Shell on trial while Nigerians are slaughtered

A corporate giant that has long collaborated with the state to access the Niger Delta’s oil and gas resources, systematically destroying the indigenous ecology through spills, deforestation, flaring and dumped waste, and in the process fuelling climate change that threatens our collective future on the planet.


by Patrick Bond
& Khadija Sharife

"We sometimes feed conflict by the way we award contracts, gain access to land, and deal with community representatives," Shell Nigeria admitted in 2003.

It was a modest confession from a corporate giant that has long collaborated with the state to access the Niger Delta’s oil and gas resources, systematically destroying the indigenous ecology through spills, deforestation, flaring and dumped waste, and in the process fuelling climate change that threatens our collective future on the planet.

But at a time of worsening state massacres of environmental justice activists in the Delta, a moment of reckoning nears. In New York’s Southern District Court this Wednesday before Judge Kimba Wood, Shell goes on trial for crimes against the Niger Delta people and environment, which could lead to substantive reparations payments.

The state’s most recent assault against the Delta left the villages of Opuye, Okerenkoro, Kurutie and Oporoza (site of the new documentary Sweet Crude – ) burned to the ground in mid-May, with hundreds of Ijaw people – both armed activists (called ‘militants’) and civilians – feared dead. Journalists are banned from the area.

In a request last week to International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, solidarity activists observed, "The Nigerian military Joint Task Force commenced the land, water and aerial bombardment of a large area in Gbaramatu Kingdom."

They continued, "Questions regarding President Yar’Adua’s involvement must also be investigated. The killings in the Delta today can be traced back to similar massacres in 1990 in Umecheum, in Ogoni led by Major Gen Paul Okuntimo in the mid 1990’s, and the 1999 massacre in Odi under the command of Col Agbabiaka. To date no investigation of previous massacres has been undertaken, although each was well documented."

The damage to the Delta goes back five decades. In 2006, the Niger Delta Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Project declared the region "one of the 10 most important wetlands and marine ecosystems in the world". Although 20 million people directly depend on shared natural Delta resources such as fisheries, fertile land and water sources, Shell is responsible for 2 900 oil spills.

Many have stood up to say "enough!", but perhaps it was the Ogoniland civic leader and writer/poet Ken Saro-Wiwa who is best known for a courageous socio-environmental struggle against Shell, especially after mobilising 300 000 non-violent protesters in early 1993.

Our comrade at the Centre for Civil Society, Dennis Brutus, recalls his last meeting with the 54-year-old Saro-Wiwa, at the University of
Pittsburgh: "Ken was displaying his new novel Sozaboy, his 28th book. He seemed very gloomy – even pessimistic: as if he had a foreboding that he would be executed on his return to Nigeria."

Brutus travelled to Johannesburg soon thereafter: "The US poet Amiri Baraka and I brought a letter to President Nelson Mandela’s office appealing for a stronger role in preventing his execution. But the functionary who took the letter was not encouraging."

Brutus reminds us: "Saro-Wiwa was executed in a bungled operation, with three attempts. The evidence has emerged that the Nigerian regime of Sani Abacha acted on instructions of Shell Oil."

Saro-Wiwa’s son, brother and other victims’ descendants are suing Shell under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a law Brutus himself helped to publicize as part of a suit demanding apartheid reparations from multinational corporations that profited from apartheid by colluding with the white South African military prior to 1994.

Families of Saro-Wiwa and other victims claim that from 1990-1995, Shell requested and financed Nigerian soldiers to repress a peaceful environmental justice movement with deadly force. On November 10, 1995, the "Ogoni Nine" were executed after being framed for murder and tried by the military.

In addition to Saro-Wiwa, those killed were youth leader John Kpuinen, Dr. Barinem Kiobel, Saturday Doobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbokoo, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate and Baribor Bera.

After twelve years of preliminary arguments, the Ogoni finally get their day in the New York courts, supported by Brutus’ anti-apartheid ally Paul Hoffman, the Center for Constitutional Rights (led by lawyers Jennie Green and Maria LaHood), EarthRights International (Marco Simons and Rick Herz) and Justice in Nigeria Now.

Solidarity protests will be held around the world, including at two Shell gas stations here in South Durban, an unfortunate neighborhood that hosts the largest refineries south of Nigeria.

Shell’s South African refining operation – "Sapref" – is partly responsible for the extreme leukemia and asthma rates suffered by neighboring residents. Shell won the groundWork-Centre for Civil Society "Corpse Awards" in 2005, for contributions to mortality/morbidity in the South Durban basin: "13 thousand tones of sulphur dioxide and 1.2 million tones of carbon dioxide as well as the usual heady mix of volatile organic compounds."

A few years earlier, in 2001, according to Desmond D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, "Sapref’s ageing pipelines ruptured and leaked between one and two million litres of fuel into the ground beneath local people’s houses, and 26 tons of tetra-ethyl-lead leaked out of a holding tank adjacent to community houses. Shell then set up a ‘Community Liaison Forum’ to divide the community."

According to D’Sa, even after years of protest, "Sapref continues to emit toxic gases into the neighbouring community and continues to violate South African’s right to an environment that is not harmful to health and wellbeing. Sapref continues to violate maintenance workers’
rights by employing them on a casual basis."

The damage pales in comparison to the Niger Delta, where it is estimated that 1.5 million tonnes of oil have spilled since drilling began 51 years ago, the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill each year, costing more than $5 billion in annual environmental damage.

