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Shell's Settlement Doesn't Hide Unsettling Reality in Nigeria

Posted by Stephen Kretzmann on June 11th, 2009

Originally posted June 10, 2009, on The Huffington Post.

After thirteen years and countless hours by lawyers, community members, and activists around the world, Royal Dutch Shell finally settled the Wiwa v Shell case in a New York court for $15.5 million.

Plaintiffs in the case, which included Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., and the families of other Ogoni men hanged in November 1995, charged the Royal Dutch/Shell company, its Nigerian subsidiary, and the former chief of its Nigerian operation, Brian Anderson, with complicity in the torture, killing, and other abuses of Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and other non-violent Nigerian activists in the mid-1990s in the Ogoni region of the Niger Delta.

Shell says they settled the case as a "humanitarian gesture" to the Ogoni. Does anyone really believe that after fighting for more than a decade to keep this out of court, Shell suddenly woke up and felt great compassion for the Ogoni? Please.

Shell settled because they were scared, and they knew the evidence against them was overwhelming. They publicly say they had nothing to do with the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni, and yet there were documents and video that they fought hard to keep out of the public eye.

Evidence that was to be introduced in the case included an internal Shell memo where the head of Shell Nigeria offered to intervene on Saro-Wiwa's behalf, if only Saro-Wiwa and others would stop claiming that Shell had made payments to the military.

Then there was this memo, requesting payment to the Nigerian military for an incident in which at least one Ogoni man died.

Witness were set to testify that they saw Shell vehicles transporting Nigerian soldiers, that they saw Shell employees conferring with the military, that they saw money being exchanged between Shell employees and military officers, and that they heard military officers, including the brutal Major Okuntimo of the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, make admissions regarding the work they were doing on behalf of Shell.

We have known some of Shell's involvement in this tragedy for a long time. In early May of 1994, Ken Saro-Wiwa Sr. faxed me a memo authored by Major Okuntimo which read "Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence" and further called for "pressure on oil companies for prompt regular inputs."

I received that fax and immediately called Ken. He said "this is it. They're going to kill us all. All for Shell." It was the last time I talked with him. Several weeks later he was arrested on the trumped up charges for which he was ultimately hanged.

In the last day, lots of people have asked me if $15.5 million is enough to compensate for the hanging of nine men, the death of thousands more, and for the destruction of an ecosystem. No of course not. But was it on par with what a jury would have awarded in this case? Yes, lawyers tell me, for sure.

More importantly, does the settlement bring relief to Ken Wiwa Jr. and the families of the other men who were executed? If you read Ken's thoughtful and moving piece in the Guardian , the answer is clearly yes. That alone should be cause for celebration.

Ken Sr.'s famous last words from the gallows were "lord take my soul but the struggle continues." In this moment, perhaps more than ever before, we need to heed that call to action. The settlement in this case brings satisfaction to the plaintiffs for an event that happened 14 years ago. It in no way, shape or form excuses or absolves Shell of their ongoing destruction of the Niger Delta environment.

One of the central complaints of Niger Delta communities for forty years has been gas flaring, which sends plumes of toxic pollutants into the air and water of the Niger Delta. Gas flaring endangers human health, harms local ecosystems, emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases, wastes vast quantities of natural gas, and is against Nigerian law. Shell does it nowhere else in the world in volumes that are even remotely comparable to what they flare in the Delta.

But Shell is still flaring gas in Nigeria.

While there is no doubt that the settlement represented a significant victory for the plaintiffs' in this one human rights case against Shell, true justice will not be served as long as the people of Nigeria continue to suffer the terrible impact of Shell's operations. Shell estimates it would cost about $3 billion -- only 10% of just their last year's profits -- to end Shell's gas flaring in Nigeria once and for all.

But instead of putting their great "humanitarian concern" into action, Shell points the finger at the Nigerian government and demands that they pay to end this practice.

Send a message to Shell's CEO
Jeroen van der Veer, and let him know that if he really wants to prove his great concern for the Ogoni people, he'll end gas flaring once and for all.

The struggle continues.