The execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues in 1995 dragged Shell and Nigeria's leadership into a controversy from which they find it difficult to extricate themselves. Fourteen years on, the actions of both are still seen through the prism of the showdown with the Ogonis. Ogoniland has remained in limbo: no oil has been pumped since 1993, there has been little development, and mediation efforts collapsed without one meeting between Shell and the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People.
The situation in the rest of the Niger Delta has evolved dramatically. The non-violent approach championed by Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni leaders has given way to an increasingly complicated conflict over the region's oil resources. Oil production has fallen from a capacity of more than 2.7 million barrels per day to about 1.6 million (less than Angola). In the past week clashes have broken out which have nudged up global oil prices and are threatening to drive production lower still. Shell's own oil production in the Delta has taken an even greater pounding – its own headline figures describe a crash from about 1.2 million barrels per day to as low as 300,000.
The burning of gas while producing oil is another example of how times change. Little was thought in official circles in 1990 of the failures to deal with a wasteful process that was a source of constant environmental complaints. The gas flares have been extinguished but the debate has intensified. Even today Nigerian official figures estimate 22 billion cubic metres per year are burnt off – the equivalent of 30 per cent of North Sea gas production.
A great deal of this was predicted – in Ken Saro-Wiwa's own speeches and even in corporate risk reports produced for Shell as early as 2003. Today it faces great difficulty operating at all. Amidst a massive surge in profits declared last year it quietly wrote off $750m from its Nigeria operation.
While Ogoni is a public relations nightmare for Shell and the Nigerian government, it also offers some hope. The announcement by President Yar'Adua last year that Shell's licence to operate in Ogoni would be withdrawn brought an instant end to the noisy claims by militants that non-violent campaigns could not succeed in Nigeria.
Ogoni now hangs in limbo. A divorce from Shell seems inevitable; a new oil operator with a more just arrangement would set a precedent that would reverberate across the region. On the other hand a new operator without the capacity and will to deal with complex issues could precipitate even worse conflict.
Chris Newsom is an adviser to Stakeholder Democracy Network