Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Ken Wiwa speaks

Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. , son of slain author and television producer Ken Saro-Wiwa, poses in New York May 4, 2009. The civil trial that judged the involvement of oil giant Royal Dutch Shell in the executions of protesters in Nigeria started in May in New York City, more than 13 years after their deaths. Shell was accused of human rights abuses, including in connection with the 1995 hangings of prominent activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other protesters by Nigeria's then-military government. Picture taken May 4, 2009.

Some release from the torments of the past

Murdered activist's son on his reaction to Shell's $15.5m settlement

There was no hat-in-the-air moment, no popping of champagne corks. Instead it was a steady accumulation of conviction conveyed by email to my BlackBerry over the course of a long transatlantic day that included the red eye from JFK in New York to London. Each email was a little less tentative than the previous one until the final confirmation arrived with the curiously tentative subject line: "its done???"

Anti-climax doesn't quite describe this moment because you know, deep down, that the settlement is only the beginning of a process that you hope will lead to a better outcome for all the stakeholders in this issue but it is the end, for sure, of a 13-year-long court case.

It actually feels like those years all happened in the last month or even over this weekend but the reality is that the case moved along in fits and spurts. Looking back now I would have started out with far less optimism had I known how many hours I would spend in airless rooms, how many animated discussions, how many sleepless nights mulling over the pros and cons of settling the case.

Nothing. Nothing about this has come or will ever come easy. Every word, every phrase and every comma has been weighed, scrutinised and debated. These are life and death matters. Head versus heart. The case has been freighted with all kinds of agendas that it cannot possibly satisfy. In the end a settlement is a compromise; both parties agree to settle their differences by meeting in a so-called middle. That middle is a matter of perspective of course. To some this must be bewildering. To others it was too long in coming. In the end it is only those who are intimately involved, who have everything to lose and everything to gain that have to make a decision that will not satisfy everyone.

History will show that this was a landmark case. Multinationals now know that a precedent has been set, that it is possible to be sued for human rights violations in foreign jurisdictions.

In the end we collectively agreed to settle because the terms and conditions of the offer from Shell enabled us to gain some measure of psychological or financial relief, provided for a contribution towards the future development of our community.

But it also enabled us to advertise the settlement as a living, breathing example of how and why the commitment to peace, non-violence and dialogue is the best way to resolve the challenges in the Niger Delta.

How the Ogoni community and the rest of the actors in the Niger Delta respond is the next, critical, step. There are other cases outstanding against Shell. Feelings still run high. Many people suffered and many more are still suffering unnecessarily.

This settlement will not in itself immediately provide them with any restitution other than the consolation that with enough perseverance and commitment to justice, a better, safer, more humane and more prosperous world is possible.

For the plaintiffs and more specifically for me, it is time to pause for breath, a time to contemplate that this settlement can finally release us from the torments of the past so that we can face the future with a tangible measure of hope.

Or just maybe it is time to stop being the son of my father and be the father to my sons.

-Ken Wiwa Jr., writing in the Guardian