Hangings put Shell in dock over Nigeria

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The Independent Online
SHELL was full of regrets yesterday. The Anglo-Dutch oil multinational had thought that its "quiet diplomacy" would help to save the dissident writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight environmentalists from the gallows of the Nigerian military junta.

"It has worked in the past in Africa and we're shocked it has not worked in this case," said a spokesman.

But environmentalists and Mr Saro-Wiwa's family said the company's claims of concern for the writer were hard to take.

Ken Wiwa, the writer's son, said before the executions that the company had done too little. Supporting calls to boycott Shell, he said: "Shell have consistently lied about my father and the whole Ogoni campaign, saying in their releases we were violent secessionists."

While the company says it has done all it can, environmentalists accuse it of complicity with the corrupt and brutal Nigerian generals. Who is right?

Oil lies at the heart of the Saro-Wiwa case. It was Shell's operations in the Niger delta and the pollution of the homeland of the writer's Ogoni people that sparked the protests which were to lead to Friday's executions.

Oil produces 90 per cent of Nigeria's exports and 80 per cent of its government revenue. Shell, the biggest oil firm in the country, was seen by the writer's supporters as one of the few forces which could have forced the dictatorship to back down.

"It keeps the junta alive," said environmentalist Andy Rowell, a leading member of the campaign against the Nigerian dictatorship. "If the flow stopped, it would fall apart."

Shell produces 900,000 barrels of oil per day in Nigeria - half the country's total output. Its production in Ogoniland was a minuscule 28,000 bpd before it stopped work in the area in January 1993.

But its 35 years of drilling had caused fury among the desperately poor Ogoni people. Oil spillages destroyed fish stocks and agricultural land. There were few jobs for the local people and just one dilapidated hospital in the Ogoni area.

Shell has supplied detailed accounts of its social work in the Delta and angrily rejects claims that it has done nothing for the local people. But the Wall Street Journal found that just 88 of the company's 5,000 Nigerian employees were Ogoni. American oil executives were astounded. "It's standard practice to give the locals what they want," one explained. "The sums you're talking about are peanuts anyway - lunch money in the oil business."

In 1989, Mr Saro-Wiwa founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop) which asked for autonomy and a fair share of oil wealth. It won international support from ecologists and human rights groups,but would have been one cause among many had not the writer and 30 other members been accused in May last year of involvement in killing four conservative Ogoni leaders. Shell's policies were suddenly in the spotlight.

Last week, the Ogoni campaigners released minutes of a meeting in March between the Nigerian High Commissioner, Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji, and four senior oil executives at the Shell Centre in London.

The minutes show no attempt by Shell to intervene on the activists' behalf. The sole topic was how to handle the bad publicity.

The High Commissioner expressed dismay at "misinformation orchestrated by Gordon and Anita Roddick of the Body Shop". Malcolm Williams, Shell's head of regional liaison, and A J Brack, a public affairs co-ordinator, briefed the High Commissioner on the Roddicks.

Shell was wary of any response "that would play into the hands of the propagandists". A Shell spokesman confirmed that a meeting took place but refused to discuss what was said.

On 31 October, after Mr Saro-Wiwa was found guilty of inciting the murder of four Ogoni leaders, Shell said the verdict was not its concern.

"It is not for a commercial organisation to interfere with the legal processes of a sovereign state," it said. The company said it respected Mr Saro-Wiwa's right to hold his views, but claimed that Mosop was violent. The claim infuriated the Ogoni campaign. Three days later Shell dropped the allegation.

A spokesman for the umbrella group representing Greenpeace, Nigerian democrats and environmentalists grouped round the Body Shop, said: "They still failed to acknowledge that the tribunal that tried Ken was hopelessly flawed." John Major, the Law Society and Commonwealth heads condemned the trial "but Shell did not".

Finally, when the military confirmed on Wednesday that Mr Saro-Wiwa and his comrades would hang, Cor Herkstroter, Royal Dutch Shell's chairman, decided he should intervene. He wrote to the Nigerian dictator, Sani Abacha, asking for clemency, but not the men's release.

Ken Wiwa, the writer's son,said it was not enough. He needed an "unequivocal public statement that the convictions and sentences ... should be set aside." None came.

His father said in his closing statement to the military tribunal that Shell was on trial with him. "The crime of the company's dirty war against the Ogoni people will also be punished."