Nigeria: Justice My Father Died for

November 10, 1995: Noo Saro-Wiwa writes of the fight with Shell over pollution of the Niger Delta that led to an execution.

Earlier this year, an appeals court in the Hague ordered the Nigerian subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell to pay $111 million in compensation to Nigerian farmers for the pollution caused to the Niger Delta by an oil spill in 1970.

The court delivered its judgment at the end of a 30-year civil case brought by farmers in Ogoniland’s Ejama-Ebubu community. The farmers were seeking financial compensation and a clean-up by Shell Nigeria for pollution caused by leaking oil pipelines.

In a second case, Shell was ordered to pay damages for pipeline leaks in the villages of Oruma and Goi.

Court victories of this kind are what my father Ken Saro-Wiwa had hoped for when, on November 10, 1995, he and eight colleagues were executed for campaigning against environmental degradation of the region caused by the oil industry.

For decades my father had watched the Niger Delta decline under the ravages of oil extraction. In his youth, during the pre-oil days of the 1940s and 50s, Ogoniland was rich in flora and rare animals, including primates, ungulates and birds. By the time I was 12 years old in the late 1980s, the environment had deteriorated even more. As we drove to our ancestral village, my father would complain about the oil spills and would point at the gas flares, naked flames of hydrocarbon gas that would not be tolerated elsewhere.

His decision to speak out against it came at a time when corporate social responsibility was in its infancy and multinational companies such as Shell were rarely held accountable for their actions.

The Ogoni people are an ethnic minority with a small voice. In 1980s Nigeria they had little political leverage. Like other indigenous people in mineral-rich areas, we faced a David and Goliath battle with our federal government and Shell. Yet my father challenged both a ruthless military regime and a multinational oil company that called upon the regime to secure its operations. Though he knew he could lose his life he had faith that justice would prevail in the long run.

His execution sparked outrage around the world. Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth, and the global environmentalist movement rallied around his cause, demanding that multinationals be held accountable for the pollution they. It put Shell on the defensive and marked the beginnings of an era in which corporate social responsibility was recognized. It was no longer a voluntary concept. Companies began to realize they had a duty to communities they operated in to help develop healthcare, education and infrastructure projects.

However, continued oil spillages together with a stronger sense of injustice within the community, led to militant activity that cut oil production by up to a third in some years. This, combined with pressure from environmental campaigners, led to Shell paying for an independent assessment of the oil contamination in Ogoniland.

The study, by the United Nations Environmental Programme and published in 2011, provided evidence of high levels of contamination that posed health risks to the local people. The report mandated the formation of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project, which was allocated $1 billion to carry out the clean-up, a task estimated to take 25-30 years.

Ten years on, the remediation project has been plagued by allegations of corruption, although the Ogoni now have 17 sites that are certified as cleansed.

The award by the Hague court of $111 million damages is welcome, but questions remain as to whether it will create material change for the Niger Delta population that has suffered decades of environmental degradation, high youth unemployment and poverty. The latter has created a boom in illegal refining. Each day, up to 150,000 barrels of oil are stolen by locals who either export it or sell it cheaply to domestic buyers.

Shell maintains that this oil theft is the cause of current oil spills. It also blames the 1970 spills on third parties during the civil war in Nigeria.

However, in the Oruma lawsuit, the Hague court found that Shell had not provided sufficient evidence to prove that the pipeline leak were caused by sabotage and ordered the company to build better warning systems to quickly detect future leaks.

Such rulings have given a sense that companies like Shell are finally being held accountable, and that the people of the Niger Delta now have a better chance of winning in the courts of law. It is not enough to overcome the region’s deep socio-economic problems, but it is a step in the right direction.

Noo Saro-Wiwa, Travel writer and author of ‘Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria’


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Author : Chatham House

Publish date : 2021-10-02 11:11:11

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