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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Seeking Justice for the Ogoni Nine

Air Date: Week of

Widespread reports of environmental and economic damage to the Niger River Delta caused by the activities of Royal Dutch Shell have angered activists since the 1990s. (Photo: Kegbara- dere community oil spill, Ogoniland, Nigeria, Luka Tomac/Friends of the Earth International, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Esther Kiobel is one step closer to justice in her battle against The Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company. She has pursued the oil giant for nearly 25 years, since the Nigerian government executed her husband in 1995 on trumped up charges, allegedly encouraged by Shell. Ms. Kiobel’s husband was part of a group known as the Ogoni Nine, which fought against Shell for environmental and economic damages brought to their homeland near the Niger River Delta. Now Ms. Kiobel, supported by Amnesty International, will finally have her case for reparations and the clearing of her husband’s name heard by a District Court in the Netherlands. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Amnesty’s Head of Business and Human Rights, Mark Dummett.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

This May, Esther Kiobel came one step closer to justice in her battle against The Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company. She has pursued the oil giant for nearly 25 years, since the Nigerian government executed her husband in 1995 on trumped up charges, allegedly encouraged by Shell. Ms. Kiobel’s husband was part of a group known as the Ogoni Nine, activists who fought against Shell for environmental and economic damages to their homeland near the Niger River Delta. The Ogoni Nine were eventually detained, tried under suspicious circumstances, and sentenced to death, prompting global condemnation. Amnesty International has been involved since the early days of the case, and the organization is now supporting Ms. Kiobel’s second attempt to seek reparations from Shell for allegedly colluding with the Nigerian government to execute her husband. On May 5, the District Court of The Hague announced it would hear Ms. Kiobel’s case in the Netherlands. Mark Dummett is Head of Business and Human Rights for Amnesty International, and has been following the case since 2014. He joins us now from London. Hi Mark, welcome to Living on Earth.

DUMMETT: Hi there, thank you so much for having me.

CURWOOD: Our pleasure. Now, Amnesty International has been involved with the Ogoni Nine since the 90s and up until now with this new lawsuit. Quickly, just set the scene for me. What happened in Nigeria with the Ogoni Nine?

DUMMETT: So, the Ogoni Nine come from the southeast of Nigeria, an area called the Niger Delta, which is Africa's most valuable oil-producing region. Unfortunately for them, it has also become a scene of widespread environmental devastation caused by massive amounts of oil pollution. And that's because there are all these oil fields scattered across this whole area connected by pipelines, which have generally been poorly maintained. So, every year there are hundreds of spills. And it's had an appalling impact on the people living there. And now the Ogoni Nine were amongst a group of protesters from the Ogoni community who started a popular movement against Shell and the Nigerian government, against the pollution and also against the unfair distribution of oil wealth. Because they saw all the money that was coming from this oil going to other parts of the country, and to foreigners in the form of these big oil corporations.

CURWOOD: Now, of course, there was a protest movement led by Ken Saro-Wiwa and some eight other folks involved, the Ogoni Nine. What happened to Ken Saro-Wiwa and the others?

DUMMETT: Yeah, so in response to this protest movement, the Nigerian military launched a really brutal crackdown on the Ogoni region, on their villages, and arrested lots of people. Lots of women and girls were raped, people were shot, killed, prisoners were tortured. And then, in the midst of this, they accused Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was the leader of the movement, and a number of his supporters, of involvement in the brutal murder of four chiefs who were opposed to the protest movement. And on the basis of very flimsy evidence, they found Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others guilty of this brutal murder or involvement in this brutal murder, and then executed them. And really, this then goes back to Amnesty's first involvement in this issue and in the Niger Delta. We came out, along with human rights organizations and activists around the world, to condemn this completely unfair trial and these executions of innocent men.

In 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other men, known collectively as the Ogoni Nine, were executed by the Nigerian government. The Ogoni Nine had helped lead a protest movement against Royal Dutch Shell and the environmental degradation caused by the company’s oil exploration in their homeland. (Photo: Kegbara- dere, reflection in oil polluted river, Luka Tomac/Friends of the Earth International, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

CURWOOD: Now, when it came to the trial of the Ogoni Nine, what was unfair about this trial? And how did the world respond to this trial?

