-Dere, Gokana local government area. Several Ogoni civilians were killed and a number of others detained for various periods and charged with different offenses. According to reports from MOSOP and other groups monitoring the situation, the background to this violence centered on various development projects, in particular the construction of roads, to be funded by Shell, whose Ogoniland production remains suspended. The new local authorities in Ogoniland, installed at the time of the restoration of civilian government in May 1999, tend to favor renewed oil production, since they can hope to benefit from the contracts likely to be awarded.
Independent visitors to Ogoniland who have interviewed local people uniformly report their view that the majority of Ogonis oppose a return of Shell to the area. Any activity that can be interpreted as indicating a desire to resume operations, even if not directly related to oil production, therefore has the potential to create significant tension within the community.
On March 21, 2000, Ledum Mitee, a MOSOP leader and co-defendant of Ken Saro-Wiwa, wrote to the chairman of the Royal Dutch/Shell group of companies, warning that the activities of its Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd (SPDC), risked reigniting conflict in Ogoniland. SPDC officials have repeatedly stated in meetings with Human Rights Watch and elsewhere that the company is only interested in making safe its facilities in Ogoniland, and in carrying out development projects aimed to restore community trust. However, MOSOP charged that Shell's "local staff and contractors are now using similar tactics to those of the last decade in what appears to be a desperate attempt to establish a foothold in Ogoni which will allow the company to restore oil operations in the area." The organization condemned a failure to consult with local communities before operations to work on SPDC pipelines or projects, including road building, proceeded. MOSOP later reported that two vehicles of the Mobile Police, a paramilitary unit of the Nigerian Police Force, were present on March 21 in Gokana local government area, Ogoniland, where the road project was to proceed, and were shooting in the air in an attempt to terrorize the local population. There were some clashes with local youths, and the police were reinforced in the days following, leading to an escalation of violence. On March 23, six people were arrested by Mobile Police following a demonstration at the site of the road, and tensions continued to escalate, taking the form of a dispute between two neighboring communities, K-Dere and B-Dere. Ledum Mitee informed the SPDC General Manager in Port Harcourt of these developments, and Shell's contractor working on the road project was withdrawn on March 23. The company later repeated previous statements that it is "committed to not working in areas where we are not welcome," and in correspondence with Mitee denied a lack of consultation over its projects. MOSOP reported that the community was quiet by the end of March.
On April 11, Mobile Police working with a group of civilian youths, about whose criminal activities MOSOP had previously complained to the police, entered the K-Dere community early in the morning, apparently with the intention of arresting those opposing the road project and intimidating others into dropping their opposition. At least ten houses in K-Dere, including Mitee's own, were burnt down. On April 13, Ledum Mitee was arrested, when he returned from a trip to Abuja, joining at least eight other people already in detention. Mitee was held for five days and then charged with two others with arson (of houses that are in fact undamaged) and attempted murder, and released on bail. These charges are still outstanding. All who had been detained were released on bail within three weeks.
According to MOSOP and other local human rights activists, at least four and possibly up to ten people were shot dead by police in the violence that took place over several days. On April 29, MOSOP reported that armed thugs had again attacked a venue where MOSOP was holding a meeting, though fortunately without causing casualties. Again, in August, there were reports that thugs had severely beaten one person and taken away two others, in advance of a planned demonstration in Tai local government area against a rumored return of Shell to the area. Similar tensions also came to the surface on November 10, 2000, the fifth anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, when scuffles took place between youths attempting to force businesses to close in commemoration of the date, and others apparently linked to the local government authorities.
At this writing, there has been no official inquiry, as called for by MOSOP, Human Rights Watch, and many other groups, into the abuses suffered by the Ogoni people under the military regime of General Abacha, nor have there been prosecutions of members of the security forces alleged to be responsible for those abuses. The only forum that may lead to some partial accountability is the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, headed by Justice Chukwudifu Oputa (commonly referred to as the Oputa Commission), which is investigating "mysterious deaths" and assassinations and other human rights abuses during the period January 1966 to June 1998. More than 10,000 cases from Ogoniland were submitted to the Oputa Commission, which will hold public hearings in Port Harcourt in January 2001, at which some of these cases will be considered. However, given the limited resources of the commission, it is clear that the repression in Ogoniland can receive only the most superficial examination.
President Obasanjo visited the delta, including Ogoniland in September 2000, in which he held a minute's silence in honor of the executed MOSOP leaders, but urged the Ogoni people to "put the past behind us so that we can move forward."
