The rights group has reviewed a cache of the company’s internal documents, including strategy papers, internal memos and letters to officials, as well as witness statements, revealing that the Anglo-Dutch oil giant directly engaged in Nigerian military’s brutal campaign to silence anti-pollution protesters in the oil-rich tribal region of Ogoniland back in the 1990s.
“Shell was the single most important company in Nigeria and in 1995 pumped almost one million barrels of crude oil a day,” the report states. That in turn constituted roughly half of the African nation‘s total daily oil production. More than that, Shell Nigeria had, “access to the biggest low cost hydrocarbon resource base in the [company] Group, with enough oil to sustain production for almost 100 years at current levels,” according to the Amnesty report.
Understandably enough, pumping oil at such a pace had devastating impact on the environment in Ogoniland, which led to widespread protests among the local Ogoni tribe. Shell knew of the environmental impact, with Bopp Van Dessel, a company official who resigned over the issue, saying in 1996: “Any Shell site that I saw was polluted. Any terminal that I saw was polluted. It was clear to me that Shell was devastating the area.”
The Ogoni protests that unfolded not only deprived Shell and the Nigerian government of access to wells in that area, they also threatened to hamper operating of pipeline carrying oil from other regions across Ogoniland. To make matters worse, Shell encouraged and even aided Nigerian government – led by General Sani Abacha, who seized power 1993 coup – to suppress the protest movement with coercive force.
Abacha, who “seemed to find it unbelievable that such a small tribe could have the effrontery to cause such a lot of trouble,” greenlit the establishment of a so-called Internal Security Task Force (ISTF) to “restore and maintain law and order in Ogoniland.” The task force’s raids on Ogoni villages resembled gruesome tactics of Latin American death squads, as they carried out “numerous extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, raped women and girls and detained and tortured many people.”
According to an Amnesty International report as of June 1994, some 30 villages had been attacked and “more than 50 members of the Ogoni ethnic group are reported to have been extra-judicially executed.” In July that year, the Dutch ambassador told Shell that the Nigerian Army had killed some 800 Ogonis.
The company was well-aware of the military’s conduct, according to the report. “There is irrefutable evidence that Shell knew that the Nigerian security forces committed grave violations when they were deployed to address community protests,” it states.
The inquiry also cites an internal memo dated February 23, 1993, showing that senior Shell staff were worried that calling for a “military presence … will attract a potential confrontation which may have catastrophic results.”
Shell not only knew of the army’s brutality, but it in fact motivated the government to resolve the “problem” of the Ogoni protests. Shortly after General Abacha seized power, the company wrote to local authorities that “community disturbances, blockade and sabotage” had led to a drop in production and asked for help to “minimize the disruptions,” according to Amnesty’s findings. Shell even went as far as singling out Ogoni communities where these “disturbances” had taken place.
Members of the ISTF – one of the units deployed against Ogoni protesters – were actually on Shell’s pay, Amnesty revealed. In March 1994, Shell paid its commander, Major Paul Okuntimo, and 25 of his men, a kind of an “honorarium” to show “gratitude and motivation for a sustained favourable disposition towards [Shell] in future assignments.”
The payment, made just days after Okuntimo’s troops opened fire on peaceful protesters outside the Shell HQ in Port Harcourt, amounted to $900, which was described as covering the cost of lunches and “special duty allowance.”
During the 1990s, Shell also lent material support and assistance to the Nigerian military, Amnesty said, citing witness accounts by Major Okuntimo’s orderly, Boniface Ejiogu. He testified in May 1994 that he saw Okuntimo transported in a Shell-operated helicopter, and soldiers ferried in buses and boats provided by the company. He said that when the ISTF planned “night operations,” Okuntimo would call George Ukpong, then head of security for Shell, to request the use of company pickup trucks.
“Sometimes Shell played a more direct role in the bloodshed – for example by transporting armed forces to break up protests, even when it became clear what the consequences would be. This clearly amounts to enabling or facilitating the horrific crimes that followed,” Audrey Gaughran, director of Global Issues at Amnesty International, said.
Responding to RT’s request for comment, Shell said “Amnesty International’s allegations concerning SPDC [Shell Nigeria] are false and without merit,” adding that they “did not collude with the authorities to suppress community unrest and in no way encouraged or advocated any act of violence in Nigeria.”
Shell was condemned in 2002 by the African Commission of Human Rights, “but only indirectly because there were no means to take the corporation to court,” Melik Ozden, director of the Europe-Third World Centre (CETIM), told RT. He added that “there is no possibility of the company being charged… the general strategy of transnational corporations in such cases is to avoid condemnation and avoid court cases.”