Ken Saro-Wiwa died because he had dared to assert the Ogonis'claims to their In Nigeria, the giant wheels of progress have been leaving a veritable wasteland behi them in the course of their ingress into the home turf of the Ogonis - denuding fores devastating farmlands and ravaging wetlands. The Ogonis' defiant protest against this has only earned them state-sponsored repression

By Sumita Dasgupta
Published: Friday 15 December 1995


Cry tyrrany: demonstrators out (Credit: AP / PTI)IN my innocence of the false charges f face here, in my utter conviction, I call upon the Ogoni people, the people of the Niger delta, and the oppressed ethnic minorities of Nigeria to stand up now and fight fearlessly and peacefully for their rights," said Ken Saro-Wiwa, the 54-year-old leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (mosop), after the special tribunal appointed by the ruling military junta in Nigeria pronounced his death sentence. And that is precisely what the struggle of the Ogonis, that began in 1990 and has now taken a momentous turn with the execution of the person who spearheaded it, is all about.

It is not really about the violation of human rights on which the West is raising such a hue and cry. Environmental degradation of the Niger delta, thanks to indiscriminate oil extraction by multinationals, is also not what Saro-Wiwa fought against and finally died for. He was the torch bearer of self-rule - he wanted to wrest for his people the right to demand a price for their natural resources.

"He sensitised his people to both the politics and economics of soil," comments Clinks Iloegbunam, a Nigerian journalist who was a close friend of the dead leader. And the General Sani Abacha regime silenced him by sending him to the gallows.

Ogoniland, located in Nigeria's south-eastern River State, has been blessed with the presence of oil beneath it. Foreign oil companies, most prominently the Royal Dutch Sbell, have - for decades - exploited the reserves. An estimated us $30 billion worth of oil has been extracted From Ogoni lands since 1958 when Shell struck oil here.

The military government has, naturally, benefitted handsomely from this. In fact, it is flushed with petro-dollars. Oil accountants fiat 80 per cent of the Nigerian government revenues 90 per cent of its export earnings. For the 6 million Ogoni people however, it is quite a different story. They have remained dirt poor, while the lush green mangrove swamps and rain forests around them were reduced to wastelands.Their once fertile farmlands are ravaged by constant oil spills and acid rain. Puddles of ooze, the size of football fields, dot their landscape.

The waterbodies in the region are the worst affected. They are swirling pools of ink-black fluid, bereft of fish or any other kind of marine life. In short, the Ogonis have lost their soil, their water and their livelihood. They have been left with noth- ing except a legacy of rusting pipelin6, thousands of unsightly wells and refineries. Their share of oil revenue has been nil, while the military bosses stole and squandered petro-dollars, stashing them away in British banks outside the country.

Saro-Wiwa wanted all this to change. Five years ago, he founded the mosop, which came up with some very specific demands on behalf of the Ogonis. It presented a Bill of Rights which demanded - from Shell - several billions of dollars in compensation and back rent. It also called for self-determination for Ogoniland, virtually declaring it an autonomous state.

The mosop did not stop at that. It pressed for greater national representation for the Ogonis who had till now -like the other 200-odd minority tribes in the Niger delta -been practically disenfranchised by the army chiefs. Attaining a more decisive control over the environment was the other issue which figured prominently in the mosop agenda.

Nothing could have rankled more with the military rulers. Managing the vast oil reserves of Ogoniland was a job they wanted to keep exclusively for themselves. Any strident assertion of rights on the part of the Ogoni people instantly raised their hackles. For, a threat to the oil revenue was a threat to the government itself. Already the administration was under pressure. In 1990, even before Saro-Wiwa emerged on the scene, the people had begun demonstrating against Shell. They were peaceful enough. But on one such occassion, the Shell Gen Abacha authorities pressed the panic button and called for police protection. The Mobile Police Force (MPF), a wing of the ruling military junta, notorious for its brutality, arrived on the scene and proceeded to massacre 80 people and destroy 495 homes.

