Race-baiting Strategy Helps Keep Shell Pumping in Nigeria

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This article was first published as "Race-baiting Strategy Helps Keep Shell Pumping in Nigeria"in PR Watch, Volume 3, No. 2, Second Quarter 1996. It original article was authored by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.


Shell Oil and Nigeria's military dictatorship are using a black-against-black "divide and confuse" PR strategy to deflect criticism following Nigeria's executions of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other environmental and human rights activists.

Their approach resembles the "Neptune Strategy" developed a decade ago by Jack Mongoven's former PR firm to defend Shell's dealings in South Africa.

Following the hanging of Saro-Wiwa in November of last year, Shell and Nigeria each launched separate massive PR campaigns claiming that they are participating in a "transition to democracy" in Nigeria.

Nigeria's $10.7 million campaign employed eight U.S. PR firms whose work included production of a 297-page book and a three-part TV documentary, plus advertisements targeting Washington policymakers. The regime funded a "fact-finding" junket of black journalists who visited Nigeria and reported back with accolades for Nigeria's ruler, General Sani Abacha. Abacha's government also bought glossy, multi-page color insert ads in black newspapers, claiming that criticisms of Nigeria are racist, "double standard treatment of Black African Nations by the United States government. If Jewish Americans can stand up for Israel we can stand up for Africa."

These efforts to enlist black support for a dictatorship that oppresses blacks are reminiscent of the 1987 "Neptune Strategy" used to counter a boycott against Shell's business dealings in apartheid South Africa.

The Neptune Strategy was developed by Pagan International, whose partners included Jack Mongoven, Alvin Biscoe and Ronald Duchin. Pagan International organized and subsidized a group composed of black clergy called the Coalition on Southern Africa (COSA), which countered calls for Shell to divest its South African holdings by talking instead of ambitious plans to promote education and training of South African blacks and develop black-black business links between South Africa and the United States. In reality, COSA was a deceptive paper front group with no resources to carry out these goals.

It's the Economy, Stupid

Following the recent executions in Nigeria, Shell has turned again to the argument that its African business activities are creating economic progress for black Africans. Its PR campaign has included full-page ads in European, American and South African newspapers, claiming that thousands of Nigerians would lose job opportunities if the company abandons its plans there to build a $4 billion liquified natural gas plant.

Shell is in fact Nigeria's largest foreign investor, earning over $312 million a year in profits from its oil operations. Ken Saro-Wiwa was the most vocal advocate for Nigeria's Ogoni tribespeople, who claim that Shell's activities are destroying their communities.

Defending Shell's failure to prevent the executions of Saro-Wiwa and the others, the company's ads criticized "campaigning groups" who "say we should intervene in the political process in Nigeria. But even if we could, we should never do so. Politics is the business of governments and politicians."

These arguments drew sharp criticism from Ken Saro-Wiwa's younger brother, Dr. Owens Wiwa. "Shell is involved in Nigerian politics up to their neck," he said. "If they had threatened to withdraw from Nigeria unless Ken was released, he would have been alive today. There is no question of that."

Owens Wiwa described his own meetings with Brian Anderson, head of Shell's Nigerian operations. According to Owens Wiwa, Anderson offered to use his influence to help Saro-Wiwa if international environmental groups would stop their protests against the company. Owens Wiwa said Anderson promised "to get Ken and the others freed if we stopped the protest campaign abroad. I was very shocked. Even if I had wanted to, I didn't have the power to control the international environmental protests."

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