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Long road from Nigeria to Supreme Court

Case accuses Shell of complicity in human rights atrocities

Charles Wiwa is a nephew of the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. He’s part of a group of Nigerian refugees involved in suing the Royal Dutch Shell oil company. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune / March 12, 2012)

Mary Schmich: March 18, 2012

Charles Wiwa’s old friends from Ogoniland picked him up at his South Side Chicago home a couple of weeks ago in a Chevy Venture van, and they hit the road.

Destination: the Supreme Court of the United States.

Wiwa had been in court before, like the time back in Nigeria when his famous uncle, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was sentenced to death, but he’d certainly never been to the highest court in this country.

He was excited. So were his friends. Their class-action lawsuit against the Royal Dutch Shell oil company had made it to Washington, D.C., and they were determined to be there too.

I-94 to I-80 to I-76, they talked the whole way.

They talked about the place they grew up, a small, humid pocket of the Niger Delta, where electricity was rare and if you read at night, it was by moonlight, a place where water came from wells and generations of families stayed close even after oil changed everything.

Speeding over the American highway, the men remembered the oil pipelines and the oil spills, how gas flares spat smoke and fire into the air, how the farms and fish started dying, how they prayed in school for kids hit by oil company tractor-trailers that sped down the narrow roads.

They talked about the beatings and threats they’d endured at the hands of the dictatorship that took the lives of people they loved because those people had dared to protest the oil company.

They talked of all the years they had given to this lawsuit. They used the word justice.

“I was lucky to be born in Ogoni, Nigeria,” Charles Wiwa said one afternoon last week.

A stocky man of 44 who wears his hair braided, he sat in a one-room Crestwood office — two desks, two computers, a view of suburban warehouses and a highway — where he operates a small export consulting company. Tucked into a row of books on police brutality sat a fat collection of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.

Wiwa is a famous Nigerian name. Charles Wiwa’s uncle, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was a writer, the first person in their village to get a university education. In high school, Charles read his uncle’s story collection, “Forest of Flowers,” and it woke him up to what he saw around him.

“My uncle was lamenting that even though Ogoni was so endowed, a rich corporation was taking everything away,” he said, “leaving people poorer and poorer.”

The corporation was Shell, which began drilling for oil in Ogoniland in 1958.

Shell’s jobs, Wiwa said, went to outsiders who didn’t even speak the native dialect. When he and his schoolmates wrote Shell to ask for scholarships, he said, no money came.

“We developed a hatred for the company.”

In the early 1990s, his uncle Ken became a leader in the movement to protest Shell’s environmental degradation of Ogoniland and to pressure Shell into sharing its profits with the Ogoni people.

Charles Wiwa joined in, speaking on his college campus, distributing fliers and, when his uncle was sent to prison as part of the crackdown on protesters, sometimes smuggling his uncle’s letters out.

On Nov. 10, 1995, after a hasty trial widely agreed to have been rigged, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged along with eight others, and hailed around the world as a martyr.

In the next few months, Charles Wiwa endured his own punishments, horsewhipped in public, he said, and thrown in jail.

Finally, on March 11, 1996 — he remembers the date the way you remember a birthday — he fled to a refugee camp, where one day he was summoned on the megaphone.

Are you Charles Wiwa? the officials asked.

He said yes. They said prove it. He said he had no ID.

What’s your relationship to Ken Wiwa?

That was his cousin, he said, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son.

Do you want to go to Britain? they asked. Or America?

America, he said. Chicago.

He had an activist uncle in Chicago, but he had another reason. He’d read Ernest Hemingway.

“After I read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ in high school,” he said, “I knew I had to come here.”

Wiwa got his first Chicago job setting banquet tables at the Ritz-Carlton. He connected with other Ogoni refugees, and they agreed to sue Shell, convinced it had aided and abetted the Nigerian government in committing human rights atrocities designed to protect its oil business.

More than a dozen law firms turned them down until, finally, a Philadelphia firm said yes.

“It was the greatest news I’d had since I came to the U.S.,” Wiwa said.

The suit is based on a 1789 law, the Alien Tort Statute, that lets foreign nationals file suits in this country for human rights violations committed abroad. Originally intended to deal with pirates, in recent years it has been used against corporations and individuals.

Wiwa says the main thing he wants is for Shell to be held accountable. But the suit has wended through the courts for a decade, bogged down in questions of who can sue whom for what — while Wiwa has raised four daughters with his Ogoni wife and become a U.S. citizen. Shell, which declined to comment for this story, says the statute can’t be used against a corporation.

On Feb. 28, the argument made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wiwa and one of the other plaintiffs were allowed into the courtroom the morning after their long drive.

“We faced the justices,” he said. “There was a great sense of satisfaction. In history, in the records, it will show that we were able to do that.”

Unfortunately, their long wait isn’t over. A few days later, the court ordered the case to be reargued in October, this time to address a different issue: Under what circumstances should the Alien Tort Statute apply to events that occur in a foreign country?

How the justices decide could have a huge impact on multinational corporations. It will be huge in a different way for Charles Wiwa and the other plaintiffs.

“All my friends, my family, they’re still back in Nigeria,” he said. “If I don’t fight for them, who will?”

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Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune

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