The movement spread like a raging bushfire since that incident, with SaroWiwa managing the front ranks. In the summer of 1992, the MPF was despatched to villages in the Gbaran oilfield, where it shot 30 persons and beat up 150 others. Deeply disturbed by the growing turbulence at home, Saro-Wiwa decided that the only option left before him was to attract the attention of the international community.

In July 1992, he adoressed the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva and followed this up with a visit to the UN in New York. "Oil exploration has turned Ogoni into a wasteland. In and . Indin an return, we have recieved nothing," he said in an emotionally charged speech in Geneva. "The Ogoni tear case has exposed simmering hatred that could tear Nigeria apart".

As it turned out, his sense of the future combat strategy of the Sani Abacha government was very accu rate. The government now sought to subdue the Ogonis by playing the neighbouring ethnic groups against them, even encouraging them to attack the villagers. By this time, the mosop had issued an ultimatum to Shell, asking it to provide us $ 10 billion or leave.

The military regime, scared out of its wits by this blatant act of defiance, turned vicious. The worst act of repression hit the Ogonis in January 1993 after a mass rally. This time the police did not just kill, although the number of their victims reached 2,000. They burnt down 27 villages and forced 80,0 people to flee. Under such pressure, the Ogoni movemel too, began to show signs of disintegration. It was split betwee the moderates who were willing to compromise and the fl lowers of Saro-Wiwa who resolved to maintain their belligerent stand.

At this juncture, in 1993, the Abacha government announced the presidential elections. The turmoil within tic communities of the Niger delta was palpable. The conservatives, the older generation - including some of the tribi chiefs - supported the businessperson and civilian candidate Moshood Abiola. On the other hand, Saro-Wiwa and his s4 porters were hell-bent on a total boycott of the elections, which they termed as "completely farcical". He was prov right once again when the elections were summarily annuille by the junta and Abiola was thrown behind bars.

As for the 'defiant' Ogonis, now it open war against the junta. The an! stooges covered the region with troops special forces. But when elections for repri sentatives to a national constitutional conference were contemplated once again in M I last year, splits erupted in the Ogoni community. Four Ogoni chiefs, who were consider to be rivals of Saro-Wiwa, during a riot.

This was all the provocation that Abacha and his goons needed. Although Saro-wiwa himself was incarcerated at the time of murder, the military claimed that he incited his followers to "go for the enemies. He and nine of his colleagues were put 10 trial. The court sat as a Civil Disturban, Special Tribunal, presided over by two judge and a military officer. They could not be ovelm ruled and there was no right of appeal. they sentenced Saro-Wiwa to death. authority which confirmed the conviction the Provisional Ruling Council, in effect country's government.

Saro-Wiwa's death has driven a particle larly disconcerting message home: that international opinion amounts to nothing rogue regime is determined to have its wa General Sani Abacha not only brushed as the fervent appeals made by the state leader to pardon the Ogoni leader but he confirmed the sentence of death b carrying out the execution just a day beil the summit of the Commonwealth heads of government was to begin in Auckland, New Zealand. He flung his decision the face of politicians who seemed confident till the Iasi minute that the Nigerian rulers could be won over by the hoe eyed words of their respective foreign offices. Even Nelson Mandela, the South African president, preferred "quie words" to sanctions despite the inceasingly desperate pleas ot help from Saro-Wiwa's son. Of course there was a wave of shock and outrage after the act was done. The Commonwealth suspended Nigeria's membership. This was the first time ever that such a drastic step was taken against a member state. Several countries including France, Britain, and Netherlands and Germany recalled their envoys from Nigeria. "It is judicial murder. I do not see how Nigeria can stay in the Commonwealth until they return to democratic government," raged John Major, the British prime minister. He was backed by Mandela, who till a few hours ago woclhn; cautious appproach vis-a-vis the Abacha like that is whether within the Nigerian economy they would cause worse unmployment, worse poverty, worse misery and worse starvation than is already being suffered," he said.

