Berkeley City Council to consider boycotting Nigeria
Berkeley Voice, Thursday, May 1. 1997
Council to consider boycotting Nigeria
"Boycotted in Berkeley" is already as familiar a moniker to many as "Banned in Boston' once was, and the City Council may soon add another name to the list: Nigeria.
Specifically, the government of Nigeria and companies that do business with it are the targets of the new drive. City staff arc now reviewing the ban proposal, and should prepare a report on its implications and a resolution for City Council action in June.
Nigeria has drawn international condemnation for its allegedly brutal treatment of indigenous environmental activists. The Nigerian government is most notorious for executing playwright and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, along with eight other members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People that he founded, on Nov. 10. 1996.
Various governments, including the United States, withdrew their ambassadors from Nigeria in response to the executions. But few countries have moved beyond symbolic gestures to join the boycott activists have called for.
Instead, municipal governments have begun taking action on their own, boycotting Nigerian products and those of companies that do business with Nigeria. A number of American cities have joined the movement, including Oakland. New Orleans, Brimingham and New York City.
The Peace and Justice Commission has now recommended the boycott for Berkeley. Commission Chair Michael Sherman said the city must take responsibility for its participation in the global economy.
"We can't very well isolate ourselves from the rest of the world." Sherman said. "One way or another, whether it's through trade or the Internet or travel or the environment, we're going to be involved."
The Sierra Club agrees. A new Human Rights and Environment Campaign was formed in 1996 to address issues of "environmental justice." Campaign Director Steve Mills said it's impossible to defend the environment when people are not free.
"We're talking about fundamental rights," Mills said. "Before you can protect the environment, you have to he able to speak freely, and to organize." Mills welcomed Berkeley's participation in the boycott. "We're awfully excited that Berkeley is considering this," Mills said, "Berkeley has always led the way in environmental justice issues, and people are looking to Berkeley to take a stand now."
Support for the boycott was evident Tuesday night. Dozens of people held up signs saying "I support divestment" during the public comment session. Some also showed pictures of the so-called "Ogoni 19," a group of environmental activists now on trial by the Nigerian government.
Several of the public speakers hailed from Nigeria themselves. They gave first-hand accounts of government repression and asked Berkeley to divest.
Still more demonstrators posted a banner urging a boycott of Royal Dutch Shell. Shell is the main distributor of Nigeria's most lucrative export commodity: oil.
Nigeria is the fourth largest OPEC producer of crude oil. Opponents of the Nigerian regime accuse dictator General Sani Abacha of repressing his people to support Shell's petroleum extraction in his country.
The Sierra Club has also documented environmental degradation in Nigeria as a by-product of Shell's activities. High-pressure pipelines pump gas directly across fields and through villages, unconcealed, the Sierra Club reports, causing a disproportionately high number of oil spills and spot fires. As a result, the Niger Delta is "the most endangered river delta in the world," the Sierra Club
Shell has pledged to clean up the Nigerian environment. The company has dedicated $100 million to the effort, including $4.5 million for a "Niger Delta Environmental Survey."
But Shell is better known for its support of the military regime than for its altruism. Saro-Wiwa and his fellow dissidents were protesting Shell's exploitation of their home Ogoni region when they were executed. The government charged the agitators with murder, but the New York Times and other prominent journals dismissed that military tribunal as a "sham" trial.
The Ogoni population numbers about 500,000 out of a nation of 100 million. After Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues drafted the "Ogoni Bill of Rights" in 1990- the Nigerian government slaughtered 2,000 Ogonis, according to Dr. Owens Wiwa, the slain leader's brother.
Councilmember Dona Spring, a Green Party member and proponent of the boycott, said it's in America's best interest to demand reform in Africa. Spring warned of a "rush to the lowest standard" in international business practices that will eventually force a weakening of domestic environmental and labor laws, at the expense of her constituents in Berkeley.
"It's really kind of backward to not recognize that we live in a global environment now." Spring said. "We can't afford to keep our heads in the sand just because we're little old Berkeley."
