Shell's decision to settle out of court with a group of Ogoni people rather than take them on in New York means a measure of justice has come to the Niger Delta. The sum of $15.5m (£9.6m) may be peanuts for the company and nothing can compensate the 500,000 Ogoni people for generations of devastating pollution, human rights abuses and persecution. But while Shell insists that the result is no admission of guilt, it nevertheless represents a triumph for an impoverished community over one of the richest companies in the world.
What it suggests is that Shell wants to bury the facts about what was happening on the Niger delta in the 1970s and 1980s when it was extracting tens of millions of barrels of oil a year from Ogoniland while allowing the people to slide into destitution as it was destroying their environment. The settlement stops the world knowing exactly what was the company's relationship with the national government and the military, and the extent of Shell's involvement in the human rights abuses that led to Ken Saro-Wiwa's execution. The Ogoni had assembled a formidable case and were being represented by some of the most best human rights lawyers in the world. It could have been intensely embarrassing for the company if it all had come out.
Shell said it had agreed to settle out of humanitarian interests, but everyone on the delta knows that real justice has not been done, and that the environmental abuses continue. The company continues to needlessly burn off vast amounts of gas. The air is still poisoned, children are still sick, there are few jobs, the creeks are polluted and the poverty is intense.
Moreover, the security situation on the delta is far worse than it was 12 years ago when the Ogoni case began. Then, the delta was politically volatile but the oil companies could work there more or less unimpeded and people felt reasonably safe. Today the whole region is awash with guns and the delta is one of the most dangerous places on earth.
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In the last few months the Nigerian military have raided dozens of communities they believe are threatening the state and thousands of people have fled their villages. The kind of peaceful protest that the Ogoni led in the 1990s now seems quaint. Anyone who stands up for environmental justice or who challenges the oil companies, which provide the Nigerian state with 90% of their foreign earnings, is now in mortal danger.
But Shell's decision could backfire. The precedent of a Nigerian community suing a multinational oil company in a western court has been set. There are thousands more Ogoni who will now want to bring their case to the west to see justice done, as well as other Niger Delta tribes like the Ijaw, the Igbo, the Ibibio and the Itsekiri who also want justice. There have been more than 500 pollution cases against Shell in Nigeria, but few reach court and the company has been able to use the appeal system to delay those that do for many years.
Now the lesson is that justice and reparation can be obtained abroad. A Dutch court will soon hear a case brought against Shell by other Niger Delta villagers following a major oil spill years ago. Meanwhile, in Ecuador, Chevron is about to hear its fate in a massive pollution case that has been going on for nearly 10 years. It's quite possible the company will be fined more than $4bn.