"My vision of Nigeria is of a competent, well-ordered society where people care for each other and where the laws protect the weak and enhance the abilities of all citizens. Simple." - Ken Saro-Wiwa
Ten years ago, novelist, television producer, environmentalist and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the state of Nigeria. He and eight others were hanged. Their crime: taking part in a nonviolent campaign against transnational oil corporations that were destroying Ogoni land in the Niger Delta and threatening the inhabitants' livelihood.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was born in 1941 at Bori, on the southern coast of Nigeria. He grew up in a large, extended family. After completing his higher education he taught at Government College and later at the University of Lagos, then became the Civilian Administrator for the port of Bonny in the Niger Delta. In the 1980s, he produced a popular television series, Basi & Co., which ran for 15 years and was the most-watched television series in Africa. In 1985, he published his best-known novel, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, followed by On a Darkling Plain, a collection of short stories, and a prison diary called, A Month and a Day.
Then Ken Saro-Wiwa's interest in politics, combined with his concern for the Ogoni people, eclipsed his literary work. He became the leader of the MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People), whose mission was to halt the environmental damage done to Ogoniland and to seek compensation for damages through the oil revenues being expropriated by such transnational corporations as Shell.
The Ogoni Bill of Rights, a document presented to the government of Nigeria, declared it intolerable that "one of the richest areas of Nigeria should wallow in abject poverty and destitution." Saro-Wiwa continually expressed dissatisfaction with a government that took much from the Ogoni people and land, but gave nothing back "except a blighted countryside, and atmosphere full of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons; a land in which wildlife is unknown; a land of polluted streams and creeks, of rivers without fish, a land which is, in every sense of the term, an ecological disaster." 1
MOSOP and Saro-Wiwa soon drew international attention to their cause. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth began echoing the Ogoni concerns for the environmental destruction being caused by the oil industry. Saro-Wiwa urged Shell to conduct environmental impact assessments and to make a genuine effort to address some of the environmental problems it had caused. He called on the government to grant the Ogoni political autonomy and the right to control and use a "fair proportion of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development."2
In January 1993, the UN Year of Indigenous Peoples, MOSOP organized a hugely successful rally. Over 300,000 people demonstrated peacefully, urging the Nigerian government to consider the demands outlined in The Ogoni Bill of Rights three years earlier. As more pressure came from both national and international sources, Shell and the Nigerian government were keen on silencing the leaders of MOSOP and the Ogoni people. The military regime began cracking down on political dissent and imprisoning those suspected of "subversive" activities. Shell did nothing to object.
In May 1994, four Ogoni leaders, believed sympathetic to the Nigerian military, were killed in a riot. Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni men were arrested and accused of incitement to murder. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and PEN International issued urgent appeals, labeling Saro-Wiwa and the others prisoners of conscience. Despite the resounding appeals for clemency and further investigation, the Nigerian government proceeded with a show trial on November 2, and followed up with the executions on November 10, 1995. Many accused the oil industry of complicity in their arrest and death.
The killing of the Ogoni Nine focused international attention on Sani Abacha's corrupt military regime in Nigeria, the environmental impact of oil companies in the Niger Delta, and the issue of Shell's shared responsibility for their deaths. In a 1999 report entitled The Price of Oil, Human Rights Watch asserted that, "Acknowledging the difficult context of oil operations in Nigeria does not, however, absolve the oil companies from a share of responsibility for the human rights abuses taking place in the Niger Delta: whether by action or omission they play a role.... Corporations doing business in these states take on a special obligation to implement proactive steps to promote respect for rights and to ensure that they do not become complicit in violations." 3
Today, despite the end of the military dictatorship, the people of the Niger Delta face great challenges. Oil spills contaminate marine shorelines, destroying coastal habitats and costing human lives. Gas flaring (the burning of surplus vapor from a well) is greater in Nigeria than any other country, causing air pollution, acid rain, and lung diseases in local communities. The World Bank estimated in 2004 that Nigeria flared 75 percent of all gas produced.
As a result, in June 2005, "communities from across the Niger Delta...filed a case in the Federal High Court of Nigeria against the Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron Texaco, TotalFinaElf and Agip joint venture companies, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, and the Nigerian government, to stop gas flaring."4
In the United States, gas flaring remains illegal in populated areas and in the Western world the rate of gas flared is less than one percent. Many human rights observers point out the discrepancy between the way oil companies conduct their affairs in Africa and in wealthier regions of the world. In short, when it comes to protecting the environment in Africa, there seems to be a double standard.
However, the oil companies are not solely responsible. The government of Nigeria is also to blame. They executed the Ogoni Nine. If governments do not hold oil companies accountable for the devastation of oil exploration and production, why should the corporations, which are motivated by profit, care? Both governments and corporations are supposed to be accountable to civil society. Even if a military dictatorship won't listen to its population, shareholders and consumers can pressure oil companies to act responsibly. Consumers become complicit when they fail to hold corporations accountable and keep filling up their cars at Shell and Chevron gas stations.
Throughout his life, Ken Saro-Wiwa articulated his desire for change in Ogoniland and the rest of the region. He once stated his goal clearly:
"I have started a trend which will peacefully liberate many peoples in Africa and lead eventually to political and economic reform and social justice."5
Apart from environmental problems, the Niger Delta is experiencing violent conflict between the government and armed groups seeking greater control of the region's vast oil resources. Once again, people are suffering as a result. Ten years after Ken Saro-Wiwa's death, the parties should alleviate problems in the Niger Delta so that his legacy can live on.
Paul di Stefano is a teacher, writer and photographer from Montréal.
1 Saro-Wiwa, Ken, A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary. Penguin Books, 1995.
3 "The Price of Oil," Human Rights Watch Report, 1999.
4 "Legal action to stop Nigeria gas flaring." The Climate Justice Programme www.climatelaw.org/media/gas.flaring.suit
5 Ken Saro-Wiwa. Quoted from www.rightlivelihood.org/recip/saro-wiwa.htm