A week ago, on the eve of a highly embarrassing trial, oil giant Shell was forced to pay out $15.5 million to settle a land-mark legal case that it had been fighting for thirteen years against the family of executed writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Nigerians.
The legal case argued that Shell was complicit in Saro-Wiwa’s murder as well as with the Nigerian military in their systematic campaign of violence by providing money and logistical support through helicopters, buses and boats.
To this day, Shell has consistently maintained its innocence in statements to its shareholders and the press. Yet court documents and depositions show a vastly different story. They provide a compelling case of systematic collusion with the ruthless Nigerian military and Mobile Police Force, known locally as the “Kill and Go”. It is this evidence that many believe forced Shell to settle. They hoped you would never see it.
In early May 93, as the Ogoni expanded their campaign, there was a stand-off between the Ogoni and the American contractor Willbros that was still laying a pipeline for Shell in the area. The oil company wrote to the local governor, asking for the “usual assistance”. The military were called in resulting in Ogoni dead and another, Karalolo Kogbara, shot in the arm. Kogbara would later become a plaintiff in the legal case.
Just days later, Shell met with the Director General of the State Security Services to “reiterate our request for support from the army and police”. But Shell did not want to be the only company calling in the military, so Shell secretly wrote “we will have to encourage follow through into real action preferably on an industry rather than just Shell basis”. Other Shell documents talked about the need to “Ask the military to leave a guard” although they noted that “the above impinges on our no military protection stance.”
Shell may have publically tried to say it had a no military protection policy, but the company was faced with a myriad of witness testimonies that proved otherwise, including its close relationship with the brutal Okuntimo, who headed the Internal Security Task Force (ISTF), a military unit. Okuntimo was a brutal soldier, whose men raped pregnant women and girls and who shot and tortured at will, Okuntimo personally boasted of knowing over 200 ways to kill a person. His relationship with Shell would have made compelling evidence for any jury.
In October 1993, Okuntimo was sent into Ogoni with Shell personnel to inspect equipment, with the stand-off that followed resulting in the death of at least one Ogoni protestor. A hand-written Shell note talked of “entertaining 26 armed forces personal for lunch at the restaurant of their choice” and preparing normal special duty allowances for the soldiers. Although Shell has admitted paying the allowances on that occasion as well as the Willbros incident, the court documents – Shell internal memos, faxes and depositions – suggest its collusion was far more widespread.
In May 1994, Okuntimo wrote a memo saying: “Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken”. He wrote of the need for “wasting operations” during the meetings of MOSOP – the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People –which Saro-Wiwa headed.
One of Okuntimo’s torture victims was Israel Nwidor. He was whipped with a koboko, a traditional Nigerian whip and left standing naked in the harsh tropical heat for hours. He was told by Okuntimo “You never allow Shell to come to Ogoniland. You destroy things. We are going to burn you alive”.
Eventually, after six weeks Nwidor was released. He would have told the court: “I went to the table and he [Okuntimo] had a paper in front of him on which he has written that I was not going to be involved in any activities against Shell, or to have any other demonstration against Shell; and if I was arrested on any other occasion I would be shot dead.”
Shell’s complicity in violence stretched beyond the military to involvement with the Mobile Police Force (MPF), which worked with Okuntimo. Eebu Jackson Nwiyon was an Ogoni who served with the notorious MPF. He describes how his colleagues “were given money by Shell and food by Shell … I must say in cases like this Shell do very good, feed you very well and give you good money.”
He recounts being heavily armed and boarding a Shell helicopter. He was given bundles of cash by his inspector from the same “bulky envelope” which he had witnessed the Police inspector being given by Shell. Nwiyon also recalls being told by Okuntimo to “leave nobody untouched.” When asked what Okuntimo meant by this, Nwiyon replied: “He mean shoot, kill.”
One local Shell employee signed a deposition that Nigerian soldiers who were on route to Ogoni stayed at Shell facilities and used the Shell police bus for transport. The witness, Vincent Tormebamri Nwidoh, also recalled the occasion when ten heavily armed MPF were transported in Shell Bristow helicopters to and from Shell’s Bonny oil terminal. The MPF also stayed overnight courtesy of Shell. When asked why they were there, he replied it because “the youths of Bonny [were] protesting against Shell”.
Shell’s own Police force was complicit in the violence, too. One Ogoni man, Blessing Israel, recalls being batoned by them after they found out he was an Ogoni. “They use hand baton to hit my head and I faint”, he said in his deposition, adding this “is what I have from Shell police as soon as I said I was an Ogoni man.”
Other Ogoni activists were also going to testify about threats they received from Shell’s contractors. Michael Vizor, recalls how activists from MOSOP – the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, which Saro-Wiwa headed were threatened with death if they did not resign. He was told “If I don’t want to die, I better resign from MOSOP, otherwise Shell would kill me”.
Since the settlement, Malcolm Brinded, the Executive Director of Shell has argued “We wanted to prove our innocence and we were ready to go to court. We knew the charges against us were not true”.
But he has also conceded that: “I am aware that the settlement may – to some – suggest Shell is guilty and trying to escape justice.”
To some the documents suggest that this last statement is true.