The Unsettling Case of Shell Nigeria
After thirteen years and countless hours by lawyers, community members, and activists around the world, Royal Dutch Shell finally settled the Wiwa v Shell case in a New York court for $15.5 million.
Plaintiffs in the case, which included Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., and the families of other Ogoni men hanged in November 1995, charged that the Royal Dutch/Shell company, its Nigerian subsidiary, and the former chief of its Nigerian operation, Brian Anderson, with complicity in the torture, killing, and other abuses of Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and other non-violent Nigerian activists in the mid-1990s in the Ogoni region of the Niger Delta.
Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni had been protesting Shell’s decades of pollution of their Niger Delta homeland, a practice that sadly continues to this day.
Shell says they settled the case as a “humanitarian gesture” to the Ogoni. Does anyone really believe that after fighting for more than a decade to keep this out of court, Shell suddenly woke up and felt great compassion for the Ogoni? Please.
Writing in the Daily Beast, Joe McGinniss asked “how much is a dead Nigerian worth to Shell”? It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask, especially when you consider that Royal Dutch Shell is a corporation that made more than $30 billion in profits last year alone.
Its also more than a bit unfair. Not to Shell – who cares about them? But to the families of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other executed Ogoni men, McGinniss’ article is insensitive to the reality of trying to find closure on a painful episode in their lives.
As Ken Wiwa Jr. wrote eloquently in the Guardian, “the case [was] freighted with all kinds of agendas that it [could not] possibly satisfy”. Has the settlement brought relief to Ken Wiwa jr and the families of the other men who were executed? The answer from them is an unequivocal yes. That alone should be cause for celebration, and they alone get to be the judges of what is adequate for that.
Is $15.5 million is enough to compensate for the hanging of nine men, the death of thousands more, and for the destruction of an ecosystem? No of course not. One wonders what amount of money would ever be enough for that.
But was $15.5 million on par with what a jury would have awarded in this case? Yes, lawyers tell me, for sure.
The reality is Shell settled because they were scared, and they knew the evidence against them was overwhelming. They publicly say they had nothing to do with the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni, and yet there were documents and video that they fought hard to keep out of the public eye.
Evidence that was to be introduced in the case included an internal Shell memo where the head of Shell Nigeria offered to intervene on Saro-Wiwa’s behalf, if only Saro-Wiwa and others would stop claiming that Shell had made payments to the military.
Then there was this memo, requesting payment to the Nigerian military for an incident in which at least one Ogoni man died.
Witness were set to testify that they saw Shell vehicles transporting Nigerian soldiers, that they saw Shell employees conferring with the military, that they saw money being exchanged between Shell employees and military officers, and that they heard military officers, including Major Okuntimo of the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, make admissions regarding the work they were doing on behalf of Shell.
We have known of Shell’s involvement in this tragedy for a long time. In early May of 1994, Ken Saro-Wiwa Sr. faxed me a memo authored by Major Okuntimo which read “Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence” and further called for “pressure on oil companies for prompt regular inputs“.
I received that fax and immediately called Ken, who was in London at the time. He said “this is it. They’re going to kill us all. All for Shell.” It was the last time I talked with him. He returned to Nigeria (an incredibly brave thing to do), and was shortly arrested on the trumped up charges for which he was ultimately hanged.
Ken Sr.’s famous last words from the gallows were “lord take my soul but the struggle continues”. In this moment, perhaps more than ever before, we need to heed that call to action. The settlement in this case brings satisfaction to the plaintiffs for an event that happened 14 years ago. It in no way, shape or form excuses or absolves Shell of their ongoing destruction of the Niger Delta environment
One of the central complaints of Niger Delta communities for forty years is gas flaring, which sends plumes of toxic pollutants into the air and water of the Niger Delta. Gas flaring endangers human health, harms local ecosystems, emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases, wastes vast quantities of natural gas, and is against Nigerian law. Shell does it nowhere else in the world in volumes that are even remotely comparable to what they flare in the Delta.
But Shell is still flaring gas with reckless abandon in Nigeria.
While there is no doubt that the settlement represented a significant victory for the plaintiffs’ in this one human rights case against Shell, true justice will not be served as long as the people of Nigeria continue to suffer the terrible impact of Shell’s operations. Shell estimates it would cost about $3 billion – only 10% of just their last year’s profits – to end Shell’s gas flaring in Nigeria once and for all.
But instead of putting their great “humanitarian concern” into action, Shell points the finger at the Nigerian government and demands that they pay to end this practice.
Shell also is at great pains to prove their corporate concern for climate change, and yet they are actually the Send a message to Shell’s CEO Jeroen van der Veer, and let him know that if he really wants to prove his great concern for the Ogoni people, not to mention the climate, he’ll end gas flaring once and for all.
The struggle continues.
(A version of this post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.)
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