Empty Shell

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Review of 'The Next Gulf', Andy Rowell, James Marriott and Lorne Stockman, Constable £8.99

In November 1995 well known Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists in Nigeria, West Africa, were executed by the military regime. For the last five years of his life Saro-Wiwa led protests in the Niger Delta against Shell oil environmental destruction, and for better distribution of oil wealth.

Saro-Wiwa was improbably accused of ordering the death of four Ogoni elders who had been killed by a mob. Close connections between Shell and the state had been referred to as the 'privatisation of the state', and Shell's international image suffered greatly.

These essays show the great lengths the company has followed to improve its image without necessarily changing the situation on the ground.

Nigeria's military dictatorship has ended, but, as oil accounts for 80 percent of government revenues, the government is closely tied to the oil industry. Dr Daukoru, the current presidential adviser on petroleum and energy, is an ex senior Shell executive.

Vivid examples are given of what the oil companies' activities mean for local communities. For instance natural gas is found with oil deposits. From 1958 to 2003 this was simply burnt off by flaring, creating pollution, heat and light: 'The flares created a new sound that had never existed before, and a new smell that burned villagers' nostrils and throats. And the acid rain that it created rotted the corrugated roofs of their homes.' Oil companies have presented the end of flaring as a sign of their renewed concern for the environment rather than ways to turn a profit from what they previously saw as a waste product, both through liquefying gas for export and the development of the West African gas pipeline.

The mid-1990s saw a public relations offensive from Shell. It was largely successful in cleaning up the company's image in the west, though a 2004 Christian Aid report concluded that Shell 'still fails to quickly clean up oil spills that ruin villages, and runs "community development" projects that are frequently ineffective and which sometimes divide communities living around oil fields'.

The book has a useful chapter on corporate tax avoidance. Nigeria may be famous for corruption, but much of it is linked to the activities of multinational firms. Investigations are continuing into the TSKJ consortium based in north London, which appears to be related to the US firm Halliburton, notorious for its activities in Iraq. Recent corporate restructuring of Shell has been a result of inaccurate reporting of reserves that affect stock markets, not any revulsion at activities on the ground. As of June 2005, when its two component companies merged, Shell represents almost 10 percent of the British stock market. Not surprisingly, Tony Blair, pushing his Commission for Africa, argued that 'the role of the private sector as the engine for growth in Africa is fundamental.'

A key recommendation of the US government's African Oil Policy Initiative Group report in 2002 was that 'Congress and the administration should declare the Gulf of Guinea an area of "vital interest" to the US'. This is the language that President Carter had used in 1980, while signalling an increased US interest in the Persian Gulf. Subsequent events there should offer a warning.

One aspect that has changed over the last decade is developments in US strategic thinking since 9/11. This applies across the Gulf of Guinea, which includes Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and Gabon. The small islands of São Tomé and Principe are also becoming significant. Together they provide 10 percent of US oil needs.

Africa can often seem irrelevant to capitalist interests, but with oil competition this region is likely to remain at the centre of struggles. Resistance is the only way to stop the oil companies. Government and international agencies can hardly be trusted, as this book shows. However, it would have been useful to have more on the role of oil workers, a significant and powerful group, which has been vital to the development of events in the Persian Gulf.

As he was led to his death, Ken Saro-Wiwa shouted, 'You can kill the messengers. You can't kill the message.' The Next Gulf helps to spread that message.