In today’s global business environment, the new age of neo-colonialism is no longer spearheaded by nations, but by multinational corporations. These entities, with coffers often larger than the GDPs of the countries they operate in, have continued to wield significant power, and in most cases, they do so to the detriment of their hosts. Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, rich in resources and human capital, has found itself in the crosshairs of these corporate behemoths.
The sad reality is that Nigeria has not been able to stand firm to tame the unbridled greed of these corporations. They have not been able to look them in the eye and demand fair treatment and the rightful share of their wealth. They have either remained aloof to the injustice or cowered before these corporations when it matters most.
For many decades, multinational corporations operating in Nigeria have been exploiting the oil-rich soils of the country, reaping massive profits while leaving behind a painful trail of environmental devastation, and economic disparity, which have unsurprisingly continued to fuel social unrest in many of the communities. While hoodwinking the world with their glossy sustainability reports and promises of community development, these corporations have deliberately refused or perhaps have consistently failed to deliver on their promises. By any standards, they have not adequately compensated the Nigerian people for the extraction and exploitation of their resources.
It is no longer news that the Niger Delta region in Nigeria is one of the most oil-polluted places on earth. A visit to the area stands as a chilling testament to the corporate irresponsibility these multinationals have continued to inflict on Nigerians without remorse. Oil spills, gas flaring, and the destruction of ecosystems, which they have painfully coordinated, have led to tragic health and socioeconomic consequences for local communities. These activities have also led to other health and psycho-social challenges such as accidents, radiation, malnutrition, occupational diseases and accidents, militancy, deaths, stress, depression and suicide, alcoholism-related health problems, a decrease in fertility, and the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases. Yet, these greedy multinationals, shielded by their vast legal and financial resources, continue to operate with impunity.
Of course, they do not operate alone. They have gained mastery of the Nigerian system and have perfected their skills on how to game it. They collude with heartless Nigerian politicians to perpetrate these acts of wickedness on the Nigerian people, who have oftentimes struggled to get justice.
A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom gave a controversial ruling against some of these victims when it ruled that it was too late to sue Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company (SNEPCO), which is an Anglo-Dutch company, over the Bonga offshore oil spill, which happened on the 20th of December 2011.
It will be recalled that shortly after that spill, a group that was made up of 457 communities and about 27,800 individuals, through the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), the Nigerian government’s lead agency responsible for building conformance with environmental legislation in the Nigerian petroleum sector, had demanded that Shell be fined $5 billion in administrative fees for environmental damages caused by that unfortunate oil spill.
In their ruling, the UK Supreme Court rejected valid claims made by the group on the grounds of what is referred to as a technicality in law. What that action clearly showed was that everyone must come to the full realisation that the sovereign integrity of Nigeria and other potential victims on the continent will always be compromised if they allow themselves to be at the mercy of foreign powers and their legal systems. What this should imply is that the Nigerian state must, as a matter of urgency, stand up to these multinationals on Nigerian soil or watch the impunity continue.
For starters, it was quite naive of Nigerians to expect that in the case of the Bonga oil spill, the British judiciary would be an independent and impartial adjudicator in matters involving British interests. It is a no-brainer that, as a key arm of the British government, the UK Supreme Court will more or less be complicit in the neo-imperialistic zero-sum drive of the UK establishments in Africa and every other place where British interests need representation. The fact that the court’s decision was surprisingly based on technicalities and not on the substance of the case is enough evidence to tell Nigerians all they need to know.
These Nigerians, who had very legitimate and valid claims, have been victims for so long. It is no longer news that their shoreline, as well as the sea and aquatic life, have been facing and continue to face a devastating impact from the carelessness of these companies. The $5 billion administrative fine they were demanding did not come out of the blue. It is very much consistent with global best practices because similar actions have been taken against infractions by oil corporations in other oil-producing countries in the world.
These corporations operating in Nigeria have not just stopped at environmental degradation with impunity, they have also mastered the art of tax avoidance, employing sophisticated strategies to exploit loopholes and shift profits to low-tax jurisdictions. Through these unholy actions, they have been depriving Nigeria of vital revenues that should have gone into badly needed funding for Nigerian schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. The truth remains that regardless of how anyone goes about sugar-coating it these actions are an affront to the Nigerian people, a blatant act of economic colonisation that must be resisted by all people of good conscience.
It is high time Nigeria stood firm while asserting its sovereignty to end these despicable anomalies. The Nigerian government must learn to prioritise the welfare of its citizens over corporate profits and every other mundane benefit. The recent court outing should make the Nigerian state see the need to strengthen its legal and regulatory frameworks to ensure corporate accountability. Nigerians must begin to demand transparency, enforce environmental standards, and ensure fair compensation for their resources going forward if this nonsense is to ever stop.
The truth remains that the recent court judgment in the UK happened because the Nigerian state and its agencies have perennially displaced without shame, their weak institutional capacity to compel the multinational oil companies to adhere to the extant laws against oil pollution in the country. It is this obvious capacity deficit that emboldened these oil companies to operate in Nigeria in a manner they could not even contemplate in their home countries.
Going forward, multinationals operating within Nigeria should and must be required to contribute equitably to the country’s economy, not just through taxes, but also by investing in local communities, creating jobs, and supporting sustainable development in ways that are verifiable, accountable, and impactful. It’s not just about paying a fair share; it’s about being a fair player in a country that has welcomed these corporations in good faith. It should no longer be business as usual.
At this point, the Nigerian government, civil society organisations, and other pressure groups must come together to demand what is fair and just for Nigeria. The government must be steadfast in legislating and enforcing stricter laws on environmental protection, corporate transparency, and tax obligations. Civil society has a crucial role to play in holding both the government and corporations accountable. The international community, especially countries where these corporations are headquartered, must also take responsibility and act to prevent corporate abuses in other people’s countries.
At this point, the Nigerian government must as a matter of urgent national importance, stand up for its citizens. It must demand justice from Shell and other multinational oil corporations operating in the country in very firm words. If the government cannot mount pressure on Shell to take responsibility for the oil spill that has happened and will continue to happen as a result of its operations in the Niger Delta, then there is no need to have them as leaders. The erring companies should not only be fined in line with the extant regulations in Nigeria, but adequate compensation must also be paid to individuals and communities that have been subjected to several insufferable environmental, health, and psycho-social tortures as a result of these incidents.
The fight against corporate greed is not just Nigeria’s fight, it’s a global fight. But for Nigeria, it is a fight for its future, a fight for the health of its land and people, and a fight for the prosperity it rightfully deserves. The time has come for Nigeria to stand up to the greedy multinationals operating within its borders. The time has come for Nigeria to reclaim its wealth, its dignity, and its future.