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Shell settles with Nigerian tribe

The Ogoni claim victory over the oil giant, although the company insists the $15.5-million award is a humanitarian gesture.

June 13, 2009

After 13 years of litigation, Royal Dutch Shell has agreed to settle with plaintiffs who accused the oil giant of complicity in human rights abuses in Nigeria, the most infamous of which was the execution of prominent playwright, author and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. A member of the Ogoni tribe, Saro-Wiwa was a vocal critic of Shell and the brutal military government of Gen. Sani Abacha. His eloquence brought international attention to Shell's questionable environmental practices in the Niger River delta and the government's lax regulation of environmental laws.

Oil production in Ogoniland started in the 1950s, and what followed is a now predictable pattern in many oil-producing countries: Corrupt government officials enriched themselves; the local population was marginalized politically, and their ancestral land suffered enormous environmental damage. Led by Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni demanded an end to oil spills and to the clearing of mangrove forests to make way for Shell pipelines, as well as a share of oil revenues. The government responded by burning villages and raping and murdering residents, according to human rights groups. Saro-Wiwa was arrested, tried in secret and, along with eight other Ogoni leaders, hanged.

The suit against Shell, brought by the families of Ogoni victims of persecution, including Saro-Wiwa's son, alleged that the company asked the military regime to silence the activist and that it paid soldiers who carried out human rights abuses. Shell has adamantly denied those charges. The settlement, it maintains, is a humanitarian gesture meant to facilitate reconciliation.

Maybe so. But this will be the best $15.5 million Shell ever spent. If the company forfeits the opportunity to be fully exonerated, it also averts damning testimony. For example, Owens Saro-Wiwa was ready to tell how, hoping to save his brother Ken's life, he met with a Shell executive who told him that it would be "difficult but not impossible" -- as long as the campaign against the company was halted. Shell acknowledged the meetings but says no such bargaining was attempted.

So Shell casts the settlement as a gesture of goodwill, and the plaintiffs are celebrating what they consider a complete victory. And at least one-third of the money will go to a trust for the Ogoni people. The only downside is that there may never be a full public airing of the events in Nigeria. In a broader sense, however, the story is bound to come out. Unfortunately, variations of the same sad series of events continue to play out around the world, and that being the case, a day of reckoning is inevitable.

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