A Death in Nigeria: Ken Saro-Wiwa and the CSR Movement
By Bart Mongoven


Thursday, Nov. 10, will mark the tenth anniversary of the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian activist who claimed that the regime of dictator Sani Abacha and Royal Dutch/Shell together were complicit in oppressing his Ogoni tribe. Though it was not apparent at the time, Saro-Wiwa's death -- by hanging, at the hands of Abacha's forces -- sparked what might be considered the contemporary corporate social responsibility movement. The anniversary of his killing provides an opportunity to assess the movement and its current trajectory.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a concept drawn from the notion that with great power comes great responsibility -- and that corporations have great power. In the United States, the notions of charity and stewardship embodied by philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie eventually evolved into a "soft" idea of CSR -- one that placed expectations on corporations to contribute positively to their social and physical environments, beneath the canopy of a government that could essentially be counted on to preserve basic justice and people's core rights to life, liberty and property. In more recent times, however, the presence of multinational corporations in countries with oppressive governments and failed legal structures has given rise to difficult questions about spheres of responsibility, influence and even complicity between corporations and the governments of host countries. Ultimately, this has generated a much more serious set of CSR expectations than that common in Carnegie's day.

The killing of Saro-Wiwa remains terribly important because it still provides significant context for the majority of activists' work on "hard" corporate social responsibility issues. The events of November 1995 brought into clear relief the problems that loomed due to three particularly important conundrums:

1. The difficulty of neutrality: On the one hand, if a company attempts not to interfere with or run afoul of a host government's questionable activities and policies, it can be accused of failing to do its part to advance human rights principles. On the other hand, if a corporation opposes its host regime, it likely would simply be given the boot, replaced with a less scrupulous developer, and lose both the economic advantages it was seeking in the host country and any chance to exert its influence toward social change.

2. The distribution of wealth: The existence of corrupt or exploitative governments often means corporate investments do not trickle down to all levels of society or benefit the nation as a whole -- or worse, are used by the government to strengthen its own oppressive policies or practices.

3. Direct local impact: Extractive projects, such as mining or oil drilling, often entail environmental and social dislocation and change that is not mitigated by strong government regulations.

These issues have dominated the work of advocates for human rights, environmental causes, humanitarian relief and indigenous peoples since they were raised in 1995. They are at the center of myriad voluntary codes of conduct and other attempts to bring about new public policies that guide corporate activities in developing countries.

The Death of Ken Saro-Wiwa

Saro-Wiwa was the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. He spoke out against the Abacha regime, which subjugated the Ogoni, and against Royal Dutch/Shell, the leading oil producer in the Niger Delta. The activist contended that the Ogoni were subjected to pollution, forced relocation and industrial accidents as a result of Shell's oil operations. He further alleged that Abacha's treatment of the Ogoni grew out of support for Shell, and that the dictator and the multinational had common cause in keeping the Ogoni under the draconian control of Abacha's army.

While the veracity of Saro-Wiwa's specific criticisms can be debated, the degraded state of the Ogonis' land in the Niger Delta and the brutal treatment of the Ogoni under Abacha is neither debated nor denied.

Saro-Wiwa was arrested after a protest in May 1994 and detained for a year alongside several other Ogoni leaders. He was tried and sentenced to death with eight other activists (together, they are known as the "Ogoni Nine") on Oct. 31, 1995, and hanged 11 days later -- despite the objections of world leaders, including U.S. President Bill Clinton, and the unanimous condemnation of Commonwealth states. Human rights and environmental organizations around the world joined in the condemnation of the killing, and many demanded to know what Shell had done to pressure the Abacha regime against moving ahead with the execution.

Shell was having none of that political minefield. Rather than being drawn into the debate, Shell turned to a familiar and long-successful argument: that multinational corporations are guests in host countries, that they should not interfere in local politics (particularly civil war or strife), and that the company was powerless in the face of Abacha's determination to quell the unrest he saw emanating from Ogoniland.

The initial reaction from the world's NGOs was disbelief. It was not that there was no precedent for the execution, but to most, Abacha's act seemed anachronistic.

