“Its day will surely come: The crime of Shell’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will be punished. Neither imprisonment nor death can stop our ultimate victory.” – Ken Saro Wiwa
The prediction of Ogoni writer and political activist Ken Saro Wiwa moved another step closer to realisation last week when Shell Oil faced a New York court, accused of crimes against humanity.
The charges include conspiring with the Nigerian military dictatorship in the 1995 execution of Saro Wiwa and eight of his colleagues, as well as the torture, illegal detention, forced exile and the shooting of hundreds of protestors. The show-trial and execution of the Ogoni 9 followed a lengthy and peaceful campaign against the destructive practices of Shell in the Niger Delta; an oil rich region from which the company extracts 2.26 million barrels of oil per day. As a result of the activities of Shell in the region, the United Nations has declared it the most endangered river delta in the world: in excess of 6.4 million litres of oil were spilled in Nigeria between 1982 and 1992.
The Ogoni region is located in the south-east of the Niger Delta, with a population of 500,000. When Shell first discovered oil there in 1958, Nigeria was still under British occupation and the Ogoni people had no say in the agreements reached with the company. It is estimated that, since Shell began its operations in Ogoniland, 634 million barrels of oil have been extracted, valued at $30 billion.
There could not be a greater contrast between the wealth produced in the region and the material condition of the people: while the region is rich in oil reserves the Ogoni people are completely impoverished, lacking the most basic necessities of life. They have endured the destruction of their land, the degradation of their environment and the decimation of their marine life. Their very means of survival was put at risk as farming and fishing came under threat from widespread pollution.
In 1983, a report from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation stated that Shell was responsible “for the slow poisoning of the waters of the country and the destruction of vegetation and agricultural land by oil spills which occur during petroleum operations.”
On a routine basis, Shell continues to engage in the highly dangerous and destructive practice of ‘gas flaring’, which involves burning off gas released by oil extraction, sending plumes of highly toxic smoke into the air that people breath and causing respiratory illnesses, blindness, cancer and birth defects amongst the local population.
In response to the destruction of their land and the poisoning of their people, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) was launched in 1992. It was a decision that was to entail grave consequences for the people involved. Neither Shell nor the Nigerian military were in the habit of being defied, and both parties colluded in the suppression of the demands of the Ogoni people, which were eloquently expressed by Ken Saro Wiwa:
“As a final remark of their genocidal intent and insensitivity to human suffering, Shell and Chevron refuse to obey a Nigerian law which requires all oil companies to re-inject gas into the earth rather than flare it. Shell and Chevron think it cheaper to poison the atmosphere and the Ogoni and pay the paltry penalty imposed by the government of Nigeria than re-inject the gas as stipulated by the regulations.”
The movement reaffirmed the Ogoni Bill of Rights, drawn up in 1990, which declared:
It was a powerful testimony of the horrendous conditions under which Shell had forced the Ogoni people to live and an indication that they were no longer prepared to sit back and watch the destruction of their land, their livelihood and, ultimately, their community.
In December 1992, Saro Wiwa issued a statement calling on Shell to make reparations of $4 billion for the damage caused to the environment and an additional $6 billion in tax and royalties for the oil extracted from Ogoni land. The company was given 30 days to respond; when it failed do so a mass demonstration of 300,000 Ogonis took place. The demonstration was entirely peaceful.
In April 1993, a land clearance operation conducted by Shell which went through local people’s farms in the Biara village led to a confrontation between farmers and Shell’s private security firm. After the Nigerian military were called by Shell one protestor was shot dead and 11 were seriously injured.
In response to the growing campaign, Shell informed the Nigerian military junta that it would carry out private surveillance of Saro Wiwa and his supporters; it is now known that this secret surveillance was passed directly to the Nigerian military. Shell operated hand in glove with the Nigerian military authorities in attempting to suppress a democratic mass movement.
Following threats by Shell to end its operations in the region if ‘order’ was not restored, an official instruction was despatched to the military governor of Rivers State, Lieutenant-Colonel Dauda Musa Komo, which read, “Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities.” These “smooth economic activities” were destroying the environment and slowly strangling the Ogoni people.
Surveillance on Ogoni environmental activists was stepped up and visits from foreign human rights and environmental groups were banned. It is now known that bribes were paid by Shell to the military in return for the suppression of the activities of the Ogoni. The scene was set for the final assault on those who had the temerity to challenge Shell.
The killing of four Ogoni elders provided the pretext for the Nigerian military to launch a vicious onslaught against the Ogoni people. Saro Wiwa and eight colleagues were arrested on trumped up charges, despite it being widely known that he that was nowhere near the scene of the killings. Over the following months, Ogoni villages were attacked by the military in an attempt to break resistance to Shell’s writ in the region. Over a two month period from May 1994, 60 villages were attacked and 50 people killed. Human Rights Watch reported on the onslaught:
“Troops entered towns and villages shooting at random as villagers fled to the surrounding bush. Soldiers and mobile police stormed houses, breaking down doors and windows with their boots, the butts of their guns and machetes. Villagers who crossed their path, including children and the elderly were severely beaten, forced to pay bribes and sometimes shot. Many women were raped. Before leaving, troops looted money and food.”
In January 1995, the Ogoni 9 were charged before a special tribunal with the murder of the four elders. The non-jury tribunal was presided over by two judges and a military officer; Amnesty International declared that the tribunal failed to meet any of the international standards considered necessary for a fair trial. No credible evidence was presented against Saro Wiwa and his co-accused, yet they were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
On November 10 1995, the Ogoni activists were marched in chains to Port Harcourt prison where they were hanged. Following the executions, it transpired that Shell had attempted to bribe witnesses to bear false testimony against the defendants.
This is the true nature of the Shell Oil. A corporation that colluded in the murder of nine innocent men, whose ‘crime’ was to defend their community.
The commencement of the trial in New York last Wednesday [May 27] placed Shell under the international spotlight.
For over 50 years, Shell’s activities in the Niger Delta have devastated the Ogoni people; destroying their land and livelihood. The filing of charges against Shell for crimes against humanity is but a further chapter in the story of a long battle against one of the globe’s most avaricious corporations.
It is a story that has provided inspiration to the people of Mayo, who have been subjected to tactics that were tried and tested in Ogoniland.
The Erris community has been subjected to private surveillance and assault at the hands of Shell’s private security. Local activists have been imprisoned at the behest of a company that continues to defy planning laws and regulations and has contaminated local water supplies. The community has been vilified and demonised by the establishment media for daring to defend its rights. They have lived under a virtual siege for the last number of years as the forces of the Twenty-Six County state have been deployed against them. All of this has been facilitated by corrupt politicians, who handed over Ireland’s natural resources to multi-national companies for next to nothing.
Since then, the Dublin government and the broader political establishment in the Twenty-Six Counties have allowed Shell to act with impunity, with the complicity of the corporate media. While the court case against Shell made major headlines in newspapers around the world, it barely merited a mention in the mainstream media in Ireland. For some, it would appear Shell can do no wrong. While court proceedings have been postponed, events in New York over the coming weeks may provide irrefutable evidence about Shell’s activities.
The question is, will the Irish media and the Twenty-Six County establishment be listening? If not, below is just a small sample of some of the more recent international activities of Shell Oil.
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“If you strike at, imprison, or kill us, out of our prisons or graves we will still evoke a spirit that will thwart you, and perhaps, raise a force that will destroy you! We defy you! Do your worst!”
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