DUMMETT: So, there were a number of ways in which the trial was a sham. To begin with, the men were arrested and held without being allowed to see their lawyers for many months. And then the evidence that was used to prosecute these men was based on the testimony of prosecution witnesses, of a number of witnesses, two of whom later recanted and said that they had been bribed by the Nigerian government and Shell to say that Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other men had been responsible for this murder that they were falsely accused of.

CURWOOD: So, what about Amnesty's concern that Shell was complicit in this unfair trial and the human rights violations? Shell says, "No, no, no," they deny all these allegations against it. So briefly, what is the evidence against Royal Dutch Shell in this case?

DUMMETT: So, we've seen hundreds of documents and hundreds of pages of court depositions which point to an incredibly close relationship between Shell and the Nigerian government at all levels. And they operated as business partners. They had a shared interest in ending these protests. And we know that they shared information about the protests. We know that Shell had its own surveillance operation and that these operatives had received training from Nigeria's Internal Security Agency, which itself was responsible directly for a number of human rights violations, such as arbitrary killings, rape, destruction of property, burning of homes, for example. Not just crimes under international law or human rights violations, but they were also crimes under domestic law. So, it's possible to be involved in a crime and not, you know, be in the room when it happens. We're not alleging that any evidence exists for individuals working for Shell at the time to be in the room when protesters were being tortured. But what we are saying is that Shell played a key role in those crimes occurring through encouraging, through soliciting, providing the tools by which these crimes were then carried out by the Nigerian state.

CURWOOD: And Shell today still denies involvement in this business, I gather.

DUMMETT: Shell says that, well, firstly, it's not its place—it's not the place of any corporation to intervene in the internal matters of a sovereign state. And secondly, they say that when it became clear that the men were facing execution, the company sent a letter to President Sani Abacha calling for him to show leniency and prevent these executions, or not go ahead with the executions. But Shell's own records of meetings show that Shell actually never raised concerns about possible executions or any other human rights violations that they knew the military was behind. Now, Shell has released a copy of the letter that the company says was sent to Sani Abacha, but we have no evidence whether it was actually sent or received, and certainly by the time it was sent, it was, it was probably too late to make a difference because it was sent just, you know, shortly before the executions were carried out and not in the many weeks or months beforehand.

CURWOOD: Now, these allegations point to horrible civil rights violations, human rights violations. But there's another casualty one might see here, and that's the environment itself. How does the environment play into all of this?

DUMMETT: The damage that's been done to the environment from, you know, early in the days of oil production in Nigeria through to today is hugely, hugely important, really, to understanding the protests. It really now defines the Niger Delta, you know, the appalling impact on people's lives, on their livelihoods. You know, one of the reasons why Ken Saro-Wiwa was successful in mobilizing protests, he was able to catch the attention of environmentalists around the world and human rights activists around the world, is because he articulated very well how environmental problems are also human rights problems and social justice problems. So, you have these poor communities that are relying on fishing and farming. And then all of a sudden, an oil field is discovered on their land or in their waterways. What's happened since then is that their waterways where they fish and the fields where they, where they farm, and the forests where they go and hunt, have been polluted. So, they've lost out there. But then the money that comes from the oil disappears and they don't benefit from that, either. So, you can't look at this just as an environmental problem or as a social justice or human rights problem. But it's, it's intertwined. It's all connected.

CURWOOD: Is a short description "disaster?"

DUMMETT: It is a disaster. Yeah. Yeah, very, very much so. And it's one that continues to this day. I mean, last year, we did more research on Shell's current operations in Nigeria. You know, the fact is, there are still dozens and dozens of spills every year. And we believe there's strong evidence that Shell is still not maintaining its pipelines properly.

CURWOOD: So, after the Ogoni Nine were killed, Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight others with him, what happened to their families? What happened to their spouses?