So the best effort the international community could come up with was a decision by the private sector lending arm of the World Bank, the International Finance Corp (IFC), to halt its planned funding for a us $3 billion natural gas project in Nigeria. Prohibited in its by-laws from making decisions based on a country's internal politics, the 1FC which was to to take a two per cent stake in the venture, ascribed its move to "insufficient progress in economic reforms".

While Saro-Wiwa's mourners across the globe are bitterly disapponted at the delayed and pathetically inadequate response of the world community, their anger is mainly directed towards the Shell company, which they view as the primary accomplice of the murderous Abacha regime. The companys subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company, operates a joint venture agreement with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and its capacity is one million barrels a day. In other words, as a source of revenue, Nigeria is a goldmine for Shell.

A report - The Environmental and Social Costs ofLiving Next Door to Shell - published by the Greenpeace International two days after the brutal murder of Saro-Wiwa says, "Since the beginning of Shell's operations in the Niger delta, the company has wreaked havoc on neigh- bouring communities and their environments. Many of its operations and materials are outdated, in poor condition.and would be illegal in other parts of the world."

Even though it was the main factor behind it, Shell has always conveniently distanced itself from the raging conflict between the Ogonis and the Abacha regime. It claimed that it was the Nigerian ' government's responsibility to look after the people's demand. It was, after all, operating legally in Nigeria and could not inter- vene in a conflict over self-determination between the people and their government. It was, however, forced out of Ogoniland in 1993 after direct clashes with the long-suffering locals. As of now, it is a party to a us $3.6 billion natural gas deal in Nigeria.

The company wrung its hands in ritual sorrow after the news of the hanging of Saro-Wiwa hit the world. "It is with deep regret we hear this news. From the violence that led to the murder of the four Ogoni leaders through to the death penalty having been carried out, the human cost has been too high," rued the official statement issued by the company. But the activists who are determined to punish the "murderers" of Saro-Wiwa are in no mood to listen to such rhetorics. "Shell has blood on its hands. Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged for speaking out against Shell," rages Lord Melchett, chairman Greenpeace UK. He and his colleagues are convinced that company could have saved the Ogoni leader's life if it had desired. The Nigerian military rulers would not have risk inviting the ire of the biggest producer of oil in their coun - the commodity which is the lifeblood of their regime.

Instead, Shell adopted an appproach of 'quiet diplomacy', which cost Saro-Wiwa his life. The only way it can atone for its sins is by scrapping its natural gas plant there and by scaling back its huge oil operations. insist the campaigners. The controversy has certainly land ed the company in trouble Especially so because it is drawing comparisons with last sum mer's Brent Spar brouhah when the company found its at the centre of a Greenpeace-led campaign, blocking it froc sinking an obsolete oil rig in the North Sea. It had buckle under pressure then, but this time it has no intentions 19 doing so. The top rung execu- tives of Shell have very firrrc reiterated their stand that noth- ing will prompt a change in tic company's strategy in the African state. "False aid grotesque accusations," were being hurled at Shell, they complained. The company has beer active in Nigeria for 50 year and has big operations there which it intends to maintain. The projects were, after all,"an investment in the long-term future in Nigeria and the Niger delta region," was the line of defense taken by Shel.

It is true that global business has routinely refused to indulge itself in the quagmire of domestic politics. And that is definitely the correct strategy. After all, the business of world business is business and not fine-tuning unfamiliar or broken political systems. But it is also true that investors from abroad contribute significantly to nation building. Their search for profit often encompasses a long-term commitment to creating jobs for people, for the general upliftment of their lot.

The Ken Saro-Wiwa case could have been made an exception to the rule of multinationals avoiding poilitical controversies, for he was trying to seek the most basic of human rights - the right of the people over their land and their water. But it was not. And the rum-amock regime of Sani Abacha was given a free hand to execute the most brutal form of censorship - murder.

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