Ken Wiwa, the son of the famed playright and Nigerian activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, once wrote “that the arc of the moral universe may be long, but it still bends towards justice.”
And so it does. Today, some twenty four years after Saro-Wiwa’s death, along with eight of his colleagues, who were illegally murdered by the Nigerian Government for their campaign against Shell, a Dutch court heard from the widows of those hung.
The legal case has been long and tortuous and so today was a pivotal moment in the campaign by the Ogoni against Shell.
For nearly twenty five years, the Ogoni have been seeking justice from the oil giant. There is a compelling case to answer. As I pointed out last year, having written on the Ogoni struggle against Shell for decades, including exposing Shell’s collusion with the Nigerian military, the vortex of violence that has swirled around the Delta for decades, has Shell at its heart.
For years, Shell denied collusion with the authorities, but was then forced to admit that it had paid field allowances and offered logistical support to the Nigeria Government forces and Mobile Police Force.
Shell also denied any involvement in the trial of Saro-Wiwa and the others, but as Amnesty International has pointed out, “at least two prosecution witnesses came forward to say that they had been bribed by the government to incriminate the accused, including with offers of jobs at Shell, and that Shell’s lawyer was present when they were bribed.” Shell has always denied these claims.
But today, the oil giant had to face the four widows in court: Esther Kiobel, Victoria Bera, Blessing Eawo and Charity Levula are suing Shell over what they say is its role in the unlawful arrest, detention and execution of their husbands by the Nigerian military. They are demanding compensation and a public apology from Shell.
Esther Kiobel says the death of her husband left her “traumatised” and “poverty-stricken”. She said she had lost a “wonderful husband” and a “best friend”.
Speaking before the trial, she said: “Over the years, Shell has continually fought to make sure the this case is not heard in court. They have the resources to fight me instead of doing justice for my husband”.
Today, she testified in court in a written statement. Esther said: “Nigeria and Shell killed my late husband: Dr Barinem Kiobel and his compatriots Kenule Tua Saro Wiwa, John Kpuinen, Baribor Bera, Paul Levula, Nordu Eawo and the rest [of the] innocent souls.”
“My husband and the rest were killed… The memory of the physical torture my family and l went through has remained fresh in my mind, and whenever l look at the scar of the injury l sustained during the incident, my heart races for justice all the more.”
She added: “The abuses my family and l went through are such an awful experience that has left us traumatised to date without help. We all have lived with so much pain and agony, but rather than giving up, the thought of how ruthlessly my husband was killed… has spurred me to remain resilient in my fight for justice.”
In her statement to the court, another widow, Victoria Bera, who was pregnant with her first child when her husband, Baribor, was arrested, said: “The pain I’ve been living in these years doesn’t seem to go away, no matter what I do, especially when l look at my son, who had to grow up without a father. I need justice. I need justice for my people.”
The plaintiffs are being supported by Amnesty International, which independently documented Shell’s role in killings, rape and torture carried out by the Nigerian government in its effort to crush protests, in a report published in 2017.
“Despite a cache of evidence against Shell, the company has managed to dodge justice for years and until now has never had to answer in court for these allegations,” said Mark Dummett, from Amnesty.
He added that: “This will be the first time, in a battle for justice spanning more than two decades, that Esther Kiobel and her fellow plaintiffs get the chance to tell their stories in court. These women believe that their husbands would still be alive today were it not for the brazen self-interest of Shell, which encouraged the Nigerian government’s bloody crackdown on protesters even when it knew the human cost. It’s time to bring an end to decades of impunity for Shell”.
But it is not just legal action over human rights abuses that the oil giant faces. As CNN reports today: “Climate activists are preparing legal action aimed at forcing Royal Dutch Shell to exit the oil business.”
A coalition of environmental groups in the Netherlands has given Shell until early April to change its business model to comply with the Paris goals of face legal action.
The groups have accused Shell of “deliberately obstructing” efforts to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, the key goal of the Paris agreement.
Joris Thijssen, the director of Greenpeace Netherlands, said in a statement: “The company has no concrete plans to align its business strategy with the commitments contained in the agreement”.
Indeed, as OCI and others have pointed out for years, Shell has based its projections on energy use that could result in around 4 degrees warming by the end of the century.
And so it seems finally Shell’s reckless disregard for human rights and the climate is finally coming home to roost. It is time for justice to be served on both issues.
I will leave the last word to Ken Saro-Wiwa. Speaking before the military tribunal that sentenced the Ogoni 9 to death in 1995, Ken said: “I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial … There is no doubt in my mind that the crimes of the company’s dirty war against the Ogoni people will be punished.”