Vince Cable, human rights, militias and dodgy deals in the Niger Delta

What does Britain’s role in the export of gunships to a Nigerian warlord tell us about the new Lib Dem leader – and about the British establishment’s attitude to its post-colonial, post-Brexit place in the world?

Tim Concannon Andrew Graeme
4 August 2017

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The latest Liberal Democrat leadership contest was one of the least exciting votes of recent years. Vince Cable came first in a one-horse race. Despite the rather flat response he is already talking about making the party the second force in UK politics.

Throughout his 'campaign', many on the left rightly criticised his blasé attitude to sexism and racism, after he told the New Statesman that "Gender isn't an issue any more, rightly so. Thanks to Obama race isn't really an issue any more - at least we hope not."

During the campaign, Cable was challenged on his key role in the tripling of student fees and the botched privatisation of Royal Mail

However, there has been rather less scrutiny of the fact that twice in his career – once as Secretary of State for Business and once as a senior Shell executive - Vince Cable has had connections to controversial business deals in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, an area rich in oil and gas yet one of the poorest parts of Africa.

Cable worked at Shell in the Nineties when its role in the ongoing Niger Delta crisis first came to international attention.

And as Business Minister in the Coalition government in 2014, due to a series of bizarre decisions only now coming to light, Cable’s department approved the sale of high-speed armoured gunships to one of the most notorious organised crime figures in the Niger Delta.

Shell and the Delta

Cable’s role at Shell has been largely unexplored, with the notable exception of Mehdi Hasan’s September 2009 piece for the New Statesman, ‘Vince Cable: Beneath the halo’.

Cable worked for Shell from 1990 till 1997 when he became MP for Twickenham. He was its Chief Economist from 1995. At the time the company was mired in allegations about its collusion with the then-dictatorship of Sani Abacha, with the military occupation of Ogoni (part of the oil-producing Niger Delta) and in the state execution in 1995 of nine non-violent human rights activists for opposing Shell’s pollution and expropriation of the Delta’s resources.

The killings of the ‘Ogoni Nine’ led to Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth from 1995 to 1998, with then Prime Minister John Major describing it as “a fraudulent trial, a bad verdict, an unjust sentence [which] has now been followed by judicial murder.”

Demands that Shell apologise and compensate the families of the victims continue to this day. A new claim launched by the widow of one of the Ogoni Nine, Esther Kiobel, has been brought in the Netherlands with support from Amnesty International.

Shell sent legal ‘observers’ to the kangaroo court which executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other campaigners. And the accusations against Shell don’t end there. Its police were also accused of kidnapping and torture by two of the ‘Ogoni 20’. The fishermen claim that they were detained in 1994 at Benson Beach, Ogoni, by Shell’s ‘SPY’ police force – regular police given a bonus and a Shell badge for their cap – and held in a hut where they had cigarettes stubbed out on their bodies, before being handed to the Nigerian army who held them in appalling conditions in military jail until 1998. The charges were eventually dropped and in 2011 they began legal action against the Nigerian federal government for their kidnap and incarceration. Shell has denied that the kidnappings and torture ever took place.

The Niger Delta is often called the world’s biggest un-investigated crime scene. There’s no suggestion that Cable was personally responsible for, or signed off on, any acts which led directly to human rights abuses. But was he totally unaware of the allegations? Shell’s controversial role in the poverty, pollution and conflict would surely have been discussed amongst Shell’s senior executives.

Shell continues to deny any responsibility for the occupation of Ogoni or the deaths of Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots, which the oil company describes as a “tragic events.”

Twenty years later: how Cable’s department sold weapons to a warlord

In 2014 the department of Business, Innovation and Skills, then overseen by Cable, approved the sale of seven officially “decommissioned” hauk class Norwegian armoured Mobile Torpedo Boats to Nigeria, via Ramsgate, Kent.

The ships were sold to a company called Global West, understood to be a front for one of the most notorious warlords in the Niger Delta, Government Ekpemupolo AKA Tompolo.

At present, Tompolo is lying low, trying to avoid arrest in connection with his alleged involvement in a multi-million dollar scam. It’s not his first time on the run, as a former commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), he was once among the most wanted men in Nigeria. Between 2006-09, attacks perpetrated by MEND saw oil production in Nigeria cut by a third, with dozens of foreign workers being taken hostage and killed.

The Niger Delta has been on the brink of a resumption of armed conflict and attacks on pipelines since a shaky amnesty with MEND militants was introduced by the Nigerian government in 2009, following a stand-off with MEND that nearly brought the Delta to the brink of all-out war.

