Why I'm Suing Shell
Nigerian-Canadian tries for justice ten years later.
What does the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa mean?
In the turbulence of the aftermath of my father’s death one question stood out in my mind. It was in the London Guardian and a Nigerian journalist Chuks Illoegbunam posed and answered his own question: Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death means nothing has changed.
It was as much a challenge as a question, a challenge to his readers, to everyone who had been appalled that a man, a writer, who had prosecuted an environmental cause on a non-violent platform, could be met with the indif- ference and hostility of a multinational and then judicially murdered by a kangaroo court in front of a global audience.
It is almost 10 years since my father’s murder and as I reflect on the interim, I am still haunted by the circumstances and consequences of his death and it depresses me that Chuks’s challenge has proved prophetic correct because nothing has changed—despite the outrage at the circumstances of my father’s death we still live in a world where corporations routinely put profits before people and the planet, a world in which they can, and do, get away with murder.
There are many reasons why my family and others decided to seek judicial redress not the least of which was because we wanted Shell Oil to account for their actions against Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni. In his last statement before his sentencing by a military tribunal my father observed that “Shell is here on trial the Company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come.”
That statement was uppermost in our minds when the Centre for Constitutional Rights advised Ken Saro-Wiwa’s family of the possibility of bringing the multinational to court in the US. We filed a complaint in 1996, accusing Shell of crimes against humanity, torture, summary execution, arbitrary deten- tion, and racketeering claiming that Shell’s actions in Nigeria had violated the Alien Tort Claims Act, the Torture Victim Protection Act, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
It took six years of legal arguments and appeals, chiefly over jurisdiction, before Judge Kimba Wood declared in our favour on February 28 2002 acknowledging that there was sufficient evidence of collusion between Shell and the Nigerian military to qualify as racketeering under the RICO Act.
As I write, the case is still in the discovery stage but our experiences so far have confirmed me in my belief that there is a pressing need for a global forum where corporations can be brought and held to account for their actions. In order to see this you have to stand back and place Ken Saro-Wiwa’s murder in a wider, historical context.
In the late 1980s my father was depressed that he had spent most ofhis adult life working for a better future for a community that had contributed 900 million barrels of oil to the Nigerian government but had received virtually nothing but a ‘devastated environment’ in return for our natural resources.
Despite contributing an estimated $30 billion dollars to the Federal coffers, we had no pipe born water, no electricity, no schools or hospitals worthy of the description, an estimated 70% of Ogoni graduates were unemployed and to compound our misery the foreign oil industry had operated to standards that would have been unacceptable in their own backyard; gas was openly flared 24 hours a day, pipelines laid over farmland without community consultation or even carrying out any kind of environmental, social or cultural impact assessment.
But when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, my father saw it as a moment, a moment when the world was encouraging minority peoples in Eastern Europe to stand up for their rights. If it was good for the former countries of the Soviet Union it was surely good for communities like the Ogoni who were trapped in Federal arrangements that robbed us of our resources?
Moreover it was a time when the environmental awareness was high on the public agenda and the Second Earth Summit in Rio would confirm that we were poised to move towards a kinder, gentler world. Capitalism had overcome socialism and it was the end of history. But ten years after the triumphalism of the West, the riots in Seattle occasioned ‘capitalism in crisis’ headlines. What went wrong?