NEW YORK // Royal Dutch Shell has agreed to pay $15.5 million (Dh57m) to settle lawsuits claiming the oil and gas company was complicit in the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists by the military regime ruling Nigeria in 1995. Shell acknowledged no wrongdoing in the settlement, reached late on Monday. It said it hoped to aid the "process of reconciliation". But the plaintiffs, who included Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr, the activist's son, and other relatives said they were "gratified that Shell has agreed to atone for its actions".
Saro-Wiwa, a celebrated author and poet, led a non-violent human rights and environmental campaign against Shell in the Ogoni region of Nigeria before he was arrested on what many considered to be trumped-up murder charges. Bill Clinton, the US president at the time, failed to win clemency for Saro-Wiwa from Gen Sani Abacha, the de facto president until 1998. Saro-Wiwa's execution by hanging shocked the world and Nigeria was subsequently expelled from the Commonwealth. Since the advent of civilian rule, however, it has returned to the international fold.
The lawsuits against Shell were filed in New York under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows non-citizens to pursue cases related to human rights abuses overseas. Shell was alleged to have backed the jailing, torturing and killing of the Ogoni activists as well as polluting the region through its oil activities. After numerous delays, the case was due to go to trial in the US District Court in Manhattan this week.
Shell strenuously denied the claims and the legal settlement averts what could have been an extended period of negative and damaging publicity. "While we were prepared to go to court to clear our name, we believe the right way forward is to focus on the future for Ogoni people, which is important for peace and stability in the region," Malcolm Brinded, Shell's executive director for exploration and production, said in a statement.
About $5 million of the settlement will go towards a development fund, the KiisiTrust, to aid the Ogoni region and the rest will cover legal fees and compensation for the plaintiffs. "In reaching this settlement, we were very much aware that we are not the only Ogonis who have suffered in our struggle with Shell," said Mr Saro-Wiwa, who now works as an adviser to Umaru Yar'Adua, the Nigerian president.
Marco Simons, legal director of EarthRights International, one of the non-profit groups that helped to bring the lawsuit, said: "This reinforces the plaintiff's demands that corporations such as Shell safeguard human rights and the environment." Several indigenous groups have filed lawsuits against oil companies in recent years, including villagers in Indonesia against ExxonMobil, accused of employing guards who kidnapped, tortured and murdered civilians, while Chevron could face a $27 billion judgment in Ecuador over environmental damage in the Amazon rainforest. There are also several outstanding cases against Shell in Nigeria.
The Ogoni plaintiffs said the decision to accept a settlement came after "lengthy and exhaustive deliberations . . . Justice in these cases is not a level playing field - the odds are stacked in favour of the corporations and this case highlights the need to level the legal playing field in issues like access to justice as well as the regime of rights and responsibilities that govern the global economy."
The plaintiffs were Mr Saro-Wiwa and relatives of John Kpuninen, Saturday Doobee, Daniel Gbokoo, Felix Nuate and Barinem Kiobel, who were all executed. Owens Wiwa, Saro-Wiwa's brother, and Michael Tema Vizor brought claims for the torture and detention that resulted in their exile from Nigeria. Further claims were brought by Karalolo Kogbara, who lost her arm, and on behalf of Uebari N-nah, who was killed in attacks on the Ogoni.