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Shell's 'blood money' pay-out

Relatives of writer and campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa have welcomed the outcome of the 14-year legal battle against Shell which has been pillaging the Niger delta since it began drilling there in 1958. But has real justice been achieved in the landmark £9.5 million settlement?

Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were executed by the Nigerian military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha in November 1995 and the oil corporation was implicated in the judicial murders. Documents proving that Shell demanded and received support from Nigerian government security forces in the period leading up to the execution of the nine Ogoni leaders were shown on Channel Four this week.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs also proved that army forces sent in against Ogoni demonstrators when 300,000 Ogoni demonstrators marched against the dictatorship, arrived in helicopters and transport vehicles belonging to Shell. Sir Philip Watts, the company’s Nigerian manager, met with Abacha government officials at the time when the Ogoni leaders were arrested.

Now Shell has been forced to pay £9.5 million in an out-of-court settlement, some of which will go into a trust to benefit local communities in Ogoniland, where Shell continues to operate, albeit under a new guise. Despite this, Shell brazenly denies culpability and claims that it is paying the money simply in recognition of the suffering of the Ogoni people. It is an almost derisory amount for a company that made £13.9 billion in 2007 alone – equivalent to more than £1.5m an hour.

Journalist Ben Amunwa of Platform/Remember Saro-Wiwa says that the out-of-court settlement is a back door admission of guilt by Shell, since the company would never have paid up had it not been exposed during the case. But the agreement to allow Shell to settle out of court means that evidence which came to light during the trial showing direct complicity between the company and the military dictators who executed the nine Ogoni leaders could be buried again.

As the Guardian’s environment correspondent John Vidal writes:

Shell said it had agreed to settle out of humanitarian interests, but everyone on the delta knows that real justice has not been done, and that the environmental abuses continue. The company continues to needlessly burn off vast amounts of gas. The air is still poisoned, children are still sick, there are few jobs, the creeks are polluted and the poverty is intense…The whole region is awash with guns and the delta is one of the most dangerous places on earth. In the last few months the Nigerian military have raided dozens of communities they believe are threatening the state and thousands of people have fled their villages. The kind of peaceful protest that the Ogoni led in the 1990s now seems quaint. Anyone who stands up for environmental justice or who challenges the oil companies, which provide the Nigerian state with 90% of their foreign earnings, is now in mortal danger.

Victoria, wife of murdered Ogoni leader Kobani, has said: “We are still aggrieved with Shell. Paying compensation for the blood of these innocent people will not bring Shell back again to any part of Ogoniland for oil exploitation.” The Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), a group led by the late Saro-Wiwa, welcomed the settlement, but vowed to resist any attempt by Shell to return to Ogoniland.

The outcome of this battle demonstrates that legal battles alone can never make global corporations like Shell accountable or lead to a just settlement for indigenous peoples. The oil resources of Africa, like all the world’s natural resources, remain in the hands of the global corporations who exploit them for profit, regardless of the cost to the environment and to local people. Until that is changed in favour of co-operative, common ownership and management there can be no justice for the Ogonis or other victims of corporate greed.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
10 June 2009

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