Twenty years on, Ken Saro-Wiwa's legacy echoes from the grassroots to the United Nations

10 November 2015

Ken Saro-Wiwa belonged to that rare but wonderful category of poet-writer turned non-violent resistance leader. And like too many non-violent resistance leaders, he was executed by the people whose interests he challenged. Today is the twentieth anniversary of his execution in his motherland, Nigeria.

Known on the international stage for his David-and-Goliath struggle with oil giant Shell, Ken Saro-Wiwa remains a figure lionized by activists all over the world, who see his example as a great victory for people power over formidable transnational corporate giants. His legacy also moves and inspires a growing movement of civil society activists who are lobbying the UN and national governments to create a binding treaty to regulate the conduct of transnational corporations with respect to human rights.

Activism, oil and the Ogoni

Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta, has suffered pollution and environmental degradation since multinational oil companies began extracting oil in the 1950s. Ken Saro-Wiwa, in a leading role with the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), was instrumental in a nonviolent campaign demanding fair play for the Ogoni People and an end to the environmental destruction of the Niger Delta by the oil companies, notably Shell.

"Far beyond Nigeria, Ken Saro-Wiwa's struggles has served to illustrate the need for a radical improvement of the architecture of international justice."

His opposition to the oil companies' operations extended to the Nigerian government who were complicit in the destruction by their categorical failure to enforce environmental regulations. Ultimately, the government cooked up fraudulent charges against Saro-Wiwa, implicating him in the horrific murder of the Gokana Ogoni chiefs. He was hanged in 1995, prompting widespread international condemnation of the Nigerian government.

His work with local activists saw Shell routed from Ogoniland. He made hundreds of thousands of Ogonis feel empowered to stand up against the economic and political interests that had pushed them to the sidelines for much too long and wrecked the Niger Delta's biodiversity.

At the height of his campaigning around 400,000 people participated in a mass demonstration signaling their total opposition to Shell's operations in their territory, and demanding the oil giant leave immediately. This ability to mobilize people caused panic among the authorities and oil companies – not only Shell – who understood the very real challenge to their power and impunity. The Nigerian government's brutal response (pdf) saw 27 villages razed, some 2,000 people killed and at least 80,000 displaced.

Visibility for the Ogoni people and the environment

Drilling for oil in Ogoniland has completely stopped for the past twenty years, which is a clear victory for Ken Saro-Wiwa and the movement. The Ogoni Bill of Rights (pdf), which Saro-Wiwa submitted to the national government in 1990, remains a powerful cornerstone of Ogoni advocacy and autonomy. The Bill of Rights calls for political autonomy to participate in the affairs of the Republic as a distinct and separate unit, the right to control and use a fair proportion of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development, and the right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradation.

The work of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his comrades has inspired activists and the disenfranchised across the world, by demonstrating that it is possible to stand up to overwhelming power.

Ogoniland areas still unsafe for human habitation

In 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a damning report stating that vast areas of Ogoniland are unsafe for human habitation due to oil pollution. The report found that, in over 40 locations tested, the soil is polluted to a depth of 5 metres. Ogoniland's water bodies are all polluted. The levels of benzene in approximately 90 of the locations is more than 900 times above accepted World Health Organisation standards. This dangerously contaminated water is the source of drinking water for local communities. The UNEP report recommended that US$1 billion should be allocated to set up an environmental restoration fund and begin the clean up. In the four years since the report was published Shell and the Nigerian government have failed to implement its recommendations.

However, the resilience of the Ogonis and persistent pressure by  local and international civil society brought the current government of President Buhari to commit to the implementation of the UNEP report. With an initial pledge of US$10 million there are high expectations that the proposed governing body to oversee the clean up will be inaugurated soon.

Grassroots activism meets international justice – Ken Saro-Wiwa's unexpected legacy

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a grassroots activist and he has continued to inspire activists even after his death. Friends of the Earth Nigeria (Environmental Rights Action), for instance, has continued to support local communities in their call to "leave the oil in the soil,"demanding that the Nigerian government open no new oil fields. But the shocking abomination of multinational abuses in the Niger Delta Saro-Wiwa helped to highlight, has spurred  international cries for access to justice for people affected by corporate crimes. Friends of the Earth Nigeria has been involved in numerous campaigns and lawsuits to hold corporations accountable, including the 2005 landmark ruling by a Nigerian High Court that gas flaring is unconstitutional and damages people and the environment. 

"Ken Saro-Wiwa did not die in vain."

Human rights advocates have brought a series of cases to hold Shell accountable for alleged human rights violations in Nigeria, such as summary execution, crimes against humanity, torture, inhumane treatment, arbitrary arrest, detention and a host of other crimes. The lawsuits, brought against Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian operation have been fought in Dutch, US and British courts. Some of these cases have broken new ground in international law, with transnational corporations facing consequences in their host countries for abuses committed abroad. The Bodo community filed a case in in London to sue Shell for damages to their community. Shell admitted liability in 2011. A case brought by four Nigerian farmers and Friends of the Earth Netherlands and Nigeria is ongoing. 

But far beyond Nigeria, Ken Saro-Wiwa's struggles has served to illustrate the need for a radical improvement of the architecture of international justice. Friends of the Earth International is working with a host of other organizations, lobbying the UN human rights council to create a binding international treaty for transnational corporations and human rights. The treaty  would provide access to justice and remedy for people who suffer human rights abuses by transnational corporations and make them ever aware of their responsibilities.

Ken Saro-Wiwa did not die in vain. Ultimately his international legacy serves as a beacon of hope to marginalized peoples across the world and a source of inspiration to people in Nigeria.

Tonight in London join Platform for a cultural celebration to commemorate Ken and the rest of the Ogoni 9.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License and appeared previously on Common Dreams.
Photo: In Nigeria and around the world, Ken Saro Wiwa's memory lives on. (Luka Tomac/Friends of the Earth International)



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