Twenty years after Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death, Shell remains in the dock over environmental destruction


Twenty years ago today, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others were executed by the Nigerian military for their political resistance to the environmental destruction of their homeland Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta, Nigeria.

The company at the heart of the controversy was the Anglo-Dutch company – Shell. Decades after the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the people of the Niger Delta continue to struggle with the legacy of more than fifty years of oil production.

The landscape and people’s lives have been destroyed by an oil industry that has done little to prevent spills or clean up those that have happened. The people of Ogoniland, like others across the Niger Delta, live everyday with air, water and land polluted by the industry that lies at the heart of the climate crisis.

It was this destruction that Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues had campaigned to halt. Inspired and empowered by Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated to oppose Shell’s operations in Ogoniland, demanding the immediate exit of the oil giant.

The Nigerian government were targeted for their complicity in the destruction of the Ogoni environment due to their failure to enforce environmental regulations. The government’s response was to destroy 27 villages, resulting in the deaths of 2,000 people and the displacement of at least 80,000 more.

Then, growing tired of increasing resistance, the government fabricated charges against Saro-Wiwa, implicating him in the horrific murder of the Gokana Ogoni chiefs. Along with eight others, after a kangaroo court, he was hanged in 1995, prompting widespread international condemnation of the Nigerian government. Shell left Ogoniland.

Four years ago, and 16 years after the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the damning United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on the environmental health of Ogoniland found, in over 40 locations tested, soil polluted to a depth of five metres.

All of Ogoniland’s water bodies were polluted. Levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, were up to more than 900 times accepted World Health Organisation standards. This dangerously contaminated water is the drinking source for local communities. In the four years since the report was published Shell and the Nigerian government have failed to implement its recommendations.



Today, Saro-Wiwa’s struggle for justice continues to inspire. Court cases in the United States, the UK and in the Netherlands, brought by communities, have sought redress for the destruction and infringements on human rights. These court cases have created important legal precedents regarding the liability of corporations, and have even forced Shell to begin paying for the damage done.

The Bodo community in Ogoniland settled their case with Shell for £55 million – a sum far greater than the initial £4,000 reportedly offered by Shell. In the Netherlands, another group of victims are pursuing Shell in the Dutch courts.

It inspires activists around the world who resist Shell’s other destructive activities – from Arctic drilling to the production of climate-killing tar sands. It inspires campaigners and activists to pursue corporate injustice.

The abuse of human rights highlighted by the struggle in Ogoniland has served to illustrate the need for a radical improvement in the architecture of international justice. Friends of the Earth is working with a host of other organisations campaigning to create a binding international treaty for transnational corporations and human rights.

It has inspired this year’s Pinocchio Climate Awards – from Friends of the Earth France. Shell, alongside a number of other multinational companies, has been nominated for this year’s award for its role in Nigeria. The award focuses on those multinational companies whose activities have a negative impact on communities, and whose money and influence destroys climate policies, or undermines action on climate change. Shell is a worthy nominee.


You can vote for the Pinocchio Climate Awards at