Here again. Standing before the white Portland Stone cenotaph of the Shell Center. A crowd of fifty or more in silent attention as the names of the dead are read out:
The chief mourner is Lazarus Tamana, the head of MOSOP Europe – the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. Stepping to the microphone he says:
We gather here today as it is apparent that the souls of the sacrificed men who were then the finest examples of Ogoni manhood will not rest in peace until Justice prevails … In 1996 Shell was sued by the Centre for Constitutional Rights over its complicity in human rights abuses against the Ogoni, including collusion to bring about the arrest and execution of the Ogoni Nine. Their decision to settle the case out of court rather than face trial transmits their calculation, cowardice and culpability to the extrajudicial murders of the Ogoni Nine. In the court of public opinion the guilty corporation should not be left to hide from the truth of its political machinations and ecological apocalypse wrought upon the Ogoni and Niger Delta peoples and their land.
Behind Lazarus are banners that proclaim ‘They can hold The Bus, but they can’t stop The Movement’ and ‘#freethebus’. For The Bus, the Living Memorial to Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Nine, created by Platform and Sokari Douglas Camp, having toured around England for a decade has arrived in Nigeria, bound for Bori in Ogoniland. However on reaching the Port of Lagos it has been impounded by the Customs Authorities, in yet another attempt to silence the calls for justice. This action by the Nigerian state has backfired, for the artwork has captured the public imagination and there has been demand from across the country to release The Bus and allow the memory of those murdered twenty years ago be properly honoured.
The coordinator of this morning’s ceremony is Suzanne Dhaliwal of Platform. As a gaggle of photographers clusters around, she reads from an eyewitness account of the events that took place exactly twenty years ago:
‘Ken said “What sort of country is this that delights in the killing of her illustrious citizens? … What have we done to deserve death, other than that we spoke the truth, asking for justice for our poor people of Ogoniland. If by our death Ogoniland can be free from these shackles of oppression, I accept to die, God accept our souls but the struggle continues …”
In the melancholy of Sue’s face I catch a glimpse of what she will look like as an old woman. She was a young teenager when these killings took place. The memory of those events is passing down the generations. Both in London and in Ogoniland a new generation is calling for justice. Far from dimming, the flame burns brighter with the passing years.
Along with eight others who come to the microphone in turn, I’m asked to read a short biography of one of the hanged. It starts:
‘Paul Levara was an Ogoni man through and through, born of parents at one with the land in their professions as fisherman and farmers. His parents were economic migrants to nearby Cameroon crossing the border to escape the straightened circumstances of their Bomu Gokana economy. Paul returned to Ogoni at 11 years old. …’
I’m struck by the realisation that I know so much more about the lives of the condemned than I did on the days following the hanging.
As with several others in the crowd I was among those who gathered outside this building, and the Nigerian High Commission just across the Thames, in the days following the execution. Back then the crowd was smaller than today. We were filled with shock and grief. And a sense of horror and fear instilled by the actions of a state and a corporation. Fear that this murder that had been threatened for 18 months had actually happened. That, General Suni Abacha, the Nigerian head of state, had enough power, enough arrogance, enough blind stupidity, to ignore the outcry of citizens and the warnings of politicians around the world, and allow this judicial killing to take place. That Cor Herkstroter, the Chairman of the Board of the Directors of Royal Dutch Shell, had enough power, enough arrogance, enough blind stupidity, to ignore the outcry of citizens and the warnings of politicians around the world, and allow this judicial killing to take place.
