Lawsuits Target Energy Giants: Nigeria I — Wiwa v. Shell

By Jennifer Huang | World Power I: Business & Law

Page 9 of 11

Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC) is the largest oil corporation in Nigeria, producing about a million barrels daily in 2001, according to the Department of Energy — close to half of the country’s output.

Last year, oil provided 95 percent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings and nearly 80 percent of the government’s revenue. In 1998 it was Africa’s greatest oil producer, and the fifth largest crude exporter to the United States.

Despite this extraordinary wealth, Nigeria usually has to import gasoline because of its inadequate, ill-functioning refinery infrastructure.

In Wiwa v. Shell, filed in New York, plaintiffs accuse the petroleum company of conspiring with the military tribunal that hanged Nigerian playwright and author Ken Saro-Wiwa, along with eight other activists who were organizing opposition to Royal Dutch Shell operations in their native Ogoniland on the delta of the Niger River.

As in Aceh, local people there see almost none of the profit from the energy industry; Human Rights Watch said the region is “poorer than the national average,” with greater wealth disparities between rich and poor in areas near oil operations.

And pollution from oil drilling and pipeline operations — including spills and perpetual gas flares — has devastated crops, animals and fish that once thrived in the delta, according to lawyer Oronto Douglas.

“We depend on fishing and farming, and to take that away from us — as Ken Saro-Wiwa would say — it’s genocide,” he said. “If you take away our land, and then you pollute the water and so on, it’s just saying we don’t have any right to live.”

In the suit, Saro-Wiwa’s son Ken Wiwa, his brother Owens Wiwa and three co-plaintiffs allege that Shell ordered the Nigerian military to suppress any resistance to its operations, resulting in attacks on Ogoni villages between 1990 and 1995 that took the lives of almost 2,000 people.

The suit also includes charges that Shell worked with the Nigerian military to silence opposition leaders like Saro-Wiwa; bribed prosecution witnesses with future Shell contracts; provided salaries, ammunition, vehicles and other logistical support for military units involved in violence against Ogoni protestors; and misappropriated land for oil extraction.

“It comes to the point where perhaps multinationals have so much power in countries like Nigeria, the government’s public policy is overly influenced by the agendas of companies like Shell,” said Ken Wiwa. “I think we’re moving toward a systematic appraisal of legal jurisdiction, when you have corporations doing human rights abuses in countries where they can be the judge and jury and exercise undue influence over public policy.”

Shell denies any involvement with the military or Saro-Wiwa’s death. “The allegations against Shell are false,” said Mike McGarry, spokesperson for the corporation. “We are confident that the court will find the allegations are unfounded, if (the case) even goes to court.”

The corporation addresses the controversy in Nigeria on its website, expressing its regrets for the loss of human life and the ongoing hardships in Ogoniland.

“We have no links with the military and have repeatedly spoken out against violence by all parties,” the site reads.

Shell notes that it has invested in numerous community development projects, including several in Ogoniland, directing $52 million for youth programs, hospitals, roads and schools.

But it does not accept responsibility for the larger issues of poverty, corruption and lack of infrastructure, stating on its website that “[Shell] cannot be expected to take over the role of government. It has neither the means nor the mandate,” the company writes.

To intervene in Saro-Wiwa’s case would be “dangerous and wrong” it said in a 1995 press release. As a commercial enterprise it “must never interfere with the legal processes of any sovereign state.”

On the same website, the company defended its reliance on the military for security. It said that attacks on its personnel have been on the rise, including 45 cases of hostage taking and 20 incidents of armed robbery.

While Shell claims it would not use force to suppress peaceful demonstrations, “there is a difference between peaceful protest by a community … and criminality (or lawlessness) by groups of individuals.”

“They cannot disassociate themselves from the military action,” said Douglas, “because Shell is actually the umbilical cord through which successive Nigerian governments have survived … They know that without the government they cannot drill one drop of oil out of the Niger Delta.”

In March 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear arguments for the dismissal of the suit, effectively granting the New York court jurisdiction.

A year later, in March 2002, New York Federal Judge Kimba Wood denied Shell’s motion to dismiss, and the suit advanced to discovery, according to Richard Herz, an EarthRights International lawyer for the plaintiffs.

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