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Cheers in Nigeria after Shell agrees to pay $15.5 million

Despite the settlement, the oil firm denies complicity in the former military government's execution of antidrilling activists in the mid-1990s. Activists say the case is 'an important first step' toward justice in the region.

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"We welcome this settlement, and we believe this should be the beginning of a changed attitude between the Ogoni community and Shell," says Ledum Mitee, president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital. "But we believe there are several other victims of the repression of the 1990s in Ogoniland who are not covered by this settlement, and they should be also covered."

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The case against Shell was filed in the US under the Alien Tort Claims Act, an 18th-century law that allows foreigners to lodge complaints against corporations that operate in the US, even for actions committed on foreign soil. The plaintiffs were family members of nine Ogoni activists who were protesting against environmental damages and other alleged abuses by Shell and its employees in the Niger Delta.

The plaintiffs argued that Shell supplied arms to the Nigerian government of President Sani Abacha – the name that launched a million e-mail scams – which then used those arms against civilian activists. In 1995, Nigerian courts sentenced Mr. Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists to hang, on charges that they had encouraged attacks on local Nigerian officials in the Niger Delta.

In addition to compensation for the plaintiff families, Shell has agreed to set up a trust fund intended for the Ogoni people, which would go toward providing education, skills development, agriculture, small-enterprise development, and adult literacy. Shell also intends to continue community development work including roads, electricity, agriculture, youth training and development, and microcredits for women's groups, even though Shell has not operated in Ogoni areas since 1993, when local protests and occasional attacks shut its operations down.

Or just the beginning?

Emmanuel Emmanuel, an activist at the Center for Social and Corporate Responsibility in the Niger Delta city of Port Harcourt, said the Shell settlement was "an important first step."

"It's an acknowledgement of failure in corporate responsibility," says Mr. Emmanuel, whose group uses its Shell stock as leverage to push for better corporate behavior in the Niger Delta. Shell may deny any legal responsibility for the deaths of Saro-Wiwa and the other activists, but Emmanuel says he believes this settlement is intended to "limit the damage and try to silence other cases that might come up in the US."

But Shell's strategy may backfire, he adds. "This will go on and on," Emmanuel says. "There will be more cases because there are lots of legacies in the Niger Delta."