You are on page 1of 6


In 1995, a Nigerian military tribunal, in what most observers decried as a sham trial, ordered
the execution of noted author and playwright Ken Saro!iwa and eight other members of the
"ovement for the Survival of the #goni $eople% &he #goni are a 5'','''member ethnic group of
farmers and fishermen that live in Nigeria(s coastal plain% )or several years, the #goni had been waging a
vigorous political campaign against Nigeria(s military rulers and the giant oil company *oyal
+utch,Shell% &hey had been see-ing greater selfdetermination, rights to the revenue stemming from
oil exploration on traditional #goni lands, and compensation for the environmental degradation to
their land caused by fre.uent oil spills from fractured pipelines% Shell had been pumping oil from #goni
lands since the late 195's% In 199/, four #goni chiefs who advocated cooperation rather than
confrontation with Nigeria(s military government were lynched by a mob of #goni youth% &hough he was
not present, Saro!iwa, a leader of the protest movement, was arrested and subse.uently sentenced
to death along with eight other #goni activists%
+espite intensive international pressure that included appeals to Shell to use its influence in the
country to gain clemency for the convicted, the executions went ahead as scheduled on November 1',
1995% 0fter the executions, Shell was critici1ed in the !estern media for its apparent unwillingness to
pressure Nigeria(s totalitarian regime% &he incident started some soulsearching at Shell about the social
and environmental responsibility of a multinational corporation in societies such as Nigeria that fall short of
!estern standards for the protection of human rights and the environment%
In 1921, the 0frican nation of Nigeria won independence from 3ritain% 0t that time, many
believed that Nigeria had the potential to become one of the engines of economic growth in 0frica% &he
country was blessed with abundant natural resources, particularly oil and gas4 was a net exporter of
foodstuffs4 and had a large population that by 0frican standards was well educated 5today Nigeria has the
largest population in 0frica, with over 11' million people6% 3y the mid199's, it was clear that much of that
potential was still to be reali1ed% &hirtyfive years after winning independence, Nigeria was still heavily
dependent on the oil sector% #il production accounted for 7' percent of 8+$, 95 percent of foreign
exchange earnings, and about 9' percent of the government(s budget revenues% &he largely
subsistence agricultural sector had failed to -eep up with rapid population growth, and Nigeria, once a
large net exporter of food, now had to import food% 8+$ per capita was a paltry :;7', one.uarter of
what it was in 1991, and the country was crea-ing under :/' billion of external debt% Nigeria had been
unable to garner financial assistance from institutions such as the International "onetary )und
because of the government(s unwillingness to account for how it used the revenues from oil taxes%
$olitical problems partly explained Nigeria(s economic malaise% &he country has suffered from
internal strife among some of the more than ;5' ethnic groups that constitute the nation% In the 192's,
the country was rac-ed by a particularly nasty civil war% In +ecember 1997, the civilian government of
the country was replaced in a coup by a military regime that proceeded to rule by decree% In 1997,
democratic elections were held in Nigeria, but the military government nullified the results, declaring
there had been widespread ballot fraud%
*oyal +utch,Shell is the main foreign oil producer operating in Nigeria% &he company was
formed at the turn of the century when <olland(s *oyal +utch =ompany, which had substantial oil
operations in Indonesia, merged with 3ritain(s Shell &ransport and &rading to create one of the world(s
first multinational oil companies% Shell is now the world(s largest oil company with annual revenues that
exceed :17' billion% &he company has been operating in Nigeria since 197>, and by the md199's
was pumping about half of Nigeria(s oil% Nigerian oil accounts for about 11 to 1; percent of the
company(s global output and generates net income for Shell of around :;'' million per year%
ro!"#$% in t&# Ogoni R#gion
In 1959, *oyal +utch,Shell struc- oil on #goni lands% 3y some estimates, the company has
extracted some :7' billion worth of oil from the region since then% +espite this, the #goni remain
desperately poor% "ost live in palmroofed mud huts and practice subsistence agriculture% #f Shell(s
5,''' employees in Nigeria, in 1995 only 95 were #goni% 3ecause they are a powerless minority among
Nigeria(s 11' million people, the #goni are often overloo-ed when it comes to the allocation of ?obs
either in government or the private sector%
