Solomon Mnaa, a cassava farmer in the Ogoni region of Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta, says he was accosted on his way to the farm by “a gang of soldiers” led by the infamous Lieutenant Colonel Paul Okuntimo, head of the regional Internal Security Task-force.
“They stopped me, collected my machete and they cut me,” he said, slowly taking his shirt off to reveal the scars on his back.
Tambari Anamakiri, a former farmhand who is now unemployed, was also beaten and humiliated by Okuntimo’s thugs.
“I was stripped naked in front of the whole village, beaten till I fainted, then kept in the prison at Kpor for one week three days. They said I was a member of MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People). Okuntimo said he will shoot me at midnight,” he recalled.
Joseph Wogobe, a retired civil servant, had his mouth bashed with the butt of a gun during a security forces raid on the annual Ogoni day festival.
“They dragged me down the coal-tarred road. Blood streamed down my body. Then they dumped me in their car boot and took me to Kpor. I was kept there without any care for 12 days. I was sure I would die,” he said.
Their stories mirror the testimonies of many others in the Ogoni region including the 12 plaintiffs of the Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell case currently before the United States Supreme Court.
Shell is accused of abetting human rights violations and faces allegations of conspiring with Nigerian military personnel to commit crimes during the 1990s, notably the torture and execution of the “Ogoni Nine”—Barinem Kiobel, a former state government commissioner, Ken Saro-Wiwa and seven others arrested in May 1994 by the military regime.
Shell insists it had no financial relationship with the Nigerian military, although it admits “it paid ‘field allowances’ on two occasions.” However, there is little doubt that the international oil companies in Nigeria not only sponsor military personnel in the Niger Delta, but they also use their immense resources to manipulate government officials. In 2010, secret cables from the U.S. embassy in Abuja spoke of Shell’s “tight grip” on the nation.
A report in August from oil industry watchdog, Platform, based on leaked Shell documents, reveals that nearly $383 million was doled out by Shell between 2007 and 2009 for protecting its interests in the Niger Delta. About $65 million of this sum funded 1,300 armed forces drawn from “the Nigerian military and the infamous ‘kill and go’ police. These personnel are often described as being on ‘special duties,’” the report said. Generally, armed military personnel selected to be on “special duties” either work with oil companies or banks, or they are sent to conflict areas like the Niger Delta or northern Nigeria. Thus, an organization with a documented history of violence and human right abuses meets a ready flow of cash, facilitating continuous conflict in the region.
Sebastian Kpalap lives in Oghale village, an Ogoni area crisscrossed by pipelines where tensions still run high. He points to an area a few meters away and says, “It’s a common occurrence. Some members of this Oghale community were shot dead for merely passing on this pipeline to their farm land. The task force men guarding the pipelines shoot them.”
In the early 1990s, MOSOP, a group established by Saro-Wiwa, initiated and sustained massive public campaigns, protesting against Shell and the company’s abuse and devastation of Ogoni lands. Thousands died between 1993 and 1994 as the Nigerian military forces retaliated against Ogoni villages.
“The killing was done by Nigerian government but it was Shell that brought in soldiers to unleash mayhem on the people,” said Stevyn Obodoekwe of the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD), a civil society organization active in Ogoni.
“Shell and the Nigerian government were working hand in glove. Crimes were committed, everybody knew it, so Shell is only making a mockery of itself saying ‘we did nothing’ because the world knows.”
Sadly, though the world does seem to know, very little has changed for the Ogoni since the oil companies continue business as usual.
Obodoekwe, reflecting the general pessimism of many Nigerians, said he doesn’t see Shell or any of the other major oil companies becoming more accountable for their activities.
“The thing is there is no government to stand up to them. When we have a government with the political will to say ‘behave or pack out,’ then you will see them living up to proper corporate accountability,” he argued.
Emmanuel Alozie, a mathematics teacher and activist known here as “the Spirit of Ogoni,” has his own tale of abuse and torture at the hands of the Nigerian armed forces, but he also points a finger at some of the leaders of the Ogoni people.