DUMMETT: Well, I think it's fair to say that their suffering didn't end just with the deaths of their husbands. I know at least two of them, Esther Kiobel and Victoria Bera, were forced to flee Nigeria as refugees, along with many other Ogonis and many other people who had been involved in the protests. Esther, whose husband Barinem Kiobel was a government official who was executed—one of the Ogoni Nine—then came to the United States as a refugee. And Victoria, whose husband Baribor Bera was also executed, was accepted as refugee in Canada. At least two of the other women who I'm in touch with have stayed in Nigeria. But I think for all of them, they've faced a very difficult time because not only did they have to deal with the loss of their husbands and their husbands' incomes, but also faced harassment and threats from opponents of Ken Saro-Wiwa, including some of the prosecution witnesses.

CURWOOD: So, Esther and Victoria have brought this litigation, what do you think it would mean for these widows to win in court?

Esther Kiobel is suing Royal Dutch Shell for the oil giant’s alleged complicity in the murder of her husband and the eight other Nigerian activists collectively known as the Ogoni Nine. Since fleeing Nigeria to the United States, Esther Kiobel has sought justice for nearly 25 years. This May, a District Court in the Netherlands agreed it would hear her case for reparations and the clearing of her husband’s name. (Photo: Esther Kiobel, courtesy of Amnesty International)

DUMMETT: I think it would be hugely important. I do know them, and to them, it seems like their husbands were just executed yesterday. Their emotion is very raw and they are suffering hugely from the injustice to this day. They're still on the books in Nigeria as criminals, and it hurts them that it's taken this long for them to get any kind of hearing in a court.

CURWOOD: What are they looking for here? What would they like the court to order for them at the end of the trial?

DUMMETT: I mean, it's a civil case. So, they're asking for compensation. But they've made it very, very clear that for them, their primary goal is to get justice, to get a recognition that their husbands are innocent. And they're calling specifically for a public apology from Shell. And Esther has said that she wouldn't be interested in a settlement, for example. It's a battle for justice and recognition for the injustice that was done in 1995 and continues to be done every day. You know, it is going to be undoubtedly very difficult. One of the real challenges is that, you know, most of the evidence is kept within Shell itself. I mean, you know, the sort of evidence would include lots of documents. But it's difficult to persuade the courts, in general, to force companies to release all of that sort of information. So, there's a huge power imbalance between the two sides, the companies on the one hand, which retain the evidence, and then on the other hand, you know, the victims.

CURWOOD: So, what would be the message to the world should these women prevail against Shell?

DUMMETT: Well, I think there would be several different messages, one of those would be just how brave and persistent these women have been to continue to fight for justice. And I think that would be a message of hope to activists and victims of human rights violations around the world. I think the other message would be to the companies themselves. Not just Shell, but you know, multinational corporations wherever they operate in the world, wherever they're based. You know, we know in this globalized world that companies operate across boundaries. And that's one of the reasons why they were able to escape justice, because justice systems haven't quite caught up with that and find it hard to hold companies to account for any kind of negative harm from their operations, and indeed from their business models. So courts are an avenue for climate activists, as much as they are for, you know, Amnesty International and Victoria and Esther. If this case goes in Esther and Victoria's favor, then this will be a precedent for a company being held accountable for operations that took place, you know, on another continent, and two decades ago, and I think that would be, you know, an incredibly powerful message.

CURWOOD: Mark Dummett is Head of Business and Human Rights at Amnesty International in London. Thank you so much for taking the time with us today.

DUMMETT: You're very welcome. Thank you.

CURWOOD: We contacted Royal Dutch Shell for statement about the allegations against them but they declined to comment on ongoing litigation



The Guardian | “Dutch Court Will Hear Widows’ Case Against Shell Over Deaths of Ogoni Nine”

Amnesty International | “Nigeria/Netherlands: Shell Involvement in Execution of Ogoni Nine to Be Decided by Court”

Amnesty International’s independent report of Shell’s involvement in human rights violations in Nigeria in the 1990s


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