JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1998 · VOLUME 19 · NUMBERS 1 & 2
T H E I R M A S T E R S ' V O I C E
WHEN NIGERIA'S DICTATORSHIP executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other human rights activists in 1995, Washington rang with calls for tough action against the regime of Gen. Sani Abacha. More than two years later, the Clinton administration has done nothing more than impose token sanctions against Lagos. The chief reason for the administration's inaction is that U.S. oil companies with heavy investments in Nigeria have spent lavishly to oppose sanctions against the Abacha regime. Typical of the material oil company lobbyists are passing around the Hill is a report produced by Mobil which states forthrightly that "U.S. companies have a substantial and long-term interest in the stability" of Nigeria. The Mobil report warns darkly that a deterioration of ties between the two countries could devastate the U.S. economy.
Abacha's first move after killing Saro-Wiwa was to sign up a number of U.S. lobby and PR shops to ensure that his regime would not be unduly inconvenienced by Washington. Abacha, who seized power after annulling 1993 elections won by opposition leader Moshood Abiola, was especially concerned about the situation in Congress, where Rep. Donald Payne of the Black Caucus has been the leading critic of his regime.
Abacha has spent about $10 million to lobby administration officials and congressional leaders. A beltway firm called C/R International cashed in on Saro-Wiwa's murder by signing a $390,000 deal with Base Petroleum, a company reportedly owned by a son of General Abacha. C/R's mission was to sabotage sanctions on Nigeria's oil industry. Just last September, Nigeria signed up the firm of Ruder Finn, at a cost of $100,000, to plot strategy on improving Nigeria's image in the U.S. media. (Ruder Finn's hiring came just a month after Nigerian police busted up a reception for human rights and social activists hosted by departing U.S. ambassador Walter Carrington, who had been sharply critical of Abacha's government.)
Abacha's lobbying effort has been greatly aided by U.S. oil companies, especially Amoco, Chevron and Mobil. The latter alone has more than half a billion dollars at stake in Nigeria, where it produces 200,000 barrels of petroleum a day. (Dutch giant Shell has even bigger investments in Nigeria, including a $4 billion natural gas joint venture with the military regime.)
Oil company lobbyists have been regularly dropping by congressional offices to make sure that nothing is afoot that could jeopardize their investments. Mobil's man passes out a glossy brochure that whitewashes Gen. Abacha's hideous human rights record. The only references the brochure makes to the ongoing turmoil in Nigeria are vague statements about an "unsettled political situation" and the comment that Nigeria "has been going through difficult times."
Needless to say, Mobil is all in favor of "reform and progress in Nigeria." However, so the lobbying brochure proclaims, "we do not believe that cutting off relations or instituting trade sanctions or boycotts will achieve the desired result. In fact, such actions could cause Nigerians to resist and resent what may be seen as unfair meddling in the country's political development by outsiders." The brochure ends by quoting a number of Nigerians who laud Mobil's work in their country. Heading up the list of these supposedly objective observers is Dr. Abdul Oyekan of Nigeria's Federal Ministry of Petroleum Reserves.
The oil companies are also working through the Corporate Council on Africa, which musters about 100 big firms with investments in Africa, including Mobil, General Motors and Coca-Cola. The Council was founded in 1992 by a group of business tycoons and former government officials that include Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for Africa during the Reagan years, and Andrew Young, currently Nike's apologist and flack. The group's executive director is David Miller, who worked in the Bush White House and also served in a top position at the Overseas Private Investment Council (OPIC), which subsidizes U.S. business deals abroad.
Amoco, Chevron, Conoco and Mobil have each funneled at least $40,000 to the Council during the past few years. Though it claims to be an apolitical organization that does not seek to "influence any position or policy of the U.S. After pocketing the oil companies' dough, the Council set up a "Nigeria Working Group" to coordinate its posture towards the Abacha regime. Materials produced by the Working Group include a report -- which features photos of smiling Nigerian children and virtuous industrial activity -- titled "The Economic Dimension: The United States of America and Nigeria." The Council's report touches briefly on human rights violations in Nigeria, but swiftly makes clear that next to the economic issues at stake such matters are of trifling concern. "Not only is Nigeria the source of approximately 9 percent of U.S. oil imports, but it also represents an annual market of over $1 billion for American goods and services," the brochure reads. "U.S. companies are well positioned to compete for and win major new opportunities as Nigeria proceeds with a $3 billion to $5 billion effort to rehabilitate and privatize its telecommunications and power sectors."
Nigeria produces an extremely pure crude oil called "Bonney Light." The Council's brochure devotes an entire page to the superb qualities of Nigerian crude, saying it is "highly sought after and sells at a premium on the spot market." According to the Council, "any disruption to this supply of imported petroleum will severely impact the American economy" and even lead to "higher levels of pollution" as Nigerian oil is replaced by imported petroleum with a higher sulfur content.
The Council has also been fiercely lobbying for a bill in Congress that would increase OPIC subsidies for U.S. firms investing in Africa, with special attention given to backing investments in the energy sector. If the bill passes, the oil companies can surely count on the Council's Miller to help open the money pipeline at his old agency. -- Ken Silverstein