“If you call off the campaign, maybe we can do something for your brother.”

That was what Brian Anderson, the then managing director of Shell, was said to have told Ken Saro-Wiwa’s relatives, shortly before the Ogoni activist was executed by the Nigerian dictatorship in November 1995.

The claims of complicity by the oil company in the deaths of Saro-Wiwa and his companions were to be tested in a New York court. Instead, Shell has offered a settlement of $US15.5 million: “a humanitarian gesture”, it says.

Now, you do not often hear “multinational oil company” and “humantarianism” in the same sentence, and in that respect the payout represents a triumph for Saro-Wiwa’s family. His son, Ken Wiwa, explained: “It will provide some kind of psychological relief to have those who they feel were responsible for the violations of human rights, being held accountable for their roles in those human rights violations.”

Of course, the settlement, which explicitly avoids any acknowledgment of guilt, means that the allegations against Shell won’t be ventilated. The lawsuit claimed that company officials provided Nigerian police with weapons, boats and other equipment, took part in their operations and even encouraged them to shoot at protestors demonstrating at pipeline constructions. None of that will be investigated.

Further, the payout goes only to the families of the executed men, not to the Ogoni people more generally. The sum involved is, in any case, a pittance, especially given the huge revenues generated by the Nigerian oil fields and the gross devastation Shell’s operations have caused.

The Ogoni and the other groups indigenous to the area depend on farming and fishing. Oil spills have rendered their arable land barren. The mangroves and mud banks that provide habitat for seafood have been poisoned; the drinking water contaminated. Entire communities have been thrown into poverty. Meanwhile, the repression of activists continues.

In other words, the case has solved none of the broader problems. Nonetheless, it may have set a precedent. There are, after all, other law suits pending against Shell, including one brought as a class action by the Ogoni people as a whole. And if a victory — no matter how partial — against a formerly unassailable multinational might encourage others in Nigeria, it also has implications throughout the world.

The GFC might have temporarily reduced pressure on oil supplies but in the coming years the world’s demand for fossil fuels will inevitably intensify conflicts between oil giants and the people displaced as fresh fields are opened.

A very similar case looms against Exxon Mobil in Indonesia, where villagers claim that company guards carried out atrocities, while in Ecuador, a lawsuit pends against Chevron over its activities in the Amazon.

In his Mandela-like closing statement at the trial that sentenced him to hang, Ken Saro-Wiwa warned:

We all stand before history. […] The Company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and the lessons learned here may prove useful to it for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished. The crime of the Company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will also be punished.’

The day Saro-Wiwa prophesised has not arrived. But perhaps it is getting closer.