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Mail on Sunday: Shell chief 'had a private army'


Graeme Beaton in New York,

4 April 2004


FORMER Shell chairman Sir Philip Watts helped to organise and pay for a virtual private army in the oil rich deltas of Nigeria, according to legal documents seen by the Financial Mail on Sunday.


American lawyers representing 50,000 Ogoni people, including the family of executed activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, are due to question Watts in London this month as part of a class action started in the US in September 2002.


The lawsuit claims that Shell 'engaged in militarised commerce in a conspiracy with the former military government of Nigeria.' Watts ran the oil giant's Nigerian SDPC subsidiary between 1991 and 1994.


The action alleges that the Ogonis suffered human rights abuses at the hands of the Nigerian government. Hundreds of people died and thousands more were evicted from their homes in a bloody campaign.


Letters bearing Watts' signature have him ordering what are called 'spy police,' some to be equipped with semi-automatic weapons and wearing Shell insignia on their uniforms to identify them as 'supernumaries' under the oil company's banner.


In one, dated 1 December, 1993, Watts thanks the inspector-general of police for his co-operation 'in helping to preserve the security of our operation' and requests 1,400 'spy police'.


In another, Watts pledges 'complete logistics, accoutrement and welfare support' for the police assigned to Shell's operations.


'It is recognised that in these current troubled times, it may not be easy to release the number of resources required to adequately protect SDPC's facilities,' he writes.


'However, we must emphasise that SDPC produces more than 50% of Nigeria's oil which has consequential major impact on the country's economy.'


Jennifer Green, a lawyer for the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights that has taken up the Ogonis' cause, wants to establish what Watts knew and when. 'We argue Shell's actions worsened the situation,' she said.


Shell denies the allegations, arguing that it was the job of the Nigerian government, not them, to uphold human rights in the Niger delta.


Spokesman Simon Buerk said the company had no choice but to accept the 'spy police' because it was illegal in Nigeria to hire private security. 'This is the only means to protect your people and operations from criminals, who are often well armed and dangerous.' However, it was decided not to equip them with semi-automatic weapons.


The US lawsuit is the latest headache for Watts and Shell. He resigned after admitting Shell had overstated its proven oil reserves by a fifth - a large proportion of which relates to Nigeria.


It emerged last week that Shell's management was warned by its own planners four years ago about future production levels. UK and US regulators are investigating whether shareholders should have been told sooner.

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