by Nigel Beale
"Brilliant," "Intelligent," and "Courageous," were the bloated
superlatives used by Barry Base (Strategy, December 11) to describe
Shell Oil’s recent "truth about Nigeria" advertorial.*
He’s off base. So far off in fact that he’s not even in the
ballpark. Here’s a review of the drivel that inspired Base to reach such
eulogistic heights, and a suggestion on how it might better have
"In the great wave of understandable emotion over the death of Ken
Saro-Wiwa, it’s very easy for the facts to be swamped by anger and
recriminations. But people have the right to the truth.
Unvarnished. Even uncomfortable. But never subjugated to a cause,
however noble or well-meaning. They have a right to clear thinking.
The situation in Nigeria has no easy solutions. Slogans, protests
and boycotts don’t offer answers. There are difficult issues to
The only clear thinking we get here and elsewhere from Shell is
that the situation in Nigeria is complex, and that trying to do
anything about it is futile. By using the non-words "right and
"truth," Shell also intimates that what its opponents are saying is
false. Base calls this langauge eloquent and direct, and as such
courageous. I call it just too cute, and as such, an insult both to
my intelligence, and to the practice of public relations and
According to every report that I have read, Ogani writer and anti-
Shell crusader Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight other human rights
activists, were hauled up in front of a kangaroo court on false
charges, condemned to death and hanged. The Washington Post called
this "the most obscene act yet by a disgusting regime." Saro-Wiwa
was killed, says The Manchester Guardian, because his defiance
posed one of the most serious challenges to Nigeria’s power
structure since the Biafran war.
His…" was an example of effectively organized resistance that
could not be quelled with money or threats…and it touched one of
the army’s rawest nerves – its source of cash. Saro-Wiwa channelled
Ogoni anger at three decades of exploitation of their lands by
Shell with little to show for the billions of dollars made by
polluted fields, gas flares and pipelines scarring villages. The
company was callous in its treatment of the Ogonis despite its
belated efforts to clean up its image."
In one of his last television interviews Saro-Wiwa accuses the oil
companies who prospect for oil in Ogoni (ie. Shell) of encouraging
genocide against the Ogoni people. "I appeal to the international
community who buy oil from Nigeria to come to the aid of the Ogoni
people and stop this genocide…Because if nothing is done today in
10 years time the Ogoni people will be extinct."
This from a man whose protests, according to Shell’s advertorial,
failed because he may not have understood the intransigence of the
authorities, may not have known the risks he was taking, and may
have been more interested in the campaign than the cause.
The suggestion is also made that Shell’s pulling out of Nigeria,
would only hurt the Nigerian people. Given that under the current
authority’s rule, greed and corruption continue unbound, democracy
is laughed at, and, as the Washington Post puts it "[a] nation of
100 million has experienced its worst anguish since the Biafran war
ended a quarter-century ago," it seems to me that the people have
little to lose. The dictators who have been butchering them for so
long are the ones who would be most hurt.
Saving its best for last, Shell’s message concludes with the deeply
profound comment that "The world where companies use their economic
influence to prop up or bring down governments would be a
frightening and bleak one indeed."
What refreshing naivete! I guess Shell is just too innocent to
comprehend that corporations are by their very nature amoral; that
they don’t have consciences, nor should they; and that they are
beautifully predictable because they will do anything and
everything legally permissable (especially influencing governments)
to minimize costs and maximize revenues.
The possibility of losing revenues motivated Shell Oil to hold
forth on Nigeria. Their effort to explain the situation was,in my
view, disastrous. The first mistake was not to have stated publicly
their opposition to Saro-Wiwa’s unjust trial prior to the verdict.
Had they done so, they would have had something to crow about. As
it stood, they had nothing.
