05 April 2009

Shell in court over Saro-Wiwa execution

In 1995 Ken Saro-Wiwa swore that one day Shell, the oil giant, would answer for complicity in his death in a court of law. On 26 May his dying wish is to be fulfilled.

According to today’s Observer, Shell and one of its senior executives are to face charges in a New York federal court that in the early 1990s they were complicit in human rights abuses in Nigeria. If found liable, then the company could be forced to pay hundreds of millions of pounds in damages.

Saro-Wiwa campaigned on behalf of the Ogoni people, leading peaceful protests against the environmental damage caused by oil companies in the Niger Delta. There was worldwide condemnation when, along with eight other activists, he was hanged by the Nigerian military government in 1995 after being charged with incitement to murder after the death of four Ogoni elders. Many of the prosecution witnesses later admitted that they had been bribed to give evidence against Saro-Wiwa, who was a respected television writer and businessman.

Lawyers in New York will allege that Shell actively subsidised a campaign of terror by security forces in the Niger Delta and attempted to influence the trial that led to Saro-Wiwa's execution. The lawsuit alleges that the company attempted to bribe two witnesses in his trial to testify against him. Members of Saro-Wiwa's family will take the stand for the first time to give their version of events, among them his brother Owens, who will allege that Brian Anderson, managing director of Shell's Nigerian subsidiary, told him: "It would not be impossible to get charges dropped if protests were called off." Anderson is fighting the action.

Saro-Wiwa's son, Ken Wiwa, said: "For 14 years we have lived with the memory of a father, an uncle, a brother, a son executed for a crime he didn't commit. We have daily reminders. It's painful to live with a monstrous injustice. To wake up one day to finally get our day in court is tremendously satisfying. Part of the reason for the original protest was the way Shell behaved. Ogoni people made their living farming and fishing, but Shell was using open waste pits and oil pipelines criss-crossed the land. These polluting activities were put on top of a delicate ecosystem. It destroyed people's ability to sustain themselves. That's the impact of Shell and, when people tried to protest, they were brutally repressed."

Shell described the executions of the Ogoni 9 as "tragic events carried out by the Nigerian government in power at the time".

Jenny Green, a senior lawyer at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said: "Mosop [the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People] was formed to stand up to multinationals and the dictatorship that acted hand-in-hand. This is a significant moment, because it says you can't act with impunity."

For more information on Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life and legacy, go to Remember Ken Saro-Wiwa


RobW said...

Very sad. If Shell are found guilty they are a disgrace.

Ardent said...

It is abominable that indigenous people must endure such cruelty so multi-nationals can make profits.

jams o donnell said...

It was an appalling act to hang Saro-Wiwa. If Shell were complicit - and things certainly point that way - then I hope they are taken to the cleaners

Steve Hayes said...

If Shell are shown to be complicit, then it would be a good idea to boycott them.

Frank Partisan said...

Unfortunately the opposition to the multinationals in the Niger Delta, are using self defeating tactics as terrorism and kidnapping.

beakerkin said...


Will the person who is an apologist for a death cult get real. How many corporations created gulags and Killing Fields.

There is a constant conflict between technologically advanced and the indigenous population and those familiar with Jared Diamond are aware of the history. We should expect and demand better treatment of the locals while extracting valued resources.

Corporate accountability and reasonable regulation are the key all powers must be accountable and balanced.

jams o donnell said...

I'm not sure how well boycotts work but they do deserve ti be sghunned if they are guilty Steve

That is sadly true Ren

Back off Beakerkin. Ren's comment about the methods used by Ogoni movements is correst. It is utterly counterprodctive and runs against Saro-Wiwa's methods.

I agree that accountability and balance are essential but these things are almost certainly to be lacking when a company does major business in a state with corruption at all levels of government

Steve Bates said...

I cannot speak to Saro-Wiwa's case specifically, but I can address the Shell mindset from around 1990 when I worked for Shell Western E & P in Houston (one of literally dozens of Shell entities in Houston).

I was commissioned to write event-tracking software for safety incidents and environmental incidents. One quantity to be tracked was exceedances (exceedences? no one was ever certain of the spelling), i.e., cases in which spills or upsets of dangerous substances exceeded legal thresholds for those substances.

How did the project manager decide to handle exceedances? He created a number called "opportunities for exceedance," the number and total amount of spills that could be committed without exceeding the law. For each relevant substance, my program was to report not just the number and quantity of spills, but the number and quantity that could have been committed without violating the threshold set in law. Of course the laws were lax, and always made Shell look good, however many spills there were.

That was their corporate attitude, and my program was required to reflect it... I had no say in the matter. It does not surprise me that Saro-Wiwa's life was regarded primarily as a business matter for Shell. That seems to be the nature of multinational corporations, and Saro-Wiwa paid with his life for fighting against one of the largest of them.

jams o donnell said...

Sadly it doesn't surprise me Steve, but then they were hardly going to do anything that put them in anything but the best possible light... even if that means a lot of things are , lets say, put to one side

beakerkin said...

Hold on Jams

If mankind has learned anything it is absolute power corrupts absolutely. In a normal democracy with an independent judiciary everything including corporations are balanced.

Corruption is not new, and a lack of an independent judiciary is the cause.

The worst corporation can not compete with the brutalities of fundamentalism be it Marx or theological. Corporations are by nature accountable on many levels from administrative agencies, shareholders, media, unions and so forth.

Who hold Marxists accountable for their actions? When was the last time other than Cambodia or Romania they were tried for their misdeeds.

Steve Bates said...

Not for the first time, Beakerkin, let me remind you: not every last thing is ideological. Some bad behavior is driven by money, not ideology. Give it a rest.

jams o donnell said...

Give a corporation (give anyone) a free hand in a corrupt regime and then its actions will exceed what would be acceptable in a democracy. In this environment then it is very possible that a company like Shell would collude to remove a thorn in its side.

Saro-Wiwa's death had nothing to do with ideology.