Will slick propaganda be enough to stem the tide against Shell in

Nigeria? MARGARET VAUGHAN thinks not

SHELL insists it has no intention of pulling out of Nigeria, despite

threats of a consumer boycott and intensive protests on an international


The oil giant says it has a major commitment to the people of Nigeria

but it cannot become involved in the politics of countries in which it

operates. Odd, then, that it was discussing tactics for countering

protests over the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people at a

meeting with senior Nigerian officials in London in March.

Documents of the meeting at the Shell Centre in London, which have

been passed to The Herald, disclose that Nigeria's High Commissioner,

Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji, asked Shell for help to counter ''false

allegations peddled against Nigeria and Shell over Ogoni and Ken


The notes show that the midday meeting on March 16 was attended by

four senior Shell executives, including the head of regional liaison,

the group public affairs co-ordinator, the regional co-ordinator of the

Western Hemisphere and African regional organisation, and the area

co-ordinator for Nigeria and Angola.

The Nigerian delegation included the High Commissioner; an army

colonel, D P Iketubosin; and a police, or political, counsellor, Mr S A

Ekpa. They record that the High Commissioner expressed dismay at the

apparent ''network of misinformation'' orchestrated by Gordon and Anita

Roddick of the Body Shop against Nigeria over the trial of Ken

Saro-Wiwa. He called on Shell to ''debunk'' the allegations.

Shell's head of regional liaison, Malcolm Williams, is noted as

explaining that Anita Roddick was said to be a very close friend of Ken

Saro-Wiwa. The Shell executives said that groups involved in a protest

campaign savoured publicity, were well co-ordinated, recruiting and

training activists to carry out their campaigns.

''At this point His Excellency the High Commissioner wanted to know

what could be done to counteract the poor media campaign.''

Williams was wary of any approach that ''will play into the hand of

the propagandists'', the notes state: ''He was of the view that a direct

attack on the groups concerned will bring the matter much more into the

public domain, which is what they want.''

Shell planned to embark on a film of its Nigerian operation which

aimed to ''balance facts''. The High Commissioner was ''very delighted''

and promised to assist Shell overcome any ''bureaucractic problems''

they might encounter in producing the film.

It seemed clear yesterday that Shell, involved in almost half of

Nigeria's oil production, is intent on resisting pressure from

protestors for an oil embargo against the military regime which executed

Saro-Wiwa and eight other campaigners for the rights of the

500,000-strong Ogoni minority.

Indeed, a spokesman explained that reports that it had delayed a

decision on signing a #2.5 billion gas deal with a company in which it

has a 24% stake, were wrong.

The Prime Minister had signalled that the Government might apply

pressure for the deal to be dropped, because of concern that the gas

plant would prop up the military regime. But Shell's spokesman said the

question of whether to go ahead with the investment would be on the

agenda of Wednesday's board meeting of Nigerian Liquified Natural Gas


''Anyway we must remember that with a project like this, you're

talking about something that will benefit the long-term future of

Nigeria. There will be no revenues to any of the shareholders, including

the Nigerian Government until the early part of the next century.''

Saro-Wiwa was quoted as saying before his death: ''Nigerian oil is

what sustains the Nigerian military dictators, enabling them to


Observers agree that there are only two things that could have an

immediate impact on Nigeria's ruling despots. One would be freezing the

military clique's overseas bank accounts, probably an impossibly complex

option. The second would involve depriving them of the oil revenues that

they steal. John Major's fears that Nigeria's poor would be hurt by oil

sanctions seem misplaced in the light of a Nigerian Government

commission report which revealed that under a previous regime some $12

billion in oil revenues were unaccounted for.

The economy has been in a shambles for a long time with benefits from

oil revenues, which make up 90% of foreign exchange earnings, hardly

reaching beleaguered tribal communities. The loss of oil money would be

most felt in the generals' pockets.

There are, however, a number of simple but profound reasons why Shell

is likely to refuse to bow to international pressure and repugnance at

its dealing with Nigeria's military dictators, and they are all


Shell is by far the biggest oil producer operating in Nigeria. Its

production at 900,000 barrels a day dwarves that of its competitors. It

has a 30% stake in the Nigerian state oil company, so its economic

interest is worth roughly 270,000 barrels a day. This amounts to 13.7%

of the oil giant's total worldwide production.

Secondly, despite international calls from protestors for Shell to

pull out, it hasn't been matched by pressure from politicians. The US,

Britain, and other Western European countries may be happy to ban arms

sales but are reluctant to halt oil exports.

Britain has #3.4 billion invested in Nigeria. The US is the biggest

importer of Nigerian oil, taking around half of its daily ouput. It may

be that an oil embargo would be a sanction too far for governments whose

economic interests lie in keeping the oil flowing.

Those amoral arbiters, oil analysts, were taking a sanguine view of

the call for sanctions yesterday. Traders and analysts said oil prices

hadn't reacted to the mounting international pressure for an oil ban.

Oil analyst Geoff Pyne, of the investment bank UBS, said Nigeria is

one of the largest producers in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting

Countries, and a major supplier of high-quality light sweet crude oil to

the US and Western Europe.

And while John Major was insisting oil sanctions would hurt ordinary

Nigerians, a White House official said Washington was not considering an

oil embargo. A ban by the United Nations similar to the one imposed on

Iraq was not possible, said Pyne since Nigeria's situation did not

''pose a threat to international peace and stability'' as is required by

the UN before it imposes sanctions.

Lastly, Shell is still smarting from the public relations fiasco

surrounding the Brent Spar. Mindful of the political drubbing it took

when consumer boycotts and Greenpeace activists forced it to drop plans

to dump the Brent Spar in the North Sea, it is likely to more chary of

caving in this time.