Release peace: the magazine
Release peace: the magazine
Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs
The Ogoni Nine: A Story of Oil, Environmental Devastation and -yes- Murders
Article by: Tara De Klerk
In 2022, the grueling plight for justice against the oil multinational Shell came to an unceremonious end. For nearly 27 years, a group of Nigerian widows, headed by Esther Kiobel, have accused Shell of being complicit in the deaths of their husbands. Specifically, their lawsuit holds that Shell conspired with the Nigerian government at the time to execute the men after peacefully protesting the environmental externalities of Shell’s oil exploration in the country. However, this tale of David fighting the mighty Goliath does not meet its classic end, with the Dutch court’s ruling that the energy firm could not be held liable. It was not the first such case, with the widows of those killed having brought their cases to the Nigerian national court, the US Supreme Court, and finally The Hague.
Who are the Ogoni 9?
Ken Saro-Wiwa, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel and John Kpuine. These are the names of the nine men executed on phony murder chargers for their leading roles in the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Led by Saro-Wiwa, MOSOP campaigned against the environmental wrongdoings they said the Ogoni population faced. Since oil was first discovered in Nigeria in 1956, its extraction by companies from around the world has quite literally transformed the Ogoni environment into a polluted wasteland. Between 1958-1990, 80 per cent of farmland in Ogoniland suffered from pollution and oil spills. However, the financial benefits of the oil extraction, which totaled over £30 billion, did not directly benefit the Ogoni people.
In the face of political marginalisation and ecological destruction, MOSOP organised a series of peaceful marches, with the biggest attracting a crowd of 300,000 people (60 per cent of the population). Their main preoccupation lay with Shell, who as the largest operating company, pumped almost one million barrels of crude oil a day —roughly half of Nigeria’s total daily production. Crude oil makes up 96 per cent of Nigeria’s exports by value and accounts for 80 per cent of federal government funding. Oil is therefore the very substance keeping the Nigerian government afloat. Therefore, when MOSOP declared in 1993 that Shell could no longer operate in Ogoniland, the Nigerian government responded with a crackdown on protests, leading to accusations of a number of human rights violations. In 1993 alone, military forces had killed over 1000 Ogonis and by mid-June of 1994, 30 villages had been massacred.
Arrests and Executions
On May 21, 1994, four Ogoni chiefs were killed in the apex of a heinous mob attack for which MOSOP was blamed. Without charge or any tangible evidence, Saro-Wiwa, Kiobel, and seven other MOSOP members were arrested and subject to gross ill-treatment in detention. The court testimonies released during their imprisonment revealed acts of torture and the denial of food and medical care. Overrun with trumped-up charges and not so well-concealed governmental influence, the tribunal culminated in a death sentence for the Ogoni-9, who were hanged on 30 October 1995. Fuelling international condemnation, the executions resulted in the temporary suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth of Nations, mass protests at global Shell offices, and the cancellation of the International Finance Corporation’s proposed 100 million dollars for the production of a gas pipeline in the Niger Delta.
The noose killing the Ogoni-9 was ultimately tied to the close relationship between the Nigerian state and Shell. Such partnerships, built on large oil revenues, can drastically alter the course of conflict. In direct contradiction to MOSOP’s demands, Shell’s contractors continued to construct and operate new pipelines with the armed backing of Nigerian troops, who in April 1993 opened fire on unarmed villagers and injured 11 of them. Even after Shell contractors were no longer on the ground, the alliance prevailed and Shell remained aware of the continuing violations committed by Nigerian security forces. Instead of attempts to subdue these military actions, Shell sought to remind the government of the financial repercussions of the Ogoni protests. First, these reminders came in the form of written letters outlining the ‘community disturbances’ taking place in Ogoniland, but by 1995 they had transitioned into persuasive in-person meetings. During one such meeting, the Chairperson of Shell Nigeria raised the problem of the “Ogonis and Ken Saro-Wiwa,” requesting General Sani Abacha to find a “real solution to the security problems there”. Such instigative language was further backed by direct financial support for at least one military operation and suggests a direct implication of Shell in the deaths of Ogoni campaigners.
Shell’s close monitoring of Ogoni activities extended to the subsequent criminal trial of the Ogoni-9. Legal documents revealed that Shell was made aware of the proceedings through a covert source within the trial itself. Fully mindful of Saro-Wiwa’s future guilty conviction, Shell instigated a private conversation with his brother and offered to help him being released on the condition that he called off MOSOP’s protests. The brother’s assertion that Ken Saro-Wiwa’s rejected these offers before his ultimate execution reveals Shell’s unused power to save him. Such knowledge and inaction complies with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) definition of corporate complicity. Shell also paid 15.5 million dollars to the families of those executed. However, the company continues to deny any alleged involvement in the fate of these prisoners.