June 17, 2009

Saro-Wiwa Wins

NEWS that Shell has agreed to pay compensations worth $15.5 million to the families of the killed Ogoni Nine resurrects a case that has almost been forgotten.

Nigerian military authorities 14 years ago hanged Ogoni civil right activist Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa and eight of his kinsmen over allegations that they murdered four Ogoni elders with whom they disagreed over the struggle to ensure that Shell respected the right of the Ogonis to the oil in their land.

Obviously, the fight was not just between the Ogonis and Shell. The Federal Government was an interested party, which dreaded prospects of unchecked agitations on oil explorations affecting its revenues from the resource.

The killing of Saro-Wiwa and company was meant to shut up the most vocal proponent of emancipation in the Niger Delta, at a time the few who knew what the struggle entailed made their millions and kept quiet.

Saro-Wiwa internationalised the issues, picking the wanton degradation of the environment as a major platform on which to exhibit how environmental violations limited the Ogonis’ access to a meaningful life.

When this was not getting adequate attention, he finally aroused the interest of the international environmental lobby with linkages he established between the violations from oil exploration and the possible annihilation of the minorities who inhabit the Niger Delta.

The 17-month trial that culminated in the death of the Ogoni Nine before they could exercise their right to appeal disgusted the world. Military intimidation of the Ogonis continued. Hundreds of them died, more displaced and others lived with stories of the horrors they went through at the hands of the military.

Ogoni associates and the human rights community through the Centre for Constitutional Rights, CCR, filed the case in New York in 1996 holding Shell responsible for the killing of the Ogoni Nine.

Shell kept maintaining its innocence, saying it had anything to do with the killings in Ogoniland. The plaintiffs came to court with evidence that Shell worked with Nigerian security agencies in fighting the Ogonis.

There are strong indications that the case may be the spur troubled oil bearing communities need to start suing the oil companies for mismanagement of their environment.

Saro-Wiwa had prophesied during his trial, “Shell is here on trial, and it is well that it is represented by a counsel said to be holding a watching brief. The company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and the lessons learnt here may prove useful to it for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished. The crimes of the company’s dirty war against the Ogoni people will also be punished”.

A landmark of the judgment is that multi-national corporations could be held accountable for their activities overseas and be sued in jurisdictions outside their immediate operational bases.