– Ken Saro Wiwa
‘We are going to demand our rights peacefully, non-violently and we shall win’
The level of destruction and environmental damage caused to the people of Ogoni land remains one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Nigeria. This month, we remember and reflect on the plight of the renowned Lt. Ken Saro Wiwa, Nigeria’s pioneer environmentalist who fought vehemently against the incessant destruction of the Ogoni Land in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.
The history of Nigeria is heavily ingrained in the struggle for oil, and the Ogoni Land, which is located in the Niger – Delta region of the country houses one of the most sought-after and precious deposits of crude oil in the world. Although, with a very small ethnic population compared to the larger ethnic groups, the Ogoni people consider themselves as the marginalised groups who has consistently benefitted nothing but havoc and environmental destruction at the hands of the then Nigerian Military government and the Royal Dutch Shell petroleum corporation. Indeed, it can be argued that the inability of both the Nigerian government and Shell to devise appropriate measures to ensure the preservation of Ogoniland as well as the protection of locals contributed to the environmental destruction that the region encountered.
Shell entered Ogoniland in the 1950s with the approval of the Nigeria Government to exploit and extract oil. As Shell’s operations were ongoing, the Ogoni people started witnessing changes in their environment, something that drew attention to the series of environmental pollutions going on in that region. Due to the Ogoni land’s mangrove nature, the Ogoni people relied heavily on fishing and farming for trade and survival. However, Shell’s entry turned their livelihoods into a nightmare when the region began to experience massive oil spillage. Causing an unprecedented level of health hazard, their farmlands began soaking in crude oil, tonnes of fish were dying off due to the oil spillage, their drinking water became contaminated with Benzene, locals were dying due to inhaling toxins – all of which led to a complete destruction of the environment.
A man trying to separate crude oil from water in Rivers state, Nigeria. Via: https://www.newsweek.com/how-nigerias-buhari-can-clean-ogonilands-oil-spills-476654
In an attempt to challenge this devastation, Ken Saro Wiwa began his campaign by establishing the movement popularly known as MOSOP (Movement for the survival of the Ogoni People). This group engaged in a series of mass demonstrations calling for the withdrawal of Shell’s operation, whilst challenging the incessant destruction of their precious land. Soon after, he developed the Ogoni bill of rights, a political document simply based on the principle of justice and morality, which demanded the protection of the Ogoni people against Shell’s operation on the Ogoni soil.
Ogoni Bill Of Rights – adapted from https://bebor.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Ogoni-Bill-of-Rights.pdf
This movement engaged in a series of demonstrations and activism, both on the streets and in the national dailies. From such a small location, their voice and activism rapidly spread like wildfire, grabbing the attention of neighbouring communities, then neighbouring states, and then the entire country – to the point that there were now being recognised by international communities. Although, the periods between 1990 and 1992 were particularly difficult for the Ogoni people and the MOSOP because this was when many of their activities became proscribed – even though they adopted a nonviolent mode of engagement. Under the Military Decree, anyone engaging in activities capable of promoting ethnic nationalism risks the death penalty, and the Military government of Nigeria did not hesitate their assurance in following suit.
Ken continued to encourage resistance but their ranks, it is recorded, slowly began to fall apart as some supporters began to denounce Ken’s ‘radical’ forms of activism. These internal disputes meant that factions within the group will now begin to go against their official principles while engaging in sabotage. An example of this was when Ken was accused of orchestrating the killing of some Ogoni leaders in 1994. Eventually, the Nigerian government concluded that the chiefs were all critics of Ken’s activism and that he only could have orchestrated their killing. This case, coupled with the accusation of causing civil unrest in the Niger – Delta region later led to his arrest by the Military Government. His unjust imprisonment provoked international outrage with members of the African Union, European Union, and other pressure groups beginning to condemn this act. Protests erupted in several locations, activists began to call for his release and foreign leaders even advised the Abacha government to reconsider his actions and release Saro Wiwa unconditionally, but all of these fell on deaf ears.
Despite the public outcry and stern warnings from world Presidents, the military dictatorship of the Sani Abacha regime authorised the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa alongside 8 other Ogoni activists. They were sentenced to death by hanging on the 10th of November 1995 – with his last words recorded as:
'Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues.'
Indeed, the struggle continues, and the spirits of these faithful departed live on. The story and execution of Ken Saro Wiwa remind us of the long history of pain that the Nigerian people have endured at the hands of their leaders. Apart from the fact that Ken Saro Wiwa stood for justice, Ken reminded us that the real victims of eco-crimes and state violence are often the last to realise their victimisation. He put the Ogoni people on the map for the world to see the damage and destruction that bad government policies can cause. He demonstrated to us in an exemplary fashion how we understand the illicit engagements at play, often stealth, between state representatives and cooperate establishments. And most importantly, he drew attention to the need for the protection of our environment and how we must defend it at all costs. 27 years after his death, it can be argued that the Niger – Delta region continues to feel the impact of the environmental damage, but his show of gallantry for the protection of our environment will continue to inspire many who continue to challenge and resist the various forms of ecological crimes in Africa – and elsewhere.
Vanguard 2018, ‘Inside Ogoni village where oil spill wipes off ’10 persons every week’, The Vanguard, December 23, 2018, https://www.vanguardngr.com/2018/12/inside-ogoni-village-where-oil-spill-wipes-off-10-persons-every-week/