“We’re no longer voiceless”, protestors tell Shell

As shareholders of Shell are meeting in London and The Netherlands for the company’s Annual General Meeting, hundreds of people in the Niger Delta will hope that their protest a couple of weeks ago in Nigeria will perhaps trigger a debate on their communities’ losses as result of Shell’s activities.

On 28 April 2012, I joined representatives from 7 different affected communities and 5 civil society organisations in the Niger Delta to protest in Port Harcourt against Shell and the Nigerian government. The protest march was part of Amnesty International’s global week of action (21-29 April) calling on Shell to own up, pay up and clean up for the pollution caused by its oil spills in the Niger Delta.

A public protest in Nigeria against arguably the country’s two most powerful agencies – Shell and the Federal government – is not an easy feat in a country with police officers ever ready to shoot at protestors.  As we marched peacefully along the streets of Port Harcourt, I could feel the nervousness among my fellow protestors as the police presence increased. The mood in the streets and among protestors was tense. Truckloads of armed police followed us everywhere, in some cases with armoured tanks.

Despite the heavy security presence, which felt a bit intimidating, the protestors had fun by singing and dancing to music by popular Nigerian musicians including Fela Kuti. Onlookers on the roadside waved in support and asked if they could join the march. Cars honk their horns in solidarity and people from side streets and from shops stopped to read the messages on placards and banners.

The protestors waved different placards and posters carrying a range of messages on them. Some called on Shell to “stop destroying our land”; others demanded Shell to “stop killing our fishes”. I examined the faces in the crowd and realised that many of the people marching were either farmers or fishermen and women whose livelihoods have been destroyed primarily by the pollution of their land and environment as a result of Shell’s oil spills. Some had travelled several miles to join the demonstration in Port Harcourt because they saw it as one of the few opportunities available for them to voice their anger against socio-economic injustice and to demand for corporate accountability in a country where one can hardly find such.

The procession, which started in the morning at the office of the NGO Environmental Rights Action (ERA), wrapped up in front of Shell’s offices in Port Harcourt. The scene in front of Shell’s building was a mixture of bravery, anger and some form of satisfaction. Security in and around Shell’s premises is high; the main gate looked like a fortress. However, with all the placards raised and the banners in front, the protestors marched onwards, compelling the security officers and some employees of the company to stand behind the gate and in front of the office doors watching and listening to the protest songs and anthems.

Celestine Akpobari of Social Action, read out the joint statement signed by Amnesty International and eight other Nigerian civil society organisations. While the statement was being read, police increased their presence in the area, surrounding the protestors but creating a small exit. The statement was followed by angry protest shouts and songs. The protestors then placed all their placards and a copy of the statement on the ground in front of Shell’s main gate. As we all marched through the small passage left by the police and into the respective buses the organisers had hired, I saw some sense of satisfaction on the faces of many of the protestors, they would be returning to their communities with a message: we’re no longer voiceless!