Shell must face its day in court over Nigeria abuses
Esther Kiobel is taking on one of the world’s biggest oil companies – Shell – in a final fight for justice. She has pursued them for more than 20 years, accusing Shell of colluding in her husband’s killing.
Shell’s quest for oil in the Niger Delta, facilitated by the Nigerian government, resulted in decades of pollution, devastating local communities. In response, one of those communities, the Ogoni people, launched a protest movement in the 1990s that government security forces took every opportunity to crush. Shell urged the government to deal with these protests, even after it knew that serious abuses were taking place.
The crackdown culminated in the 1995 sham trial and subsequent hanging of the leaders of the Ogoni movement as well as Esther’s husband, Dr Barinem Kiobel.
The killing of the Ogoni 9, as they later became known, prompted a global outcry. Amnesty International called on our vast network of supporters to deluge the Nigerian authorities first with appeals for the men’s freedom, and later with letters of outrage. Ultimately, however, it is Esther who has endured repeated hardship in her struggle to have her husband’s name cleared.
In May 2019 the District Court of the Hague ruled that Esther’s case could be heard in The Netherlands. The court will address the substance of the case next. This is a vital step towards justice for Esther. It means Shell might now face questioning in a court of law about what they knew and how they contributed to this horrifying event in Nigerian history.
I still feel pain in my heart that my husband was killed, and I need justice for him, and my people.Esther Kiobel, 2016
Shell’s stake in Nigeria
Watch Esther’s story
By the time Esther Ita was born in 1964, Port Harcourt, her home city, was well on its way to becoming the economic centre for Nigeria’s oil industry. Shell had discovered oil in 1956 in the region, and then two years later on the traditional lands of the Ogoni people.
While Shell bedded in its operations in the Niger Delta, Esther herself moved to Lagos and its surrounds, growing up far from the ravages caused by Shell’s pursuit of oil wealth in her homeland. Ravages which prompted writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa to launch the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in 1990. Oil spills had polluted their land and water, robbing locals of their livelihoods. Shell carried on regardless, working with its business partner, the Nigerian government, which ruthlessly crushed protests as they arose.
Sometimes when I visited the villages with my sisters-in-law, I visited the farms… You could see oil in the water.Esther Kiobel
In the early 1990s, Esther returned to Port Harcourt and married a man her aunt had taken in as a boy: Barinem Kiobel. Now a tourism expert, he was studying for a PhD in the UK, and was in and out of Nigeria. On their trips outside Port Harcourt, Esther saw first-hand the pollution in Ogoniland. “Sometimes when I visited the villages with my sisters-in-law, I visited the farms,” she said. “You could see oil in the water.” She also recalled seeing gas flares.
By 1993, the Ogoni resistance movement had gathered momentum, with 300,000 out of a population of 500,000 taking peacefully to the streets in January to protest against Shell. Their campaigning forced Shell to shut its oil wells in Ogoniland; the company cited security concerns.
Sinister moves to crush opposition
Although Ogoniland made up only a small part of the oil-producing Niger Delta, the Ogoni protests had wide implications. By now, MOSOP’s vocal dissent had captured international attention, alarming Nigeria’s new military leader, General Sani Abacha, and Shell. With one-fifth of its total oil and natural gas reserves in Nigeria, Shell needed to protect its assets. And as the government’s finances completely relied on oil, it was in its interests to protect the interests of Shell, the single largest company in Nigeria.
Shell made sure to let the government know it was not happy about losing money in Nigeria. In a letter to the local governor, it wrote that community disruptions had caused a drop in oil production by almost nine million barrels in 1993. In another letter, it asked for “any assistance you can give to minimise these disruptions.” In January 1994, the government set up a special military unit under Major Paul Okuntimo. The force went on to lead a crackdown on Ogoni communities, arresting and torturing people, gunning people down, and raping women and girls.
Shell also had its own security force, which worked regularly with the Nigerian security agency. Shell wasted no time in smearing MOSOP and Ken Saro-Wiwa, denying their claims of environmental pollution (claims later backed up by a United Nations study) and branding them violent troublemakers. A confidential Shell memo reveals that it paid Okuntimo and his police unit an “honorarium” of 30,000 Naira (US$1,364) following one of its operations in Ogoniland.
