Ken Saro-Wiwa's Death And Legacy 20 Years On

Ken Saro-Wiwa's Death And Legacy 20 Years On

Editor's note: The world is remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists who led the movement against Shell's activities in the Niger Delta and were executed by the military in November 1995. looks at how Nigeria dealt with the Ogoni Nine just twenty years ago and at what has become of the people who signed the death warrant. The memory of Saro-Wiwa lives on, but has Nigeria changed and grown enough to accept the truth he was trying to push through?

Ken Saro-Wiwa's Death And Legacy 20 Years On
Ken Saro-Wiwa

Lord take my soul

Tuesday, November 10 will mark 20 years to the day since the hanging of the writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others.

Convicted by a military tribunal of inciting the murder of four Ogoni elders, Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the Ogoni people’s rights movement, MOSOP, were hanged in Port Harcourt prison on November 10, 1995, in the face of international outrage. The executions, described by Nelson Mandela as “a heinous act”, led to Nigeria’s three-year suspension from the Commonwealth days later, and to economic sanctions from the EU and the USA.

The men were brought from an army camp where they had been held since their conviction and coralled in a single room in Port Harcourt prison where they were shackled. Then they were blindfolded and led one by one to be hanged, beginning with Saro-Wiwa. According to one report Saro-Wiwa’s own execution was bungled and only succeeded at the fifth attempt. “Why are you people treating me like this? Which type of country is this?” he is reported to have asked his executioners.

Only ten days earlier on October 31, 1995, the Ogoni Nine, as they came to be known, had been condemned to death by a three-member military tribunal handpicked by the kleptomaniacal military dictator General Sani Abacha. The death penalty was sanctioned by the military junta’s Provisional Ruling Council on November 8, 1995, strong armed by Abacha’s determination not to look weak internationally.

The men‘s final months had been a torment of beatings and torture, and of the knowledge that the military had unleashed a murderous campaign against the Ogoni people. In an interview with the BBC in 2013, Ledum Mitee, a senior MOSOP member who was arrested with Saro-Wiwa and acquitted by the tribunal, told how Ogoni women would be brought to the army camp where the men were held, and raped by soldiers in neighbouring cells, the detainees seemingly exposed deliberately to the women’s shouts and screams.

A richly endowed land

When Royal Dutch Shell discovered oil in the Niger Delta in 1956, the Ogoni people lived in what has been painted, perhaps fancifully, as a pastoral Eden reliant on agriculture and fishing. Saro-Wiwa wrote in his statement to the tribunal: “Ogoni was a blessed land at that time. The fertile alluvial soils of the plain provided a rich harvest of yam, cassava and vegetable. The pure streams and seas brimmed with fish and other sea food.”

Shell started extracting oil in 1958. By the 1990s over 100 million dollars of oil and gas had, in Saro-Wiwa’s words, been “carted away from Ogoniland”. “In return for this,” he told the UN in 1992,”the Ogoni people have received nothing.”

Indeed, in return for watching in increasing poverty while a fortune was pumped from their land, the Ogonis’ fragile Eden was despoiled by oil spills and gas flaring: the dark marauding beast of commercial greed.

In 1996 Bopp van Dessel, Shell’s former head of environmental studies in Nigeria, admitted that Shell had ignored repeated warnings that its operations in Nigeria were causing massive environmental damage. “They were not meeting their own standards; they were not meeting international standards. Any Shell site that I saw was polluted. Any terminal that I saw was polluted. It is clear to me that Shell was devastating the area,” he said.

Agents of death

The Ogonis were by no means the only people of the Niger Delta to suffer the rapacity of the oil companies. As the environmental devastation continued into the 1980s, other peoples of the delta were provoked into humble protest to and against Shell. The only response they received was police violence.

In 1990 the Ogoni elders signed the Ogoni Bill of Rights calling for a measure of Ogoni political control of economic resources and “the right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradation”. That year the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) was formed. Saro-Wiwa was among the founders, and he declared the movement’s ethos of non-violent protest.

In January 1993 300,000 people attended a MOSOP-organised march and demonstration against Shell’s operations in Ogoniland. “We have woken up to find our lands devastated by agents of death called oil companies. Our atmosphere has been totally polluted, our lands degraded, our waters contaminated, our trees poisoned, so much so that our flora and fauna have virtually disappeared,” an Ogoni leader told the crowd.

