On 1 May, a Dutch court will deliver its ruling in a historic case against the oil giant Shell. It stands accused of instigating the Nigerian military government to brutally repress peaceful protests against the company’s pollution of the Ogoniland region in the 1990s.
The civil case has been brought by a widow named Esther Kiobel and three other women, including Victoria. They say Shell was complicit in the unlawful arrest, detention and execution of their husbands in 1995.
I met Victoria in The Netherlands in February, before a hearing on Kiobel vs. Shell. Her story is one of injustice and pain, but also of strength and hope.
“I am here to get justice for my husband. It is not too late. I feel stronger than ever,” Victoria told me.
Victoria met her husband, Baribor Bera, in Port Harcourt in April 1990, marrying in December of the same year. They were both from the Ogoniland region of the Niger Delta, the oil-rich region of crucial economic importance to both Shell and the Nigerian government.
During the 1990s, under the leadership of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), protests broke out against environmental destruction caused by Shell’s operations in the region. Baribor was at the forefront of the demonstrations against Shell.
My husband fought for better conditions in Ogoniland and for better opportunities for young people. Shell took the oil and we got nothing out of it
In court in The Hague, Victoria explained: “My husband fought for better conditions in Ogoniland and for better opportunities for young people. MOSOP wanted a fair share of the benefits from oil. In Ogoniland we have nothing at all. We don’t have light, we don’t have water. Shell and Nigeria were cheating on us. They took the oil and we got nothing out of it.”
Shell asked the Nigerian security forces to intervene in the Niger Delta and end the MOSOP protests. Their response was to launch a ruthless crackdown on Ogoni communities, killing, torturing and raping an unknown number of people.
Baribor Bera was arrested, along with Esther’s late husband Dr Barinem Kiobel and the renowned writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. They were accused of involvement in the murder of four Ogoni chiefs opposed to MOSOP and hanged after months of appalling mistreatment in detention, along with six other men.
Having a small child on my own was very difficult. He would ask continuously about his dad, ‘Mum, where is my dad? Who killed him? Did you kill him? Tell me who killed my dad.’
No credible evidence was ever presented to prove the involvement of the nine men in the murder. Nevertheless, they were executed after a trial which Amnesty International and other human rights organizations described as politically motivated and biased.
Amnesty International has since reviewed evidence showing that Shell encouraged Nigeria’s military authorities to stop the protests, even after it knew horrific human rights violations were being committed.
“That was a difficult time. Everybody in my village was living in fear,” Victoria said. “The soldiers would come to the village every day and shoot in the air. They were accusing (the widows) of telling the international community about what happened.”
Victoria’s house was destroyed by the Nigerian military in early 1996 and she fled with her son to Benin, where they lived in a UNHCR refugee camp for more than two years, before being resettled to Canada.
There, she felt safe for the first time in years, but she remained angry.
After 23 years I’m finally able to share my story with the world
“Having a small child on my own was very difficult. He would ask continuously about his dad, ‘Mum, where is my dad? Who killed him? Did you kill him? Tell me who killed my dad.’ I could only cry. That was the hardest part of that period, even harder than finding money to eat and take care of him. Those words stuck with me and will never leave me. I did my best to give him a normal life. But he kept pointing at his friends having a father and at his own loneliness,” Victoria said.
The turning point came, long after her move to Canada, when Victoria heard of Esther Kiobel’s case against Shell. It took her only moments to decide to join Esther’s fight for justice.
“I phoned Esther and asked her if I could join forces with her. Esther put me in touch with her lawyer, and here I am,” Victoria said.
Victoria and Esther first met many years ago, during the detention of their respective husbands. The second time was at gatherings held at the house of the widow of Ken Saro-Wiwa.
“We used to meet there to talk about what happened, and to find a way to bring the case to the media attention. I could not do it then, but I can do it now. After 23 years I’m finally able to share my story with the world,” Victoria said.
People have been drinking polluted water for years because of Shell
Alongside Esther and their two fellow plaintiffs, Victoria is demanding a public apology for the role that Shell played in the events leading to the death of her husband, along with damages for the harm she says has been caused to her and her family.
She is also fighting on behalf of the Ogoni people, who continue to live with the environmental damage caused by the oil pollution of the 1990s.
In 2018, research by Amnesty International exposed evidence of serious negligence by Shell, whose irresponsible approach to oil spills in the Niger Delta has exacerbated an existing environmental crisis.
“People have been drinking polluted water for years. There are no jobs, there is no future there. People cannot even use their land to farm because the land has been damaged by Shell’s activities”, Victoria said.
“My husband was a very caring man. He was a politically active man, he stood up for the Ogoni people so that they could have a better tomorrow.
“I want justice for my son, myself and my entire family. This is the way to do it: to clear my husband’s name, to let the world know what Shell did to me and to let my son know what really happened.”
On 1 May, it is imperative that Victoria's long wait for justice finally comes to an end.
“I will fight to my last breath” - Esther Kiobel on her 22-year battle to get Shell in court
Nigeria/Netherlands: Shell involvement in execution of Ogoni Nine to be decided by court