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Sat 18 January 2020
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Stephen Delahunty’s analysis of newly opened archives shows how John Major’s Government protected oil interests over civil rights.


In 1995, Nigeria’s military regime executed nine environmental activists who had led a non-violent protest against pollution by Anglo-Dutch company Shell and other energy firms in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

The so-called ‘Ogoni 9’ were executed on 10 November 1995, following a military tribunal that was internationally condemned – particularly by South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela.

Newly released files under the UK’s declassification rules reveal that John Major’s Conservative Government rejected Mandela’s personal appeal to impose oil sanctions on Nigeria as it wanted to protect Shell and the UK’s wider commercial interests.

After Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other members of Nigeria’s Ogoni community were hanged, UK officials discussed whether the UK could argue against sanctions on Nigerian oil by using the same argument with which it opposed a trade boycott of South Africa’s apartheid Government – that it would “hit hardest the poor people least able to cope”.

Publicly, Major described the executions as “sad day for Nigeria” and called for a “fundamental and lasting change” in how the country was governed. However, behind the scenes, his Government worked to prevent sanctions being imposed on Nigeria’s oil industry and protect UK interests in the country. 

A day before the executions, British officials compiled a summary of UK investments in Nigeria worth between £3 and £5 billion. Shell topped a list of “major UK investors” that also included BP, British Airways and Guinness.

Shell was responsible for half of the country’s daily oil output and was also interested in Nigeria’s “entirely unexploited” gas reserves. It described the Shell-led Nigeria LNG project as “the largest industrial project in Nigeria this century”.

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What the papers don’t say


‘Bloody Cheek’

Three days after the executions, on 13 November 1995, Sam Sharpe, the private secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, discussed a “common position” amongst EU member states in a letter to the Prime Minister’s office.

It highlighted “the extension of visa restrictions to cover civilian ministers”, “a voluntary ban on all arms sales” and “restrictions on aid”.

He explained that some EU partners may push for tougher measures including “a freeze on the assets of leading members of the regime or an oil embargo”. However, he added: “We believe we should hold in reserve for the time being any measures of this kind – which would, of course, place a disproportionate burden on the UK because of our close ties with Nigeria.”

The Swedish Government urged the EU to implement “a package of sanctions which would make a real impact on the Nigerian regime, not just play to the domestic gallery”. 

One British diplomat wrote: “Bloody cheek, Swedish – Nigerian trade = 0”. Another described it as “the Swedes at their sanctimonious worst. They used to behave like this over South Africa”.

In a phone call on 14 November, Mandela appealed to Major to “cut off trade” with Nigeria in order to “exert real leverage”. However, a briefing note prepared for the phone call by private secretary Edward Oakden reiterated the view of senior officials who thought that the UK Government “should try to hold the line”.

Oakden’s follow-up to note to the phone call rebuked those “unhelpfully stirring the sanctions pot”. A few days later, the British Government received a letter from Mandela urging Major “to take the lead in advocating oil sanctions”. 

Major’s response did not mention UK commercial interests and instead suggested that oil sanctions were unlikely to garner international support.


Hot Heads and Sabotage

British officials and Shell executives remained in close contact throughout the crisis.

The day after the executions, the UK High Commission in Lagos was in touch with the managing director of Shell Nigeria who explained that the company was “obviously very concerned that Ogoni hot heads could react to targets of opportunity”.

The Minister for Africa and Conservative peer Lynda Chalker met senior Shell executive John Jennings on 16 November. Chalker suggested that the company should “broadcast the facts about their wider contribution in Nigeria” and gave assurances that the British Government was “resisting pressure coming from the South Africans and some European partners for further economic sanctions”. 

Shell executives sent a letter to Major outlining the company’s positive impact in the country and blamed most of the oil leaks in the Ogoni area on “sabotage” and described “the emotional charges of environmental devastation” as “false and misleading”. 

Cautiously, a British official said: “It should be passed to him [Mandela] but not specifically by us. We don’t want to appear to be endorsing Shell’s position.”

In June 2017, Esther Kiobel and three other women launched a civil case against Shell in the Netherlands. In May last year, a Dutch court said it has jurisdiction to hear the case and ruled that Shell should hand over confidential internal documents to the claimants.

The widows claim that the company was complicit in the 1995 killings of their husbands, although Shell has denied any involvement in their executions.


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