According to Alozie, Shell’s ample resources mean the company can buy silence and buy witnesses. He alleges that some youth leaders, all the chiefs and the traditional rulers in Ogoni were “bought” by Shell and the Nigerian military government.
“They betrayed us,” says Alozie, “Before my eyes Nzide, the majesty of Nyo-Khana, sent a bottle of hot drink and four wraps of alligator pepper to the soldiers at Sogho where I had been detained and he told them to kill me because I was one of the Saro-Wiwas. They asked me to sit in some stagnant water. They beat me and taunted me. They said Saro-Wiwa was deceiving us. That they would kill the entire Ogoni people and that we would not achieve our aim.
“The truth is not hidden,” said Alozie. “Shell is as guilty as the Nigerian state.”
In the village of Kpor, where Barinem Kiobel’s family lives, the sun sets on the calm beauty of the region’s rich vegetation. The sweet evening breeze masks the village’s history of violence and the present plight of its residents. Sitting in her austere living room, Kiobel’s stepmother recounts her family’s tragedy. She points at a picture of her late husband and Barinem’s father, Jim Kiobel.
She says he died in 2011 still mourning the son who was the main source of material support for his family. None of his siblings could continue their schooling after he was killed, she adds.
Esther Kiobel, the widow of Barinem, and the other plaintiffs in the Kiobel v. Shell case hope to prove in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) that Shell was complicit in human rights abuses against the Ogoni people (VIDEO). Their lawyers argue that the ATS allows foreigners to bring civil suits against corporations to U.S. courts for violations of international law.
“The case was taken to the U.S. because Shell is part of the Nigerian government. We want a fair judgment. We want his name cleared,” asserts Darituka Kiobel, Barinem’s brother. “What has happened has happened. But at least let us know that he did not die in vain.”
In Nigeria, the prevalent perception is that judges are easily bribed and the courts can’t be trusted to deliver fair judgments.
“So very few people actually have the financial muscle or confidence to go up against a seeming superpower like Shell,” says Vivian Bello of Social Action, an organization promoting citizen participation in policy issues.
When asked for its official position on the Kiobel v. Shell case, the Ministry of Justice's spokesman Ambrose Momoh said there was none, as the case “does not mention the Nigerian government.”
Most of Nigeria’s vast oil wealth comes from the Ogoni region, also known as Ogoniland. Companies like Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil have made billions of dollars in oil revenue and have, in turn, enriched one Nigerian administration after the other, yet the Ogoni people live in poverty. There are no roads, pipe-borne water or proper health care. Farmlands have been damaged by repeated oil spills; surface and ground water poisoned; aquatic life destroyed.
Central to the palpable tension in Ogoniland is the absence of a clear and strategic response from government to the long term problems in Ogoni.
“The government is criminally silent on these issues,” says Obodoekwe. “All they want is for oil money to keep flowing. When there is any attempt to stop oil from flowing they bring in soldiers and crush the people. They don’t care, they don’t inhale the polluted air or drink the poisoned water, and they don’t feel the pains the people feel. All they see in Ogoni is oil, they don’t see human beings.”
The Supreme Court decided to rehear the Kiobel case on Oct. 1, which coincidently marks Nigeria’s 52nd independence anniversary. The Court has broadened the issue and is asking whether the ATS applies to cases that arise on foreign soil at all. The Obama administration is backing Shell.
Lawyers at Earth Rights International (ERI), a Washington-based human rights law nonprofit, says it is disturbing that the U.S. Supreme Court appears to be on the verge of shielding corporations like Shell from legal responsibility for their abuses in developing countries. “Eliminating one of the few paths to justice for people who have suffered through the most egregious human rights abuses would, in itself, be tragic and offensive,” the group said.
Nodding toward a sign posted a few yards from his house that simply reads “Contaminated Land,” Kpalap, the man from Oghale village, says, “We need some vindication and that is what the Kiobel case means for me and for many of my kinsmen.”
But then he asks, somewhat wistfully, “When gold rusts what should iron do? If we can’t get justice in the U.S. that claims to be champions of human rights and democracy, where would we get justice?”