Councilmember Kriss Worthington helped draft a local Sierra Club resolution to support the boycott before his election last year. Worthington said Berkeley could lead a national movement for Nigerian rights, just as it helped spearhead the anti-apartheid movement by divesting from South Africa.
Shell Protest Rebuffed - Oil firm promises to clean up image
San Francisco Chronicle, Chronicle Staff and Wire Reports, May 15, 1997
Oil giant Shell fended off a motion yesterday from dissident shareholders demanding outside auditors determine whether the oil giant follows its own rules on environmental and social issues.
Shell Vice Chairman John S. Jennings promised to clean up Shell's image, badly tarnished in recent years as it tried to dump an old oil platform into the ocean and later came under intense fire over its investments in Nigeria. "I hope on this occasion you trust me," Jennings told shareholders at the annual meeting.
But the Rev. Christopher Hall, of the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility, said he might come back next year to try and force Shell to let outsiders examine whether the company goes along with its stated code of business practices around the world.
The dissidents lost by a margin of about 8 to 1.
"There's a sledgehammer here to crack a very small nut, to defeat this resolution," Hall told shareholders. "But this acorn has taken root and the landscape will be transformed."
The Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Cos. has had a rough few years on the public relations front, as environmental and human rights groups attacked the oil giant as an irresponsible corporate citizen, raking in profits while people suffer the effects of its oil drilling in remote parts of the Third World.
The company says it is environmentally and socially responsible. Shell says it does not involve itself in local politics and often gets drawn into disputes merely because it is a high-profile target.
"A lot of newspapers have been sold on a lot of articles, and a lot of television programs have been made," Jennings said, charging that many of Shell's critics are "ill-informed and sometimes wrong."
Locally, two California groups published what they called an "Independent Annual Report" on Royal Dutch-Shell. It showed flames shooting from a natural gas well, the yellow-and-red Shell logo drenched in blood and three silhouettes of people being hanged.
Protesters handed out literature at the corner of Ashby and San Pablo avenues in Berkeley yesterday morning. Outside the Shell meeting in London, activists beat drum waved anti-Shell signs and chanted "No blood for oil! People no profits!"
The barrage of criticism intensified in November 1995 when Nigerian authorities hanged environmentalist and playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists who had opposed the way Shell has conducted business in the Ogoniland region of southeastern Nigeria.
Marc Breindel, Berkeley
Voice, July 17, 1997
City boycotting those who do business with Nigeria
Nigerian oil will not power city cars
until the West African nation's military dictatorship ends, the City
Council decided unanimously Tuesday night.
"I'm overwhelmed with happiness," Free Nigeria
Movement President Tunde said after the vote. "Berkeley is the
place where awareness arises from ...This is one more big blow to the
The boycott of all companies that do business with Nigeria
comes at some cost to the city, especially when combined with similar
actions involving Burma and Tibet. Almost no large oil producer stands
in good stead with Berkeley anymore, making it increasingly difficult
to fill city gas tanks.
"It's starting to have quite an effect on our ability
to make purchases," City Manager Jim Keene said.
At Keene's recommendation, the City Council temporarily
exempted from the boycott Chevron credit cards already held by staff.
Keene will return in three months to offer alternatives, but warned
that "There's always the possibility that when I come back with
my report there may be no good alternative to Chevron."
Exxon is the only major gasoline company from which Berkeley
may now buy gas, Keene said. He reminded the council that Exxon has
not won accolades from environmentalists, especially since the wreck
of the oil tanker Valdez.
"Off-brand gasoline ... may be of a lower quality,"
Keene reported. ...There is the potential for damage to fleet engines
and other equipment which increases downtime of the vehicles and the
cost of maintenance and repair."
Councilmember Dona Spring took Keene's warnings in stride:
"I think it does point to the fact that we need to decrease our
dependence on fossil fuel ... I'm glad that the city has started converting
to (alternative energy sources), and I'd like to see more conversion
Another potential expense of the Nigeria boycott is the
cost of keeping track of which companies are doing business with Nigeria.
Fellow boycott subscribers are pooling resources for a Nigeria/Burma
database which will cost about $15,000; Keene estimated Berkeley's share
at up to $2,000.