The demonstration was peaceful, but seriously alarmed Shell executives. Arrests and imprisonment of MOSOP leaders followed, including Saro-Wiwa twice. Demonstrations by Ogonis were suppressed violently, and MOSOP alleged the collaboration of Shell in the violence.

General Abacha came to power in Nigeria in the autumn of 1993, and established the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force under the military governor Lt.Col Komo and Major Okuntimo, the operational commander.

A series of secret communications between Komo and Okuntimo suggests that one of the task force’s missions was to make Ogoniland safe for the conduct of “business ventures”: the reopening of Shell’s drilling operations, suspended earlier in the year.

As Okuntimo remarked weeks later: “Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence.” His recommendation was “wasting operations during MOSOP and other gatherings making constant military presence justifiable”.

Wasting operations

Nine days later on May 21, 1994, four Ogoni elders, who had had strategy disputes with MOSOP and Saro-Wiwa, were hacked to death by a mob.

The security services responded slowly, suspiciously slowly some have said. The mob was allowed to disperse, and the actual killers were never identified.

Instead, the government immediately accused MOSOP of responsibility, and its leaders were arrested. They were charged, much later, with inciting the killings.

Saro-Wiwa challenged the accusation in detail in his submission to the military tribunal. He pointed out that two of the dead were his in-laws; that there were no serious disagreements between MOSOP and the murdered men; that the security forces had prevented him from being anywhere in the vicinity on that day.

Subsequent witness reports attest to a significant military build-up across Ogoniland the day of the murders, but before they occurred, as if in anticipation.

Nevertheless, there are those in the Ogoni community who have always blamed Saro-Wiwa for the murders. Donu Kogbara, now a prominent journalist with Vanguard, knew Saro-Wiwa well growing up. She wrote in 2011: “Saro-Wiwa took exception to those who urged caution and, according to witnesses whom I've met, ordered the hotheads who surrounded him to take harsh action against them.”

She wrote that she supported Saro-Wiwa’s campaign and condemned his execution, and struggled to believe that he had directed the killings, but that he “had a dark, power-hungry, rabble-rousing side that led to the deaths of four Ogoni moderates”.

Whatever the degree of Saro-Wiwa’s, or the military’s, involvement in the killings, the security services seized upon the opportunity with relish. ‘Wasting operations’ commenced. “Ostensibly searching for those directly responsible for the killings”, Okuntimo’s men began “deliberately terrorising the whole community, assaulting and beating indiscriminately”, according to Amnesty International.

Hundreds were killed, many women were raped, villages were destroyed and thousands of people were displaced across Ogoniland.

Business as usual

Shell maintained complete innocence and lack of involvement in all this. They claimed, and still claim, that the company bore no responsibility for the actions of the Nigerian military government.

But there were indications otherwise. Shell was accused of financing and supplying vehicles for military operations. Okuntimo allegedly told a British environmental activist he briefly detained that he was "doing it all for Shell ... But he was not happy because the last time he had asked Shell to pay his men their out-station allowances he had been refused which was not the usual procedure".

Shell has always denied that the company had any power to save the Ogoni Nine. The company claimed to have appealed to the Nigerian government for clemency for the men.

Between May and July 1995 Saro-Wiwa’s brother met Brian Anderson, Shell Nigeria’s managing director, several times to try to find a way to secure his brother’s release. Owens Wiwa said he was shocked to be told at one meeting that Anderson would intercede with the Nigerian government if Owens promised to stop all campaigns, nationally and internationally, against Shell. Owens, appalled, objected that he did not have that power.

The trial which began in February 1995 was, in the eyes of most observers, seriously flawed. Two key prosecution witnesses later claimed that they were bribed by Shell to testify against the MOSOP leaders. After the defence counsel refused to participate any longer, the fifteen defendants were left without legal representation. The decision was in any case never in doubt. In October nine of the fifteen were condemned to death: six others were acquitted for lack of evidence.

