/ 2 June 2009

Saro-Wiwa battles Shell again

In 1995, at a trial that resulted in his conviction and execution, the Nigerian writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa vowed that the oil giant, Shell, would one day be brought to justice.

That day is looming large as a New York court prepares for a trial in which Shell stands accused of crimes against humanity over its activities in the oil-rich Niger Delta of southern Nigeria.

The trial will excite huge interest on the part of multinational companies and human rights bodies, because the outcome could have a bearing on the issue of corporate accountability and how far it extends.

Saro-Wiwa made his prediction days before he and eight other leaders of the Ogoni people were hanged by the Nigerian military regime in November 1995. In a final statement at his own trial, which he was prevented from delivering, Saro-Wiwa said of Shell that ”its day will surely come. The crime of the company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will be punished.”

When the trial does begin, relatives of the Ogoni nine, as the executed leaders are known, will be present in court as plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit against the firm. They and the other plaintiffs allege that Shell was an active participant in atrocities and abuses carried out by Nigeria’s military police.

In addition to the alleged murder of the Ogoni nine, they also hold Shell partially responsible for torture, illegal detention, forced exile and shootings of hundreds of Ogoni protesters during the 1990s.

Shell has strongly denied the charges. A Royal Dutch Shell spokesman in the Netherlands said the 1995 executions were tragic events that the company tried to prevent through appeals for clemency to the Nigerian government of the time. ”To our deep regret, that appeal went unheard, and we were shocked and saddened when we heard the news. Shell in no way encouraged or advocated any act of violence against them or their fellow Ogonis.”

The dispute between Shell and the Ogoni protesters stems from the company’s extensive interests in the Niger delta, stretching back to 1958. It now owns about 90 oil fields across the country.

In the early 1990s non-violent protests began among Ogonis unhappy about the impact of oil exploration, which they said was destroying the environment that they depended on for fishing or farming. Clearance work to make way for pipelines was decimating the world’s third-largest mangrove forest. Oil spills were rife, polluting the land at a rate, campaigners said, equivalent to an Exxon Valdez oil disaster every year. Oil flares only made the pollution worse.

In 1990 Saro-Wiwa, a well-known journalist and activist, helped found the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, bringing its case against Shell’s destruction of the environment to an international audience. A peaceful protest in 1993 mobilised 300 000 Ogonis.

A year later the Ogoni nine were arrested on what were widely regarded to have been trumped-up charges. The men were tortured, beaten and then put on trial in front of a tribunal without legal representation. They were sentenced to death.

Among those who will give evidence in the civil action is Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr, the son of the executed leader, who will be pressing for compensation for his father’s death. For him, the case is not just an attempt to complete his father’s search for justice. ”It’s the final stage for me,” Saro-Wiwa Jr said. ”In a sense I’ve lost the past 12 years of my life.”

The jury will hear that two key witnesses at the trial that led to the hangings of the Ogoni nine later recanted, saying they had been bribed to give false testimony with offers of Shell jobs.

Saro-Wiwa Jr said he hoped that the jury would see that the oil giant’s ”fingerprints are all over this”. —