Amnesty International is calling on Nigeria, the UK and the Netherlands to launch investigations into Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell, over its role in a swathe of horrific crimes committed by the Nigerian military government in the oil-producing Ogoniland region in the 1990s.
The organisation has released a ground-breaking review of thousands of pages of internal company documents and witness statements, as well as Amnesty International’s own archive from the period.
The Nigerian military’s campaign to silence the Ogoni people’s protests against Shell’s pollution led to widespread and serious human rights violations, many of which also amounted to criminal offences.
“The evidence we have reviewed shows that Shell repeatedly encouraged the Nigerian military to deal with community protests, even when it knew the horrors this would lead to – unlawful killings, rape, torture, the burning of villages,” said Audrey Gaughran, Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.
“In the midst of this brutal crackdown Shell even provided the military with material support, including transport, and in at least one instance paid a military commander notorious for human rights violations. That it has never answered for this is an outrage.
“It is indisputable that Shell played a key role in the devastating events in Ogoniland in the 1990s, but we now believe that there are grounds for a criminal investigation. Bringing the massive cache of evidence together was the first step in bringing Shell to justice. We will now be preparing a criminal file to submit to the relevant authorities, with a view to prosecution.”
The Nigerian government’s campaign against the Ogoni people culminated in the execution, 22 years ago, of nine Ogoni men, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer and activist who led the protests. The executions followed a blatantly unfair trial and sparked a global outcry. In June 2017 the widows of four of the men filed a writ against Shell in the Netherlands, accusing the company of complicity in their deaths.
An individual or company can be held criminally responsible for a crime if they encourage, enable, exacerbate or facilitate it, even if they were not direct actors. For example, knowledge of the risks that corporate conduct could contribute to a crime, or a close connection to the perpetrators, could lead to criminal liability. Amnesty International’s new report “A Criminal Enterprise?” makes the case that Shell was involved in crimes committed in Ogoniland in this way.
In the 1990s Shell was the single most important company in Nigeria. During the Ogoni crisis, Shell and the Nigerian government operated as business partners, and had regular meetings to discuss the protection of their interests.
Internal memos and minutes from meetings show Shell lobbying senior government officials for military support, even after the security forces had carried out mass killings of protesters. They also show that on several occasions Shell provided logistical or financial assistance to military or police personnel when it was well aware that they had been involved in murderous attacks on defenceless villagers.
Shell has always denied that it was involved in the human rights violations, but there has never been an investigation into the allegations.
What Shell knew
Protests in Ogoniland were led by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), in response to years of Shell oil spills which had devastated the environment. In January 1993, MOSOP declared that Shell was no longer welcome to operate in the region, forcing the company to leave temporarily citing security concerns.
While Shell publicly sought to downplay the environmental damage it had caused, internal documents reveal that senior staff knew MOSOP had a legitimate grievance, and were highly concerned about the poor state of pipelines.
On 29 October 1990, Shell requested “security protection” from an elite paramilitary police unit called the Mobile Police at its facility in Umuechem village, where peaceful protests were taking place. Over the next two days, the Mobile Police attacked the village with guns and grenades, killing at least 80 people and torching 595 houses.
Many of the bodies were dumped in a nearby river.
From at least this point on, Shell executives would have understood the risks associated with calling for intervention from the security forces. Despite this, there is clear evidence that Shell continued to do just that.
For example, in 1993, shortly after it had left Ogoniland, Shell repeatedly asked the Nigerian government to deploy the army to Ogoniland to protect a new pipeline which was being laid by contractors. This resulted in the shooting of 11 people at a village called Biara on April 30, and the shooting to death of a man at Nonwa village on May 4.
Less than a week after the shooting at Nonwa, Shell executives had a series of meetings with senior government and security officials.
The minutes of these meetings show that, rather than raising concerns about the shootings of unarmed protesters, Shell was actively lobbying for the government and the security forces to allow them to continue work in Ogoniland – and was offering “logistical” help in return.
Shell also offered financial support. One internal company document reveals that on March 3, 1994, the company made a payment of more than $900 to the ISTF, a special unit created to “restore order” in Ogoniland. This was just ten days after the Unit commander ordered the shooting of unarmed protestors outside Shell’s regional headquarters in Port Harcourt. The document states that this payment was a “show of gratitude and motivation for a sustained favourable disposition towards [Shell] in future assignments.”
“On a number of occasions, Shell’s request to the government for help tackling what it termed the “Ogoni issue” was followed by a new wave of brutal human rights violations by the military in Ogoniland. It is difficult not to see causal links – or to suppose that Shell was not aware at the time how its requests were being interpreted,” said Audrey Gaughran.
“Sometimes Shell played a more direct role in the bloodshed – for example by transporting armed forces to break up protests, even when it became clear what the consequences would be. This clearly amounts to enabling or facilitating the horrific crimes that followed.”