My husband said, ‘I cannot collaborate with you guys to harm Ken.’Esther Kiobel
On 30 April 1994, after the military had carried out brutal attacks on Ogoni villages, Brian Anderson, the then Chair of Shell Nigeria, met President Sani Abacha for the first time. His concerns appeared firmly financial. “I raised the problem of the Ogonis and Ken Saro-Wiwa, pointing out that Shell had not been in the area for almost a year,” wrote Anderson in his own notes of the meeting. He underlined the fact that Shell would “continue to invest so long as we felt that there was political stability and that the economic terms and conditions of doing business were sufficiently attractive.”
Less than one month later, MOSOP leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and 14 other men, including Esther’s husband, Dr Barinem Kiobel, were arrested, accused of involvement in the killing of four Ogoni chiefs who were known critics of MOSOP. No credible evidence was ever presented to substantiate the allegations against the men.
By then, Barinem was Commissioner of Commerce, Industry and Tourism in the government of Rivers State. It remains unclear why Barinem was targeted alongside Ken Saro-Wiwa and his supporters, as he was not a member of MOSOP. But before his arrest, Barinem had made his superiors aware of concerns that others were raising about the situation in Ogoniland – and after he was detained, he appealed for the military to withdraw from the region.
Esther says Barinem fell out of favour after refusing to work with the government against Ken. “My husband said, ‘Sorry, number one I’m a Christian. Number two I’m a child of Ogoni. I cannot collaborate with you guys to harm Ken.’ That’s what he told them. And I believe from there he became an enemy to them.”
THEY BELIEVE THAT THEY CAN USE THE NIGERIAN GOVERNMENT AGAINST ITS PEOPLE, WHICH THEY DID AND ARE STILL DOING
Esther Kiobel on Shell
Assaulted and detained
Barinem’s arrest had immediate consequences for Esther. She lost her catering job because, she says, “Everyone saw me as the wife of a killer.” She had four children, and without her income or Barinem’s, life got a lot harder. She says she felt “there will be no hope again because my husband was the breadwinner of the family”. She worried that he wouldn’t be able to help people as he had before, but she refused to give in to despair. “Even if I feel sad, I still have to get myself together,” she says, “and go ahead and fight, because he didn’t have anyone else close to him but me.”
In the weeks following Barinem’s arrest, Esther would have to dig deep for that courage time and again. When she tried to visit Barinem in jail, Paul Okuntimo, recently promoted to Lt. Colonel, was the commanding officer guarding him. He took her to another room and propositioned her. “When I pushed him away, I guess he got upset, and slapped me. He has a big hand, and that was like fire coming out. I slapped him back.” Okuntimo was furious. “He started a fight with me, left me half-naked, and called the army,” she says. “They dragged me, so there were all these cuts… and they tied me like an animal.” They then threw Esther into a van and drove her to an unknown place where she was held for two weeks. Somehow, Barinem found out what happened. He wrote a letter from jail, calling for her immediate release. The tribunal that would try Barinem and the other Ogoni 9 ordered Esther’s release. “That was how I was saved,” she says.
He started a fight with me, left me half-naked, and called the army… they tied me like an animal.Esther Kiobel, on being assaulted by Lt. Colonel Paul Okuntimo
Hanged after sham trial
After the men’s arrest, military operations in Ogoniland were stepped up. Okuntimo even appeared on public television, boasting about attacking villages.
Meanwhile, Shell was under no illusion about the likely outcome of the trial of the Ogoni 9. Shell did not advocate for their release until it was too late, despite knowing the trial was blatantly unfair. On 6 April 1995, the UK High Commissioner in Nigeria told Shell’s Brian Anderson as much, saying he believed “the government will make sure that he (Ken Saro-Wiwa) is found guilty.”
On 30 October, the men were sentenced to death. Ken and Barinem were sentenced for inciting murder – the others for carrying them out.
“The judgement of the Tribunal is not merely wrong, illogical or perverse. It is downright dishonest,” wrote Michael Birnbaum QC, a British lawyer who observed the trial. “I believe that the Tribunal first decided on its verdict and then sought for arguments to justify them.”
