The global plunder of natural resources is nothing new. Stories of corporations taking over water, oil, gas and mineral deposits, and buying up land in countries across the planet have played out time and again, with devastating consequences. For too long, communities have seen their rights violated in favour of multinational companies which exploit their natural resources, while those who oppose the presence of such corporations in their territories suffer harassment, death threats and targeted assassinations.
In south eastern Nigeria, the Ogoni people have seen first-hand the violence of ‘Big Oil’. Shell started operations in the region in the late 1950s. Over the decades that followed more than £30 billion of oil were extracted from the region. Unfortunately the majority of people saw little benefit from the billions of dollars of profits that were made from Ogoni oil. The plunder of its resources and the degradation of the environment that followed, have devastated Ogoniland and undermined the traditional livelihoods of its communities.
On 10 November 1995 the Nigerian government executed nine leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) on trumped up murder charges. Tellingly, Ken Saro Wiwa and the others were at the forefront of a campaign against the environmental degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland. Many of the witnesses who implicated the Ogoni Nine during their trial subsequently recanted their evidence, stating that they had been bribed by the Nigerian government and had been offered money and jobs with Shell to give false testimony. The ‘judicial murder’ of Saro Wiwa and his colleagues was a travesty – another event in the brutal world of Big Oil.
The killings of the Ogoni Nine needs to be seen within the context of the corrupt relationship between the Nigerian state and the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), and MOSOP’s opposition to oil extraction and the collusion of the Nigerian state with international oil companies. Allegations of collusion between Shell and the then military government of Nigeria are long-standing. Shell allegedly provided the Nigerian military with equipment and helped plan raids and terror campaigns against villages and Ogoni protestors. Specifically, in the lawsuit brought against Shell by the families of the Ogoni Nine it was alleged that Shell conspired with the military to arrest and execute the men. Settling the lawsuit before it came to trial meant that these allegations were never tested in a court of law. The evidence of their collusion nevertheless remains compelling.
The environment which sustained traditional livelihoods in Ogoniland has been devastated. Fisheries have been destroyed through the pollution of aquatic habitats and highly persistent contamination of creeks. Land resources have been devastated through oil spills and associated fires which have killed vegetation and left a crust of ash and tar making revegetation difficult. As a result the Ogoni people are exposed to high concentrations of hydrocarbons in the air, in their water and on their land on a daily basis. The people of Ogoni are therefore paying a high price for the activities of the oil industry in Nigeria.
The Ogoni Bill of Rights, developed by MOSOP, called for increased autonomy for the Ogoni people, a fair share of the proceeds of oil extraction and rehabilitation of the damage done to Ogoni land. The demands set out in the Ogoni Bill of Rights represented a direct threat to Shell. Political autonomy would have given the Ogoni people the power to decide whether Shell should continue with oil extraction in their territory. It was this call for self-determination that led Shell and the Nigerian government to see MOSOP and its leaders as a threat. It is the threat they posed that led to their execution.
In 1993 MOSOP mobilised over half the Ogoni population in a series of peaceful marches to draw international attention to their plight and to demand a share of oil revenue and greater political autonomy. In the same year the Nigerian state occupied the region militarily. As a consequence of the ensuing violence, oil exploration and production activities in Ogoniland ceased. Shortly after this Ken Saro Wiwa and his colleagues were arrested. They were imprisoned for over a year before being found guilty by a specially convened tribunal and sentenced to death.
The repression of the Ogoni did not end with the death of the Ogoni Nine. Following their execution the Nigerian government established the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force comprising the police, and armed forces to root out dissent in the region. Military checkpoints were established across Ogoniland and anyone suspected of being a member of MOSOP was arrested and detained. Many of those arrested were never seen again.
Although state reprisals against the Ogoni have abated, it is now twenty years since the execution of Ogoni Nine and justice has still not been done. Although oil production ceased in Ogoniland in 1993 oil pollution continues to devastate communities. There are ongoing spills from oil infrastructure and pipelines that Shell has failed to decommission, as well as from oil pipelines carrying oil from other areas across Ogoni territory. The United Nations Environmental Programme’s (UNEP) Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland which was published in 2011 notes that cleaning up the environmental impacts of Big Oil will take decades and will cost a substantial amount of money.
Ken Sara Wiwa has become synonymous with the battle against Big Oil but the let’s not forget his colleagues – Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel and John Kpuine – who stood and died with him.
On this the 20th anniversary of their killing we remember the sacrifice that they have made and we continue to stand in solidarity with the people of Ogoniland in their struggle for Oil Justice.
Credit: War on Want