A two-decade fight over whether Royal Dutch Shell contributed to the execution of nine Nigerian oil-industry critics has landed at the company’s doorstep.
A court in The Hague, Netherlands heard its first arguments on Tuesday, as part of determining if Shell played any role when the military dictatorship ruling Nigeria convicted nine men, including well-known activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, of murder and then executed them in 1995.
The escalation of the court battle playing out in Shell’s home country again brings to the forefront a period the oil major would rather leave in the past. The company is one of Nigeria’s biggest investors and gets a large share of its revenue from the West African nation, but its history has been dotted with allegations of death, environmental destruction and social unrest.
Shell has strongly denied any connection to the executions, saying it in fact requested clemency to prevent the death sentences.
The company “did not collude with the authorities to suppress community unrest, it in no way encouraged or advocated any act of violence in Nigeria, and it had no role in the arrest, trial and execution of these men,” Shell’s Nigerian unit said in a statement. “We believe that the evidence clearly shows that Shell was not responsible for these distressing events.”
The Hague court will make a judgment on May 8 but “it is not clear if that will be the final one,” Sabrina Tucci, a campaigner for Amnesty International said on Twitter.
Executed Man’s Widow
Esther Kiobel, the widow of one of the executed men, has been pursuing a civil case against Shell since shortly after he was hung, hoping to exonerate him. She now brought the case to the Netherlands after a court in the U.S. ruled in 2013 that it didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter.
“Here it’s Shell country, right? So if they say that they have jurisdiction here, let’s do it. Let them prove themselves innocent,” Kiobel said in an interview in The Hague on Tuesday. “We have all this evidence and we wanted to present it to the judge, and this evidence would have implicated Shell.”
This complicates matters for the Anglo-Dutch major’s Chief Executive Officer Ben van Beurden, who wants to make Shell the world’s leading oil company. While its reputation and credibility could take a major hit if it’s implicated by the court, the hearings bring the allegations closer to Shell’s large employee and investor base in The Hague, where it’s headquartered.
Saro-Wiwa was the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, an activist group based in the state where Shell had most of its Nigerian onshore operations in the four decades to the 1990s. The group, known as MOSOP, lobbied for a greater share of oil revenues and for Shell and other oil companies to pay $10 billion in royalties and penalties for damaging the environment.
Rather than pay, Shell exited exploration work in the area in 1993, and shifted focus offshore in the Gulf of Guinea. At the same time, unrest between MOSOP and the government increased and violence in the Ogoni region escalated. Four community leaders were killed in May 1994 and the government held Saro-Wiwa and eight others, including Kiobel’s husband, Barinem Kiobel, responsible for the deaths.
Amnesty International has claimed that Shell asked the military to intervene in the region. It has also said there’s a connection between Saro-Wiwa being a prominent Shell and government critic and his execution. Shell said those elements are coincidental and that a senior executive wrote to the court for clemency for the nine men, and was “shocked and saddened” when they were killed.
Reputation at Risk
Shell has been trying to clean up its reputation in Nigeria, where it operates key projects. It is also the subject of a criminal trial in Italy over a $1.1 billion payment made to the Nigerian government in 2011 to procure offshore oil rights. Prosecutors in Milan say at least some of that payment was converted to bribes, while Shell and Eni SpA say it was an appropriate fee transferred directly to the nation’s treasury.
Kiobel is acting as a plaintiff along with three other widows of the executed men. The group doesn’t include Saro-Wiwa’s family. Shell has already settled claims with his relatives for $15.5 million without admitting fault, though the nine men were arrested, tried, convicted and executed together.
Kiobel said she is seeking financial damages for the death of her husband, which left her alone with four children. She fled with them to neighboring Benin, and then to the U.S. as a refugee in the three years after the execution. She also wants Shell to apologize, according to her lawyer Channa Samkalden.
“They have to tell the Nigerian country, they have to tell them to exonerate my husband,” Kiobel said. “It’s number one in my heart, because my husband was killed like a criminal, which he never was.”