Kechi Dahou
Muffled Voices, Ruffled Feathers: How not to do environmental sustainability
Written by Kechi Dahou

In 1997 or thereabouts, I was struck and shocked by the fear in my cousin’s voice as she greeted me outside her house in Festac, Lagos, Nigeria. ‘How on earth did you get here?’ she whispered as she dragged me quickly through the iron gates – looking from left to right to check that no-one had seen me. It was about eight thirty in the morning and I’d just arrived from the East of Nigeria by coach. ‘Didn’t you know? It’s Environmental! If you get caught you can be jailed!’ Environmental Sanitation Day, under Nigeria’s military regime was serious business. Once a month, cars were not allowed to pass, travelers advised to postpone journeys and generally mild state of emergency imposed, during which people were supposed to clean their compounds, fronts of houses and nearby vicinity, or else!

This was the first time I had come across this rather coercive militaristic take on term that was supposed to be about all things Good and Green. Well I say it was the first, but in fact, some two years earlier in 1995, the hanging of human rights activist, playwright and environmental campaigner, Ken Saro-Wiwa, demonstrated the vigour with which Nigeria’s military regime, could respond to anything environmental sounding. Saro-Wiwa made the Niger Delta (in)famous the world over by exposing the environmental and human rights abuses associated with Shell in league with the Nigerian government. I’d first seen the anti-Shell / Saro-Wiwa iconography on the backs of London buses on my way to work cycling to Victoria in the mornings.

Awareness about the negative effects of hydrocarbon extraction, raised by coalitions of community activists, human rights campaigners, lawyers, NGO friends and allies, interchangeably, didn’t stop Ken Saro Wiwa’s death, but did create a sea change. Bad publicity against Shell, eventually gave rise to the UN Guiding Principles, Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, and a raft of international standards to reign in multinationals. But has this helped? Has it kept the pressure up? Doing research on this on and off for some twenty years, I have been struck recently by the different ways in which ‘engagement’ and the normalization of human rights standards has enabled multinational companies to appropriate the discourse that was once used as a stick to beat them with. The consequences of this have not all been positive.

Last year, I hosted a ‘multi-stakeholder’ round table bring together industry, government and researchers to talk about ‘oil theft’ in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. The star guest was a former Nigerian lawyer, turned politician. She had once been part of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s legal team, and today heads HYREP, a unit within the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, responsible for cleaning up the environmental damage caused by over 50 years of unregulated petroleum development in Ogoni, following the 2012 UNEP report on environmental damage in Ogoni. Since Saro-Wiwa’s death, untimely death, Ogoni has off limits to Shell, and negotiations over a return, fractious and divisive. What was striking about her performance was the dramatic turnaround from political activist to politician. Her story is just one of many; of former activists from the region that have made good, as Nigeria’s political space has opened up for minorities from the Niger Delta. Her one time defence of the victims of irresponsible production practices was replaced by strident speeches lambasting ‘oil thieves’ from the Niger Delta, who tap from the oil pipelines and sell on or refine locally, claiming that they were bigger polluters than the multinationals, which for decades had been the target of popular campaigns, of which she had been part. Poverty she claimed was no excuse for theft.

So what to make of all this? Interestingly at the same meeting, the activist turned politician and her erstwhile enemy, Shell, were talking the same language. Do multistakeholder dialogues of this sort simply allow powerful multinationals to successfully stage manage their way around human rights issues, silence once critical voices by incorporating them, and turn down the heat on themselves. To the question ‘what sort of leadership’, we might also add a related question ‘what sort of ‘engagement’ do we want? Both are linked. What we don’t want is ‘engagement’ that silences and gets the worse culprits off the hook, that blunts the ability of those at the table to tell truth to power. Leadership cannot be divorced from governance regimes. Nigeria’s militaristic political culture, its poor regulatory environment (weak environmental laws and sanction) where Federal environmental inspectors rely on companies to logistically facilitate access to sites, makes it difficult for those in government to effectively challenge companies operating in non sustainable ways, or for those outside government, to effectively bring pressure to bear to make sure their voices are heard. What could make a difference? Keeping activists turned government officials linked to individuals and / groups ‘left behind,’ is critical if leadership is to be informed by people’s immediate. Alice could have a role to play in helping to keep the pressure up by ruffling the feathers of individuals newly arrived in positions of power (in public and private), to ensure their voices and thinking do not become muffled by the trappings of public office.