Once the disbelief gave way to anger, NGOs began to assail Shell in droves, alleging that the company had not done enough to use its influence with the Nigerian government in efforts to block the execution. And even if Shell could not stay the regime's hand, they argued, it was Saro-Wiwa's criticisms of Shell that had brought events to a head in the first place. Had the corporation been a good and respectful neighbor to the Ogoni, the argument went, there would have been no need for the unrest in the Delta that prompted Abacha to crack down.

The attention to Shell grew in the following months, and day-to-day management of the company became even more difficult when Greenpeace began to protest Shell's decision to dispose of an old oil platform, the Brent Spar, by sinking it in the North Atlantic. Greenpeace's well-run, well-orchestrated campaign stoked public outrage: A Shell service station in Germany was firebombed. Boycotts were running on three continents. And of greatest significance in the eyes of management, recruiting in Europe suffered.

The company concluded that dramatic change was needed to repair its brand -- particularly as the industry was entering an era in which oil increasingly was being discovered in politically difficult places like Nigeria, and much less often in places like the Norwegian offshore or West Texas. By 1997, Shell had begun a corporate review of its social obligations and expressed a determination to emerge from the fallout from Ken Saro-Wiwa's death with a new attitude.

NGO pressure on Shell continued through the 1990s, but some human rights groups also began to take a larger view of Saro-Wiwa's death and its implications. They began to see the situation as evidence of a systemic problem with corporations (particularly those involved in extractive industries) in developing countries. The remedies proposed during the next five years by NGOs to address the problem were wildly divergent. Some put forward radical schemes that would essentially make it impossible to do business in developing countries. Others called for the United Nations to enact a global tax on certain revenues from developing countries -- with the funds to be distributed by the U.N. directly to the people of developing countries, regardless of the national government's wishes.

Saro-Wiwa's Legacy

Two important concepts emerged from human rights activists in the wake of Saro-Wiwa's death.

First was the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, a code of conduct for oil and other extractive companies that major multinationals developed along with the U.S. and British governments and NGOs such as Amnesty International. The code calls for corporations to conduct rigorous risk assessments -- publicly reporting on any instances of human rights violations by host governments that relate to corporate operations -- and to hold regular consultations regarding security arrangements with host governments and civilian leaders. The code defined those situations in which oil companies had the responsibility to negotiate with dictatorial regimes, and it implied that other multinationals would refuse to accept leases that competitors lost as a result of certain (very specific) forms of political activism.

This code of conduct addressed one of the major issues brought to the fore by Saro-Wiwa's death: the unwitting but direct support of violence by companies in developing countries.

Another major issue raised by his death -- the question of how dictators use multinational corporations to enrich themselves and their friends, but not the country generally -- has also begun to be addressed through a series of projects emanating from Britain.

The fuse here was lit by London-based Global Witness, which began arguing in the late 1990s that if a company publicized the amount of money it paid to the governments of developing countries, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other organizations that have some power over the country's finances can track the proceeds from payments by multinational companies into the state treasury. Global Witness argued that with the World Bank and IMF watching, rulers in developing countries like Angola, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea would not be able to siphon off billions into Swiss banks while their people starved. (This strategy relies on an active and attentive World Bank and IMF, which have been under pressure to play this role for far more than ten years.)

The Global Witness campaign, dubbed "Publish What You Pay," has given rise to a more thorough program now championed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) has gained the support of most major multinationals, and it seems likely to take hold globally within the coming two or three years. If EITI is indeed successful, kleptocracies like the Abacha regime will be far more difficult to maintain, and the allure of dictatorial power in such countries well could wane.

A third important issue brought to prominence by Saro-Wiwa's killing -- the extent of a company's own responsibilities in protecting human rights and the environment -- is significantly more complex than the other two issues.

Whereas violence and money can be seen, traced and controlled, the environmental and social impacts from them are much more theoretical and nuanced issues that involve alleged degrees of harm and the practical considerations faced by extractive industries. Furthermore, it is difficult to determine the extent to which a corporation, as a competent and powerful institution, can be expected to meet social needs that typically are the responsibility of government, when that government fails its own people.