On October 14, 2000, a group of fifty-one youths approached the Tebidaba flow station, operated by the Nigerian Agip Oil Company Ltd (NAOC) near Olugbobiri, Bayelsa State, in three speedboats. According to information gathered by local human rights organizations, and interviews with eyewitnesses carried out by Human Rights Watch three weeks later, their intention was to enter the flow station and close down production, in order to protest the failure of NAOC to complete certain agreed projects in the Olugbobiri community to the satisfaction of the community. The youths were unarmed. Soldiers and naval personnel posted at the flow station opened fire on the boats without warning, using both a machine gun and what were described by the youths present as "bombs," presumably grenades. The youths dived into the water in order to escape, but eight were killed at the site, and another died later in hospital.
Several of the bodies have not yet been recovered. Sixteen were seriously injured, of which four were still in hospital at the beginning of the second week in November. Following the incident on October 14, the military stationed at the flow station were reinforced, according to community members. These forces have been responsible for razing to the ground a small fishing settlement close to the flow station, a satellite of the main Olugbobiri community, and for ongoing harassment of those attempting to get to their fishing grounds.
After the killing of the nine youths, the central zone of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), the most high profile youth organization in the riverine areas of the delta, held a meeting on October 22, at Okolobiri, Bayelsa State, where an ultimatum was given to Agip to vacate Ijaw territory. The following day, Felix Tuodolo, president of the IYC, was invited to the Rivers State police headquarters in Port Harcourt and detained for six hours. He was questioned by the Rivers State commissioner of police, who alleged that he had incited youths to kidnap and kill NAOC expatriate staff and blow up NAOC facilities, a charge Tuodolo denied. Visiting Olugbobiri six weeks after the incident, Bayelsa State governor Alamieyeseigha stated that he would set up a commission of inquiry into the incident.
There have been negotiations between NAOC and Olugbobiri for some years over development projects. In particular, recent discussions had centered on the construction of a road through the community, and there was discontent at what was described as a unilateral decision by Agip to reduce the width of the road from six meters to four meters and at flooding caused by the initial works. These discussions had resulted in correspondence between Agip and the community, and a meeting on October 3 at the Bayelsa State government house, at which Agip allegedly stated that it had been forced to sign a memorandum of understanding with the community under duress and hence was not obliged to complete the projects.
Several weeks prior to the October 14 incident, seven members of the community went to the flow station by boat in order to report a spillage at a flow line between wells eight and ten, and to request assistance from NAOC in providing diesel for the generator, since an important visitor was coming to the village. In a preview of what happened later, soldiers and naval personnel opened fire, though they aimed around the boat, rather than at it. They called the boat to come to the flow station, firing around it as they came. When the seven people, including the chair and secretary of the youth association and the interim chair of the community, got to the facility, they were stripped and beaten. Although the soldiers later apologized, saying that they had been informed that the delegation was intending to switch off the flow station, they were simply sent back to the community with no further redress.
The incident at Olugbobiri is one in a series of cases reported at NAOC facilities in which members of the armed forces have shot at and killed or injured civilians, or accidents at the site of Agip operations that have resulted in civilian casualties. In May 2000, for example, a devastating fire killed at least six people involved in cleaning up a spill from a NAOC pipeline near Etiama, Bayelsa State, allegedly as a result of a faulty pumping machine that ignited the spilled crude oil.
Human Rights Watch has received reports of additional cases of extrajudicial executions:
- the shooting dead of five youths by naval personnel posted at NAOC's Brass terminal in June 2000, following protests at the non-fulfilment of a 1994 memorandum of understanding with the community;
- the shooting death of three other youths near a spill from a pipeline carrying crude to the Brass terminal in November 1999;
- and the shooting dead of eight youths from Ikebiri, Bayelsa State, on April 19, 1999, as they were on their way to attend a meeting with the state commissioner of police in Yenagoa, by armed escorts accompanying a NAOC maintenance crew.
Human Rights Watch asked Agip for comments on all these incidents, but had not received a response at this writing.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Nigerian government to:
- Undertake an immediate process of criminal investigation of the events described above in Olugbobiri and Ogoniland, with a view to instituting criminal proceedings against those allegedly responsible for the operations in each case, including both perpetrators and their commanding officers, where appropriate.
- Appoint independent and public judicial commissions of inquiry into the events in Ogoniland under the military regime and in Odi in November and December 1999, with a wide mandate to examine the causes and consequences of the security force operations and to make recommendations for appropriate redress to those affected in each case, including the monetary compensation and the institution of criminal proceedings against those allegedly responsible for the operations in each case, including both perpetrators and their commanding officers, where appropriate.
We call on Agip to:
- Undertake an immediate high level review of the provision of security at its facilities in Nigeria, including the incident at Olugbobiri; take steps to protest abuses with the appropriate authorities and urge that appropriate criminal and disciplinary action be taken against those responsible; and ensure that those allegedly involved in abuses are removed from guarding Agip facilities.