OIL GIANT Shell has finally admitted making payments to Nigerian soldiers involved in operations in Ogoniland where environmental protectors were killed by the military- despite 18 months of denial. Shell now concedes that on two occasions "field allowances" were paid to the military, though it denies allegations that soldiers it paid as protection escorts for those working on the company's behalf were responsible for injuring or killing of Ogoni people. The Shell payments date back to 1993, when the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) with Ken Saro-Wiwa as its president, mobilised 300,000 protectors in a peaceful demonstration against the company.
Mr Saro-Wiwa's execution, along with eight other Ogoni activists, provoked worldwide condemnation a little over a year ago. Shell earns 14 per cent of its worldwide profit from Nigeria, a country where 90 per cent of export earnings come from oil. The Shell operation, run jointly with other companies, generates 6.7 million a day. The company says it pulled out of the Ogoni region in 1993 because of continued unrest, but contracted American firm Willbros to lay a pipeline through the area - prompting further protests as farmland was bulldozed. During the demonstrations the military opened fire on the protesters, killing one, wounding at least 30, and leaving a mother of five in a critical condition. In a written statement seen by The Big Issue, Shell now admits that during this period "field allowances and transportation" of an "army escort for protection" accompanying Willbros "were provided by the contractor".
Shell maintains that the escort "was not involved in any incident that caused injury to or death of third parties." The statement confirms that later in 1993 a group of soldiers headed by Lieutenant Colonel Okuntimo were again paid a "field allowance" as they accompanied Shell employees to Korokoro where eye-witness reports documented by human rights group; say one person was shot dead and two seriously injured by the military just days later.
Shell has expressed doubt as to whether any member of the Korokoro community was shot or wounded, but says it has beer informed that Dr Owens Wiwa brother of Ken, performed an autopsy on a body and treated two others for bullet wounds.
The only other benefit which! Okuntimo received from Shell was a meal brought for him and his soldiers after they had beer persuaded to release a group of protectors from a village after they were arrested for demonstrating, says the statement. According to eye witnesses, Okuntimo has shot and raped Ogoni protectors and was involved in the detention and trial of Ken Saro-Wiwa. In justifying the payments, the company says the field allowances ranged between "70 and 100 naira, ie the price of two modest meals a day" - a statement disputed by Richard Synge, an analyst in Nigerian affairs. "It may seem peanuts to a foreign company, but it is as much as a middle-ranking professional could expect to earn in either the public or private sector a day."
Dr Wiwa, who has fled Nigeria and now lives in Canada where he continues to campaign for Ogoni rights, said: "This army would not come if they were not being paid any extra money. All the human rights abuses perpetrated by the soldiers should be the responsibility of Shell." The company has said it will not return to the region under the cloak of a security shield but only with the agreement of all the communities who live there, and has issued a pledge to be "more sensitive to societal expectation". A leading Nigerian human rights activist facing deportation from the United Kingdom is to have her appeal for refugee status heard this Tuesday - coincidentally International Human Rights Day.
Affiong Southey, a leading member of the National Association of Nigerian Students, and co-ordinator of the People's Embargo for Democracy in Nigeria, campaigns vigorously against the country's ruling Abacha regime and for the rights of the Ogoni people.