Nigeria: The Evidence Shell Tried to Bury

Oil giant Shell paid $15.5 million to end a lawsuit over its role in the state murder of nine environmental activists in Nigeria. Here’s some of the evidence they were hoping to keep secret.

by Paddy McGuffin
Morning Star, June 14, 2009

The Morning Star can reveal today the evidence that Shell tried to hide with last week’s $15.5 million out-of-court settlement over its activities in Nigeria.

The oil giant paid the money to Nigerian campaigners to halt a New York trial over allegations that it was complicit in the state murder of nine activists including Ken Saro-Wiwa and the torture of many more during the Ogoni people’s 1990s campaign against exploitation of their land.

Shell was apparently hoping to prevent damaging evidence entering the public domain.

But the Star has obtained damning documents which appear to directly implicate Shell in payment to the Nigerian military for services rendered and attempts to bribe Ogoni campaigners and reveal how far Sani Abacha’s regime was willing to go to protect Shell’s interests in the Niger Delta.

The documents include internal Shell memos sanctioning payments to the regime and recommendations by senior Nigerian officers for bloody reprisals against campaigners.

They lift the lid on the murky world of corruption, intimidation and violence which campaigners argue Shell willingly entered into.

One memo, dated August 1995, refers to a meeting between a senior Shell executive and Mr Saro-Wiwa’s brother Owens Wiwa.

The executive writes: “I offered Owens Wiwa the possibility that we would be prepared to put in some humanitarian aid in exchange for the undertaking by his brother to soften their official stance … you will recall the response was a frosty one (martyrdom rather than concessions).”

Another document suggests an “honorarium for armed forces personnel” after a 26-strong military strike force mounted an operation to recover a Shell vehicle.

The memo states: “The operation resulted in a bloody clash” and recommends “that the entire team be paid some form of honorarium as a show of gratitude and motivation for a sustained favourable disposition” toward Shell.

The leader of that force was Major Paul Okuntimo – who, in another document, tells his superiors: “Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence.” Under “recommendations,” he proposes “wasting operations” against Ogoni activists and “wasting targets” such as “vocal individuals.”

Commenting on the documents, Ben Amunwa of campaign group Remember Saro-Wiwa said: “Essentially Shell has spent the last 14 years vehemently denying the charge that it was in collusion with the Nigerian military.

“These documents show us the intimate relations Shell had with the military.”

“They were paying the military in the knowledge of how they were committing human rights abuses, often on behalf of Shell themselves.”

Mr Amunwa added: “The report of the meeting between Owens and Shell shows just how cynical they are.

“We know Shell were involved in the process which lead to the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other eight Ogoni activists.

“Many of the witnesses who testified against Ken have since signed affidavits saying they were paid by Shell.”

Mr Amunwa said that Major Okuntimo “has been recognised as psychologically unstable and a trained killer. He once bragged to journalists that he knew many ways of killing Ogonis.

“Many people have testified that he boasted on numerous occasions that Shell was paying him and he got his orders from Shell and had killed many people for them. In this context, the term ‘wasting’ can be seen as unprovoked murder.”

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Morning Star Editorial, June 14, 2009
Shell Back in the Dock

No wonder Shell was so keen to get the Ken Saro-Wiwa case closed. The oil giant has always denied having any part in the brutal murder of thousands of Ogonis by the equally brutal Nigerian military dictatorship – but the documents tell a very different story.

The papers obtained by the Morning Star, which would have been used as evidence had Shell’s trial gone ahead, appear to show a cosy relationship between the oil firm and General Sani Abacha’s thugs and murderers.

Although last week’s $15.5 million out-of-court settlement was a great victory for Mr Saro-Wiwa’s son Ken Wiwa, it’s a shame that we won’t now have the chance to see Shell’s top brass wriggle and squirm in the witness box as they try to explain away some of the allegations detailed in these pages.

Royal Dutch Shell executive director Malcolm Brinded wrote on the Guardian‘s website last week that “we knew the charges against us were not true. And we were confident that the evidence would have shown this.”

But it’s notable that Mr Brinded didn’t try to rebut any of the specific allegations against Shell. And his talk of “drawing a line under the past” is a phrase straight out of the new Labour tactics manual, which really means “please stop talking about this – we don’t like the way it’s heading.”

If Mr Brinded wants to try his hand at journalism again, he’s welcome to write to the Star to enlighten us on the meaning of one or two of these documents.

There’s the Shell Nigeria internal memo sent by one O Osunde in the wake of “a bloody clash” between the Korokoro community and an army mob led by the notorious butcher Major Paul Okuntimo.

Osunde suggests “some form of honorarium as a show of gratitude and motivation for a sustained favourable disposition” toward Shell. Hardly what you’d expect from an innocent oil firm accidentally caught in the crossfire between local militants and the Nigerian army.

But even more damning is the memo to “his excellency the military administrator Rivers State” from “the chairman Rivers State Internal Security” – yes, Major Okuntimo again, a man accused of leading his soldiers in a bloody spree of rape, torture and murder across Ogoni land.

He warns: “Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence.”

It would be interesting, to say the least, to know where Major Okuntimo got the idea that his job was to help Shell operations run smoothly.

But certainly his paymasters in the Nigerian government would have known which side their bread was buttered on. Shell’s oil revenues were estimated to provide as much as half of the Abacha dictatorship’s income.

So it could well have been General Abacha’s own decision to have Mr Saro-Wiwa tried by a kangaroo court and then executed, on the basis that what’s good for Shell is good for Nigeria.

But there’s no longer much doubt of, as campaigner Ben Amunwa put it, the “intimate relations” between Shell and the Abacha regime.

And Shell’s claim that it “attempted to persuade the government of the day to grant clemency” to Mr Saro-Wiwa now rings pretty hollow.

If Abacha’s mob were so enthusiastic about Shell that they’d launch “ruthless military operations” to safeguard its operations, they’d surely have listened if it leaned on them hard to free Mr Saro-Wiwa.

Shell may not now face a verdict from the US courts. But today’s revelations vindicate those in the court of world opinion who have already judged the oil giant and found it guilty.

Posted in Africa, Oil, Oil Industry
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