Royal Dutch Shell began oil production in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria in 1958 and has a long history of working closely with the Nigerian government to quell popular opposition to its presence in the region. From 1990-1995, Nigerian soldiers, at Shell’s request and with Shell’s assistance and financing, used deadly force and conducted massive, brutal raids against the Ogoni people living in the Niger Delta to repress a growing movement in protest of Shell.
Ogoni land is a 404-square-mile (1,050 km2) region in the southeast of the Niger Delta basin. Economically viable petroleum was discovered in Ogoni land in 1957, just one year after the discovery of Nigeria's first commercial petroleum deposit, with Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron Corporation setting up shop throughout the next two decades. The Ogoni people, a minority ethnic group of about half a million people who call Ogoni land home, and other ethnic groups in the region attest that during this time, the government began forcing them to abandon their land to oil companies without consultation, and offering negligible compensation. This is further supported by a 1979 constitutional addition which afforded the federal government full ownership and rights to all Nigerian territory and also decided that all compensation for land would "be based on the value of the crops on the land at the time of its acquisition, not on the value of the land itself." The Nigerian government could now distribute the land to oil companies as it deemed fit.
The 1970s and 1980s saw the government's empty promises of benefits for the Niger Delta peoples fall through, with the Ogoni growing increasing dissatisfied and their environmental, social, and economic apparatus rapidly deteriorating. The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) was formed in 1992. MOSOP, spearheaded by Ogoni playwright and author Ken Saro-Wiwa, became the major campaigning organization representing the Ogoni people in their struggle for ethnic and environmental rights. Its primary targets, and at times adversaries, have been the Nigerian government and Royal Dutch Shell.
The concerns of the locals were that very little of the money earned from oil on their land was getting to the people who live there, and the environmental damages caused by Shell's practices. In 1993 the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) organized large protests against Shell and the government, often occupying the refineries. Shell withdrew its operations from the Ogoni areas. The Nigerian government raided their villages and arrested some of the protest leaders. On November 10, 1995, nine Ogoni leaders (the “Ogoni Nine”) were executed by the Nigerian government after being falsely accused of murder and tried by a specially-created military tribunal.
The executions were met with an immediate international response. The trial was widely criticized by human rights organizations and the governments of other states, who condemned the Nigerian government's long history of detaining their critics, mainly pro-democracy and other political activists. The Commonwealth of Nations, which had also pleaded for clemency, suspended Nigeria's membership in response. The United States, the United Kingdom, and the EU all implemented sanctions, but not on petroleum (Nigeria's main export).
Shell maintained that it asked the Nigerian government for clemency towards those found guilty but that its request was refused. A 2001 Greenpeace report claimed that "two witnesses that accused them [Saro-Wiwa and the other activists] later admitted that Shell and the military had bribed them with promises of money and jobs at Shell. Shell admitted having given money to the Nigerian military, who brutally tried to silence the voices which claimed justice". Shell denied these accusations and claimed that MOSOP was an extortionary movement that advocated violence and secession.