Only Councilmember Polly Armstrong abstained from the
vote, as she does with all "international" Items. Armstrong
pledged to boycott Shell Oil personally, however.
Activist/filmmaker Carolyn Erbele urged everyone to stop
buying Shell Oil. Shell credit cards should be cut up and mailed to
the company, Erbele said.
Erbele and partner L A Wood showed the council a 15-minute
video titled "Don't Let Shell Kill Again." The documentary includes footage of Nigerian writer and environmentalist
Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed after protesting General Sani Abacha's
regime. Saro-Wiwa's killing prompted condemnation by President Clinton
and other heads of state.
"We're going to see the same movement as the anti-apartheid
movement growing across the United States, from city to city and state
to state until the Nigerian dictatorship falls," Danny Kennedy
of Project Underground predicted.
Tuesday's vote was not definitive, but nearly so.
Keene will draft a final resolution for next week's council meeting,
which he said he expects the council to approve as "a technicality."
Berkeley Running Out of Gas
Elaine Herscher, San Francisco Chronicle, July 21, 1997
Boycott-happy city can't find a politically correct oil company
Berkeley is boycotting so many things that soon there may be no gasoline politically correct enough to run the city's vehicles. With the City Council expected to pass yet another boycott resolution tomorrow -- this one against companies that do business with Nigeria -- Berkeley will be precluded from buying products from Arco, Unocal, Texaco, Chevron, Mobil and Shell.
"Pretty soon we'll have to do our own offshore drilling," quipped Berkeley City Councilwoman Polly Armstrong. Exxon is the only major oil company not on the banned list. And that's no help. The city is unofficially boycotting Exxon, too, because of its sluggish response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that fouled 700 miles of Alaskan shoreline.
That leaves only "off-brand" gasoline, which City Manager James Keene believes could damage Berkeley's fleet. Passenger cars, fire engines and public-works trucks would probably keep running smoothly, but street sweepers and police cars can be temperamental if they don't get premium gasoline, he said.
Last Tuesday, the City Council watched a video (Don't Let Shell Kill Again) on military repression and violations of human rights by the Nigerian government, which the filmmakers said is largely supported by Shell Oil Co. "It's certainly the prerogative of the council" to issue boycotts, Keene said. "Our concern is there is a potential price we do pay as a community."
So far, the city's gasoline supplier has guaranteed quality alternatives to the name brands, and the council voted last week to let Berkeley employees continue using Chevron credit cards for three months until the staff finds a substitute.As of this week, Berkeley will be boycotting companies that do business in Burma, Tibet and Nigeria, out of opposition to repressive regimes in those countries. Chevron, like Shell, does business with Nigeria. Arco, Unocal, Mobil and Texaco are in Burma.
The city is also precluded from buying products from Hewlett- Packard and NEC computers because both companies make products for the defense industry.The same goes for companies that contribute products to the nuclear industry. The printout of forbidden businesses operating in Burma alone is nearly a half-inch thick, printed on both sides. Acting Finance Director Frances David says her staff must consult the list each time they buy a new product. A $40,000-a-year city clerk spends one-fourth of her time reviewing various databases for forbidden products. But the city staff takes it in stride, David said. "We live in Berkeley, what can I tell you?" She said that despite the hassle, Berkeley's social policy is sound.
Following Berkeley's and San Francisco's lead, the number of U.S. cities that boycotted businesses dealing in South Africa went a long way toward ending apartheid there, city employees say.But some in Berkeley's government are not so sure the city's involvement in international issues is worth the price. "I think Berkeley has enough problems of its own," Councilwoman Armstrong said. "When we've straightened out our problems, I think we can start reaching out to others."
At least one crisis -- over cola drinks -- was recently averted. Pepsi-Cola had been banned from soda machines in city buildings because the company had dealings in Burma. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola is destined to be banished, too, because the company peddles its product in Nigeria. That would have left a cola vacuum at City Hall. But now it is rumored that Pepsi has stopped doing business in Burma. So Pepsi is in. Coke is out.