On the 10th of November 1995, twenty years ago, Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni patriots were hanged by the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha following a kangaroo trial that received world-wide condemnation. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s activities prior to his death and the execution have become pivotal points in the environmental justice movement.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed along with eight other Ogoni leaders namely, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine. Since the entry of Shell, the oil giant, into Ogoniland, the company had been in dispute with the Ogoni people who protested non-violently against the destruction of their environment on which they depended for farming and fishing. The frequent oil spills in Ogoniland and elsewhere in the Niger Delta have been estimated to be equal to an Exxon Valdez oil spill every year. Thousands of impacted sites in the Niger Delta remain to be properly remediated to this day, even when they have been officially certified as cleaned.
In response to the devastation of the Ogoni environment, Ken Saro-Wiwa led the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) to bring international attention to the ecological crisis, including through an Ogoni Bill of Rights issued in 1990. Unable to continue waiting with no response from the government or from Shell, MOSOP conducted a peaceful protest involving 300,000 Ogoni people and declared Shell persona non grata in Ogoniland on 4th January 1993. The Abacha regime arrested, imprisonned and sentenced Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight Ogoni leaders to death in highly questionable circumstances. They were executed on 10 November 1995, several days before the appeal period had elapsed. The hanging of the Ogoni 9 in 1995 was a culmination of the cruel crimes that were being committed against the Ogoni people as a result of extractive activities in their territory.
In the last twenty years, several cases have been brought against Shell before national and international courts, many of which have acknowledged the company’s reprehensible practices. In the same period, Nigeria has transitioned away from military dictatorship, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s last writings have been published to international acclaim, several honors and memorials have been instated, and there has been continuous international outcry for the remediation of the Niger Delta region.
“The report of the assessment of the environment of Ogoniland carried out by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) absolutely validates all the complaints of the Ogoni people about the ruination of their environment.,” says Nnimmo Bassey, Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation. “The implementation of the UNEP report will be a sort of restitution and penance for the harm inflicted on the people and their environment. It would probably also make Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni martyrs turn in satisfaction in their graves, seeing that their labours have not been in vain.”
We recall Saro-Wiwa’s last statement before the Tribunal to sentenced him and his compatriots to death: “I repeat that we all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial and it is as well that it is represented by counsel said to be holding a watching brief. The Company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and the lessons learnt here may prove useful to it for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished. The crime of the Company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will also be punished.”
While Shell has repeatedly denied involvement in the macabre affair leading to and including the executions, their failure to clean up the devastated Ogoni environment continues to reinforce their nonchalance towards the value of lives and property of the Ogoni people.
“We note the upsurge of criminalization of environmentalists around the world and join men and women of goodwill to demand a halt to the killing of community and environmental activists. We also call for the trial of leaders of corporations commiting crimes against Mother Earth,” stressed Bassey. “The Ogoni patriots were martyred and buried, but that never buried their agitations. Neither did their being covered up in graves cover up the glaring pollution across Ogoniland and all over the Niger Delta. Polluters will have their days in court, as Saro-Wiwa prophesied. We are seeing those days already. A fast tracked clean up of Ogoniland will be partial atonement for the crimes against the people.”