Page last updated at 09:17 GMT, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 10:17 UK

Oil giant in dock over Nigeria executions

Ken Saro-Wiwa
The execution of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa shocked the world

By Andrew Walker
BBC News, Nigeria

Activists trying to prove oil giant Royal Dutch Shell was complicit in the 1995 executions of nine anti-oil campaigners, including Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa,have brought their case to the US.

Over the past 12 years, the family of the Ogoni poet and playwright has pursued the company through the courts with the support of American environmental and human rights campaigners.

Shell tried to persuade the government to give those found guilty clemency, and we were shocked and saddened when we heard the news

Shell spokeswoman

Shell deny accusations they had anything to do with the executions of Mr Saro-Wiwa and eight others by the government of military ruler Sani Abacha.

The civil lawsuit, which was due to start on Wednesday 27 May in New York, has been postponed until next week.

The case is being closely watched in Nigeria, where a younger generation of oil militants has caused chaos in the oil industry, blowing up installations and kidnapping staff.

"They weren't the hangman," Ken Wiwa, the activist's son, says about Shell.

"But their fingerprints are all over it."


In 1993, Ogoni activists stood up to the international oil company, forcing it to pull out of the region in Rivers State.

1958 Oil struck in Ogoniland
1990 Ogonis form the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop) with Ken Saro-Wiwa as president
1993 300,000 Ogonis protest at their neglect by the government and Shell
1993 Shell pull out of Ogoniland after an employee is beaten
1994 A series of conflicts between local communities flares. The government sends the military to restore order. Mosop say the conflicts are being fuelled by the government as a 'divide and rule' tactic.
1994 Four community leaders are killed by a mob of youths. Mosop leaders, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, arrested
1995 Mr Saro-Wiwa and eight others are tried and executed; the military government receives international condemnation
2003-2008 International attention switches to armed conflict started by other communities in the Delta
2007 Leaks from well heads continue. One burns for three months
2008 Government announces Shell will be removed as an operator in Ogoniland. Another operator yet to be appointed

The protests were led by Mr Saro-Wiwa, famed for writing a popular TV soap.

He founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop) which used largely non-violent means to bring the world's attention to the environmental damage being done by oil production in the Niger Delta.

But the leadership of Mosop was accused of ordering the murder of four local traditional leaders, and arrested.

In 1995 the government of Sani Abacha shocked the world by carrying out the executions of the Ogoni Nine, as they became known.

The plaintiffs are trying to prove that Shell, in Mr Wiwa's words, "goaded" the government into the executions.

Mr Wiwa, now an aide to the current President Umaru Yar'Adua, says he is not interested in "retributive justice", but is trying to find a solution to the problems that still plague the region.

Like his father, he wants oil firms to realise that it is only by working with and engaging local communities that there can be longer-term profitability for all.

For the past 14 years, no oil has been pumped from Ogoniland ground.

"My father always said that one day Shell would realise he was their greatest friend," Mr Wiwa told the BBC's Network Africa programme.

The court action is being brought by Mr Wiwa and the families of seven of the nine men executed, as well as a number of other Ogonis injured or killed by the military during the 1990s.

They are being assisted by the Centre for Constitutional Rights and Earth Rights International.

The case can be heard in New York because American law allows foreign nationals to sue companies registered in the US.

Their lawyers will try to prove that the company had a close relationship with the Nigerian government, ordering military raids and attacks on villages in the name of "security".

They say Shell executives told the government they had to "deal" with the Ogonis and Mosop.

They also claim Shell knew in advance that Mr Wiwa and the rest of the Ogoni Nine would be found guilty, and, perhaps most damningly, they say they can prove the director of Shell's Nigerian subsidiary met Mr Saro-Wiwa's brother and offered him freedom in return for an end to Mosop's campaign.


Shell says the claims are "false and without merit".

Ledum Mitee
The comfort for me is not the decision of the court, but the hope of future justice for repressed people
Mosop President Ledum Mitee

A spokeswoman told the BBC that "Shell in no way encouraged any act of violence against the Ogoni Nine or any of their fellow Ogonis.

"We believe the evidence will clearly show that Shell was not responsible for the tragic events."

The executions were carried out by the Abacha government, they say.

"Shell tried to persuade the government to give those found guilty clemency, and we were shocked and saddened when we heard the news."

The case is trying to establish a precedent for accountability in cases where extractive industries come into conflict with local populations, says Ledum Mitee, current president of Mosop.

Mr Mitee, who is travelling to the US to testify, was arrested with the other leaders of Mosop in 1994, but charges against him were dropped.

"If the case is successful other people will know there is some legal recourse for violators," he said.

But even if they lose, Mr Mitee says, more attention will be brought to the activities of multi-national companies in similar situations all over the world.

A previous case, also in a New York court, found oil company Chevron was not responsible for the deaths of activists who occupied an offshore oil platform and were killed by the Nigerian military when they came to remove them.

Chevron had requested the intervention and flown the soldiers to the rig in one of their helicopters.

The oil company had pressed for damages from the community to cover their legal costs and in order to "dissuade further litigation", but a judge ruled the community should not be liable for the legal fees.

"The comfort for me is not the decision of the court," said Mr Mitee said.

"But the hope of future justice for repressed people."


The Niger Delta now is a dangerous mixture of armed militants and corruption.

A spill at a well head in Ogoniland last year
No oil has been pumped from Ogoniland for the past 14 years

Unemployed youths join the militants looking for easy money from the extortion, kidnapping and crude oil theft they practise.

Militant leaders have grown rich on kickbacks from anyone wanting to do business in the oil-producing swamps, and their ties to political and military figures appear to have pushed a solution further from reach.

A strong military campaign is currently under way to loosen militant control in Delta State, but it is not clear if the government is winning.

Many innocent villagers have reportedly been forced from their homes, and there are reports that some have been killed.

If militants can fight back, oil companies' income from on-shore joint ventures will be put under more pressure - it has already been cut by as much as 20% by militant activity since 2006.

In Shell's statement on the trial it says: "Shell remains committed to reconciliation, peace and a return to normality."

But a Shell spokeswoman was unable to describe exactly what that "normality" would be.

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