Much is being done on this front, however.
Corporations are voluntarily agreeing to codes of conduct and to reporting systems, such as the Global Reporting Initiative, that are designed to offer transparency to the public about social and environmental effects of their business activities. These structures also afford signatories some degree of safe harbor from criticism that they are complicit in various abuses of people or the environment.

Under substantial pressure from activists, the World Bank has begun a process of carefully reviewing its lending for projects such as oil production, pipelines, mines and dams. Corporations are working within the systems the World Bank is putting in place and adapting their projects to satisfy new World Bank requirements. For example, an embarrassed World Bank is currently threatening to pull out of a major pipeline project due to Chad's refusal to meet its commitments in this regard.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan developed a voluntary code of conduct to prompt corporations to consider social, environmental and human rights issues related to their activities. The Global Compact, as the code is known, is primarily a response to the rise of the World Trade Organization and the fears of many that globalization will exacerbate economic inequality. While the events of November 1995 in Nigeria have little to do with the intent behind the Global Compact, Saro-Wiwa's killing provides some context for many of the issues the compact addresses.

The work that might have the most sweeping implications for CSR, however, is emerging from Amnesty International -- one of the few groups that appear to be putting effort into commemorating Ken Saro-Wiwa's life on Nov. 10.

Following the execution of the "Ogoni Nine," Amnesty launched a program, in conjunction with the United States' Sierra Club, to address the human rights violations visited upon social activists around the world. This program shifted focus and style several times before 2000 -- the same year the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights code of conduct was drafted, and in the wake of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. But at that point, Amnesty made a dramatic change in its approach to human rights by adding a concern for economic, social and cultural rights to its agenda, which typically had focused on the human rights violations committed by governments.

The so-called economic, cultural and social rights -- such as the rights to work, health, labor organization, education and others -- had been enshrined in 1966 by an international covenant (which the United States did not ratify). But these were not a focus of Amnesty's work until the group decided it needed a way to use corporations as a mechanism to change situations in countries with unresponsive governments. And if holding corporations responsible for human rights violations was to be that mechanism, Amnesty needed to expand the kinds of violations with which it was concerned.

Since making this shift, the organization has developed a campaign to address linkages between social issues, environmental issues and multinational corporations. Amnesty's program is essentially a reaction to globalization, but one that also reflects the changes that took place in the wake of Saro-Wiwa's death. Amnesty recently began to advocate a sweeping solution to address these issues: an international treaty that, unlike previous human rights treaties, would hold corporations rather than governments directly responsible for human rights violations, and that (unlike the Voluntary Principles) would be mandatory and enforceable. Companies fear that the scope of their obligations and the extent of what is considered a "human right" under such a treaty would place an enormous burden on their activities -- requiring them simultaneously to work carefully with governments and work around the most despotic regimes, and setting up the potential that corporations and government could clash in crippling and confusing ways.

The U.N. is currently trying to clarify the spheres of complicity and responsibility of corporations with relation to human rights. If this work is skillfully done, it might begin to point the way out of the ethical morass in which companies and human rights activists currently find themselves.


Dozens of other organizations, codes of conduct and bureaucratic approaches -- too many to mention here -- have been developed to address the issues that came to the surface in November 1995. These efforts increasingly are being seen as responses to globalization, which is in fact true. But in addition to that, the fall of the Soviet Union and the concomitant disillusionment with socialism led activists to search for ways to reform capitalism, rather than fight for alternatives to it altogether.

In the globalization era, the declining significance of national borders and the rapid expansion of trade in goods and services are forcing people to examine new and innovative ways to control, regulate or otherwise steer economic activity. Yet, activists ultimately hope to codify the changes that first emerge as voluntary codes of conduct more securely as written law.
Underpinning and catalyzing almost all of these efforts is the story of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Human rights groups, corporations, environmental groups and indigenous peoples' organizations share, at minimum, the goal of doing whatever is possible to prevent deaths like Saro-Wiwa's from being re-enacted in other contexts. The manner of his death, more than his activism, generated momentum toward Saro-Wiwa's objectives.