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From Nigeria to Ireland: The Ogoni Nine, The Rossport Five and Royal Dutch Shell

Vicky Conway - Human Rights in Ireland

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the execution of nine Nigerian activists, including their leader Ken Saro-Wiwa. The ‘Ogoni Nine’ had been leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Chief among that groups concerns was the abuses being caused by Shell during the extraction of oil from Ogoni lands including severe environmental damage and assaults on Ogoni people by Shell security. They led a non-violent campaign against Shell and the Nigerian government, whom they felt had failed to enforce regulations which would have prevented many of these abuses. In May 1994 Saro-Wiwa and three other leaders were denied entry to Ogoniland by the Nigerian government where they were due to attend an event. At this event four Ogoni chiefs, who disagreed with Saro-Wiwa, were murdered, and the Ogoni Nine were charged with being responsible for their deaths on the basis of incitement.

At a military tribunal they were denied their rights to counsel and were subsequently denied the right of appeal. Two witnesses later admitted having been bribed by the Nigerian government with offers of jobs at Shell, in the presence of lawyers for Shell, for their testimony. The Ognoi Nine were executed on 10 November 1995, a move which lead to the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth of Nations. In 2009 Shell entered a settlement with Saro-Wiwa’s son and numerous other plaintiffs, days before a trial in which they were being sued for human rights violations in Nigeria was due to begin. They paid over $15 million in the settlement.

Saro-Wiwa will be remembered this weekend at a forum in Wexford, an annual event in Ireland. Unfortunately, what has become central to this forum is the space it provides to consider how the Ogoni experiences can influence thinking on the Corrib Gas project in North Mayo. The reality is that many in that region feel solidarity with the Ogoni people in their struggle against Shell.

I spent last weekend reading Once Upon a Time in the West, the recently published book by Lorna Siggins, the Irish Times Correspondent. Siggins meticulously documents developments in North Mayo from the first discovery of gas in the Corrib Basin in 1996 to events as recent as this summer. The reasons for the protests are clearly detailed, as well as the exact nature of those protests and relevant government and state action (or inaction as it sometimes is perceived). The issues are immensely complex and merit at least this lengthy book, but I’ll attempt here to highlight what I think are some of the key points here.

If we start with the environmental concerns. The gas has been found 50 miles off-shore and rather than build an offshore refinery, Shell plan to pipe the unrefined gas 5 miles inland to a site, purchased from Coillte, where a refinery has been built. The on-shore nature of the refinery has been one of the most contested points. Unrefined gas is more volatile than refined gas and does not have that added smell so a leak is harder to detect and more dangerous. Added to this, Shell have been given permission to pipe this inland at double the pressure at which refined gas is piped around our cities. And it is being permitted to run pipelines as close as 140m to residences, when deaths have occurred at 203m. Numerous safety experts have stated that 3-400 m would be a solid safety requirement. The pipes will run close to many Special Areas of Conservation and the route of the pipe has, in the last ten years, had two landslides and numerous bog and forest fires. There are also concerns as to impact of the plant on local water supplies, with unacceptably high levels of aluminium in the water already documented since they began their work. Shell is awaiting planning permission for the onshore pipes: the off-shore sections have already been laid and the refinery has been built. A recent report for FrontLine Defenders found that peaceful protestors involved in the issue could be considered human rights defenders, given the threat to life and health.

A substantial issue for many members of the local community has been the lack of consultation on the process. The issue has divided the local community significantly with many arguing that it will bring much-needed benefits to the area. However, in the Finance Act 1992, requirements to pay royalties for oil and gas were removed and the corporation tax for such companies was lowered. Not only will Ireland not get any financial benefit from the extraction of the gas but they will in fact have to buy it back from Shell to use in Ireland. The advantage is that this will be cheaper than importing from Scotland, as we mostly do now.

The planning process has been a substantial bone of contention with an Bord Pleanála granting planning permission in spite of a report from their own inspector, Kevin Moore in 2003 which stated:

“It is my submission that the proposed development defies any rational understanding of the term ‘sustainability’. It is my submission to the board that, from a strategic planning perspective, this is the wrong site; from the perspective of government policy which seeks to foster balanced regional development, this is the wrong site; from the perspective of minimizing environmental impact, this the wrong site; and consequently from the perspective of sustainable development, this is the wrong site.”

In spite of this, planning permission was granted for the building of the refinery, with 42 conditions attached. The Shell to Sea campaign has focused not on preventing the project, but having the refinery moved off-shore. Other campaigners seek for the refinery to be moved to the point of landfall, so as to avoid the on-shore piping of unrefined gas.

Perhaps the aspect which has captured most attention has been the policing of the protests. The protests have generally been peaceful: the Rossport Five spent 94 days in jail for failing to comply with a court order instructing them to permit Shell access to their lands. While they were in prison it emerged that Shell had welded a 3km pipe, which they did not have planning permission for. In October 2006 when protestors were obstructing access to the terminal, 180 additional police were sequestered to the area. That decision marked a turning point in the policing of the protests as streams of allegations of police brutality began to emerge. Not only this but protestors allege that attacks which have been made on them and their property have not been investigated by gardaí. The Garda Ombudsman Commission which conducted an unprecedented investigation into the events, recommended reprimanding one senior garda and earlier this year a district court ruled that gardaí had breached constitutional rights in the conduct of arrests and detentions.

This book is to my mind essential reading raising, as it does, both environmental issues which should concern us all but also calling to question the attitude of successive governments to a large, multinational corporation, while permitting concerned citizens to be criminalised. Also questionable has been statements in the media which have alleged that the campaigners have ties to republicans, when there is no evidence to support this.

I’ll close with Ken Saro-Wiwa’s closing comment to the trial of the Ogoni Nine:

“The military dictatorship holds down oil-producing areas such as Ogoni by military decrees and threat or actual use of physical violence so that Shell can wage its ecological war without hindrance… This cozy, if criminal, relationship was perceived to be rudely disrupted by the non-violent struggle of the Ogoni people under MOSOP. The allies decided to bloody the Ogoni in order to stop their example from spreading through the oil-rich Niger Delta.”