On May 13, the Nigerian military began a military assault, including land, naval and air bombardments, on the oil-rich Niger Delta. Thousands of people are reported to have died, with entire villages destroyed.
Some 80% of Nigeria's oil comes from this region, with oil giants Shell and Chevron heavily involved. However, impoverished locals have seen little benefit and have been demanding a fair share of oil revenue.
The Nigerian regime claims to be targeting the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which has declared an "oil war" and threatened foreign oil industry vessels with attack. However, civilians appear to be bearing the brunt of the military response.
Khadija Sharife and Patrick Bond, visiting scholar and director at the University of KwaZulu Natal Centre for Civil Society respectively, look at the destructive role of Shell in the region. The article is reprinted from the South African Mercury.
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"We sometimes feed conflict by the way we award contracts, gain access to land, and deal with community representatives", Shell Nigeria admitted in 2003.
It was a modest confession from a corporate giant that has long collaborated with the state to access Nigeria's oil and gas resources, systematically destroying the indigenous ecology through spills, deforestation, flaring and dumped waste, and in the process fuelling climate change that threatens our collective future on the planet.
In 2006, the Niger Delta Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Project declared the region "one of the 10 most important wetlands and marine ecosystems in the world".
Although 20 million people directly depend on shared natural Delta resources such as fisheries, fertile land and water sources, Shell is responsible for 2900 oil spills.
Many have stood up to say "enough!", but perhaps it was the Ogoniland civic leader and writer/poet Ken Saro-Wiwa who is best known for a courageous socio-environmental struggle against Shell — especially after mobilising 300,000 non-violent protesters in early 1993.
On November 10, 1995, as part of the "Ogoni Nine", Saro-Wiwa was hanged after being framed for murder and tried by the military.
Veteran activist Dennis Brutus recalls his last meeting with the 54-year-old Saro-Wiwa, at the University of Pittsburgh: "Ken was displaying his new novel Soja Boy, his 28th book. He seemed very gloomy — even pessimistic: as if he had a foreboding that he would be executed on his return to Nigeria."
Brutus said: "Saro-Wiwa was executed in a bungled operation, with three attempts."
He also said that evidence had emerged that the Nigerian regime of Sani Abacha had allegedly acted against Saro-Wiwa on instructions of Shell Oil.
Saro-Wiwa's son and brother are taking Shell to court in the US under the Alien Tort Claims Act.
Brutus helped to publicise this law with his suit demanding apartheid reparations from multinational corporations that profited from apartheid by colluding with the white South African military prior to 1994.
Families of Saro-Wiwa and other victims claim that from 1990-1995, Shell requested and financed Nigerian soldiers to repress a peaceful environmental justice movement with deadly force.
On May 26, after 12 years of preliminary arguments, the Ogoni people finally had their day in the New York courts, supported by Brutus's anti-apartheid ally Paul Hoffman, the Center for Constitutional Rights, EarthRights International and Justice in Nigeria Now.
Solidarity protests were held around the world, including at Solomon Mahlangu (Edwin Swales) Shell petrol station on the Bluff.
Nearby, Shell's refining operation at Sapref is partly responsible for the extreme leukemia and asthma rates suffered by Merebank and Wentworth residents.
Shell won the tongue-in-cheek groundWork/CCS "Corpse Awards" in 2005, for contributions to mortality/morbidity in the South Durban basin.
"Thirteen thousand tons of sulphur dioxide and 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide as well as the usual heady mix of volatile organic compounds", the award said.
A few years earlier, in 2001, according to Desmond D'Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance: "Sapref's ageing pipelines ruptured and leaked between one and two million litres of fuel into the ground beneath local people's houses, and 26 tons of tetra-ethyl-lead leaked out of a holding tank adjacent to community houses."
The damage pales in comparison to the Niger Delta, where it is estimated that 1.5 million tons of oil have spilled since drilling began 51 years ago — the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill each year.
The cost is more than US$5 billion in annual environmental damage.
Last year, Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua finally conceded the obvious: "There is a total loss of confidence between Shell and the Ogoni people. So, another operator acceptable to the Ogonis will take over."
But Yar'Adua's regime, like others before it, is rife with corruption and collaboration, and Shell has hung on in a country responsible for 10% of its profits.
The bulk of Nigeria's wealth is held offshore by corrupt officials, and is estimated at over $100 billion.
Nigeria, considered to be the US's new oil cushion, is the seventh-largest producer in the world.
Despite Nigeria raking in more than $400 billion during the past three decades, the population living under $1 per day has increased from 59% (1990) to 71%(2008). The percentage of people with access to clean water in the same period has decreased by 3%.
Brutus said: "The reparations case against Shell strongly relates to our South African anti-apartheid case."
In the same court, six weeks ago, Judge Shira Scheindlin found that Daimler Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, IBM, Fujitsu and Rheinmetall must answer charges in September.
Six years ago, then-US secretary of state Colin Powell arm-twisted then-South African president Thabo Mbeki and then-justice minister Penuell Maduna to write a letter opposing the apartheid reparations case on grounds that it interfered with SA's own reconciliation process and would harm US foreign policy.
Will SA President Jacob Zuma follow suit, given he has pledged to foreign investors that there will be no change in economic policy?
Last month, Scheindlin ruled that there was "absolutely nothing in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process … that would be impeded by this litigation".
As Brutus's co-plaintiffs in the Khulumani Support Group observed: "That ruling has certainly breathed new life into a class of human rights litigation seeking to establish that corporations have obligations under international law to not be complicit in human rights violations."
Some of Saro-Wiwa's last words are the most inspiring, and can ring true with some assistance from the US courts: "I have no doubt at all about the ultimate success of my cause, no matter the trials and tribulations which I and those who believe with me may encounter on our journey.
"Nor imprisonment nor death can stop our ultimate victory."