Editorial: Pressure pays off in Nigeria

This week the Nigerian government confirmed that it had released 20 activists who had been imprisoned for four years without trial. The activists, from Ogoniland, had been accused of complicity in the murders of four pro-government Ogoni tribal chiefs in 1994. The same murders for which Ogoni leader and environmental campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists were executed in 1995. Saro-Wiwa led protests about the exploitation of his homeland by oil companies, including Shell.

This week the Nigerian government confirmed that it had released 20

activists who had been imprisoned for four years without trial. The

activists, from Ogoniland, had been accused of complicity in the murders

of four pro-government Ogoni tribal chiefs in 1994. The same murders for

which Ogoni leader and environmental campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight

other activists were executed in 1995. Saro-Wiwa led protests about the

exploitation of his homeland by oil companies, including Shell.



Nigeria’s leader, General Abubakar, also released details of a draft

constitution which promises greater transparency in political and

economic life. The news should encourage pressure groups like Greenpeace

and companies like The Body Shop, which in 1995 won a PR Week award for

its campaign to free Saro-Wiwa.



The picture is very different from three years ago, when campaigners may

indeed have felt they were protesting in vain: on the day The Body Shop

received its award, it learned that Saro-Wiwa had been sentenced to

death. He and other activists were executed some days later. Nigeria’s

response came too late for Saro-Wiwa. But both the Nigerian government

and the oil companies operating in Nigeria and elsewhere have come a

long way since 1995.



BP now uses its web site to boast not about profits, but about its

social and ethical performance. The site gives details of BP-sponsored

community projects around the world.



This year Shell has invested an estimated pounds 18 million in its

global communications, appointing Fishburn Hedges and advertising agency

J Walter Thompson to help devise a programme to repair the damage done

by high profile incidents such as the disposal of the Brent Spar oil rig

and protests in Nigeria.



Last April Shell International produced its first Profits and Principles

report, which sets out its agenda for corporate and social

responsibility, with particular reference to events in Nigeria. In 1997,

for the first time, Shell formally stated its support for the UN

declaration of human rights. And the company’s actions back its words.

After battling with activists over the disposal of Brent Spar, it

decided that instead of dumping the rig, part of it would be used in an

extension to a quay in Norway.



Brent Spar is an example of how pressure group campaigns can have an

immediately tangible effect. Nigeria’s decision to release the 20 Ogoni

prisoners is not simply the result of sustained campaigning. But it is a

positive signal to those who believe that governments and businesses

will eventually feel the heat under the media spotlight.



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