Three decades after alleged atrocities by Shell in Ogoniland, fresh evidence indicates the Anglo-Dutch oil giant may still have questions to answer.
Amnesty International is calling on Nigeria, the United Kingdom and The Netherlands to investigate the company over a series of alleged crimes committed by the Nigerian military government in Ogoniland in the 1990s.
The organisation has released a review of thousands of pages of internal company documents and witness statements as well as Amnesty International’s own archive from the period.
“The evidence we have reviewed shows that Shell repeatedly encouraged the Nigerian military to deal with community protests, even when it knew the horrors this would lead to, such as unlawful killings, rape, torture and the burning of villages,” said Audrey Gaughran, Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.
“In the midst of this brutal crackdown, Shell even provided the military with material support, including transport. And in at least one instance, paid a military commander notorious for human rights violations. That it has never answered for this is an outrage.
“It is indisputable that Shell played a key role in the devastating events in Ogoniland in the 1990s, but we now believe that there are grounds for a criminal investigation. Bringing the massive cache of evidence together was the first step in bringing Shell to justice. We will now be preparing a criminal file to submit to the relevant authorities, with a view to prosecution.”
But responding to the allegations, a spokesperson for Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC) said: “We have always denied, in the strongest possible terms, the allegations made in this tragic case. The executions of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow Ogoni in 1995 were tragic events that were carried out by the military government in power at the time.
“We were shocked and saddened when we heard the news of the executions. Shell appealed to the Nigerian government to grant clemency. To our deep regret, that appeal, and the appeals made by many others within and outside Nigeria, went unheard.
“Support for human rights in line with the legitimate role of business is fundamental to Shell’s core values of honesty, integrity and respect for people. Amnesty International’s allegations concerning SPDC are false and without merit. SPDC did not collude with the authorities to suppress community unrest, and in no way encouraged or advocated any act of violence in Nigeria. We believe that the evidence will show clearly that Shell was not responsible for these tragic events.”
The Nigerian government’s campaign against the Ogoni people culminated in the execution, 22 years ago, of nine Ogoni men, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and activist who led the protests.
The executions followed an alleged unfair trial that sparked a global outcry. In June 2017, the widows of four of the men filed a writ against Shell in the Netherlands, accusing the company of complicity in their deaths.
An individual or company can be held criminally responsible for a crime if they encourage, enable, exacerbate or facilitate it, even if they were not direct actors. For example, knowledge of the risks that corporate conduct could contribute to a crime, or a close connection to the perpetrators, could lead to criminal liability.
Amnesty International’s new report ‘A Criminal Enterprise?’ makes the case that Shell was involved in crimes committed in Ogoniland in this way.
In the 1990s, Shell was the single most important company in Nigeria. During the Ogoni crisis, the firm and the Nigerian government allegedly operated as business partners, holding regular meetings to discuss the protection of their interests.
Internal memos and minutes from meetings allegedly show Shell lobbying senior government officials for military support, even after the security forces had carried out mass killings of protesters. They also show that on several occasions, Shell provided logistical or financial assistance to military or police personnel when it was aware that they had been involved in attacks on defenceless villagers.
Shell has always denied that it was involved in the human rights violations, but there has never been an investigation into the allegations.
Protests in Ogoniland were led by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), in response to years of Shell oil spills which devastated the environment. In January 1993, MOSOP declared that Shell was no longer welcome to operate in the region, forcing the company to leave temporarily, citing security concerns.
While Shell publicly sought to downplay the environmental damage it had caused, internal documents allegedly reveal that senior staff knew MOSOP had a legitimate grievance, and were concerned about the poor state of pipelines.
On October 29, 1990, Shell allegedly requested “security protection” from the police at its facility in Umuechem village, where peaceful protests were taking place. Over the next two days, the police reportedly attacked the village with guns and grenades, killing at least 80 people and torching 595 houses. Many of the bodies were said to have been dumped in a nearby river.
Amnesty International argued that Shell executives, at this point, would have understood the risks associated with calling for intervention from security forces. Despite this, it said there was clear evidence the oil firm continued to do just that.
Amnesty alleged that in 1993, shortly after Shell had left Ogoniland, it repeatedly asked the Nigerian government to deploy the army to Ogoniland to protect a new pipeline, which was being laid by contractors. And that this resulted in the shooting of 11 people at a village called Biara on April 30, and the shooting to death of a man at Nonwa village on May 4.
Also, less than a week after the shooting at Nonwa, Shell executives were said to have had a series of meetings with senior government and security officials. The minutes of these meetings allegedly show that, rather than raise 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.
Shell also allegedly offered financial support. One internal company document reveals that on March 3, 1994, the company made a payment of more than $900 dollars to the ISTF, a special unit created to “restore order” in Ogoniland. This was just 10 days after the unit commander ordered the shooting of unarmed protesters outside Shell’s regional headquarters in Port Harcourt. The document states that this payment was a “show of gratitude and motivation for a sustained favourable disposition towards (Shell) in future assignments.”
“On a number of occasions, Shell’s request to the government for help in tackling what it termed the “Ogoni issue” was followed by a new wave of brutal human rights violations by the military in Ogoniland. It is difficult not to see causal links or to suppose that Shell was not aware at the time how its requests were being interpreted,” said Audrey Gaughran.
“Sometimes Shell played a more direct role in the bloodshed, for example by transporting armed forces to break up protests, even when it was clear what the consequences would be. This clearly amounts to enabling or facilitating the horrific crimes that followed.”
The Senate meanwhile has said it would ensure the Ogoni clean up is carried out without further delay.
The chairman, Senate committee on environment, Mrs. Oluremi Tinubu, stated this yesterday after members visited two oil spill sites in B-Dere and Nsisiokem in Gokana and Eleme Local Government Areas of the state.
She said: “We decided to visit Ogoniland because more agitations have been going on and are still ongoing on the clean up. We decided to go and see things by ourselves to get first hand information. And thank God, in the budget of 2018, there is more commitment by the President. We have gone to two sites and we have seen the extent of damage.”
She appealed to the Ogoni to maintain peace, assuring that the committee would work for the benefit of the people.
MOSOP president, Pygbara Lygborsi, described the visit as positive. He noted that apart from cleaning the environment, issues raised in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report also needed to be looked into.
Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, however accused the President Buhari-led administration of foot-dragging the clean up. He noted that failure by the Federal Government to commence the exercise, 17 months after Vice President Yemi Osinbajo flagged it off, indicated lack of seriousness.
He told the Senate team: “The Federal Government is not serious about the clean up of Ogoniland. We are tired of telling our people that the project will start next year. Let it not be a political project.”