Execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other activists, and subsequent lawsuit against Shell
On 10 November 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues from the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) were executed by the Nigerian military government. Amnesty International said the men were convicted of murder “after grossly unfair and politically motivated trials and had no right to appeal.” In 1996, a case was filed against Shell alleging that it was complicit in the torture and summary execution of Ken-Saro Wiwa and the other MOSOP members. In June 2009, Shell agreed to settle the lawsuit for US$15.5 million. Shell “has always maintained the allegations were false” and says that it appealed to the Nigerian Government to “show clemency on humanitarian grounds to Ken Saro-Wiwa and his co-defendants”.
Italicised quotations below are selected abstracts; for full text, click hyperlinked titles.
Summary profile of the Wiwa v Shell lawsuit, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre – includes links to further information
“In 1996, Royal Dutch/Shell was sued in US federal court by Ken Wiwa (son of the late Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed in 1995) and other members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). MOSOP campaigned against the environmental damage caused by oil extraction in the Ogoni region of Nigeria and for increased autonomy for the Ogoni ethnic group. Ken Saro-Wiwa and other members of MOSOP were detained illegally in 1994, held incommunicado in military custody, then tried by a special court established by the military government using procedures in violation of international fair trial standards, convicted of murder and executed. The plaintiffs allege that the Nigerian military government and security forces committed human rights violations, including torture and summary execution of MOSOP members, to suppress MOSOP’s activities and that Royal Dutch/Shell was complicit in the commission of these abuses. The plaintiffs won several pre-trial rulings, including on motions by the defendants to dismiss the case.
In early June 2009, the parties announced that they had agreed to a settlement in the case for $15.5 million. The settlement provides compensation for the ten plaintiffs and covers a portion of the plaintiffs’ legal costs. The settlement also establishes The Kiisi Trust, intended to benefit the Ogoni people, which will be governed by independent trustees. This trust is to fund initiatives in Ogoniland such as education, women’s programmes, adult literacy and small enterprise support.”
[video] “Shell in court over alleged Nigeria crimes”, Kristen Saloomey, Al Jazeera, 3 Jun 2009
“Royal Dutch Shell is to go on trial in a US court over alleged crimes against humanity and exploitation of the oil-rich Niger Delta more than 10 years ago. The Dutch oil giant is accused of sponsoring a terror campaign by Nigerian security forces that led to the death of activist and author Ken Saro-Wiwa along with eight others in 1995.”
[video] "The Case Against Shell: 'The Hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa Showed the True Cost of Oil'", EarthRights International (ERI) & the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), May 2009
“In May 2009, multinational oil giant Shell will stand trial in United States federal court to answer to charges that it conspired in human rights abuses including murder in Nigeria in the 1990s. This mini-documentary tells the story of the rise of an inspiring and nonviolent movement for human rights and environmental justice, and the lengths Shell was willing to go to stop it.” – includes statements by plaintiffs’ lawyers
“Ken Saro-Wiwa”, Shell website
“The 1995 executions of Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogonis by Nigeria’s military government attracted international condemnation. Although SPDC [Shell Petroleum Development Company] was not responsible for those tragic events, and SPDC - and Shell International in London – had attempted to persuade the government to grant clemency, the family of Ken Saro-Wiva and others brought a court case against Shell. The allegations being made are false and without merit.”
[video] “Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni struggle: an introduction”, Remember Saro-Wiwa, 17 Nov 2009
“Nigerian writer and activist Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian government for his campaign for justice in the Niger Delta. In this video Saro-Wiwa reads from his book of short stories and broadcasts his last interview before he was executed.”
“Shell settles human rights suit for $15.5M”, Chris Kahn, Associated Press, 8 Jun 2009
“Royal Dutch Shell agreed to a $15.5 million settlement Monday to end a lawsuit alleging that the oil giant was complicit in the executions of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and other civilians by Nigeria's former military regime. Shell…said it agreed to settle the lawsuit in hopes aiding the "process of reconciliation." But Europe's largest oil company acknowledged no wrongdoing in the 1995 hanging deaths of six people, including poet Ken Saro-Wiwa”
“Secret papers 'show how Shell targeted Nigeria oil protests'”, Andy Rowell, Independent (UK), 14 Jun 2009
“Serious questions over Shell Oil's alleged involvement in human rights abuses in Nigeria emerged last night after confidential internal documents and court statements revealed how the energy giant enlisted the help of the country's brutal former military government to deal with protesters. The documents…support allegations that Shell helped to provide Nigerian police and military with logistical support, and aided security sweeps.”
[video] “Nigeria hangs human rights activists”, BBC News, 10 Nov 1995
“Writer and human rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, is executed in Nigeria despite worldwide pleas for clemency.”
The Case Against Shell
Royal Dutch Shell, plc (Shell) began oil production in the
Niger Delta region of Nigeria in 1958 and has a long
history of working closely with the Nigerian government to
quell popular opposition to its presence in the region. At the
request of Shell, and with Shell’s assistance and financing,
Nigerian soldiers used deadly force and massive, brutal
raids against the Ogoni people throughout the early 1990s
to repress a growing movement against the oil company.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), EarthRights
International (ERI) and other human rights attorneys sued
Shell for human rights violations against the Ogoni. After
thirteen years of litigation, the case against Shell ended in a
historic $15.5 million settlement for the plaintiffs.
Who are The Ogoni ?
Ogoni is the name of a region in the Niger Delta of
southern Nigeria as well as the name of the ethnic group
that lives in that region.
For the Ogoni and the people of Nigeria, oil and oil
companies have brought poverty, environmental devastation
and widespread, severe human rights abuses.