Starting in 199;, the Nigerian government supposedly directed 1%5 percent of the oil revenue
it received bac- to the communities where the oil was produced% In 199;, the percentage was
increased to 7 percent% &he #goni, however, claim they have seen virtually none of this money% "ost
appears to have been spent in the tribal lands of the ruling ma?ority or has vanished in corrupt deals%
0lthough there were 92 oil wells, two refineries, a petrochemical complex and a fertili1er plant in the
#goni region in 199/, the lone hospital was an unfinished concrete hus- and the government
schools, unable to pay teachers, were rarely open%
In addition to the lac- of returns from oil production in their region, the #goni claim that their
lands have suffered from environmental degradation, much of which could be laid at the feet of
Shell% #goni activists claim that Shell(s poor environmental safeguards have resulted in numerous oil
spills and widespread contamination of the soil and groundwater% 0 Shell spo-esman, interviewed in
199/, seemed to ac-nowledge there might be some basis to these complaints% <e stated, @Some of
the facilities installed during the last 7' years, whilst acceptable at the time, aren(t as we would build
them today% 8iven the age of some of these lines 5oil pipelines6, regrettably oil spills have occurred
from time to time%@
<owever, the same spo-esman also blamed many of the more recent lea-s in
the #goni region on deliberate sabotage% &he sabotage, he stated, had one of two motivesAto bac-
up claims for compensation and to support claims of environmental degradation%
#n hearing of these claims, Ken Saro!iwa called them preposterous% Saro!iwa argued that
although uneducated youths, frustrated and angry, may have damaged some Shell installations in one
or two incidents, @the people would never deliberately spill oil on their land because they -now the so
called compensation is paltry and the land is never restored%@
&o support his position, Saro!iwa
pointed to a spill from the 192's near a settlement called Bbubu that still had not been cleaned up% In
response, Shell stated that the spill occurred during the civil war in the 192'sCand cleanup wor- was
completed in 199'% Subse.uently, sun-en oil reappeared at the surface, but Shell claims it was unable to
do anything about this because of threats made against its employees in the region% In Danuary 1997,
out of concern for their safety, Shell barred its employees from entering the region%
In 0pril 1997, the #goni organi1ed their first protests against Shell and the government% #goni
farmers stood in front of earthmoving e.uipment t&at was laying a pipeline for Shell through
croplands% 0lthough Shell stated that the land had been ac.uired by legal means and that full
compensation had been paid to the farmers and the local community, some of the locals remained
unhappy about what they viewed as continuing exploitation of their land% Seeing a threat to the
continuity of its oil operations, Shell informed the Nigerian government about the protest% Enits from the
Nigerian military soon arrived and shots were fired into the crowd of protesters, -illing one #goni man
and wounding several others%
Subse.uently, in a series of mur-y incidents, Nigerian soldiers stormed #goni villages, saying
they were .uelling unrest between neighboring #goni tribes% &he #goni claimed the raids were
punishment for obstructing Shell% &hey stated that the military had orders to use minor land disputes,
which had long been settled with little violence, as an excuse to lay entire villages to waste% 0 feared
unit of the mobile police with the nic-name @Kill and 8o@ conducted some of the raids% 0lthough
details are s-etchy, it has been reported that hundreds of people lost their lives in the violence% &he
cycle of violence ultimately culminated in the -illing of the #goni chiefs who argued for compromise
with the Nigerian government% &his provided the government with the ?ustification they needed to
arrest Ken Saro!iwa and eight associates in the "ovement for the Survival of the #goni $eople%
Nig#ria and S&#"" und#r r#%%ur#
Saro!iwa(s arrest achieved the goal that the protests and bloodshed had not4 it focused
international attention on the plight of the #goni people, the heavyhanded policies of the Nigerian
government, and Shell(s activities in Nigeria% Several human rights organi1ations immediately pressured
Shell to use its influence to gain the release of Saro!iwa% &hey also urged Shell to put on hold plans
to start wor- on a :7%5 billion li.uefied natural gas pro?ect in Nigeria% &he pro?ect was structured as a
?oint venture with the Nigerian government% Shell(s central role in the pro?ect gave it considerable
influence over the government, or so human rights activists believed%
