Today marks 20 years since the unlawful execution of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian government in 1995.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was a trail-blazing Ogoni activist who saw the overwhelming damage being done to Ogoniland by Shell’s unrestrained petroleum dumping during the crude oil extraction process.
In a society then controlled by the military regimes which ran Nigeria in the 1990s, Ken Saro-Wiwa was one of the few who dared to openly criticise the terrible harm being done to his homeland by the unregulated energy industry. One of the earliest members, and subsequently President, of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Saro-Wiwa led a non-violent campaign against the ecological degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland by the multinational petroleum industry, primarily Royal Dutch Shell. They had great success in uniting the Ogoni people in protest; in October 1990, they presented The Ogoni Bill of Rights to the Nigerian government, seeking political and economic autonomy, and in January 1993, MOSOP organised peaceful marches of an estimated 300,000 Ogoni people through four main cities, drawing international attention to their struggle. Saro-Wiwa was also Vice Chair of the UNPO Presidency from 1993 to 1995.
Sadly, at the peak of his campaign, the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, which had come to control Nigeria, arrested Ken Saro-Wiwa and imprisoned him. Subject to a trial which can only be described as fraudulent, Saro-Wiwa was eventually hanged, along with eight other Ogoni activists, despite the outcry of international human rights organisations. His death prompted global outrage, and Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations for over three years.
Saro-Wiwa was prevented from fighting for the Ogoni cause as he fought hard to do. So where does Ogoniland stand now? As Ken Wiwa, Saro-Wiwa’s son, has recently written, “In the past 10 years the Ogoni have registered landmark victories in court cases against Shell in New York and London. I am sure my father will be looking down and chuckling that activists who cut their teeth on the Ogoni case were part of the coalition that last week pushed President Obama to reject the controversial Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline.” Nevertheless, Ogoniland is still today devastated by years of ravaging by an unaccountable oil trade. A 2011 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) assessment found that groundwater in the area contained 900 times the recommended amount of the carcinogen benzene. Estimates suggest it will take twenty to thirty years of sustained effort to restore the land to its former state.
Sadly, this is not the only major ecological disaster taking place in front of us. Lake Urmia in Iran has been left devastated by a combination of decades of governmental neglect and global warming. The result is that a community once-dependant on the lake for its livelihood has been left struggling, salt left after the evaporation of Urmia’s water is destroying the fertility of surrounding soil for agriculture, and local animal populations are threatened.
If we want to honour the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the many other brave activists who have died in the cause of environmental protection and human rights, then we should remember his peaceful struggle, and continue to support MOSOP and the Ogoni people in their fight to restore their land, protect their health and livelihoods, and end their oppression by the Nigerian government and the international oil industry.
“In my innocence of the false charges I face here, in my utter conviction, I call upon the Ogoni people, the peoples of the Niger Delta, and the oppressed ethnic minorities of Nigeria to stand up now and fight fearlessly and peacefully for their rights. History is on their side.”
– Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1995
Author: Ken Saro-Wiwa Jnr.