Shell’s Malcolm Brinded wrote an article recently in the Guardian’s Comment section, that was savaged for its patronising tone and ‘all-round offensiveness’. Brinded would like us all to believe that Shell are the nice guys in Nigeria, who settled out of court as a ‘humanitarian gesture’ to the Ogoni people. The very notion is an insult to all Niger Deltans. The $15.5 million settlement sum is spare change to a company that, by last year’s figures, earns that much in four hours’ profit. If Shell want a lasting peace in the Niger Delta, why do they refuse to spend the $3 billion needed to stop gas flaring, an illegal practise that has been poisoning locals for four decades and stoking unrest in the Delta?
Lawyers close to Shell once thought that the company would only settle “when hell froze over” and they “skated on it”. Shell’s denials of liability have grown trenchant over the past 14 years, but in light of the evidence submitted to court by the plaintiffs, the company’s insistence that they had no responsibility for the violent crackdowns on the Ogoni people in the 1990s now seems pathological.
Basil Omiyi, Director of Shell Nigeria, says the settlement was ‘a way of drawing a line under the past’. Yet the only lines being drawn are battle lines in the struggle to hold corporations to account for human rights abuses, and Shell has been losing ground. This is only the beginning, and Shell faces another suit in the New York Southern District court for human rights abuses, and a legal action in The Hague for its repeated oil spills. Both involve Ogoni plaintiffs.
In an ideal world, the thousands ‘who suffered during the violence and turmoil in the 1990s’ that Brinded refers to in sympathy, would all have their day in court charging his company with aiding and abetting the military violence. Today, roughly 1,000 people are killed in the Niger Delta conflict annually. Shell, the largest operator in the region, continues to depend on military protection much like it did in the 1990s.
It is inconceivable that on the eve of a trial, a company would settle out of court for $15.5 million if it were innocent of any crime or wrongdoing. According to attorneys the payout is a much higher settlement than similar cases. Rather than being ready to ‘go to court to clear our name’, Shell has spent the last 12 years, and millions of dollars in legal fees, fighting to keep the evidence from going to a trial jury. Shell settled because of the damning evidence that exposes their complicity in human rights abuses.
Shell’s denials are already wearing thin from the corrosive drip of documentary evidence, which show regular payments between Shell and Nigerian soldiers, meetings with state security services requesting re-enforcements, and a myriad of testimonies in which the Shell logo appears on the sides of helicopters and trucks used to transport the police, known locally as the ‘kill & go’. The unsettling question is when will Shell come clean about their role in the murder of Ogonis? All the evidence has been published by the ShellGuilty coalition online, available for the court of public opinion to decide who is guilty.