What would follow Shell’s discovery and management of oil in Ogoniland was years of environmental pollution and abuse of anti-Shell protestors. Now, on February 12, a lawsuit opened in a Netherlands court brought by widowers of activists who organized against Shell in the 1990s. The widowers allege Shell was complicit in the execution of their husbands and the Nigerian military’s mass executions and rapes of anti-Shell protestors.
Pollution in Ogoniland
Nearly 3,000 oil spill incidents from about 2.1 million barrels happened in Ogoniland between 1976 and 1991. This accounted for approximately 40 percent of oil spills by Shell worldwide.
As a result, the soil was damaged and the groundwater was poisoned with carcinogens. Farming, the villagers’ primary source of income, was now unfeasible.
The damage, however, is not limited to oil spills. As the People’s Dispatch reported, a 2011 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), stated that gas flares at the refinery have burnt for 24 hours daily for over 50 years causing various illnesses to the people.
Amnesty International also reported that a 1996 African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights investigation into Ogoniland found that pollution and environmental degradation were at a level that was “humanly unacceptable and has made living in the Ogoniland a nightmare”
A Peaceful Resistance by the Ogoni People and the Resulting Slaughter by the Nigerian Military, in Collusion with Shell
After years of Shell’s “devastating pollution” of the land, activists and Ogoni villagers began peacefully protesting. In October of 1990, Shell requested “security protection” of their facilities.
In response, police units arrived with grenades and guns, terrorizing the village and burning down 595 homes. After 80 innocent people were killed, their bodies were discarded in the river.
After releasing an 89-page report titled “A Criminal Enterprise? Shell’s Involvement in Human Rights Violations in Nigeria in 1990s,” Amnesty International made a statement in 2017: “From at least this point on, Shell executives would have understood the risks associated with calling for intervention from the security forces. Despite this, there is clear evidence that Shell continued to do just that.”
The report was made up of a collection of testimonies, including records of meetings with Nigerian security forces, emails and various other internal company documents.
Sadly, these atrocities continued to happen. Among the activists was Ken Saro-Wiwa, a leader in Ogoniland and award-winning writer and environmental activist. Saro-Wiwa founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) to resist Shell and its destruction of Ogoniland.
By January of 1993, Shell temporarily halted operations, citing “security concerns.” However, after the company’s departure, Shell continued to hire contractors to lay new pipeline. At the onset of protests, Shell called on the government to send the military to guard the pipeline.
The ensuing military operation in surrounding villages resulted in the shooting and wounding of 12 villagers, one of whom died. About a week later, Shell executives met multiple times with the Nigerian government and security officials.
Amnesty stated regarding the meetings: “The minutes of these meetings show that, rather than raising concerns about the shootings of unarmed protesters, Shell was actively lobbying for the government and the security forces to allow them to continue work in Ogoniland – and was offering ‘logistical’ help in return.”
In December of 1993, military dictator General Sani Abacha rose to power. Shell then wrote to the military officials in charge of Rivers State to complain of protesting among specific communities in the region. When villagers protested in February outside of Shell’s regional headquarters in Port Harcourt, the military open fired on the unarmed demonstrators.
Ogoni Nine Activists Tried and Executed, Attacks Continue
About a month later, the Chairperson of Shell’s Nigerian division, Brian Anderson, complained about “the problem of the Ogonis and Ken Saro-Wiwa.” Later that year, Ken Saro-Wiwa and other leaders of MOSOP were charged with being involved in the murder of four tribal chiefs. The leaders were then arrested and brutally tortured in detention.
Following the arrests, the military terrorized the villages in Ogoniland, raping and killing the villagers and torching their homes. An estimated 800 people were killed.
A report on the attack from Peoples Dispatch states, “It is not known how many people died during these attacks. According to an Amnesty International report released on 24 June 1994 some 30 villages had been attacked and ‘more than 50 members of the Ogoni ethnic group are reported to have been extra-judicially executed.’”
Amnesty International cited Shell’s company documents: “..at all times, Shell’s directors based in The Hague and London were fully aware of what was happening in Nigeria. One memo refers to the directors’ approval of a detailed strategy drawn up by Shell Nigeria in December 1994 for how the company should respond to criticism in the wake of the Ogoni protests. In March 1995 Shell executives in London had a meeting with representatives of the Nigerian military in London, at which they agreed to ‘meet from time to time’ to share information.”
In November of 1995, the nine MOSOP leaders, known as the Ogoni 9, were tried and convicted in what was later called a “sham trial.”
Audrey Gaughran, Senior Director of Research at Amnesty International, said, “In his final words to the tribunal that convicted him, Ken Saro-Wiwa warned that Shell would face its own day in court.”
Subsequently, the Ogoni 9 were hanged. Later, witnesses who had incriminated the MOSOP activists recanted their evidence. They said that they had been offered money and jobs by Shell and had been bribed by the Nigerian Military to give false testimony.
Widows of Nigerian Activists Sue Shell Over Two Decades Later
Twenty-three years after the execution of the Ogoni 9, four of the men’s wives – Esther Kiobel, Victoria Bera, Blessing Eawo and Charity Levula – have filed a civil suit against Shell in the Netherlands. Esther Kiobel and Victoria Bera testified in a court in the Hague on February 13. Blessing Eawo and Charity Levula were denied visas to attend and could not be present.
Mrs. Kiobel said in a written statement:
“Shell came into my life to take the best crown I ever wore off my head. Shell came into my life to make me a poverty-stricken widow with all my businesses shut down. Shell came into my life to make me a refugee living in harsh conditions before l came to the United States through [a] refugee programme and now [I am a] citizen.
“The abuses my family and l went through are such an awful experience that has left us traumatized to date without help. We all have lived with so much pain and agony, but rather than giving up, the thought of how ruthlessly my husband was killed… has spurred me to remain resilient in my fight for justice.
“Nigeria and Shell killed my late husband: Dr Barinem Kiobel and his compatriots Kenule Tua Saro Wiwa, John Kpuinen, Baribor Bera, Paul Levula, Nordu Eawo and the rest [of the] innocent souls.
“My husband and the rest were killed… The memory of the physical torture my family and l went through has remained fresh in my mind, and whenever l look at the scar of the injury l sustained during the incident, my heart races for justice all the more.”
What Happens Next
The lawsuit in the Netherlands comes over a decade after a lawsuit filed by widowers of the Ogoni 9 failed in the U.S. due to the Supreme Court’s failure to find jurisdiction to hear the case in U.S. courts. The process in the U.S. courts took 11 years – the case was initially filed in 2002 and made its way to the Supreme Court which ruled on it in 2013.
Although Shell is headquartered in the Netherlands, the trial in the Netherlands is not without its own challenges. In addition to asking the court to hear the case, the Ogoni 9 widows are asking the court to order Shell to release 100,000 pages of internal company documents that are crucial to the case and were entered in as evidence in the U.S. lawsuit. Shell successfully petitioned U.S. courts to keep the documents out of the hands of the Ogoni 9.
At the hearing in the Netherlands, Wemmeke Wisman, a spokesperson for Shell, denied the allegations made by the women. He stated that the case should not proceed because of “statutes of limitation in Nigeria.”
The judge adjourned the case to May 8 when a decision on the case is expected.