Esther Kiobel’s husband Barinem was one of the men executed in 1995, following revolts against Shell’s pollution of Ogoniland, Nigeria. Almost 25 years later, Esther took Shell to court in the Netherlands to clear her husband’s name.
‘He was a peacemaker,’ says Esther Kiobel, talking about her husband Barinem. He became one of the ‘Ogoni 9’: the men who were executed after a popular uprising – led by Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) – against the widespread oil pollution caused by Shell in Ogoniland. Shell appealed to the military rulers of Nigeria to step in against the protests. The military reacted with brute force against demonstrations, and arrested a group of MOSOP leaders for alleged murder. This accusation is widely believed to be fabricated, including by Amnesty International, using witnesses that Esther is convinced were bribed by Shell.
Although Barinem Kiobel was among those executed, he wasn’t part of MOSOP at all. He was a government official. ‘He negotiated between the government, Shell and the people,’ Esther said in an interview. For her, it is clear Barinem was targeted because he didn’t let himself be used by Shell. ‘Shell tried to bribe him, so he would be on their side. But he wouldn’t betray his people.’
After Barinem’s execution, life in Nigeria became unsafe for Esther. Together with her children she fled to a refugee camp in Benin, where she stayed until she was granted asylum in the US. She started a new life, but could never forget what happened. ‘Almost every day,’ she told Amnesty International, ‘I remember and cry. But then I build myself and decide to be strong. I still say my husband’s spirit is beside me and lets me fight this battle. I can’t fight it alone.’
As can be seen in the documentary Esther & the Law (Tatiana Scheltema), this fight brought her to a Dutch court room, almost 25 years after Barinem’s death. In court, Esther together with three other widows of the Ogoni 9 was faced with the difficult task of proving Shell was involved in the executions.
It was a brave move by Esther, who could have accepted Shell’s settlement offer of 700.000 dollar, she says. ‘But I refused. Shell has my husband’s blood on his hands. I want them to be held accountable for that.’ What Esther Kiobel wants from Shell, she explains, is that they apologise. ‘If they do that, I will accept.’
Esther & the Law is shown at the Movies that Matter Festival 2023, where Esther Kiobel will be a special guest.
Photo: Amnesty International Nederland