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Shell on Trial in the Niger Delta

This week multinational Shell Petroleum Development Corporation settled one of two major cases brought against them by local peoples suffering the consequences of their operations in the Niger Delta. Six members of the Ogbodo community filed a suit against Shell last year following an oil pipeline explosion in their community that resulted in an 18-day spill, completely immersing all their waterways and much of their farmland in thousands of tons of crude oil. Efforts by Shell to clean up the site were delayed and inadequate, as the company operated on the premise that pipes had been intentionally sabotaged by Ogbodo community members. Evidence has since shown however, that the pipes were buried six feet underground and were split open from the bottom; additionally they were heavily rusted and deteriorated by age.

Thus the entire community was forced to live without adequate recourse to water for drinking, bathing or cooking for over a month, and subsistence activities were severely curtailed. A fire allegedly set without prior notice by Shell contractors to burn off the oil intensified the hazardous situation with suffocating fumes when it raged through Ogbodo farmlands and surrounded the village.

In this week’s settlement outside of court, Shell has agreed to pay the community an initial entry fee of 325,000 Nigerian naira, as well as N500,000 more for their legal expenses. Although the assessment of damages incurred by villagers has reportedly not been completed, the community has stipulated that all assessments and rehabilitation must be completed in conjunction with indigenous representatives of the community. Shell consultants on the project must hire local contractors supplied by the villagers, and 40 percent of the unskilled laborers hired for clearing the site must be derived from the seven families most debilitated by the spill. Shell has agreed that the remaining 60 percent of unskilled workers will be recruited from the rest of the Ogbodo community. This will provide the community with additional revenue and a larger degree of control over the processes affecting their environment.

Meanwhile, a second case brought against Shell Transport and Trading Company and its affiliate Royal Dutch Petroleum Company is proceeding in New York City, after Shell’s recent failure in attempting to have the case dismissed. The suit was filed in 1996 by the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York on behalf of the relatives of Ogoni environmental activist Ken Saro Wiwa and eight others who were publicly executed in Nigeria after speaking out against environmental degradation caused by Shell operations in 1995. The plaintiffs have charged that Shell is responsible for acting in conjunction with the military dictatorship in inflicting major human rights abuses against the Ogoni people of the oil-rich Rivers State.

Charges include Shell’s facilitation of the execution of the nine Ogoni activists by directly participating in the fabrication of murder charges against them and in the bribery of false witnesses at the trial. Additional allegations include the loaning of equipment and importing of arms for the Nigerian military, the repeated requests for assistance from the military in quelling peaceful protests by indigenous peoples severely affected by Shell operations in their homelands, and the direct funding of military operations in the late 80s and early 90s in which Ogoni villages were razed and more than a thousand villagers massacred. An additional plaintiff was included in the case in 1997 who maintains anonymity for security purposes. She testifies to being beaten and shot in her home while peacefully protesting the bulldozing of her lands by Shell.

The case has been brought under the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1991, which decrees that human rights violations committed by multinational corporations anywhere in the world constitute violations of US domestic laws and will be treated accordingly.

The Ogoni and the Ikwerre of Ogbodo are indigenous fishing and farming peoples of the Niger Delta. Their homelands were once considered the “breadbasket of Nigeria,” known for its abundant rivers and fertile lands. Since the commencement of oil production in Rivers State in the 1950s, these groups have been increasingly marginalized as their lands continue to be appropriated and severely polluted without due compensation from governments or multinational firms. Because of their sustained international campaigns against this treatment, these groups have frequently been singled out to suffer severe repression and brutality, intimidation, and military occupation. Today several organizations exist to advocate for the rights of minority groups in the Niger Delta. Among the most prolific and widely known are MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, EMROAF, Ethnic Minority Rights, and Niger Delta Women for Justice.