The complicity of Shell in the events leading up to the hangings became crystal clear to me in 2005 as I worked on Platform’s book ‘The Next Gulf – London, Washington and the Oil Conflict in Nigeria’. One of the co-authors, Andy Rowell, interviewed Owens Wiwa, Ken’s brother, who said: ‘Ken told me in 1993 that Shell would like to see him dead, and not only dead but disgraced. That Shell would like to have him in for murder. He told me that in 1993. I thought it was a joke.’ Owens believed that Brian Anderson, the Chairman of Shell Nigeria, who met secretly with him before his brother’s death ‘had the power to stop that trial but refused when he didn’t get what he wanted from me.’ Shell wanted Owens to call off the international protests. ‘Shell made it possible for the government’ to kill Ken, he said. Four years after this interview, Brian Anderson along with 15 other Shell executives faced the threat of a court case in New York over the killings. Ascribed to Anderson was the line “If you call off the campaign, maybe we can do something for your brother”. The case never came fully to trial, for Shell settled out of court, as Lazarus reminded the crowd.
General Abacha is now long since dead. Brian Anderson is now 72, Chairman & Managing Director of Anderson Energy, and Director of Addax Petroleum Corp. But what of Cor Herkstroter? Is he still living? If so, he is today two months past his 78th birthday. He is a fraction older than my mother. Where are Anderson and Herkstroter this morning as we stand outside the Shell Centre? Do they remember and mark this day too?
And what of the others who were on the Board of Royal Dutch Shell in the months leading up to the killing? Men – all white men from England and Holland – who let the murder happen. It is not likely that they wished it, but clearly they did not do enough to prevent it. It seems that Herkstroter was shocked by the hanging, and by the public fury at Shell that was shown in demonstrations around the world. In the couple of years following the 10th November 1995, Herkstroter chaired a committee that reviewed Shell’s ethical policies. The subsequent publication ‘Profits and Principles’ had an Introduction that read: ‘We were all shaken by the tragic execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight Ogonis by the Nigerian Authorities’
Herkstroter also made public his view that in twenty-five years time, in 2020, Shell would be a leader in renewable energy, for the days of the dominance of oil were fading. But these pronouncements have all passed downstream. On 19th May 2015, at this year’s Shell AGM, the current chairman, Ben van Beurden, repeated this line about the coming age of significant renewables but promised that it would arrive in the middle of this century. While there’s money to be made from the burning of carbon, the moment of the great turning is forever delayed, pushed back another 25 years. So it is with the promises that Shell will help restore the ecosystems of the Delta that it has destroyed. Twenty years after 1995 the communities of Ogoni are still waiting, and it seems that the corporation is still obstructing the implementation of the United Nations plan on remediation.
At the close of our ceremony, Winifred Adeyemi, statuesque, swathed in a vibrant yellow and black dress leads a small party to the door of the Shell Centre. Strapped to her back is a plastic doll, its brown legs sticking out beneath the pale swaddling cloth. The doll baby is headless. It stands as a reminder of the continuing impact of oil pollution in the Delta – infertility, still-births and deformed children.
A thick set security guard in hi-viz jacket blocks the entrance. Winnie asks if she can deliver to Shell the memorial wreath that she has created. The guard is stoney faced. The wreath has to be left perched on the top of a shiny stainless steel crash barrier a few feet in front of the glass doors to the building.
How callously disrespectful can this company be? Why can they not send someone to receive the gift at the door, even a minor functionary? Why do they not mark this day themselves? On the top of the tower of the Shell Centre is the Shell flag, why is it not flying at half-mast? Of course the current Board and staff of Shell wish that this issue would go away, that the ghosts of the hanged would cease to haunt them. It seems that Herkstroter’s public remorse has long since been forgotten.
The men who sat around the boardroom tables in the months that led up to the hanging have long since left the company. Some may have passed away, while others continue to draw their Shell pensions. The corporation tries to forget what happened and the actors in the events. But we should remember the executives of those killing years.
Sir Mark Moody-Stuart
Sir Philip Watts
Sir John Jennings
Sir Anthony Acland
Jeroen van der Veer
Walter van der Vijver
Now is the time for the historians and the lawyers.
And now is time for a new wave of action as The Bus moves to its release and enegy builds to the next Ogoni Day – Monday 4th January 2016
Many thanks to Suzanne Dhaliwal, Andy Rowell and Sai Murray.