Last year, Nigerian president Yar’Adua finally conceded the obvious:
"There is a total loss of confidence between Shell and the Ogoni people.
So, another operator acceptable to the Ogonis will take over."

But Yar’Adua’s regime, like others before it, is rife with corruption and collaboration, and Shell has hung on in a country responsible for 10% of its profits. The bulk of Nigeria’s wealth is held offshore by corrupt officials, and is estimated at over $100 billion. Over 80% of the state’s revenue is derived from the Delta region. According to international agencies, just 1% of the population rakes in 80% of oil and gas revenues.

It is not only Nigerian money that flows out. In Cape Town, Pastor Barry Saro Wuganaale assists Ogoni exiles who still face exile "because of founded fears of persecutions by the government against those who believe in the liberation of their motherland."

Nigeria, considered to be the US’s new oil cushion, is the seventh largest producer in the world pumping out a minimum of 900,000 barrels of crude each day. Nigeria is of crucial geopolitical importance to the US, which imports almost 50% of Nigerian oil.

Inevitably, the World Bank is in on the action, and last month the Nigerian Guardian newspaper editorialized, "Having fleeced the country while acting as agents of the Paris and London clubs of creditor countries, the World Bank/IMF seek to perform similar exploits as agents of private international oil companies operating under Nigerian jurisdiction in ‘getting more enforceable commercial framework about the supply of gas’ for local generation of electricity… Plans by World Bank/IMF to accord Nigeria-based multinational oil companies the status of sovereign states subvert and contravene provisions of the 1999 Constitution."

Even greater amounts of oil and profits would flow to those companies were it not for militant activists of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), who kidnap foreign workers both for ransom and to halt the destruction.

As MEND spokesperson Jomo Gbomo put it a year ago, after an attack on a Shell facility, "Our candid advice to the oil majors is that they should not waste their time repairing any lines as we will continue to sabotage them."

A cease-fire ended in January, and MEND attacked a few more foreign oil installations. But it was only in mid-May, following the state’s bombing of Gbaramatu Kingdom, that an ‘all-out war’ was declared by militants.

Earlier this month, MEND reportedly destroyed nine army gunboats and captured three others, which is why, it claims, the army engaged in "indiscriminate aerial bombardment on the defenseless civilians… Casualties are mostly women, children and the elderly who could not get away quickly into the bush or high sea."

As a result, MEND insisted, all oil companies should "evacuate and cease oil production until further notice."

Saro-Wiwa had made the same demand, using peaceful strategies and tactics. "The military dictatorship holds down oil- producing areas such as Ogoni by military decrees and the threat or actual use of physical violence so that Shell can wage its ecological war without hindrance,"
he said in his closing statement at the trial.

"This cozy, if criminal, relationship was perceived to be rudely disrupted by the non-violent struggle of the Ogoni people under MOSOP.
The allies decided to bloody the Ogoni in order to stop their example from spreading through the oil-rich Niger Delta," said Saro-Wiwa.

Shell claims it operates on the policy of non-interference with judicial and political processes. Company spokesperson Robin Lebovitz claims Shell asked for clemency for Saro-Wiwa and was "shocked and saddened"
when he and the others were killed.

Yet it has been documented that Shell executives met with the Nigerian High Commission in London, stating that if the "Ogoni virus" spreads to other areas in the Delta it would be the end of the oil business.

Shell’s then head Bryan Andersen has admitted he approached Owens Wiwa with "the possibility that [Shell] would be prepared to put in some humanitarian aid … in exchange for the undertaking to soften their official stance" on reparations.

The plaintiffs allege that Shell hired Nigerian police for internal security; that Shell purchased vehicles and arms for the military; that Shell requested military support to build a pipeline through Ogoni land;and that Shell assisted and financed the Nigerian military to repress the resistance of the Ogoni people. Shell is also accused of participating in the arrest of Ken Saro-Wiwa and John Kpuinen on fake murder charges and of bribing witnesses to produce false testimony.

According to Brutus, "The reparations case against Shell strongly relates to our South African anti-apartheid case." In the same court, six weeks ago, Judge Shira Scheindlin found that Daimler Chrysler, Ford, GeneralMotors, IBM, Fujitsu and Rheinmetall must answer charges in September.

Six years ago, US secretary of state Colin Powell arm-twisted Thabo Mbeki and then justice minister Penuell Maduna to write a letter opposing the apartheid reparations case on grounds that it interfered with SA’s own reconciliation process and hence would harm US foreign policy. Will Jacob Zuma and Jeff Radebe follow suit, given how they have pledged to foreign investors that there will be no change in economic policy?

Economist Joseph Stiglitz and Archbishop Desmond Tutu testified against Pretoria’s alliance with the corporations. Last month Judge Scheindlin confirmed that there was "absolutely nothing in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process … that would be impeded by this litigation."

As Brutus’s co-plaintiffs in the Khulumani Support Group observed:"That ruling has certainly breathed new life into a class of human rights litigation seeking to establish that corporations have obligations under international law to not be complicit in human rights violations."

Some of Saro-Wiwa’s last words are the most inspiring, and can ring true with some assistance from the US courts: "I have no doubt at all about the ultimate success of my cause, no matter the trials and tribulations which I and those who believe with me may encounter on our journey. Nor imprisonment nor death can stop our ultimate victory."

(Are you in New York on Wednesday? Stop by to see the trial against Shell, at 10am at the US District Court, 500 Pearl Street. Stay tuned at

Sharife and Bond are, respectively, visiting scholar and director at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society:


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