When Greenpeace protested outside Shell International's headquarters in London in January this year, to draw attention to the forthcoming trial of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Shell International's executives invited me and Ken's son, Ken Wiwa, in for a chat.
They told us they were simply a business, in no position to intervene in Nigeria's legal processes, that it was nothing to do with them, and that in any event Ken Saro-Wiwa was charged with the very serious crime of murder. Even on the environmental destruction in the Niger delta region, they claimed that much of the damage was caused by non-oil activity - and was therefore nothing to do with them either.
Shell is dependent on the Nigerian state for security and suppression of dissent, and works with the state oil company, a vital source of revenues for the despicable junta. It is absurd for its executives to claim that they can play such a dominant role in Nigerian society and yet have no involvement and no responsibility for wider questions of environmental or human rights.
By March, when Greenpeace met Shell executives again, we presented them with a document leaked from Nigeria which alleged that repression of the Ogoni people had been carried out on Shell's behalf. The respected QC Michael Birnbaum, in his report on Ken Saro-Wiwa's trial, said the proceedings were unjust. But still Shell claimed the trial was nothing to do with it - it could never intervene.
Then, hours before Ken's "judicial murder" (John Major's phrase), Shell International finally acted and did write to the junta.
Shell has been callous, opportunistic, arrogant and inconsistent. President Jacques Chirac has discovered this year that just because nuclear tests have been carried out for years thousands of miles away in the Pacific, public opposition to them cannot be ignored. Shell UK learnt that getting the UK government's OK to dump the Brent Spar out of sight in the deep ocean did not mean public opinion on the environment could be ignored.
Greenpeace has said to Shell that if it cannot operate in Nigeria to the same environmental standards as it claims so much credit for in countries such as the UK and the Netherlands, it should pull out. Shell's response is the same as manufacturers and sellers of arms down the centuries - if we don't do it, someone else will.
But as the world saw in South Africa, disinvestment by one multinational makes the position of others less tenable and political change more likely. Shell should pull out of Nigeria now.
Lord Melchett is executive director of Greenpeace UKReuse content