Standing before history

By Michelle Chen Apr 09, 2009

A multinational oil giant may be headed for its day of reckoning in a New York City courtroom next month. The lawsuit, Wiwa v. Shell, centers on charges of rampant human rights abuses by Royal Dutch Shell against the Ogoni people of Nigeria, including the murder of the iconic activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Litigated by EarthRights International and the Center for Constitutional Rights, the case is based on the Alien Tort Claims Act, a statute that allows international human rights violators to be tried in the United States. According to the lawsuit, Shell conspired with the military dictatorship of Nigeria to carry out a campaign of violence and coercion to destroy the Ogoni resistance to Shell’s oil drilling activities, which are credited with devastating the environment and undermining the Ogoni’s traditional lifestyle. The oil industry’s exploitation of the Niger Delta ties into the legacy of colonialism as well as post-colonial political fracturing across the African continent. National Geographic traced Nigeria’s economic colonization in a 2007 article on the so-called “curse of the Black Gold”:

When the oil curse began with that first great gusher in the creekside village of Oloibiri, 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Port Harcourt, Nigeria was still a British colony. At independence in 1960, few observers expected that Nigeria would mature into an oil giant. But in subsequent decades, the oil companies, led by five multinational firms—Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Italy’s Agip, and ExxonMobil and Chevron from the U.S.—transformed a remote, nearly inaccessible wetland into industrial wilderness. The imprint: 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) of pipelines, 159 oil fields, and 275 flow stations, their gas flares visible day and night from miles away. … Recent reports by the United Nations Development Program and the International Crisis Group identify some of the questionable strategies employed by oil companies: paying off village chiefs for drilling rights; building a road or dredging a canal without an adequate environmental impact study; tying up compensation cases—for resource damages or land purchases—for years in court; dispatching security forces to violently break up protests; patching up oil leaks without cleaning up sites.

A charismatic environmental and human rights advocate, Ken Saro-Wiwa rallied widespread political momentum behind the nonviolent Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People during the early 1990s. But he also drew the ire of the military government and corporate elite. He was detained on highly dubious murder charges—part of what activists condemn as a brutal plot to crush opposition, lead to massive killings. Saro-Wiwa was executed in 1995. In many ways, the ongoing controversy over the oppression of the Ogoni echoes Shell’s history; the company’s expansion during the early 20th century was greased by the engines of British imperialism. The resonance of history also imbues in another ongoing lawsuit, accusing multinational companies of supplying equipment to the apartheid regime in South Africa. An American court may seem an unlikely setting for trying a human rights lawsuit steeped in Africa’s colonial past and the structured oppression of today’s economic imperialism. But Wiwa’s vision was global in scope, as Naomi Klein wrote in a 2005 commentary:

The idea for which Saro-Wiwa died fighting–that the resources of the land should be used to benefit the people of that land–lies at the heart of every anticolonial struggle in history, from the Boston Tea Party to Iran’s turfing of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in Abadan.

Wiwa’s final statement before the military tribunal in 1995 explained that he had persevered in his activism because he was

[a]ppalled by the denigrating poverty of my people who live on a richly endowed land, distressed by their political marginalization and economic strangulation, angered by the devastation of their land, their ultimate heritage, anxious to preserve their right to life and to a decent living, and determined to usher to this country as a whole a fair and just democratic system which protects everyone and every ethnic group and gives us all a valid claim to human civilization.

Facing his death, Wiwa declared, “We all stand before history.” Soon, in a courtroom halfway around the globe, another generation of activists will be challenged to not only stand before history, but stand up to it. Image: Ed Kashi, EarthRights International