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The widows of the 'Ogoni Nine' allege Shell was involved in the Nigerian government’s policy of brutal repression of dissent.
Three widows of activists assassinated in the 1990s by Nigeria’s military regime in alleged complicity with the oil giant Shell have taken their case to a Dutch court in order to prevent the killings of their loved ones from going down in history with impunity.
The widows—Esther Kiobel, Victoria Bera, Blessing Eawo, and Charity Levula, allege Shell was involved in the Nigerian government’s policy of brutal repression and dissent as well as many different types of human rights violations staged in order to safeguard the company’s staff and infrastructure. This occured as they were carrying out questionable practices to enrich themselves at the expense of the lives of Nigerian people as well as the environment.
The four women are leading a battle against one of the world’s most powerful corporations for their alleged complicity in human rights violations. “Over the years, Shell has continually fought to make sure this case is not heard in court. They have resources to fight me instead of doing justice for my husband,” said one of the widows Esther Kiobel.
Shell offered a payout (of US$15.5 million) during a 2009 trial held in the United States to one of the families of the executed leaders, while washing itself clean of the responsibility for the murders and saying it had done so to promote a “process of reconciliation.”
In 2017, Shell again shied away from admitting responsibility and instead took a role of conscientious observer, “We were shocked and saddened” said Managing Director of Shell in Nigeria Osagie Okunbor regarding the executions. “Shell Nigeria appealed to the Nigerian government to grant clemency,” added Okumbor.
However, testimonies of people involved in the trial and who worked for the multinational would point to Shell’s involvement in the assassinations.
One of the high profile deaths carried out under the Nigerian government and U.S. corporation partnership is that of the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Along with Saro-Wiwa; Barinem Kiobel, Baribor Bera, Saturday Dobee, Nardu Eawo, Daniel Gbokoo, John Kpuinen, Paul Levula, and Felix Nuate were all hanged in November 1995.
The hanging of the “Ogoni nine”—the name given to the ethnic Ogoni leaders in the aftermath of their assassination, was the outcome of a widely discredited trial in which all nine activists were found guilty of murder charges of Ogoni elders.
The basis for the accusations were testimonies of alleged witnesses, who later recanted their evidence and went on to say they had been bribed by the Nigerian government. They also stated that they had been offered jobs at Shell as payback for their false testimony.
For this reason, Nigerians widely recognize the death of the Ogoni nine as “judicial murder.”
What then was the motivation behind their deaths?
All nine activists were actively involved in peaceful protests against Shell’s presence in Ogoniland. In 1993, MOSOP mobilized over half of the Ogoni population—this would represent nearly 250,000 people at the time, to demand greater political and economic autonomy and ceasing of environmental destruction by the oil and gas business.
Since the 1950s, Ogoniland, the home of the Nigerian ethnic minority, was subject to extreme ecological devastation from oil extraction activities such as indiscriminate petroleum waste dumping.
This is what Sara-Wiwa and fellow Ogoni leaders had been protesting at the time of their judicial murder and at the heart of it, were Shell’s interests—the multinational oil giant who was heavily invested in oil exploitation in the area and still holds a heavy presence in Nigeria.
But MOSOP was also active in criticizing the Nigerian government for their lack of environmental regulation.
The pressure felt by national and multinational oil interests during the 1990s led to the creation of a special security force composed of police and armed forces by the Nigerian government.
The Rivers State International Security Task Force (ISTF) was the tool employed by government to root out dissent. The Task Force established military checkpoints in Ogoniland to detain and arrest ‘suspects.’
This Task Force is allegedly responsible for killing, maiming, raping, torturing and disappearing of hundreds of Ogonis. On its first deployment in Ogoniland, ISTF shot five people just outside of a Shell compound, according to The Guardian.
For Kiobel, the settlement in the New York District Court which helped pay for the lawyer’s fees and other expenses, is not sufficient. Speaking on behalf of the widows, she is looking for something entirely different which even a big oil corporation with power to influence government can’t buy - justice.
“We need justice, it’s not about the money (...) I have been fighting for my murdered husband for 22 years now, so he can be acquitted of a crime he never committed,” said Kiobel.
Two of the widows presented evidence for their case at the Hague on Tuesday. Shell replied saying that the Nigerian statutes of limitation prevented it from doing so and further claimed that the court should decline jurisdiction, stating that Shell-Nigeria operated independently of its parent company, Royal Dutch Shell.