In the mid 1990’s a small minority tribe living in the Niger River Delta stood up for their rights that had been taken by their government and by transnational oil companies. Because of their efforts, thousands were displaced, murdered and raped by their own government and eight of their leaders were unjustly killed. One of those leaders was Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was a leader with strong resolve, intellectual brilliance and a grand vision for a united, just and peaceful Nigeria.
Kenule “Ken” Beeson Saro-Wiwa was born on October 10th, 1941.His father was a chieftain of the Ogoni tribe in Nigeria who had lived in the region for generations. At the time Ken was attending Secondary School, Royal Dutch Shell began exploring for oil in the region. As the years went on, the damage to the environment worsened. Large swaths of land were cleared for oil pipelines, massive oil spills and flares polluted the soil, water, air, and killed off nearly all of the fish and wildlife as they destroyed one of the largest mangrove forests in the world.
Ken went on to study English at the University of Ibadan, there he perfected his gift of writing and teaching. He became a best selling author, writing 27 books, as well as a journalist and TV producer who focused primarily on the civil war in Nigeria and the troubles of his people. In the 1970’s he began serving in various public offices, but was dismissed from his position as Regional Commissioner once his writings became more political as he supported the autonomy of the Ogoni people. His last public office was a position with the newly installed dictator who wanted to return the country into a democracy. However, Ken resigned from the position after he realized the dictator had no intentions to relinquish power.
“The writer cannot be a mere storyteller; he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot merely X-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future.” — Ken Saro-Wiwa
The Ogoni people were more than frustrated with the impact of the oil exploration and extraction, and the government’s protection of the companies. A series of non-violent protests were created to bring awareness to the decimation of the Niger Delta. The Ogoni people marched peacefully and demanded environmental remediation and compensation for past damages. In addition, they demanded political autonomy and a share in the profits since the Ogoni people themselves accounted for less than 2% of the Shell workforce on their land.
Many community leaders came together and formed the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Ken was among these early leaders and helped organize over 300,000 Ogoni during the protests. As they continued to demonstrate and publicize the environmental degradation, they faced stronger and more determined opposition. Saro-Wiwa was abducted from his home and imprisoned many times and threatened in an attempt to stop his efforts. Yet he continued strong. Soon international media began to focus on Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni situation became a problem for the government and the oil companies.
“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.” – Saro-Wiwa
Saro-Wiwa led protests that demanded that Shell engage immediately in environmental impact assessments of its past activities and raise their environmental standards in Nigeria to the levels they applied in European countries. The continued months of public upheaval finally forced Shell to abandon their oil fields in the Ogoni region of the delta. But everything would quickly change in May of 1994.
Four conservative Ogoni chiefs were brutally murdered and Ken Saro-Wiwa, along with eight other MOSOP leaders were promptly arrested and accused of the murders (the other leaders were Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine). While they were held in prison, the Nigerian military seized control of the Ogoniland and began a four year campaign carrying out mass arrests, looting, rape and murders.
The international community was shocked and called for the release of the Ogoni leaders, and for an end to the humanitarian crimes and fraudulent trials.
The “Ogoni Nine” as they soon were called, stayed imprisoned for 17 months as the Nigerian military regime hatched a plan. A secret tribunal was convened but the case was so flawed that nearly all of the lawyers resigned in protest. Unfortunately, this meant Saro-Wiwa and the others were now unrepresented in court. “Witnesses” to the murders later said they had been bribed by the government and promised positions with Shell.
“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. God is on their side.” – Ken Saro-Wiwa
The secret tribunal found the men guilty of “inciting” youth to commit the murders and in an unexpected turn, sentenced all nine to immediate execution without a chance for appeal. As the main leader of the movement, Ken was forced to watch the hangings of all the other men before he was hung himself. The execution took place on November 10, 1995 and sparked Nigerian protests as well as international condemnation against Nigeria.
For a country whose oil resources could have lead it to become one of the wealthiest in Africa, the Niger Delta region remains an impoverished conflict zone and is still dominated by the transnational oil companies which continue to pollute the area’s water and resources. In 2009, with witness testimony and growing evidence of their involvement, the United States opened a case against Royal Dutch Shell over their involvement in the execution of protesters and human rights abuses in Nigeria during the 1990’s. However, before it could begin, the trial was postponed indefinitely by U.S. District Court Judge Kimba Wood after Shell settled outside of court for $15.5 million in damages to the families of the Ogoni Nine. Shell has never admitted wrongdoing, nor has any compensation been made for environmental damages. But the memory and the courageous efforts of Ken Saro-Wiwa live on.
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