It’s unfortunate then that under these circumstances, Cable’s department allowed a company linked to Tompolo to acquire enough former military boats to build a private navy – and lucky that the Nigerian authorities captured the ships.

Hajia Lamin Tumaka of the Nigerian Maritime Security Agency (NIMASA), told Nigeria’s ‘Daily Trust’ newspaper in March “The management thought it wise to take over the ships so that they will not be used to cause any breach of security in the Niger Delta region.” Another NIMASA source told the publication “Because there are GPMG rifles mounted on all the vessels, we don’t want a situation where it will be used against the Nigerian state.”

At the time of the sale, the 2015 Nigerian election was on the horizon and Tompolo had kept people guessing about his willingness to take up arms if the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, was beaten. Jonathan was soundly defeated by Muhammadu Buhari, and, in the aftermath, militants in the Niger Delta resumed their attacks on oil and gas infrastructure. The violence was spearheaded by a group called the Niger Delta Avengers, which local newspapers linked to Tompolo — a charge that both he and the Avengers deny.

While the boats were seized, it’s nonetheless the case that civil servants in Whitehall could have contributed to a worse re-run of the 2009 face-off between the Federal Joint Task Force in the Delta and Tompolo’s forces.

Despite the recklessness of the deal and the terrible violence it could have led to, it hasn’t been debated in Westminster once. This is even though in 2014 Cable’s Business Ministry and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under Philip Hammond, now Chancellor, could both have acted to stop the export of the ships.

It was different when Cable was in opposition. From the opposition benches he initiated three House of Commons debates on the UK’s role in the arms trade. Yet, as local campaigners calling for proper application of the existing arms export controls noted to the authors, as a Minister, Cable told them he was “not going to make this my Alamo.”

How did Norway respond to the deal?

The deal may not have been discussed in Westminster, but in Norway it has led to two parliamentary enquiries. It has also seen a Ministerial apology and the conviction of a Norwegian civil servant, Bjørn Stavrum, who received a five year sentence after being found guilty of accepting a $154,000 bribe from UK firm Cas-Global to help secure the sale.

The scrutiny of buyers was found to be very weak. The only bit of paperwork needed about the destination was a short statement of intended use. In its conclusions one inquiry found “this End User Statement is in reality a very simply designed declaration [and] is an easy way to bypass regulations virtually risk-free.”

During the 2015 hearings into the affair, Norwegian MP Erik Skutle asked Defence Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanse: “Does this mean that anybody can buy these boats, as long as they sign a declaration? Even terrorists? How on earth could this happen?” The answers, apparently, are “yes, even terrorists” and “quite easily.”

An investigation by Corruption Watch UK reveals how business interests are prioritised by government over human rights. Redacted emails show that Foreign Office officials in Abuja, Nigeria, at first thought the export to the ‘retired’ warlord was safe. Then it was queried by Whitehall, only for it to be discovered that Cable’s Ministry had already cleared the ships to sail.

Government ministers often defend controversial arms exports on the grounds that they are to allies or sovereign nation states, but the export application from Cas-Global clearly listed Global West Vessels Specialist Limited as the contact, a company that a simple Google search would have revealed is widely regarded as a front for Tompolo.

What, if anything, does this tell us about Cable?

In some ways, neither case study tells us much about Cable. The coincidence of him being caught up, twice, in political intrigues in one of the most violent and under-reported conflicts in recent history, says far more about the political Establishment in Westminster, and the tortured history of Britain’s interests in the Niger Delta, than it does about Cable himself. Cable, while no saint, is certainly no monster either.

That he has been party to both episodes is not due to any particular malice on his part. When it comes to Shell’s abuses it is more reflective of Shell’s ethics and its power than anything else. In the case of the hauk boats, the sale was symptomatic of an arms export system and culture that allows arms sales to human rights abusers and war zones without any questions asked. 

None about this bodes well for ‘Empire 2.0’, which insensitive and deluded civil servants have told us will follow Brexit. It implies such a ‘vision’ will be built on supervening and quintessentially English principles: of not asking too many questions about Britain’s history of dodgy deals; of an emotional tone-deafness to other people’s legitimate expressions of grievance at the outcomes; and of everyone proverbially “moving on.” But if everybody ‘moves on’ and nobody asks questions then it’s only a matter of time before the same kind of terrible decisions are made again.

Both Shell’s involvement in the Ogoni crisis and the hauk boats deal were the results of systems that put profits ahead of human rights. However, both are also linked by the inability of senior figures to say enough was enough and act decisively. That is why it’s important to know who knew what and when. And, as someone who was in senior roles during both controversies, where better to start than the new Leader of the Liberal Democrats?

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