As Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari prepares to take over the reigns of government following last month’s election promising to fulfil his campaign pledge of change, for the people of the Niger Delta it will be more of the same as they continue to grapple with the degradation created by the oil and gas industry.
In one community, Ogoniland, people still drink from contaminated wells and farmlands and fishing waters remain polluted even though oil production there was halted in 1993 by a mass protest campaign. It was led by writer turned activist Ken Saro-Wiwa whose execution two years later by a military dictatorship caused international outrage.
In an essay to mark the 20th anniversary of his death, veteran journalist Victoria Brittain describes Saro-Wiwa as “a hero for our times” for bringing the world’s attention to the “crime scene of the Niger Delta” and paying for it with his life.
“If Saro-Wiwa were alive today [… ] he would be conspicuously allied to the vibrant US environmental movements against tracking drilling in the Arctic and the Keystone XL Pipeline,” she writes. “Saro-Wiwa’s charisma and allegiance-building capacity would, given the new power of the social media, forge links between the Niger Delta’s traumatised generations and the young environmental and Occupy activists of the West, demanding action.”
Thanks to some best selling novels and the hit TV comedy series Basi and Company, Saro-Wiwa was already a household name in Nigeria when he took up the cause of his native Ogoniland, a 500,000 strong rural community where Shell started extracting oil in 1957. His Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, or MOSOP, was part of a wider campaign against the Nigerian government and oil multinationals that had been raging in the Niger Delta since the 1960s because of the damage to health and the environment caused by oil spills, industrial waste and gas flaring.
People were also angry that, while the oil-rich region, roughly the size of Scotland, provided the bulk of the country’s wealth, they remained dirt poor and lacked basic amenities like potable water and electricity.
Following a series of peaceful MOSOP rallies of tens of thousands of people, Shell was forced to pull out of Ogoniland. In retaliation, the military arrested Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists on trumped up murder charges and in November 1995 all were hanged in what the British Prime Minister John Major called a travesty of justice.
Writing in the latest edition of the journal Race & Class, Brittain, a former associate foreign editor of the Guardian with a long background of reporting on Africa, says the hangings failed to silence MOSOP and in 2009 Shell settled out of court for £9.6m following a landmark case in which the company was accused of complicity with the military government in human rights violations against Ogoni activists, including the executions.
However, thanks to the “cosy relationship” that multinationals like Shell have enjoyed with successive Nigerian governments, oil spills in the Niger Delta continue with “relentless regularity”, with a devastating UN survey in 2011 saying that the contamination of land water and air was so pervasive an urgent clean-up operation was required.
This came after the government offered an amnesty to armed militants who had been sabotaging oil installations across the Niger Delta for the best part of a decade, cutting production by a quarter by 2009. In 2013, the governor of the Central Bank revealed that amnesty programme had cost the government $1bn.
But the clean up operation has still not begun, Brittain notes.
As Ogoni campaigners prepare to use the 20th anniversary as a focal point to finally get justice, Brittain says that Saro-Wiwa’s legacy is that women are still blocking oil refineries, refusing to accept the impunity of the powerful and their disregard of ordinary people.
Ken Saro-Wiwa, a hero for our times, by Victoria Brittain appears in the January-March issue of Race&Class published by the Institute of Race Relations, London
First published in the Islington Tribune on April 10, 2015