Saro-Wiwa: Britain resisted sanctions on Abacha regime for commercial reasons, documents show


Despite expressing public outrage over the 1995 execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni environmental activists, by the Sani Abacha-led military junta, the British government resisted repeated appeals by late South African president, Nelson Mandela, and the Swedish government to impose oil and other sanctions on the Nigerian regime, recently declassified documents have revealed.

Members of the “Ogoni 9”, as the group was known, were executed on November 10, 1995 after a military tribunal found them guilty of the killing of four pro-government chiefs in the Ogoni community. The execution of the activists elicited global condemnation as well as calls for sanctions to imposed on the Nigerian ruling military junta.

John Major, Britain’s prime minister at the time, described the execution as “terrible” adding that he was interested in “a fundamental and lasting change in the way Nigeria is governed”.

Recently released files, however, revealed that top British officials who were secretly worried that far-reaching sanctions on Nigeria would hurt Britain’s £5 billion commercial interest in the country, actively sought “to take some of the heat out of the sanctions debate.”

The files revealed that top British officials including diplomats at the British High Commission in Lagos even lobbied on behalf of Shell and tutored the oil giant, on how to deflect the pressure from South Africa and some European countries for the imposition of economic sanctions on Nigeria.

A day before the execution of Mr Saro-Wiwa, a playwright, and his other Ogoni cohorts, British officials quickly compiled a list of top UK investments in Nigeria and valued them at £5 billion. Shell, which was at the centre of the crisis topped the list with one file claiming that the company was “interested in Nigeria’s gas reserves” and would soon embark on “the largest industrial project in Nigeria this century”.

Deceiving Mandela

The released files also revealed that despite its public posturing, from the outset the involvement of the British government in the crisis was driven by how it would impact its commercial interests. After the execution of the activists, British officials listed possible sanctions that could be imposed on Nigeria but listed a “freeze on financial assets of Nigeria leaders”, “trade sanctions”, and an “oil embargo” under the heading: “other option with greater risk to UK interests”.

“We believe we should hold in reserve for the time being any measures of this kind—which would, of course, place a disproportionate burden on the UK because of our close ties with Nigeria”, Sam Sharpe, the private secretary to UK foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, told the prime minister’s office, South Africa’s Daily Maverick, reports.

Similarly, Mr Major’s private secretary, Edward Oakden, warned that a trade embargo “would hit the UK disproportionately hard” while adding that Shell’s commercial interests were at risk.

Thus, it was not surprising that the UK prime minister gave Mr Mandela the runaround when he phoned him four days after the execution asking for trade sanctions against Nigeria in order to “exert real leverage.” Mr Major told the South African leader that “We would consider this” adding that he “did not have a closed mind about trade sanctions”

Nelson Mandela

But a note prepared for Mr Major for the phone call with Mr Mandela showed that top officials were already decided against pursuing sanctions against Nigeria. The note, which was prepared by Mr Oakden claimed that an oil embargo “would not be enforceable” and that there was “strong UK commercial interest against this: Shell”. The note also added that on the imposition of sanctions, the foreign secretary “thinks we should try to hold the line”.

Perhaps, worried at the UK reluctance to impose sanctions on Nigeria, four days after the phone call, on 18 November, Mr Mandela wrote a letter urging Mr Major “to take the lead in advocating oil sanctions.”

But Mr Major ‘s aides wrote that he was “not keen on the idea of oil sanctions.”

However, Mr Major chose to be disingenuous in his reply to Mr Mandela’s letter. “We have not ruled anything out at this stage”, he wrote.

Mr Major also added that he was not certain that sanctions on Nigeria would receive international support at the time. He did not mention that his concern was actually about how the imposition of sanctions would affect the commercial interests of the UK.

Shell’s Lobbyists

The declassified files also revealed that top UK officials worked closely with Shell’s executives during the crisis to the point that they even tutored the officials of the oil giant on it’s “public relations posture”. Officials of the UK High Commission in Lagos exchanged notes with executives of the company a day after the execution of the activists. One of such notes stated that Shell was “obviously very concerned that Ogoni hot heads could react to targets of opportunity”.

A week after the execution, a Shell executive, John Jennings, met with Lynda Chalker, the then minister for Africa, and lamented that “Shell had not so far been very successful in getting their message across to the public”.

He said he was worried that international environmental activist groups such as Greenpeace and the Body shop were “planning a strategy meeting aimed at bringing about a consumer boycott.”

Ms Chalker then tutored Mr Jennings that Shell should “broadcast the facts about their wider contribution in Nigeria”. She also reassured him of effort at “resisting pressure coming from the South Africans and some European partners for further economic sanctions.”

Ms Chalker further asked Mr Jennings if the UK government could share with Mr Mandela a letter by Shell to Mr Major highlighting its positive impacts in Nigeria. But in line with the dishonesty of the British government on the issue, an official suggested that the letter “should be passed to him [Mandela] but not specifically by us. We don’t want to appear to be endorsing Shell’s position”.

The letter to Mr Major had described as “emotional” the claim that the company was responsible for the environmental devastation in Nigeria saying they were “false and misleading”. The letter blamed the spills in Ogoni on sabotage and added that Shell was spending $120 million on environmental, health and education matters in Nigeria.

John Major, Britain’s prime minister. [PHOTO CREDIT: BBC]

Impressed by Shell’s argument, Mr Oakden further suggested that the UK could argue against oil sanctions on Nigeria by using a similar argument the British government used in opposing sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid government, which was that oil sanctions would “hit hardest the poor people least able to cope.”

Tongue Lashing the Swedes

Apart from Mr Mandela, the Swedish government also went frontal in the call for sanctions on Nigeria. However, the move by the Swedes to get the European Union to impose sanctions with far-reaching impacts on Nigeria was bitterly rebuffed by the Brits, the Daily Maverick reports.


One British diplomat described the demand by the Swedes thusly: “Bloody cheek, Swedish – Nigerian trade = 0”.

“The Swedes at their sanctimonious worst. They used to behave like this over South Africa,” another official wrote.

“Unbelievable. On second thoughts, all too believable. I constantly underestimate the Nordic capacity to posture, while others bear the practical consequences,” said yet another British diplomat.


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