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.