One of the largest human rights issues facing Nigeria currently is conflict over oil.  Nigeria is the top producer of oil in Africa, and ranks 12th in the world.  Many international oil corporations use Nigeria as a major supplier, and in the process have violated human rights of the residents of the region.  Most of the oil production occurs in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria.  Oil production in Nigeria has had several major negative impacts.  These include harming the natural environment, hurting the local economy and restrictions on freedom of speech and other violations of human rights.

The Environment and the Local Economy

The oil industry has had an incredibly harmful impact on the environment in the Niger Delta region.  This region is rich in biodiversity, but is not properly respected by the oil companies that operate there.  This area is one of the largest wetlands in the world, and includes the third largest mangrove forest.  The Delta has very high biodiversity, with unique species of animals and plants found in the swamp and forest areas.  The Nigerian government has enacted environmental policies and standards that oil companies are supposed to follow, but these policies are not always enforced and maintained.  Many environmental activists argue that oil companies operating in Nigeria have a “double standard”, meaning they are allowing operating procedures in Nigeria that would never be allowed in other parts of the world, such as North America or Europe.  Human Rights Watch identifies in their paper on oil in Nigeria numerous environmental problems created by the oil industry: “flooding and coastal erosion, sedimentation and siltation, degradation and depletion of water and coastal resources, land degradation, oil pollution, air pollution, land subsidence, biodiversity depletion, noise and light pollution, health problems, and low agricultural production, as well as socio-economic problems, lack of community participation, and weak or non-existent laws and regulations.”  Another significant environmental issue is oil spills that are often left not cleaned up.  One estimate cited by Human Rights Watch of oil spills between 1976 and 1996 claimed a total of 4,835 incidents which included spillage of at least 2,44,322 barrels of oil, in which about 77 percent of the total spilled oil was left to the environment.  Oil spills can have devastating impacts on the people living in the region as well.  One small leak in an oil pipeline could threaten the food supply of an entire family for a year.  Oil spills also affect clean drinking water for residents of the region.  Because there are not many options for safe drinking water, many people will drink the contaminated water and ingest toxins and other inedible components found in the oil.  The oil industry also has a negative impact on the local economy of Nigeria.  Oil spills by companies hurts the local economy by destroying crops and hurting fishing areas.  Local Nigerians have lost their livelihood due to environmental destruction by these large corporations.

The detrimental impact on the environment and the local economy caused by oil production is a violation of third generation rights- also known as group rights.  In Article 21 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, this issue is addressed by saying, “In case of spoliation the dispossessed people shall have the right to the lawful recovery of its property as well as to an adequate compensation.”  As displayed in the above video, Nigerians are not being compensated for their losses due to oil spills and environmental damage.

Restrictions on Freedom of Speech and other Human Rights Abuses

In addition to effects on the local economy and environment, oil production in Nigeria has also led to numerous violations of first generation rights.  Some community members have attempted to protest against the oil companies that are negatively impacting their lives, and have been met with severe backlash.  There are several large violations to note concerning these types of protests in Nigeria.  The first instance happened in October of 1990 at the Shell facility in Umechem.  Protestors gathered at the facility to ask for compensation for pollution caused by the oil company of the local water supply and crops.  In response, Shell asked for police support to defend their property.  After one peaceful day of protesting, police forces arrived and killed as many as eighty unarmed demonstrators and damaged just under 500 homes.  To date, none of the victims or families of the incident have been compensated and no legal action has been taken against the perpetrators.

Another major incident of human rights abuses committed by oil companies and the Nigerian government involved the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa.  Mr. Saro-Wiwa led the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, which was an important political organization that represented the Ogoni, an ethic group that includes 500,000 people living in the Delta region.  The group protested the involvement of oil companies in the region, including calling for an end to oil spills and environmental destruction caused by oil pipelines.  In retaliation to their protests, the Nigerian military launched a “scorched-earth” campaign against the ethnic group, which involved burning down villages and committing murder and rape.  Mr. Saro-Wiwa was put on trial and sentenced to death for reasons that many Western human rights organizations say were exaggerated.  The execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa led to outrage from the international community against Nigeria, as well as condemnation of Shell for allowing these human rights abuses to occur.

The Role of the Nigerian Government

The Nigerian government should not be allowing, and in some cases supporting, the abuses committed by foreign oil companies in the Delta region.  In Article 21 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights it states, “States parties to the present Charter shall undertake to eliminate all forms of foreign economic exploitation particularly that practiced by international monopolies so as to enable their peoples to fully benefit from the advantages derived from their national resources.”  This clause can be directly applied to oil companies in Nigeria.  The government has an obligation to the people of Nigeria to prevent foreign oil companies from exploiting their resources and destroying their livelihood and property.

In addition, the Nigerian government should not be sentencing people to death for crimes that are not justified of this punishment.  In Article 6 of  the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights it states firstly that all humans have a right to life, and then follows this by stating, “In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime and not contrary to the provisions of the present Covenant and to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgement rendered by a competent court.”  The article continues, “Anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to seek pardon or commutation of the sentence. Amnesty, pardon or commutation of the sentence of death may be granted in all cases.”  The cases of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the protestors in Umechem constitute direct violations of the ICCPR, and therefore direct violations of first generation rights.  Both of these issues also violate Article 19 of the ICCPR, which states that all people have the right to freedom of expression.

Furthermore, the Nigerian government also violates second generation rights discussed in the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.  In Article 12 of the ICESCR it states, “The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for…. The improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene.”  By disregarding the issue of oil spills and its effect on the local community, the Nigerian government is violating this clause and depriving its people of the right to a healthy life and environment.

The Response of Oil Companies

Oil companies have come under intense pressure to reform their policies in terms of oil production in Nigeria, and there has been a specific focus on Shell’s operations in the region.  Shell has responded on their website to negative press by dedicating a section to their involvement in Nigeria, and directly addresses the United Nations Environment Program’s report “Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland”.  On their website, Shell claims to be following recommendations outlined by the UNEP and discusses measures that they are taking to work better with the local community and the Ogoni people.  In other sections of their website, Shell attempts to shift the focus to their efforts to help the local community, including hosting internship programs for Nigerian students and sponsoring local sporting events.  Although much of this activity probably stems from public relations tactics over genuine concern for the local community, at a minimum it is positive to see Shell acknowledge the issues and at least claim to be trying to find solutions.