Shell wins over village with cash and liquor cash

Inside Nigeria: Only a trickle of the country's oil wealth is reaching the people of the Niger Delta


Port Harcourt

In the 19th century, explorers and colonisers won over the natives of the Niger Delta with gifts of colourful beads and fine cloth. Today the goodwill of the indigenous communities comes a little more expensive - but not that much more when you consider that Shell is earning more than half a million dollars a day from the region.

All it took for the world's largest oil company to convince the chiefs of the tiny Sangama settlement in southern Nigeria to accept an oil rig on their doorstep was ready cash and hard liquor.

"Two and a half weeks ago when we moved in here, the local people erected a barrier of canoes and palm fronds across the channel so we couldn't tow the rig to the well-head," says Mojeed Alli, Shell's senior drilling engineer on the Searex 12 oil platform. "It was very annoying because we'd discussed everything with the chiefs on the local council. They'd asked for money, community help and drinks and we'd agreed."

Shell has been condemned worldwide - and faces the prospect of a prolonged boycott - because of its involvement in Nigeria and its perceived support for the Nigerian regime. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer who was hanged despite international protests last month, had consistently campaigned against Shell's presence in his native Ogoniland, a little further north.

The chiefs of Bonny Council had, more precisely, requested 130,000 naira (about pounds 1,000), assistance in repairing a dilapidated school building, a dozen bottles of Remy Martin cognac and a dozen bottles of Gordon's Dry Gin. According to Shell, their demands were met. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly. The company even paid a courtesy visit to Sangama's head man, Chief John Jumbo, the day before the huge rig was due to be installed. As a goodwill gift, Shell offered him another 10,000 naira and a bottle of Gordon's Dry Gin. He gratefully accepted.

But when the day came, dozens of canoes were lined up across the channel, blocking it.

"There were about 100 people ahead of us," recalls Mojeed Alli. "If we'd pressed ahead we would have risked killing them. So we took a boat and went to get Chief Jumbo who was in Port Harcourt. It was too late to move the rig into position by the time he'd sorted things out. But they removed the barricade at dawn the following day and we were able to go ahead with the operation." It cost Shell promises of 35 jobs and another 50,000 naira to clinch the deal.

"To be honest, we're just paying them to work at home, cleaning up the village or whatever," admits Mojeed Alli. "We have a full complement of about 100 expatriates and Nigerians on the rig. It would be too dangerous to have any locals here. Anyway, the rig will be moved to another location in a couple of months."

From a Shell helicopter, Sangama can be seen as a straggle of small buildings and huts nestling amid the marshy wastes of the Niger Delta.

Fishing peoples have lived in the Niger Delta for centuries, their settlements perched on the edge of snaking rivers and creeks of brackish, brown water. The region's inhabitants would have lived the same undisturbed lives as their forefathers had not oil been discovered beneath the ground nearly four decades ago.

The advent of the oil industry has brought little real wealth to villages such as Sangama. Nor has it brought any jobs. What money has been paid out to the chiefs by way of inducement or compensation rarely reaches the ordinary people.

"A few chiefs use the money they get to develop their communities," says an oil worker on Searex 12 as a fisherman paddled his dug-out canoe in the channel below. "But a lot of the chiefs keep the money for themselves. Though they always buy a cow or a goat which they sacrifice to appease the water gods."

Whether or not Shell feels capable of satisfying the local gods, it is going all-out to placate the Delta's human inhabitants. In recent years the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate has launched a major community aid programme in order to win local acceptance.

This programme - currently worth more than $20m per annum - has been given new impetus by the execution of Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists. His environmental and political campaign in the Ogoni region resulted in economic defeat for Shell, forcing it to pull out of Ogoniland. Determined that this should not happen again, Shell has put its public relations machine into overdrive.

"We are building classroom blocks, paying science teachers and offering scholarships," explains Precious Omuku, public affairs manager of Shell's eastern division in Nigeria. "We are also investing in health and agriculture."

In the village of Aminigboko, a marble plaque proclaims that Shell has funded a classroom block at the local secondary school. It is one of 20 blocks they now erect per year.

"Shell does help the community and we're grateful for that because the government isn't doing much to provide facilities," says one teacher. "But the company doesn't give much employment. We have more than 1,000 pupils but I know of only one whose parents are employed by Shell."

Aminigboko also boasts a new community hospital, one of 11 which Shell has built in Rivers State. It is well maintained and fully staffed.

"We work closely with Shell," says the village chief, Denton Agbala. "They put more money into this community than they did in Ogoniland. We are grateful, but then we're simply laymen. We accept what they give us. But we don't know how much profit they're making from the oil under our land."

About 14 per cent of Shell's global oil production comes from the Niger Delta: nearly one million barrels a day. Operating as a joint venture partner with the Nigerian government and two other European oil companies, Shell receives a share of some 70 cents per barrel. For every $16 barrel of oil sold, the Nigerian government gets more than $11 by way of taxes and royalties.

How much of this profit is contributed by the oil wells around villages such as Sangama and Aminigboko is difficult to compute. An infinitesimal percentage of total production would afford untold wealth in such subsistence communities.

Local inhabitants would like a share of the revenue, or at least some jobs in the industry.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
John Rees-Evans is standing for Ukip in Cardiff South and Penarth
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
David Silva, Andy Carroll, Arsene Wenger and Radamel Falcao
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£20000 - £21000 per annum: The Jenrick Group: This high quality manufacturer o...

The Jenrick Group: Electrical Maintenance Engineer

£30000 - £35000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Electrical ...

Recruitment Genius: Photo Booth Host

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company offers London's best photo booth ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers ...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'