Soul of Ogoni campaigner marches on in oil killing fields

November 7, 2003

Crimes against a people continue in Nigeria but the fight goes on, writes Ike Okonta

It may be ten years since members of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (Mosop), led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, peacefully got Shell Petroleum Development Company, the Nigerian subsidiary of Royal Dutch/Shell, to pull its workers out of its Ogoni concession, but the company still casts a long and dark shadow over the lives of poor peasants in this oil-bearing community in southern Nigeria. The inhabitants of the Ogoni villages of Bodo, Gbe, Mogho and Goi were still wrestling with crude oil emitting from the company's facilities in nearby K-Dere town even as Mosop officials began preparations to mark the eighth anniversary of the hanging of Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists by Nigeria's military government on November 10 1995.

The spill, resulting from an old oil manifold that cracked in late August, had an immediate and devastating impact on the lives of the people, polluting drinking water and farmland. Shell officials claimed locals had deliberately sabotaged its facilities. The villagers say this has always been the company's standard response whenever its facilities, the bulk of of which they claim are well past their sell-by dates and poorly maintained, collapse. The social and environmental impact of the multinational's operations in Ogoni was at the heart of Saro-Wiwa's campaign, but the face-off between the Ogoni and Shell shows no sign of ending eight years after his death.

The Ogoni, a rural farming and fishing community numbering some 500,000, live in the Niger Delta in southeastern Nigeria. Oil and gas reserves were discovered in the area in 1957 and commercial exploitation commenced a year later. The discovery of oil has not brought the people the prosperity they expected. Shell's operations - in a joint venture with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation - have caused substantial damage to the Ogoni and their land through gas flaring and oil spillage. Although Shell staff have not been back since 1993, its facilities are still operational and have resulted in damage due to what is claimed to be poor maintenance.

The Ogoni also point out that they have not received what they regard as a fair share of the income derived from oil production in their area, which they estimate at some $30 billion (£17.6 billion).

Trapped between a military regime that appropriated the bulk of the revenue and what many saw as a cynical and complicit Shell, Ogoni community leaders established Mosop, a grassroots organisation, in September 1990. A month later, the community leaders of all six Ogoni clans adopted the contents of the Ogoni bill of rights, drafted by Saro-Wiwa. The bill demanded, among other things, the right of the Ogoni to self-determination as a distinct people in the Nigerian Federation; adequate representation in all Nigerian national institutions; the right to use a fair proportion of economic resources in Ogoni land; and the right to control their environment. In November 1992, Mosop leaders issued a 30-day ultimatum to oil companies operating on their land - Shell, Chevron-Texaco and the NNPC - to pay backrents, royalties and compensation for land devastated by oil exploration or leave.

Mosop demanded $6 billion in unpaid royalties; an immediate halt to the environmental devastation of Ogoni land; and payment of $4 billion as reparation for damages and compensation for the environmental pollution. Oil from Ogoni and the other Niger Delta communities accounts for 80 per cent of government revenues and 90 per cent of foreign exchange earnings. Saro-Wiwa and Mosop threatened the cosy arrangement wherein corrupt senior government and army officials thrived on oil rents while the overwhelming majority of Nigeria's 130 million people struggled in poverty. Although the country has earned an estimated $300 billion in oil revenues since 1956, Nigerian per capita income is only $290 a year. Living standards in Ogoni and the other oil-bearing communities are lower than they were at independence from Britain in 1960.

The Nigerian government's response to the Ogoni uprising was to mobilise a military task force, under the command of Colonel Paul Okuntimo. More than 2,000 Ogoni were murdered between 1993 and 1998, many women and girls were raped, hundreds were mutilated, 100,000 Ogoni were displaced from their homes and many fled the country fearing for their lives. The culmination of this long night of terror was the hanging of Saro-Wiwa, framed for masterminding the murder of four leading Ogoni in May 1994 - the result of intra-Ogoni conflict over Mosop tactics in which Nigerian security officials and Shell Nigeria executives were alleged to have been involved. The execution of Saro-Wiwa and eight other Mosop members by the military government, after what the British government publicly called a judicially flawed trial, triggered a chain of events that culminated in the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth in November 1995.

Interviewed by Sunday Times reporters in December 1995, Colonel Okuntimo said Shell Nigeria officials had given him money and logistical support for the Ogoni "expedition". Although he later denied the statement under pressure from his superiors, international human rights researchers who visited Ogoni at the height of the massacres provided evidence that he met regularly with Shell Nigeria officials during the period. During the trial of Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni eight, which was presided over by a tribunal appointed by the junta, evidence was put forward that Shell Nigeria officials had offered bribes to prosecution witnesses to give false testimony against the Mosop leader. Nelson Mandela called for international sanctions to be imposed against Shell when details of its role in the hangings became public.

But by 1997 Britain's Labour government, despite its professed commitment to an "ethical" foreign policy, lobbied Commonwealth countries to bring Nigeria in from the cold. Calls for a boycott of Nigerian oil and targeted sanctions were shrugged off.

Nigeria produces 2 million barrels of oil a day, and the bulk is exported to Western Europe and the US. Nigeria's almost sulphur-free crude is popular with refineries in northern countries that have strict pollution legislation. Nigeria's oil wells are nearer the markets bordering the Atlantic than those of the Middle East. This, combined with the fact that the Western African region is more politically stable than the Gulf, yields a significant price premium and makes the country strategically important to the West.

Since 1998, Shell, hit with international criticism over its role in the Ogoni affair, has been publishing an annual report on its social and environmental record that describes "how we, the people, companies and businesses that make up the Royal Dutch/Shell group, are striving to live up to our responsibilities - financial, social, and environmental". Shell in Nigeria also claims that it has increased its spending on community development projects in the Niger Delta.

Still, for many Ogoni and the other oil-bearing communities, there has been little change. After a major oil spill from a Shell wellhead in Ogoni's Yorla community in April 2001, riot police were dispatched to harass local youth who had mobilised to ensure that the company cleaned up the spill, although Shell alleges that Mosop barred access to the area. The police invaded the community, using teargas and killing a young man in the ensuing mêlée. The spill in K-Dere only three months ago left grief and financial ruin in its wake.

Elsewhere in the delta, which is inhabited by 7 million people, mainly farmers and fishermen, Shell's operations continue to have adverse impacts on the environment and the social and economic life of local people. Crude oil continues to spew from old pipelines. Shell has developed a major liquid natural gas project in association with the Nigerian government, but it and the other western oil companies in the delta continue to burn off the bulk of the gas they produce in the process of drilling for oil. Nigeria leads the world in gas flaring, and Shell's operations in the country are seen as a major contributor to global warming.

Poverty and frustration are deepening in the communities as fishing waters and farmland become more contaminated and corrupt government officials deny local people a fair share of the oil receipts. An elected civilian government has been in place in Nigeria since 1999, but the military-era decrees and edicts that nationalised all land and mineral resources including oil remain firmly in place, reducing the Ogoni and other delta communities to tenants and squatters on their own land.

But the clamour for "resource control" and a new federal compact based on respect for the property rights of local people is growing in the Niger Delta even as the civilian government of President Olusegun Obasanjo is increasingly turning to an oil-thirsty US for naval ships and weapons to enable it to contain what it prefers to describe as "criminals and restless youth". Significantly, the community and youth leaders behind the resurgent movement for social and environmental justice see the late Saro-Wiwa as something of a patron saint, and the Ogoni bill of rights as their bible.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, like John Brown, the American abolitionist, may be dead, but his soul is "still marching on" in the Niger Delta.

Ike Okonta is co-author of Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights and Oil , published by Verso, £12.00. He is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs