Haunted by the past

Five years ago, Nigerian social activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed because he fought against multinational oil companies and dared to assert the Ogonis' claims to their resources. Now, oil giant Shell will face a lawsuit in the US that could cost the company millions of dollars in damages

Published: Tuesday 31 October 2000

 Ken Saro-Wiwa: fighting for t (Credit: Charles Miller / AP)allegations that the oil multinational Shell aided and abetted the torture and murder of Nigerian activists -- including the executed writer Ken Saro-Wiwa -- will be tested by a full jury trial in New York, after the oil company's attempts to have the case thrown out were rejected. Saro-Wiwa and eight others were arrested in 1994 following a fatal attack on former leaders of their Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People ( mosop ). In a case that shocked the world, and was widely reported to be a legal farce, they were found guilty by a military tribunal and were executed on November 10, 1995 (see 'Outrage', Down To Earth , Vol 4, No 14; December 15, 1995).

Now the case of the "Ogoni Nine", as they became known, has come back to haunt the Dutch and British owners of Shell Nigeria. The lawsuit was lodged by the Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York on behalf of three Nigerian expatriates to the us , including Saro-Wiwa's brother Owens Wiwa. Their claims could cost the company millions of dollars in damages.

Owens Wiwa and the other plaintiffs claim to have suffered abuse or be related to victims of a state terror campaign against Ogonis -- a minority ethnic group with little political clout -- who fought oil exploration in Nigeria's Rivers State. They specifically allege that Shell Nigeria supported Nigerian police and the military to attack local villages and crush opposition to the company's development in the region. They also allege that the company gave money, weapons, vehicles and logistical support to the Nigerian government to suppress the protest movement.

They allege that local people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the Nigerian government at the instigation of the oil company, in reprisal for their political opposition to oil exploration. A further contention is that Saro-Wiwa's family -- including his 74-year-old mother -- were beaten by Nigerian officials while attending his trial.

However, a Royal Dutch Shell spokesperson said: "The allegations are false and unsubstantiated. They have been widely discredited. We are confident that a court would agree they are unfounded." Shell was "disappointed" that its appeal had been rejected and said it was "still considering" in detail what its response would be if the case were to come to trial.

For years the Ogoni people, who live in the small but densely-populated Rivers State in Nigeria, waged a war against a dictatorial state and multinational oil companies, they accused of destroying their environment. Shell Nigeria first began its operations in 1958, when Nigeria was still a British colony. The country has vast oil reserves and its economy is largely dependent on oil, which account for some 90 per cent of export earnings and 80 per cent of government revenue. The Ogonis had no say then (or after independence in 1960) over oil activities that spawned more than 100 wells and, it is estimated, more than 3,000 oil spills.

The Ogonis' campaign began in the early 1990s as a peaceful movement to protest against poverty and environmental damage, and demanded autonomy for the Ogoni with a share in oil revenues. This campaign was violently repressed by the then dictatorial Nigerian military government. Oil producers saw mosop as bad for business, while the government saw it as a secessionist and political threat and targeted Ogoni leaders for repression.

The lawsuit was originally filed in a Manhattan federal court in 1996 under laws that allow action in the us against firms accused of human rights abuses anywhere in the world. It alleges human rights violations involving the Dutch-owned Royal Dutch Petroleum Co and its sister company, Shell Transport and Trading Company, which is based in the uk . They jointly control the multinational Royal Dutch-Shell Group, a network of affiliated but independent oil and gas companies, one of which is Shell Petroleum Development Co of Nigeria (Shell Nigeria) -- the country's biggest oil producer.

Environmental groups such as Earthlife Africa have accused oil companies of causing serious damage to the environment. The lawyers taking on Shell want to use us legal precedents to hold multinationals liable for human rights abuses in the developing countries. But with the case sent back for further argument, they still have a long way to go.

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