Nigeria Activist Who Escaped the Gallows Probes Oil Accounts

Aug 29, 2014 10:51 am ET

(Updates with Shell declining to comment in 13th paragraph.)

Aug. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Two decades ago Ledum Mitee escaped being hanged while campaigning against corruption in Nigeria’s oil industry. Today, as head of a government transparency initiative, he says little has changed.

Mitee was the only one of 10 ethnic Ogoni activists including Ken Saro-Wiwa acquitted by a military tribunal on charges of organizing the murder of four rivals. At the time he was deputy president of an organization demanding that Royal Dutch Shell Plc and the government compensate the Ogonis for despoiling their land through oil spills.

Now, as chairman of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, he says the government has largely ignored his reports and hasn’t given his organization the muscle to effectively police Africa’s biggest oil industry.

“Those who are benefiting from this forgery called Nigeria will like to keep it at all costs,” Mitee, a bespectacled 57- year-old lawyer dressed in a floral green shirt, said in an interview at the Hilton Hotel in Abuja, the capital, on Aug. 11. “All these people who are pilfering from the country are in bed together.”

President Goodluck Jonathan’s spokesman Reuben Abati didn’t respond to three calls and an e-mail seeking comment.

Though oil and gas exports account for close to 80 percent of government revenue, an average of about 240,000 barrels of crude leak in the southern Niger River delta, home to Nigeria’s hydrocarbons industry, according to the Petroleum Ministry. That’s about the same as what spilled when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground off Alaska in 1989.

Regional Poverty

The region’s inhabitants, 56 percent of whom live on less than $1 a day, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, receive little of the oil income and bear the brunt of pollution’s impact in lost livelihoods and endangered health.

At the same time, accusations swirl in Abuja of missing funds, estimated by former central bank Governor Lamido Sanusi at about $20 billion over an 18-month period to July last year.

Mitee, who became head of NEITI in 2012, sees parallels in his current job with his previous career as an Ogoni rights activist.

Along with Saro-Wiwa and other campaigners, Mitee drew up a bill of rights demanding compensation from Shell and the government for decades of pollution, which destroyed fisheries and farmland in the 70,000 square-kilometer (27,027 square-mile) delta region.

After infighting between factions of his organization led to the death of four people in 1993, Mitee, Saro Wiwa and eight others were charged by a military tribunal for participating in murder. Only Mitee was acquitted.

Angry Mandela

The rest were hanged in 1995 on the orders of military dictator Sani Abacha even before the appeal period ended. The executions sparked criticism from former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, caused Canada to suspend diplomatic relations with Nigeria and drew sanctions from the U.S. and several European Union countries.

Mitee took over as president of the organization, the Movement for the Survival of The Ogoni People, and led it until 2012. Shell quit Ogoniland in 2003 after protests and hasn’t returned. Shell spokesman in Nigeria, Precious Okolobo, declined to comment when contacted on his mobile phone.

In 2007, former President Umaru Yar’Adua appointed Mitee the chairman of a presidential committee that recommended the amnesty program, which led to the disarming of Niger delta militants. Their armed uprising had cut oil output by half in 2008, threatening the source of 95 percent of foreign income.

Presidential Appointment

President Jonathan appointed him in August 2012 to lead NEITI, which was set up in 2004 after Nigeria acceded to the international extractive industries transparency standards that require oil and mining companies and governments to publish all payments.

A 2007 law enables the agency to collect payments data from all energy companies operating in Nigeria, including Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., Total SA and Eni SpA, which run joint ventures with state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. It’s required to reconcile the payments and determine what they were used for.

Matters of missing oil funds go back to the infancy of the state oil company known as NNPC, when newspapers including Punch reported in 1978 that Petroleum Ministry officials diverted $3.4 billion. A government investigation was inconclusive.

Ignored Reports

An official investigation found that in the 1990s under the government of military ruler Ibrahim Babangida $12 billion in oil revenue was unaccounted for.

Following his recent allegations, Sanusi was removed from his post as central bank Governor in February by President Jonathan.

While the government allows NEITI freedom to do its work, it doesn’t seem eager to implement its recommendations, Mitee said.

“Because the government or officials are thriving on the opaqueness of the extractive sector, they don’t want an agency set up to scrutinize that sector, to function effectively.” Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, said yesterday by phone.

NEITI audits now cover oil and gas industry payments from 1999 to 2011. The agency is currently examining 2012 and 2013 oil industry payments and revenue, according to Mitee.

Petroleum Bill

“A well-equipped NEITI should have access to real-time data; now we’re only able to deal with the past,” Mitee said. “We believe we should have meters at the wellheads and not just at the export terminal, which is what we have.”

The latest audit report, covering the years 2009 to 2011, presented to the public by Mitee in January last year, says at least $23.2 billion of income wasn’t deposited into the national accounts operated by the central bank and NNPC at JP Morgan Chase & Co. in New York.

The government needs to push ahead with reforms proposed in the Petroleum Industry Bill and end the confusion arising from NNPC’s role as industry regulator and national oil company, he said. The bill has been stuck in parliament for six years due to political wrangling and differences with international energy companies on proposed tax and royalty terms.

Looking back on his days as an Ogoni leader, Mitee said the travails of the Saro-Wiwa and fellow activists served to draw global attention to the situation in the Niger delta and forced energy companies to improve on their social responsibilities.

“My decision to accept the position was because I saw it as an extension of all I had been doing before,” he said. In the months after the hangings, “there was some feeling that may be I should’ve even died with them. I can still feel it as if it were yesterday.”