10 November 1995
It is Friday the 10th of November 1995, the last Friday nine Ogoni men will see. They are hanged and their bodies are buried in unmarked graves. Three of the nine men were convicted by a special court for encouraging the murder of Ogoni elders. These are Kenule Saro Wiwa, Barinem Kionel, and John Kpuien. The rest were convicted for murder on the 31st of October 1995. British Prime Minister, John Major, finds the whole process a major travesty. He calls it "a fraudulent trial, followed by a judicial murder". The European Union and the United States impose sanctions on Nigeria and its shameless dictator, Sani Abacha. The murdered men are to be known as the Ogoni Nine. While they lived, they were leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) which took on the oil giant - Shell.
In 1990, MOSOP had begun its campaign by publishing the Ogoni Bill of Rights outlining demands and grievances. In Article 16 of the Bill, MOSOP said pollution from oil operations "led to the complete degradation of the Ogoni environment, turning our homeland into an ecological disaster.” It was this legitimate desire to save their homeland that was to be the Ogoni's unbecoming. That November, police descended on the Ogoni after Shell had requested police protection from an impending attack. Over two days, officers wielding guns and grenades killed 80 people, throwing corpses into a river. 595 houses were torched. This was a message: they could turn all rivers red, and burn down the country to keep the oil money flowing in.
1992 to 1994
In July 1992, Shell airlifted 51 members of a government “Rapid Intervention Force” who were happy to fire live bullets and tear gas to clear a protest. One young man, Owusa Brown, was killed. The violence could have intimidated anyone else but not Kenule Saro Wiwa and MOSOP. MOSOP gave Shell a 30-day ultimatum to give the Ogoni people billions of royalties for oil pumped from the area. Shell did not budge but in January 1993, 300 000 Ogonis protested against the mega-corporation. This was 60% of the entire Ogoni population. This was no longer a small movement belonging to a few. It had become a revolution in the making. Shell could not stand for it; it had access to a resource base with enough oil to sustain production for almost 100 years. The Nigerian government would also not stand for it. 95.7% of Nigeria's foreign earnings were oil revenues. From July 1993, the government sanctioned attacks on the Ogoni with more than 35 people being extra-judicially executed on August 4, 1993. After the ascension of General Sani Abacha to power in November 1993, things took an even more morbid turn. A group of killers was in charge and on one occasion, a high ranking military man, Major Paul Okuntimo, was overheard ordering soldiers, "Shoot at anyone you see." And they shot.
Okuntimo is the same man who is alleged to have said, "Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence.” While the statement has not been verified, the events that played out in Ogoniland confirm this was the whole aim. After the killing of four Ogoni elders who had defected from MOSOP, the military launched an offensive in the region. In one month, Amnesty International says, "more than 50 members of the Ogoni ethnic group are reported to have been extra-judicially executed and over 180 others wounded during attacks by the security forces on Ogoni villages.” In August 1994, Nigeria's Civil Liberties Organisation reported, "Our investigations show that over 43 villages have been invaded by Okuntimo’s men since May."
A soldier was to then tell Human Rights Watch, "The orders were to shoot on sight able-bodied men, if they ran. The Ogonis, they lost many people." Okuntimo's raids were characterized by "flagrant human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shooting, arbitrary arrests and detention, floggings, rapes, looting, and extortion". Amnesty International says young children were raped and some held in sexual slavery for five days. During this period, Shell was aware of the abuses and violence yet it called for government support on several occasions. It provided transport, planned raids and is alleged to have paid soldiers. After the violence, Shell would also stand by Abacha, helping him to prepare for an international fall-out brought on by the release of a documentary on the Ogoniland violence. Political scientist, Jedrzej George Frynas rightly describes, Shell as having been effectively “embedded in state structures.”
12 February 2019
A Dutch court heard the first arguments in the blockbuster case against Shell brought by Esther Kiobel, Victoria Bera, Blessing Eawo and Charity Levula over the corporation's role in the unlawful arrest, detention, and executions of the women's husbands by the Nigerian military. Michael Dummett, a Business and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International said, "These women believe that their husbands would still be alive today were it not for the brazen self-interest of Shell, which encouraged the Nigerian government's bloody crackdown on protesters even when it knew the human cost." The courts of law will finally get to hear the full story.
The brutal events of the 1990s in Nigeria show the amount of damage the marriages of convenience between despots and greedy corporations can exact on the true owners of resources - the people. Money acquired from the Ogoni oil-fields was used to sponsor violence against the Ogoni people. To top it off, an army which should have protected them was bought off and started killing them instead. It is a gut-wrenching irony.
Amnesty International has a full report on Shell's role in the Ogoni atrocities.
Header Image: University of Michigan