Shell stated that it deplored the heavyhanded approach ta-en by the Nigerian
government to the #goni people and regretted pain and loss suffered by #goni communities% &he
company also indicated it was using @discreet diplomacy@ to try to bring influence to bear on the
Nigerian government% Nigeria(s military leadership, however, was in no mood to listen to discreet
diplomacy from Shell or anyone else% 0fter a trial by a military tribunal that was derided as nothing
more than a -angaroo court, Saro!iwa and his associates were sentenced to death by hanging% &he
sentence was carried out shortly after sunrise on November 1', 1995%
In the wa-e of Saro!iwa(s hanging, a storm of protest erupted around the world% &he heads of
state of the 5;nation 3ritish =ommonwealth, meeting in New Fealand at the time of Saro!iwa(s
execution, suspended Nigeria and stated they would expel the country if it did nbt return to democratic
rule within two years% ES $resident 3ill =linton recalled the ES ambassador to Nigeria and banned
the sale of military e.uipment, on top of aid cuts made in protest at Saro!iwa(s arrest% 3ritish $rime
"inister Dohn "a?or banned arms sales to Nigeria and called for the widest possible embargo%
0mbassadors from the 15nation Buropean Enion were recalled, and the BE suspended a"" aid to
3ut no country halted purchases of Nigerian oil or sales of oil service e.uipment to Nigeria%
&he Enited States, which imports /' percent of Nigeria(s daily output of ; million barrels, was silent on
the .uestion of an oil embargo% Similarly, no !estern countryAmany of which had national companies
wor-ing in the Nigerian oil industryAindicated they would impose an embargo on sales to, or purchase
from, the Nigerian oil industry% 0lone among ma?or public figures, South 0frican $resident Nelson
"andela called for a ban on Shell%@&he call was echoed by several environmental groups, including
8reenpeace and )riends of the Barth, both of which urged their supporters to boycott Shell products%
<owever, South 0frica never enacted a formal ban, and the boycott calls met with only limited success%
)or its part, Shell indicated it would go ahead with its plans for a li.uefied natural gas operation
in Nigeria in partnership with the Nigerian government% In a public notice published in 3ritish
newspapers, Shell stated, @It has been suggested that Shell should pull out of Nigeria(s li.uefied natural
gas pro?ect% 3ut if we do so now, the pro?ect will collapse% "aybe forever% So let(s be clear who gets hurt
if the pro?ect gets cancelled% 0 cancellation would certainly hurt the thousands of Nigerians who will be
wor-ing on the pro?ect, and the tens of thousands benefiting in the local economy%@
In November 1992, the =enter for =onstitutional *ights filed a federal lawsuit in the ES
+istrict =ourt in "anhattan on behalf of relatives of Saro!iwa who were now residing in the Enited
States% &he lawsuit accused *oyal +utch,Shell of being part of a conspiracy that led to Saro!iwa(s
hanging% Shell denied the allegations and stated that they would be refuted in court%
In "ay 199>, at the annual general meeting of Shell &ransport and &rading in Gondon, a group of
19 institutional investors tabled a resolution that would have re.uired Shell to establish an independent
external body to monitor its environmental and human rights policies% Dohn Dennings, the outgoing
chairman of the company, told reporters after the meeting that proxy votes from shareholders were
running 1' to 1 against the resolution%
#ne reason for the defeat of the shareholder resolution was that the company had already
indicated it was ta-ing steps to reform its culture and improve its own monitoring of environmental and
human rights policies% 3efore the shareholder meeting, the company issued its own report on its policies
in Nigeria, in which the company admitted that it needed to improve its monitoring of environmental
and human rights policies% Ender the leadership of its new head, "ar- "oodyStuart, Shell
subse.uently stated that it expected its companies to express support for fundamental human rights
in line with the legitimate role of business and to give proper regard to health, safety, and the
environment consistent with their commitment to sustainable development% &he company also
embraced the EN Eniversal +eclaration of <uman *ights, pledged to set up socially responsible
management systems, and to develop training procedures to help management deal with human rights
=ommenting on these steps, a spo-esman for <uman *ights !atch stated, @I(m prepared to
give them some credit that they reali1ed they had to loo- at what their own operations were and
how to respond% &hey ac-nowledged that big companies have social responsibility, and that(s a pretty
big step for the multinational corporations%