"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

6.10.2009

peace comes stealing slow

I am very frequently asked how it is that I came to be interested in studying politics in African states. There are several answers to that question, but one of the most significant has to do with two research projects I had to complete during my first year of university work. The second project was about refugees in central Africa, which, given that it was April 1997, was a bit of a challenge to complete.

The first was about the Ogoniland Crisis in Nigeria. Just about a year before I began working on the project in fall 1996, Nigeria's authorities had executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, an environmental activist from a minority ethnic group in the Niger Delta whose land and livelihoods were being destroyed by the oil-extracting activities of Royal Dutch Shell. The military government of General Sani Abacha trumped up charges against Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders, tried them in a kangaroo military tribunal, and hanged all nine shortly thereafter.

The human tragedy of the case is hard to overstate. Nine people died after engaging in a campaign of nonviolent resistance against a corrupt authority and a corporation that destroyed their environment. The case also raised many interesting theoretical and practical questions. One of the most important is whether multinational corporations have a responsibility to protect the rights of people in the areas in which they work, especially when they are working in conjunction with a corrupt government like the one that ruled Nigeria in the early 1990's.

Yesterday, the families of the Ogoni Nine got some peace at last. The families filed suit against Royal Dutch Shell, alleging that the company and its Nigeria head were directly involved in violations of the human rights of the victims through such activities as supplying weapons to police. A trial was to begin this month, but yesterday, Royal Dutch Shell settled with the families for $15.5 million. As part of the settlement, Royal Dutch Shell insists that it did nothing wrong and holds no liability for the deaths of the Ogoni Nine. $5 million of the settlement will go into a trust for the Ogoni people, while the rest will cover thirteen years' worth of legal fees and as compensation to the families.

Saro-Wiwa's son, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jr., wrote a very moving op-ed on the settlement in The Guardian yesterday. As he points out, the case is significant not because the families were finally compensated in some small way for the loss of their sons, fathers, and husbands, but because "Multinationals now know that a precedent has been set, that it is possible to be sued for human rights violations in foreign jurisdictions."

Royal Dutch Shell has always maintained its innocence in regards to what happened in Ogoniland so many years ago. We may never get to the full truth of what happened, but there is no question that Shell, along with many other oil companies operating in the Niger Delta, has never had the best interest of local populations at heart. The concerns of shareholders - and of people like American citizens who want cheap oil - have always come first. Here's hoping that the long-deferred justice for the Ogoni will help MNC's to reconsider their roles in the still-volatile Delta, and throughout the world.

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