The international outcry that followed cut little ice with Shell. The following year the company attempted to resume oil operations in Ogoniland after Ogoni elders ‘invited’ them to return to “clean up the pollution in the area” and “start community assistance projects”. MOSOP alleged that the invitations were procured by large payments.

Ecological war

The story since 1995 is depressingly familiar to most Nigerians. Human rights abuses and environmental damage continued in the Niger Delta. Minorities in the area, principally the Ijaw, turned increasingly to armed resistance, culminating in widespread armed conflict in the early years of the 21st century until the amnesty in 2009.

In June 2009 Shell settled a lawsuit brought against the company by the families of the Ogoni Nine in the USA on the eve of trial for $15.5 million. In the lawsuit, Shell was accused of conspiring with the military government to capture and execute the men, in addition to a series of other alleged human rights violations, including collaborating with the army to cause killings and torture of Ogoni protesters.

The company was alleged to have provided the Nigerian army with vehicles, patrol boats and ammunition, and to have helped plan terror raids on villages. Shell stressed that the payment did not imply guilt.

Oil pollution has continued to devastate the Niger Delta. A report to be published this week co-authored by Amnesty International and the Port Harcourt-based Centre for Environment Human Rights and Development accuses Shell of falsely claiming to have cleaned up oil spills in Ogoniland. It alleges that the sites are still massively polluted despite Shell publicly claiming to have cleaned them in 2011.

Contractors employed by Shell admitted simply burying the oil. “This is just a cover up. If you just dig down a few metres you find oil. We just excavated, then shifted the soil away, then covered it all up again,” one contractor told Amnesty.

Shell routinely blames thieves and saboteurs for oil spills, but there is a wealth of evidence from internal documents that the company has known for years that its pipelines are old and dangerous.

Amnesty recently renewed its call for a reform of the spill inspection system. “Instead of being in the dock when there is an oil spill in Nigeria, Shell gets to act as judge and jury. The Niger delta is the only place in the world where companies admit to massive oil pollution from their operations and claim it is not their fault. Almost anywhere else they would be challenged on why they have done so little to prevent it,” said Audrey Gaughan of Amnesty.

Come the day

In his statement to the tribunal which condemned him to death, Saro-Wiwa wrote: “Shell and the Nigerian military dictatorship are violent institutions and both depend heavily on violence to control those areas of Nigeria in which oil is found.” He added: “The military do not act alone. They are supported by a gaggle of politicians, lawyers, judges, academics and businessmen, all of them hiding under the claim that they are only doing their duty, men and women too afraid to wash their pants of their urine.”

What has happened to the representatives of the Nigerian military government who participated in the “judicial murder” of the Ogoni Nine 20 years ago?

General Sani Abacha died in 1998 of a heart attack, variously attributed to poison or to his exertions with two Indian prostitutes.

General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who was chief of defence staff in Abacha’s junta and therefore responsible for the activities of the military as well as being one of those who approved the executions, succeeded Abacha as head of state and oversaw the return to democracy. Today he is a respected elder statesman in Nigeria.

Dauda Musa Komo, the military governor of Rivers state in 1995, was a contender to be the PDP candidate in the 2003 governorship election in Kebbi state.

The notorious Major Paul Okuntimo, he of the “wasting operations” and Shell “allowances”, retired as a brigadier general, and has occasionally given incoherent interviews since, including one with The Sun in 2010 in which he said: “No, no, Ken deserved to die, if you were to be the president of the Republic of Nigeria, you will know, Ken had to die because he had to be eliminated at that time”.

Justice Ibrahim Auta, who headed the three-member tribunal which passed the death penalty, later became the chief judge of the Federal High Court of Nigeria, and typically was both praised as a “rare gem” in the judiciary and accused of corruption.

The other member of the judiciary on the tribunal, Joseph Bodunrin Daudu, was the president of the Nigerian Bar Association from 2010 to 2012, and the secretary general of the International Council of Jurists.

And what of the third member, the military’s representative on the tribunal? Colonel Hamid Ali (rtd) was appointed the new comptroller general of the Nigeria Customs Service in August 2015 by President Buhari. He has said that he has no regrets over his participation in the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni activists.

On November 5 it was reported that a sculpture created as a memorial to Saro-Wiwa and the others was impounded – by Nigerian customs – who cited its “political value”.


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