Big Oil on Trial For 1995 Nigerian Executions

The Royal Dutch Shell oil corporation is on trial in New York, charged in a civil suit with complicity in the death of Nigerian writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight comrades in 1995. Saro-Wiwa’s execution drew world attention to the environmental catastrophe that oil production has brought to the delta region of the Niger River, home to the Ogoni people. Saro-Wiwa and his co-defendants were tried by a military government, but Shell oil is charged with collaboration in the hangings, and in the torture of many other Ogonis — all to facilitate multi-billion dollar profits. Multinational corporations everywhere are following the case, fearing they too may called to account for their symbiotic relationships with murderous regimes in the resource-rich regions of the world.

Nigeria’s environmental degradation is a by-product of the moral and political rot that flows from neocolonialism. It is the physical manifestation of the total surrender of national sovereignty to foreigners — like Shell oil — by those native classes that rule the land for the benefit of foreigners. To put one’s country’s resources at the disposal of foreigners is the ultimate corruption — which leads to every other conceivable crime.

It is a false dichotomy to separate the corruption of Nigeria’s governments — military or civilian — from the predatory presence of Big Oil. The two are locked in the deepest embrace. The foreign corporations pay the regime to maintain peace — and the regime reciprocates by imposing on the people a “peace of the dead.” There are other sources of corruption in the developing world, other contradictions between people and their governments, but the dominance of economic resources by foreigners exacerbates every other division in society. The competition to get into the foreigners’ money flow becomes the Great Game of national political life. The bigger the money flow, the greater the imperative to keep the people in check. The police and army serve as paid thugs for the foreigners’ protection. The national debasement is total. Nigeria’s most important city, Lagos, is also one of the most expensive in the world — yet 70 percent of Nigerians subsist on a dollar or less a day. There is no greater corruption imaginable.

In court, Shell oil will seek to present itself as an innocent party — even a victim of African brutality and corruption. Shell is more properly compared to a businessman who hires a hit man to kill a union organizer. The businessman and the hit man are both guilty of capital murder. The greater onus is on the businessman, whose money made the crime possible.

In the Niger Delta, Ogoni rebels have cut Nigeria’s oil production in half, putting the squeeze on US-based Chevron Oil (where, incidentally, Condoleezza Rice used to work). According to Amnesty International, hundreds of civilians have been killed in the fighting. The Nigerian government has declared the entire delta a military zone. No doubt, great crimes are being committed at the behest of Big Oil. Before he was put to death, Ken Saro-Wiwa predicted it would come to this.

* This article was a Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford

Glen Ford is Executive Editor of Black Agenda Report, where this article first appeared. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Glen, or visit Glen's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Julius N'Sama said on May 28th, 2009 at 7:58pm #

    Neocolonialists? Stop placing the blame on Shell. They are a minority owner in the Nigerian projects and did not hire the assassins. Blame the Nigerian government. Go there, see Abuja, see NNPC, see the hummers and castles that the leaders have gotten through the oil money. Shell is not to blame here. The Nigerian government is tremendously powerful and fully responsible. Wake up, for the love of humanity.

  2. Deadbeat said on May 29th, 2009 at 3:00am #

    I’m not familar with the case here but I do have some suspicion since the “Left” is given this a lot of focus and that Antonia Juhasz was seen this week on Democracy Now! The “Left” has been putting out propaganda shifting all ills in the world to the oil company. It was a line that was put out especially as a way to obscure the influence of Zionism in the war on Iraq. Clearly the lawsuit helps to advance this line of Chomskyite thinking and propaganda. It lead me to think that the previous poster may be raising a very good reason to take a closer look and analysis of the issue.

  3. Hue Longer said on May 29th, 2009 at 3:46am #


    Please tell me you are kidding!

    Zionism can’t be fit in so you call it Chompskyite propaganda to divert attention?! If you won’t familiarize yourself with the case, at least go further with your strange line and find angles to support Zionism having a hand in it; surely you can manufacture a case for oil companies being controlled by their shadow? ANYTHING but give credit to Julius who thinks SHELL is just a punter at the race enjoying the outcome of its disinterested bet.

  4. Lloyd said on May 29th, 2009 at 4:55am #

    Thank you, DV, for providing another excellent article-radio report about Africa by Glen Ford. Along with Keith Harmon Snow and his website, All Things Pass, Glen and his website Black Agenda Report provide vital information about the politics of Africa.

  5. Max Shields said on May 29th, 2009 at 5:40am #

    Once again, DB re-frames the issues. While oil may be the underlying (“complicit”) motive in this case, the real point is what a careful study of conflict and war reveals. Nearly all wars and conflict has as root cause resources of one sort or another. Whether it is water, land for food, copper/fossile/gold, accessibility to other resources, these conflicts some of which become full fledged wars, have given birth to imperialism and hegemony.

    At bottom, it is about control, controlling access and the control of use. All poverty (as defined by the incapacity to provide daily sustenance) and all wealth is derived from who controls natural resources. This is not immaterial, DB. This is the central issue to most human problems along with the mis-use of these natural resources which are the basis for all live on the planet.

    Chomsky is not the issue. He’s certainly not the issue with regards to this case, nor the estute article by Glen Ford. Ford and a number of the writers at Black Agenda Report have some of the most perceptive essays on North and South (whether in or outside the US).

    When you don’t understand what makes the rich rich, you can never understand what makes the poor poor. Ford understands.

  6. Lloyd said on May 29th, 2009 at 7:58am #

    I’m going to use that one, Max: If you don’t understand what makes the rich rich, you can never understand what makes the poor poor.