In its pursuit of profit, Shell contributed to grave human rights violations in Ogoniland, including the unfair trial and execution of the Ogoni 9. The executions were the end result of the government’s campaign to silence community protests – a campaign that Shell spurred on.
The government will make sure that he (Ken Saro-Wiwa) is found guilty.UK High Commissioner in Nigeria to Shell’s Brian Anderson, 6 April 1995
Within 10 days – even as Esther, family members and supporters around the world were appealing against the conviction – the men were executed. Esther was never informed when her husband would be hanged. She was with Ken Saro-Wiwa’s family, she says, when something told her she needed to see Barinem that day.
“’I want to go see my husband,’” she recalls saying. “’I just have to go now.’ So we went and called the driver, went down there, I took some food.” There, recognizing Ken’s sister who was also with them, an army officer made a gesture with his hands to her. “She turned to us, [saying]: ‘Oh my God, they said they’re dead!’. I immediately fainted.”
Only later would Esther discover the details of her husband’s death. “When they were trying to kill Ken,” she recalls, “his spirit did not go, he didn’t die instantly, he refused. They now kept him aside, and brought my husband in to be hanged. Ken heard my husband was crying, and talking about how he was innocent. So, after Ken saw my husband hanged and killed he felt so bad.” Saro-Wiwa was executed shortly afterwards, reportedly saying the immortal final words “Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues”.
Still in shock, Esther collected Barinem’s personal effects from the prison yard. Among them were a comb which still had some of his hair on it, and “a little note, where it said… how he loves us, the family.”
Distraught though she is recalling these events today, Esther is not daunted. “When I remember all this that happened, it gives me strength – fighting for justice, for him.”
Fleeing Nigeria, facing off Shell
In the wake of Barinem’s killing, Esther was beset by further tragedy. Not only had she lost her husband and her job, but she also lost several family members, including her mother. “Life was terrible, horrible for us. It was very hard to put food on the table,” she says.
One day, she had a visit. “Some people came to me and told me you have to leave for your dear life. Even if you don’t care for your life, care for your children, care for your loved ones. So I had to run for safety, to Benin Republic, where I became a refugee.” Esther left everything behind, taking her four children and her sister-in-law’s three. Together they remained at a camp in Benin until, she says, “the camp wasn’t safe anymore, because there’s this news [that the] Nigerian government used to come in and kidnap people.”
And so Esther fled with the seven children to a house where no one knew her. She lived like this for two years until, with Amnesty’s help, they were granted asylum to the USA.
Building a new life for herself and her children there, Esther could never let go of what happened to her husband. “Almost every day in my bedroom I remember and cry. But then I build up myself and decide to be strong,” she says. “I still say my husband’s spirit is behind me and lets me fight this battle. I can’t fight it alone.”
I hold Shell responsible.Esther Kiobel, 2016
Having fled Nigeria for her life, Esther knew she had no hope for justice from the government and the military in her home country. In 2002, she tried to take Shell to court in the USA, but in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that the US courts did not have jurisdiction over the case. So, after 22 years, Esther is facing Shell in its home country: the Netherlands. She is adamant that Barinem’s name be cleared. “His name is in history as a criminal,” she says, but “he’s not. He was a good man, good father, good husband, good brother. I want his name declared innocent.”
For Esther, there’s no doubt about the part that Shell played in Barinem’s death. “I hold Shell responsible,” she says. “Shell cause pollution in Ogoniland, and they refuse cleaning. They just want gain, they need a bigger gain, so they believe they can get rid of whoever they want to, and go in there, dredge the oil. That’s what they believe.”
Both Shell and Paul Okuntimo have publicly denied any involvement in the human rights violations described above.
Amnesty International presented the allegations to Shell in a letter dated 18 June 2017. Shell’s global headquarters did not provide a substantive response. Shell Nigeria stated:
“The allegations cited in your letter against [Shell] are false and without merit. [Shell Nigeria] did not collude with the military authorities to supress community unrest and in no way encouraged or advocated any act of violence in Nigeria….We have always denied these allegations in the strongest possible terms.”