The Ogoni Struggle

« Continued from The Life of Ken Saro-Wiwa

“The Ogoni have been gradually ground to dust by the combined effort of the multi-national oil company, Shell Petroleum Development Company, the murderous ethnic majority in Nigeria and the country’s military dictatorships.” – Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1992

The Ogoni have been gradually ground to dust by the combined effort of the multi-national oil company, Shell Petroleum Development Company, the murderous ethnic majority in Nigeria and the country’s military dictatorships. – Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1992

Shell started producing oil in the Delta in 1958. In 1970 the first seeds of the current conflict were sown when Ogoni Chiefs handed a petition to the local Military Governor complaining about Shell, then operating a joint venture with BP. According to the petition, the company was “seriously threatening the well-being, and even the very lives” of the Ogoni. That year there was a major blow-out at the Bomu oilfield in Ogoni. It continued for three weeks, causing widespread pollution and outrage.

By the eighties other communities were beginning to protest. The Iko people wrote to Shell in 1980 demanding, “compensation and restitution of our rights to clean air, water and a viable environment where we can source for our means of livelihood.”

In 1987, when the Iko once again held a peaceful demonstration against Shell, the notorious Mobile Police Force (MPF), locally known as “kill-and-go” was called. 40 houses were destroyed and 350 people were made homeless by the MPF’s attack.

In August 1990, the Ogoni elders signed the Ogoni Bill of Rights, which called for “political control of Ogoni affairs by Ogoni people, control and use of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development, adequate and direct representation as of right for Ogoni people in all Nigerian national institutions 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), a non-violent action group, was formed.

Community protests against Shell continued to spread across the Delta. Next was the turn of the Etche at Umuechem. In response to a peaceful demonstration, Shell specifically requested the presence of the MPF, who subsequently massacred up to 80 people and destroyed nearly 500 homes. The community submission to the official inquiry into the disaster argued that Shell’s “drilling operations have had serious adverse effects on the Umuechem people who are predominantly farmers …Their farmlands are covered by oil spillage/blow-out and rendered unsuitable for farming”. Anti-Shell protests spread to other communities including the Omudiogo, Ogbia, Igbide, Izon, Irri, Uzure, and Ijaw.

By the early nineties, the Ogoni, led by Saro-Wiwa, were beginning to seek international help for their plight. By now, Saro-Wiwa was spending more and more of his time abroad, including in the US and Europe, drumming up support for the Ogoni. In August 1991, exactly a year after first being signed, the Ogoni Bill of Rights was amended to authorize MOSOP to make an appeal to the international community for assistance, after they had received no reply from the Nigerian military government.

In July 1992, Saro-Wiwa addressed the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Geneva. “I speak on behalf of the Ogoni people. You will forgive me if I am somewhat emotional about this matter. I am Ogoni … Petroleum was discovered in Ogoni in 1958 and since then an estimated 100 billion dollars worth of oil and gas has been carted away from Ogoniland. In return for this the Ogoni people have received nothing.”

As part of his evidence to the UN Working Group, Saro-Wiwa submitted the Ogoni Bill of Rights and a new book he had published called, Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy. In the book, Saro-Wiwa wrote about how he had watched helplessly as the Ogoni had, “been gradually ground to dust by the combined effort of the multi-national oil company, Shell Petroleum Development Company, the murderous ethnic majority in Nigeria and the country’s military dictatorships”. He wrote of Shell’s double standards, comparing the standards of its Nigerian operations to its European ones. Because of this, and the affect oil was having on the Ogoni, he accused Shell of genocide and racism.

By the Autumn of 1992 the Ogoni were gearing up their campaign against the oil industry. In October Saro-Wiwa was in London again. “It’s just going to get worse, unless the international community intervenes”, he warned. The following month on 3 December, MOSOP presented its demands to those oil companies operating in Ogoni, including Shell, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and Chevron. The companies had to pay back-royalties and compensation within 30 days or quit Ogoniland.

31042But of course the oil companies did not quit. So on 4th January 1993, some 300,000 Ogoni celebrated the Year of Indigenous Peoples by peacefully protesting against Shell’s activities and the environmental destruction of Ogoniland. It remains the largest demonstration against an oil company ever. “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”, said an Ogoni leader to the crowd. 4th January became known as Ogoni Day.

Leaked minutes of meetings held by Shell the following month indicate that the company was worried by the protests. The minutes show that Shell departments in London and Nigeria were, “to keep each other more closely informed to ensure that movements of key players, what they say and to whom is more effectively monitored to avoid unpleasant surprises and adversely affect the reputation of the Group as a whole”.

By April 1993 Saro-Wiwa had been arrested twice. Willbros, a contractor working for Shell, called in government troops in response to the demonstrations by the Ogoni. Eleven people were injured when the security forces opened fire. One woman, Karalolo Korgbara, later lost her arm. According to a letter from Willbros to Shell “Fortunately there was a military presence to control the situation”. A month later, another Ogoni was shot dead and a further twenty were injured. Shell later admitted that “field allowances and transportation” of an army unit were provided by Willbros, but denied that this unit were involved in the shooting. Amnesty International later issued an ‘Urgent Action’ request, concerned about possible extra-judicial executions by the military against Ogoni protestors.

Saro-Wiwa was repeatedly denied from travelling abroad and in June he was arrested again and charged with six counts of unlawful assembly and conspiring to publish a seditious pamphlet. Soldiers were moved into Port Harcourt, in response to demonstrations about the arrests. MOSOP reported indiscriminate beatings and arrests . Saro-Wiwa’s health deteriorated in custody, resulting in him being moved to hospital and suffering serious heart problems during interrogation. He complained of “psychological torture”. Saro-Wiwa later published an account of his detention in a book called A Month and a Day.

By now the Ogoni were suffering escalating violence, ostensibly it was conflicts with neighbouring tribes, but much of the violence was being orchestrated by the military. MOSOP blamed the military for inciting the clashes and Shell for its complicity in the violence.

Throughout the year the ‘attacks by neighbouring tribes’ against the Ogoni continued. So did the violence against protestors. In October 93, two Ogoni were wounded, and one killed by soldiers, who had been transported by Shell, in the company’s words, to “dialogue” with the community. These soldiers from the 2nd Amphibious Brigade, under the control of the notorious Major Okuntimo, were paid ‘field allowances’ by Shell, although Shell has expressed “doubt as to whether any member of the community was shot or wounded.” Saro-Wiwa’s brother, Owens, who is a doctor, carried out the autopsy . Harassment of other key Ogoni continued too. In December, Owens Wiwa and senior MOSOP official, Ledum Mitee were arrested and detained without charge until the 4th January.

When General Aback took over control of Nigeria in the autumn of 1993, the situation worsened for MOSOP. Abacha appointed the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force under Lt.Col Komo and Major Okuntimo. In April, a memo was sent from Komo to Okuntimo, entitled “Restoration of Law and Order in Ogoniland” It gave details for an extensive military presence in Ogoni, drawing resources from the army, air force, navy, and police, including both the Mobile Police Force and conventional units. In a move meant to facilitate the reopening of oil installations, one of the missions of this operation was to ensure that those “carrying out business ventures … within Ogoniland are not molested”.

Saro-Wiwa, commenting on the memo above, said: “This is it – they are going to arrest us all and execute us. All for Shell.” The following month Okuntimo sent a “restricted” memo back to Komo remarking that “Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence”. To counter this, Okuntimo recommended: “Wasting operations during MOSOP and other gatherings making constant military presence justifiable.”

» The Death of Ken Saro-Wiwa

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