Oil giant Shell has a case to answer for its role in human rights violations including murder, rape and torture committed by the Nigerian military government in the 1990s.
The victims were the Ogoni people, whose land has been devastated by pollution from Shell’s operations. When the Ogonis organized in peaceful protest, the Nigerian government unleashed a campaign of appalling violence against them.
Despite a raft of evidence linking Shell with the government’s actions, no company executive has ever been made to answer for its involvement.
The fact that Shell has never been held to account for this is an outrage, and one that sends a terrible message: if companies are rich and powerful enough, they can get away with anything.
So, for the first time, Amnesty International has brought together the available evidence to paint a damning picture of Shell’s role.
Ogoni Day protest in Nigeria © Tim Lambon / Greenpeace
From 1990 onwards, Shell knew that its requests for the security forces to intervene in the Niger Delta were likely to result in human rights violations.
In 1990, Shell requested the assistance of a paramilitary police unit to deal with peaceful protesters at one of its facilities in Umuechem. The police attacked the village with guns and grenades, killing 80 people and torching 595 houses.
Despite this atrocity, Shell went back to the Nigerian government for help in dealing with community protests. A clear pattern began to emerge: over and over again, Shell asked the government to intervene, and these requests were soon followed by violence and death. For example:
A Shell memo shows that on 18 March 1993, Shell staff “pleaded” with the governor of Rivers State for a military guard while its contractors laid a pipeline.
On 30 April, the army responded to community protests against the new pipeline by shooting and wounding 11 villagers at Biara village.
Days later, on 4 May, Shell again asked the governor for “assistance”. That same day, troops opened fire on community protests at Nonwa village, killing one man. Once again, a direct request from Shell led to human rights violations.
Then, a memo from 11 May 1993 shows that Shell managers met senior government and security officials in Abuja “to mobilise support at top government levels”. The head of the security service assured Shell that the Ogoni situation “would be over soon”.
Two months later, the military incited and participated in a new wave of armed attacks on Ogonis.
Despite these violations, it was Shell’s policy to provide security forces with logistical support.
A 1995 statement from Shell Nigeria’s then-chair Brian Anderson explained that it was company policy at the time to provide the Nigerian government with logistical support – including the use of its boats, buses and helicopters.
Sometimes Shell’s assistance directly facilitated human rights violations.For example, in October 1993 the company provided the army’s transport to Korokoro village, when troops opened fire on protesters.
Shell had no qualms about repeatedly offering logistical support to security forces it knew were committing human rights violations.
Experts examine Ogoni oil spills in Nigeria © REUTERS
Shell even paid money to a military unit responsible for violence.
In December 1993, shortly after a military coup, Shell wrote to the new military administrator of Rivers State, highlighting the economic consequences of protests and naming communities, including in Ogoniland, where protests had occurred.
One month later, the military administrator created the new Internal Security Task Force (ISTF), under the command of Major Paul Okuntimo.
The ISTF began carrying out human rights violations almost immediately. On 21 February 1994, soldiers under Major Okuntimo’s command shot at thousands of people who were peacefully demonstrating outside Shell’s main compound.
Then, on 3 March 1994, Shell paid Major Okuntimo and 25 of his men an “honorarium”. An internal Shell memo explained that the payment was a “show of gratitude and motivation for a sustained favourable disposition towards [Shell] in future assignments”.
Shortly afterwards, the ISTF began a campaign of brutal raids in Ogoniland – killing, raping and torturing villagers.
Shell knew all about these human rights violations.
Major Okuntimo boasted of these raids on television, and they were widely reported. In July that year, the Dutch ambassador told Shell that the army had killed some 800 Ogonis.
Shell also had insider knowledge. Company executives met regularly with top government officials, and discussed the government strategy for dealing with the Ogoni protests.
Shell raised the Ogoni and Ken Saro-Wiwa as a “problem”.
The Ogoni crisis culminated in the executions of the “Ogoni Nine” by the Nigerian state. Among them was Ken Saro-Wiwa, a famous writer and leader of protests by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).
Evidence shows that, at the peak of the crackdown in Ogoniland, Shell provided encouragement and motivation to the military authorities to stop the MOSOP protests, and specifically named Ken Saro-Wiwa.
A memo describes how, at a meeting with President Sani Abacha on 30 April 1994, Brian Anderson raised “the problem of the Ogonis and Ken Saro-Wiwa”.
Anderson reported that he came away from the meeting with the sense that Abacha “will intervene with either the military or the police.”
Indeed, within a month Ken Saro-Wiwa and other MOSOP leaders had been arrested, unfairly accused of involvement in murder, and held without charge.
The men were tortured and ill-treated in detention, before being found guilty in a sham trial and executed on 10 November 1995. The detailed records show that Shell knew the trial would be unfair and Ken Saro-Wiwa found guilty; but there is no indication in the available evidence of Shell trying to persuade the Nigerian military government to follow a less violent path in Ogoniland.
Vigil for Ken Saro Wiwa in Damsquare in Amsterdam © Amnesty International/Angus Bremner
Shell’s conduct amounts to encouraging, and, at times, facilitating the horrific crimes and abuses committed by the Nigerian security forces in Ogoniland in the mid-1990s. The company, knowing that violence against local communities was almost certain to occur, asked for the security forces to deal with community protests. Shell provided logistical support to the army and police, repeatedly underlined to the Nigerian government how the country was financially dependent on oil, and even paid money to the security forces.
Shell has always strongly denied these allegations. But the evidence paints a shocking picture of a corporation putting its interests above all else. The key question is: if Shell had not acted as it did, and had not pushed the Nigerian military and government, would so many people have been beaten, tortured, raped and killed?
Amnesty International is calling on the authorities in Nigeria, and Shell’s home states, the Netherlands and the UK, to launch a criminal investigation into the company’s role in the human rights violations committed by the Nigerian security forces.