Guest post: One story of abuse in Africa goes viral; another ignored

A burning issue in Nigeria

One criticism of the Stop Kony campaign is that, though well-intended, it’s a Hollywood approach to human rights.

That is, the social media campaign against Joseph Kony has captured the public’s attention because it has a good narrative story with a simple plot — a bad guy — while much worse, more complex abuses and atrocities continue to be neglected by the media and international community.

For example: Comparatively little public attention has been paid to a legal case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which it has been alleged that the Nigerian government, working to advance the interests of Shell Oil, killed thousands and displaced tens of thousands of people in order to put in a new oil pipeline.

Here’s a guest post from journalist David Francis, who recently visited the Ogoni people in Nigeria:

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By David Francis

The Kony2012 video, the controversial and not entirely accurate account of atrocities committed by Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, is now the most watched viral video in history.

Viewers around the world, outraged by Kony’s indiscriminate violence and enslavement of children as soldiers, are calling for more deliberate action by the United States to find Kony and for the International Criminal Court to prosecute him.

Given the outrage generated by the video, it might surprise some people to know that a prominent group of Christians in Uganda want exactly the opposite of ICC prosecution: they simply want peace.

The Uganda Joint Christian Council (UJCC) has been attempting to negotiate with Kony for years. The council, which has first-hand experience with Kony, is advocating for peace above justice. Once there is peace, the council argues, Uganda can make steps toward reconciliation.

“Kony and his group have indicated that they are willing to end this conflict peacefully through dialogue,” the group said in a recent statement. “Our understanding is that when dialogue begins, all issues, including the fate of Joseph Kony and the senior LRA leaders who have been indicted by the ICC can be placed on the table for discussion.”

The concept of peace vs. justice is common around Africa. Many prefer to live without war than to live with the constant threat of violence as people like Kony attempt to remain free. But in some cases, neither peace nor justice can be achieved.

One such case is that of the Ogoni people in southern Nigeria, who have been forced to seek justice in the U.S. legal system after their own legal system and international tribunals failed them.

In the coming weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a second round of arguments in the case of Kiobel v. Shell Petroleum, an action brought by Nigerians against the Dutch energy giant.

There are a number of legal issues in front of the court. Can multinationals be held legally responsible for human rights abuses that took place in other countries? Is a U.S. court the right place to address human right abuses?

But for the Ogoni people – the southern Nigerians who have been victimized by Shell for decades – the acknowledgement of Shell’s abuses by a valid legal entity is a victory in an of itself. For years, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) has been fighting both in Nigeria and the United States to make Shell pay. The Supreme Court case is their first real victory.

Last fall, I traveled to Nigeria as an International Reporting Project fellow. I met with members of MOSOP, as well as other Ogonis, to discuss the case, their history with Shell, and what they are demanding for years of mistreatment at the hands of the government and the energy giant.

Damgbor Moses is the MOSOP secretary. He’s also a teacher. We met at his home on the outskirts of a town called Bori in the heard of Ogoniland. He has been active in the fight against Shell for more than 20 years. He said he has come to learn that the fight against Shell is a fight against NIgerian corruption.

“The federal government and Shell are one,” Moses told me.

Shell has been operating in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta since the 1950s. For years, the company operated profitably and maintained friendly relations with the surrounding communities. In the 1980s, however, the extent of the environmental degradation caused by years of sloppy drilling emerged.

Farmland, the economic lifeblood of Ogoniland, was rendered useless by oil runoff. Drinking water supplies were contaminated. Making matters worse, Shell was pumping out billions of dollars of light, sweet crude known as Bonny Light out of the Delta. Some of that money ended up in the hands of corrupt politicians. None of it reached the Ogonis.

MOSOP began an organized campaign against Shell in 1990. By 1992, the conflict turned violent. The Nigerian military, backed with weapons purchased by Shell, began to forcibly break up protests. In 1993, some 2,000 Ogonis were killed while protesting the placement of a new oil pipeline. Twenty-seven villages were raided and 80,000 people were displaced.

The conflict between the Ogonis and Shell reached its zenith in 1995 when nine MOSOP members, including the renowned playwright Ken Saro Wiwa, were tried and executed by the Nigerian government. This incident brought the attention of the international human right organizations.

Moses told me this story as he stood by a wall decorated with pictures of Wiwa and the other MOSOP members killed in 1995. Wiwa and the others are now considered martyrs; their deaths brought the attention of the international community. Moses said he doubted the United States would have considered the case if Wiwa and the others hadn’t been killed.

He also doubted that the United Nations would have listened to the Ogoni’s complaints. A recent UN report found that it would take 30 years and $1 billion to clean up Ogoniland. One family drank water from a well with 900 times recommended levels of the carcinogen benzene, according to the UN. The report attributed much of the current damage to large spills in 2008 and 2009.

David Francis

Shell has accepted responsibility for both incidents. But Moses said until the company begins to foot the bill for cleanup apologies ring hollow. And even if the Supreme Court hold Shell accountable, only a higher power can absolve the company.

“I don’t think we can forgive,” Moses said. “Only God can forgive Shell.”

David Francis reported out of Nigeria on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project. For more information see www.davidcfrancis.com

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