ANOTHER VIEW : Why Shell should stay put

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The Independent Online
In the great wave of understandable emotion that has swept the world over the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, it's very easy for clear thinking to be swamped by anger and recriminations. Here are some facts.

First, did the "discreet diplomacy" of President Mandela and others fail? Perhaps we should ask instead whether the worldwide protests failed. Our experience suggests that this kind of diplomacy offered the best hope for Ken Saro-Wiwa. But as worldwide threats and protests increased, the Nigerian government position appeared to harden. As Wura Abiola, daughter of the imprisoned unofficial winner of the last Nigerian presidential election, said on Newsnight: "The regime does not react well to threats. I believe that this is the way of showing they will not listen to threats." Did the protesters understand the risk they were taking? Did the protest become more important than the purpose?

There have been charges of environmental devastation. But the facts of the situation have often been distorted or ignored.

There are certainly environmental problems in the area, but the World Bank confirmed that population growth, deforestation, soil erosion and over-farming are also major environmental problems there.

In fact, Shell is spending US$100m this year alone on environmental projects and US$20m on roads, health clinics, schools, scholarships, water schemes and agricultural support projects to help the people of the region.

But another problem is sabotage. In the Ogoni area - where Shell has not operated since 1993 - more than 60 per cent of oil spills have been 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 let's be clear who gets hurt if the project is cancelled. Not this Nigerian government. Revenues won't start flowing until the next century.

But a cancellation would 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. It is Nigeria's long-term future that will pay the price - the Nigerian government of the early 21st century which should be seeing revenues beginning to flow from that investment, contributing to the rebuilding of the country.

It is easy enough to sit in our comfortable homes in the West, calling for sanctions against a Third World nation. But you have to be sure that knee-jerk reactions won't do more harm than good.

The writer is Shell's regional co-ordinator with responsibility for Africa.

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