In the aftermath of the hangings Shell obviously felt compelled to
say something (nothing would have been better). It should have kept
things short and sweet, along the lines of "Shell Oil abhors the
barbarous manner in which an intelligent and creative human being,
Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight others were executed by the Nigerian
No bullshit about truth, facts, clear thinking or frightening
worlds. Just a dignified, concise, well-considered, humane
In its advertorial Shell implied that its opponents are overly
emotional and accused them of being more concerned with the
campaign than the cause. It should have resisted the temptation,
not least because, as The Economist recently put it " much consumer
activism has been fostered by big business itself." Politically
correct behavior used by some to gain market share has forced most
others to respond and act in kind.
Tomorrow’s successful company, as The Economist continues "…can
no longer afford to be a faceless institution that does nothing
more than sell the right product at the right price. It will have
to present itself as if it were a person – as an intelligent actor
of upright character, that brings moral judgements to bear on its
dealings with its own employees and with the wider world." While
ShelI clearly understands this, its presentation stinks.
Corporations will not, and should not act morally until it is in
their best interests to do so. Consumers must speak in a language
companies understand. I had no intention of boycotting Shell over
Nigeria. Then came the advertorial. Now I’m spending my
$1500-a-year elsewhere. Leslie Nielsen, are you listening?
* Here is the full text of the Shell advertorial:
Clear Thinking in Troubled Times
ln the great wave of understandable emotion over the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, its very easy for the facts to be swamped by anger and recriminations. But people have the right to the truth. Unvarnished. Even uncomfortable. But never subjugated to a cause, however noble or well-meaning. They have the right to clear thinking.
The situation in Nigeria has no easy solutions. Slogans, protests and boycotts don’t offer answers. There are difficult issues to consider. First, did discreet diplomacy fail? Perhaps we should ask instead why the worldwide protests failed. Our experience suggests that quiet diplomacy offered the very best hope for Ken Saro-Wiwa. Did the protesters understand the risk they were taking? Did the campaign become more important than the cause?
There have also been charges of environmental devastation. But the facts of the situation have often been distorted or ignored. The public – who rightly care deeply about these issues – have too often been manipulated and misled.
There are certainly environmental problems in the area, but as the World Bank Survey has confirmed, in addition to the oil industry, population growth, deforestation, soil erosion and over-farming are also major environmental problems there.
In fact, Shell and its partners are spending US$100 million this year alone on environment-related projects, and US$20 million on roads, health clinics, schools, scholarships, water schemes and agricultural support projects to help the people of the region. And, recognising that solutions need to be based on facts, they are sponsoring a $4.5 million independent environmental survey of the Niger Delta.
But another problem is sabotage. In the Ogoni area – where Shell has not operated since January 1993 – over 60% of oil spills were caused by sabotage, usually linked to claims for compensation. And when contractors have tried to deal with these problems, they have been forcibly denied access.
It has also been suggested that Shell should pull out of Nigeria’s Liquefied Natural Gas project. But if we do so now, the project will collapse. Maybe for ever. So let’s be clear who gets hurt if the project is cancelled.
A cancellation would certainly hurt the thousands of Nigerians who will be working on the project, and the tens of thousands more benefiting in the local economy. The environment, too, would suffer, with the plant expected to cut greatly the need for gas flaring in the oil industry. The plant will take four years to build. Revenues won’t start flowing until early next century. It’s only the people and the Nigerian Government of that time who will pay the price.
And what would happen if Shell pulled out of Nigeria altogether? The oil would certainly continue flowing. The business would continue operating. The vast majority of employees would remain in place. But the sound and ethical business practices synonymous with Shell, the environmental investment, and the tens of millions of dollars spent on community programmes would all be lost. Again, it’s the people of Nigeria that you would hurt.
It’s easy enough to sit in our comfortable homes in the West, calling for sanctions and boycotts against a developing country. But you have to be sure that knee-jerk reactions won’t do more harm than good.
Some campaigning groups say we should intervene in the political process in Nigeria. But even if we could, we must never do so. Politics is the business of governments and politicians. The world where companies use their economic influence to prop up or bring down governments would be a frightening and bleak one indeed.