Human Rights Defenders

Why Ken Saro-Wiwa Matters

Commentary, 10 November 2015

By Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

Ken Saro-Wiwa adressing Ogoni Day demonstration, Nigeria. Photo: Tim Lambon / Greenpeace

Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed along with eight Ogoni leaders in Nigeria on this day 20 years ago, was a poet and writer. Twenty years after his death, his voice continues to resonate because the lessons of his life are powerful and his call for justice matters not only in Nigeria, but wherever there is a clash between the interests of business and those whose lives its activities impact.

Saro-Wiwa was among the most articulate representatives of the Niger Delta communities challenging the way oil was exploited and revenue distributed in the country. Ten years ago, I was in the Niger Delta, researching the violence, which had torn apart the region. In the report I co-wrote, we noted how the oil companies involved were under siege and protected by armed forces, and how the increasingly restless communities were frustrated by the lack of economic development.

As a leading figure of the 500,000-strong Ogoni community in the Rivers State, Saro-Wiwa played a key role in drafting the Ogoni Bill of Rights, which highlighted the lack of political representation, absence of pipe-borne water, electricity, job opportunities, or federal government projects in the region. He was President of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which pressed oil companies and the government to clean up the environment and pay adequate compensation and royalties to the oil producing regions.

Appalled by the military repression, pollution, the devastation of the landscape in the Niger Delta, and the constant flaring of gas, he demanded an end to environmental degradation. He made Shell Petroleum companies in Nigeria the target of his criticism because Shell was the main oil company in Ogoniland, even though other oil majors—Total, Chevron, Agip, and Exxon Mobil operated throughout the Delta. The Ogoni campaign against Shell took on David vs. Goliath proportions.

Speaking at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in 1990, Saro-Wiwa said:

"Oil was at the centre of the [Nigerian Civil] War. People from oil-bearing land were the main victims. Twenty years [later], the system of revenue allocation, the development policies of successive Federal Administrations, and the insensitivity of the Nigerian elite have turned the Delta … into an ecological disaster and dehumanized its inhabitants. The notion that the oil-bearing areas provide the revenue … and yet be denied a proper share of that revenue … is unjust. The silence is deafening. The affected people must not be frightened by the enormity of the task, by the immorality of the present. I call upon the Nigerian elite to play fair."

He described the Niger Delta as a “wasteland,” with the atmosphere poisoned by gas flaring 24 hours a day for 33 years. Many oil companies operated in the Niger Delta then as they do today, but by far the biggest investor has been Shell Petroleum Development Co, which is in partnership with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp (NNPC), as is the case with other large oil companies operating in the country. NNPC controls the majority stake in these ventures, but operational control rests with the international partners.

Saro-Wiwa’s complaints had validity, and Shell responded saying that the lack of development in the Niger Delta was an issue for the Nigerian Government to solve. This argument is valid in most societies with functional states, but Nigeria suffered from poor governance. At that time, for most of Nigeria’s post-independence history, the country had been under military rule. Successive governments were accused of corruption, mismanagement, and human rights abuses. Oil companies were accused of being complicit with the government.

In 1993, Gen Sani Abacha took power. He arrested Moshood Abiola, who had won the elections, and detaining hundreds of others. Abacha cracked down on MOSOP leadership. In May 1994, four chiefs of the Ogoni community who disagreed with Saro-Wiwa’s strategy were murdered during a riot, and MOSOP officials, including Saro-Wiwa, were arrested and the government accused them of the murders although they denied the accusations. They were kept in detention for several months before being tried. Besides Saro-Wiwa, they included Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levura, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine, and collectively they were known as the Ogoni Nine.

Their trial before a tribunal began in early 1995. It fell woefully short of international standards. Michael Birnbaum, who observed the trial for Article 19, said the defendants were “denied access to the ordinary courts or any right of appeal, in breach of their fundamental rights guaranteed both by Nigerian and international law.” The defendants’ lawyers were threatened and withdrew from the tribunal. In October 1995 they were convicted and sentenced to death.

In his final statement to the military tribunal, Saro-Wiwa declared: “I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial… The company has ducked this trial, but its day will surely come… The ecological war that the company has waged in the Delta will be called into question; and the crimes … will be duly punished.”

The verdict was handed down in October 1995. Birnbaum called the judgment “wrong, illogical, perverse” and “downright dishonest.”

Many international leaders had appealed on Saro-Wiwa’s behalf, and international human rights organisations had run a spirited campaign to influence Nigeria. They lobbied Shell, urging the company that it should intervene on Saro-Wiwa’s behalf, even though Saro-Wiwa had led the struggle against the company. Shell says it appealed to Gen Abacha to show clemency, but many in Nigeria and beyond remain skeptical of Shell. Abacha disregarded all appeals and the executions were carried on 10 November, 1995.  

A year after the executions in 1996, the Nigerian author Wole Soyinka reflected critically of the impact of the Ogoni crisis – how the civilian-military elite had shown who was in charge, resisting Nigerians who wanted to build a more accountable country. In The Open Sore of a Continent he wrote: “Ogoniland, alas, only has the model space for the actualisation of a long term dreamt totalitarian onslaught on the more liberated, more politically sophisticated sections of the Nigerian polity, which have dared expose and confront the power obsession of a minuscule but obdurate military civilian hegemony.”

Shell faced lawsuits later, including the Kiobel case in the United States. The Saro-Wiwa family sued Shell, accusing the company of having collaborated in the executions. In mid-2009, Shell settled that long-standing lawsuit. It did not admit any wrongdoing—it said it had nothing to do with the violence that spread the Niger Delta in the 1990s and its officials have maintained that the company had tried hard to seek Saro-Wiwa’s release. But it paid $15 million to the survivors and select Ogoni charities.

In the years since, communities in the Niger Delta have continued their protests against all oil companies, and those companies are in turn protected by the military. The army takes its role seriously, saying oil is a strategic national asset, and disrupting oil production is unacceptable to the government.

Oil companies have expressed their helplessness: Company officials said they lack the power to make the government change its policies. Activists do not always believe companies’ protestations. The antagonism has remained, and in some cases it has worsened: to seek support from local communities, some companies have begun building primary healthcare clinics, schools, and provided water and electricity to the villages near their operations. That has built expectations in the communities in the immediate vicinity, who often bypass the state and turn to the companies directly for all their needs; and that has made other communities, not so close to the oil operations, angry, because they feel they are being denied access to the facilities the communities near the operations have enjoyed. And so, the communities, which are further away from the oil facility, have sometimes attacked the company’s infrastructure, or the villages that are benefiting from corporate philanthropy, contributing to the spiraling conflict.

In his Reith lectures at the BBC in 2004, Soyinka dealt with the theme of fear. He described the Nigerian state of mind as one which, has ‘a palpable intimacy with fear, an experience that was never undergone even in the most brutal season of the colonial mandate.’ Twenty years after the executions in Nigeria, fear has not disappeared. Instead of dealing with the past and letting a process of healing begin, the Nigerian government seems to want to bury the past deeper. It has impounded a sculpture – a memorial bus – sent to Nigeria to commemorate the Ogoni Nine. But Saro-Wiwa’s voice resounds across Niger Delta and beyond. 

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