Currently, almost 85 percent of oil revenues accrue to 1
percent of the population while, according to the African
Development Bank, more than 70 percent of Nigerians live
on less than US$1 per day. Ogoni is home to several
environmental treasures, including the third-largest
mangrove forest in the world and one of the largest
surviving rainforests in Nigeria. Oil drilling by Shell and
other oil companies has had a devastating impact on the
region’s environment. Oil spills, gas flaring and deforestation
have stripped the land of its environmental resources, destroying the subsistence farming and fishing based economy of the Ogoni.
What is MOSOP?
The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People
(MOSOP) is a human rights group founded in 1990 that is
committed to using nonviolence to stop the repression and
exploitation of the Ogoni and their resources by Shell and
the Nigerian government. Upon its founding, MOSOP
quickly garnered wide support and in 1993, at least half
the total Ogoni population publicly supported the group.
Ken Saro-Wiwa, founding member and president of
MOSOP brought worldwide attention to the human rights
violations committed against the Ogoni through international
campaigning and his poignant writing. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize and awarded the Right Livelihood Award and the Goldman Prize for his environmental and human rights activism.
What happened to the Plaintiffs in this Case?
As the peaceful movement of the Ogoni grew, so did the
Nigerian government’s and Shell’s brutal campaign against
the Ogoni and MOSOP. In early 1993, Shell requested
military support to build a pipeline through Ogoni. When
plaintiff Karalolo Kogbara was crying over the resulting
bulldozing of her crops, she was shot by Nigerian troops
and lost an arm as a result. In a separate incident later that
year, plaintiff Uebari N-nah was shot and killed by soldiers
near a Shell flow station; the soldiers were requested by and
later compensated by Shell. Plaintiff Owens Wiwa was
detained repeatedly under false charges in 1994 to prevent
him from protesting; he was beaten and threatened throughout
his detentions. Michael Vizor, another plaintiff, was
arrested for his political activities and upon his arrest his
daughter was raped. When he would not confess to a false
charge, he was beaten and tortured. Mr. Vizor’s son was
also beaten and detained when he attempted to bring his
In 1994, Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders were
prevented by the military from attending a gathering; at that
very gathering, four Ogoni chiefs were killed. The military
governor promptly announced that Ken Saro-Wiwa caused
the deaths, and he and other leaders were taken into
custody. Despite the lack of any connection between
MOSOP and the deaths, the military used the deaths as a
pretext to conduct raids on 60 towns in Ogoni and to detain
and beat several hundred men suspected of involvement with
A three-man tribunal was created by the Nigerian government
to try the Ogoni leaders —known as the “Ogoni Nine”--
for the murders of the four chiefs. The tribunal denied the
Ogoni Nine access to counsel, a fair trial, and the opportunity
to appeal their decision. During the course of the trial
they were tortured and mistreated, as were their relatives.
The Ogoni Nine were convicted and were executed by
hanging on November 10, 1995. Plaintiffs in this case
include family members of Ken Saro-Wiwa, John Kpuinen,
Dr. Barinem Kiobel, Saturday Doobee, Daniel Gbokoo and
How was Shell involved?
Shell continued its close relationship with the Nigerian
military regime during the early 1990s. The oil company
requested an increase in security and provided monetary
and logistical support to the Nigerian police. Shell frequently
called upon the Nigerian police for “security operations”
that often amounted to raids and terror campaigns against
In response to growing Ogoni opposition, Shell and the
Nigerian government coordinated a public relations
campaign to discredit the movement, falsely attributing
airplane hijackings, kidnapping and other acts of violence to
Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP.
Shell was involved in the development of the strategy that
resulted in the unlawful execution of the Ogoni Nine. Shell
told the Nigerian regime they needed to deal with Ken
Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP. Shell monitored Ken Saro-Wiwa,
and closely followed the tribunal and his detention. Prior to
the trial, Shell Nigeria told its parent companies that Saro-
Wiwa would be convicted and told witnesses that Saro-
Wiwa was never going free. Shell held meetings with the
Nigerian regime to discuss the tribunal, including with the
military president Sani Abacha himself. Shell's lawyer
attended the trial, which, in Nigeria, is a privilege afforded
only to interested parties. Brian Anderson, the Managing
Director of Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary, met with Owens Wiwa,
Saro-Wiwa’s brother and offered to trade Saro-Wiwa’s
freedom for an end to the protests against the company. At
least two witnesses who testified that Saro-Wiwa was involved
in the murders of the Ogoni elders later recanted, stating that
they had been bribed with money and offers of jobs with Shell
to give false testimony – in the presence of Shell's lawyer.
One month after the executions of the Ogoni Nine, Shell
signed an agreement to invest $4 billion in a liquefied natural
gas project in Nigeria.
What’s the Status of “The Case Against Shell”?
Beginning in 1996, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR),
EarthRights International (ERI) and other human rights attorneys
brought a series of cases to hold Shell accountable for human
rights violations in Nigeria, including summary execution,
crimes against humanity, torture, inhuman treatment and
arbitrary arrest and detention. The lawsuits were brought
against Royal Dutch Shell, Shell Nigeria, and Brian Anderson,
the head of its Nigerian operation.
The cases were brought under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789
statute giving non-U.S. citizens the right to file suits in U.S. courts
for international human rights violations, and the Torture Victim
Protection Act, which allows individuals to seek damages in the
U.S. for torture or extrajudicial killing, regardless of where the
violations take place.
Over the course of thirteen years, Shell made many attempts to
have these cases thrown out of court, which the plaintiffs
defeated. The United States District Court for the Southern
District of New York set a trial date of March 27, 2009. On
the eve of the trial, the lawsuits were settled for $15.5 million in
what is being hailed as a milestone moment in the movement
towards corporate accountability and human rights.