As the 20th anniversary of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death in Nigeria approaches – the devastating environmental and social legacy of Shell’s behaviour continues unpunished, and Shell remain unrepentant. Shell’s destructive influence knows no bounds – from Canadian tar sands, to Argentinian shale gas, from the lobbies of Brussels institutions, to offshore Arctic drilling and Nigerian blood oil. As it undermines action on climate change, it cripples communities and remains committed to fossil fuels. Yet little is done to punish Shell, and it remains unapologetic.
November 10th will mark the 20th anniversary of the execution of Nigerian poet and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 others –killings connected to Shell’s operations and political influence in Nigeria. Saro-Wiwa’s case remains a tragic reminder that the impacts of Shell’s operations go far beyond global greenhouse gas emissions and environmental destruction.
Victims of the oil industry
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s case and Shell’s operations in Nigeria are archetypal examples of the destructive social and environmental impact of oil and gas exploration in Nigeria. Oil multinationals have been present in the Niger delta region for several decades. Although it represents only about 7% of the landmass of Nigeria, the delta region is home to about 30 million people – as well as thousands of drilling platforms and tens of thousands of kilometres of pipelines, which are often old and poorly maintained.
Oil and gas spills are a feature of everyday life. The oil industry’s operations contaminate the water, soil and air, and destroy the livelihoods of farming and fishing communities. Pollution, and the resulting health impacts, along with conflicts and violence caused by the presence of the oil industry, has taken a heavy toll on communities in the Niger Delta. The people of the Niger delta experience poverty and desolation, while Western multinationals reap profits from oil production, with the complicity of local politicians.
In the 1990s, after decades of oil operations and countless spills and accidents, Ken Saro-Wiwa led a non-violent campaign to save the Ogoni people, and their land. As leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), he campaigned to remove Shell and other oil multinationals from Ogoni land.
In 1993, in the face of local protests,Shell was forced to stop extracting oil in Ogoniland. In 1995 Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had already been arrested several times, was tried at a military tribunal, and hanged by the Nigerian military, alongside other Ogoni activists. The deaths of the Ogoni 9 are widely acknowledged to be the consequence of MOSOP’s peaceful protests against Royal/Dutch Shell.Their deaths triggered a global backlash against the company .
Oil pollution continues unabated
Shell has repeatedly denied or underplayed the oil spills and impacts resulting from its activities in Nigeria; whatever oil pollution it has acknowledged, it has blamed this mostly on sabotage and oil thefts. And despite numerous laws passed in Nigeria over the last decades to ban the practice, Shell continues to flare gas in its operations. Gas flaring – burning the gas that is released from oil wells instead of retrieving it – is both wasteful and a cause of severe air, climate and noise pollution.
Over four years ago, a UNEP scientific study into the impacts of oil pollution in Ogoniland, Nigeria, exposed large-scale pollution of water and soil, and highlighted the serious threat posed to human health. Today, little has changed: Shell has systematically failed to properly clean up its mess in Nigeria, whilst the people of Ogoniland and the wider Niger Delta are forced to live with the devastating effects of oil pollution . Meanwhile, hundreds of new oil spills are reported every year in Nigeria: last year Shell’s own reports mention 204 oil pollution incidents in the country.
Following Ken Saro-Wiwa’s killing, several lawsuits were launched in the US against Shell for its involvement in human rights abuse in Nigeria. In 2009, Shell finally settled with some Ogoni activists and relatives of the executed activists, agreeing to pay more than 15 million dollars (13.4 million euros) in compensation.The company did not admit any liability but the judgement was widely seen as a significant step in ending impunity for human rights abuses. Another attempt to achieve justice, in relation to Ogoniland, was quashed by the US Supreme Court in 2013, which ruled, after heavy lobbying by Shell, business lobbies and even the UK and Dutch government, that US courts did not have jurisdiction over the case i.e. that they could not rule on activities which happened in another country .
Lawsuits against Shell continue in the Netherlands, and a British lawsuit resulted in 55 million pounds (76 million euros) compensation for the farmers and fisherman of the Bodo area, in Ogoniland, whose livelihoods were destroyed by two oil spills. Shell’s initial offer of compensation was 4,000 British pounds (5,500 euros) .
Overall, Shell remains largely unpunished and unrepentant for the environmental and social havoc it has caused. The UNEP report concluded that environmental reparation in Ogoniland would require an initial investment USD 1 billion (893 million euros) and take up to 30 years. For the entire Niger delta, the cost would be at least a hundred times more . In comparison, legally-enforced financial compensation is a drop in the ocean.