Activists commemorated the 20th anniversary of the execution of environmental crusader Ken Saro-Wiwa last Monday evening. Mr. Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people in the South-south region of Nigeria who repeatedly and passionately spoke out against both Shell Oil Company and the Nigerian government for the environmental degradation caused by oil extraction in the oil rich region.
On November 10th, 1995 Mr. Saro-Wiwa was arrested, tried, and executed on the orders of military dictator Sani Abacha. His execution was met with international condemnation including the Queen, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela. The execution also led directly to Nigeria being expelled from the Commonwealth of Nations for three years.
His son Ken Wiwa said “My father went to the gallows an innocent man. He loved his country but refused to remain silent while his land and his people were being exploited. His real “crime” was in exposing the double standards of Shell, who had been quietly drilling oil for years in Nigeria, earning good profits for its shareholders but leaving the host community wallowing in levels of pollution that he described unflinchingly as devastation”, pointing out that the operations in Ogoniland betrayed Shell’s own global standards.
Ken stated that his father would be dismayed that Ogoniland still looks like the devastated region that spurred him to action as there is still little evidence to show that it sits on one of the world’s richest deposits of oil and gas.
Writing in the Guardian on Tuesday Ken adds that the impression that nothing has changed is deceptive. “For a start the Ogoni’s claims of pollution against Shell have been vindicated. Shell always bristled against my father’s accusations, insisting, without any apparent sense of irony, that he was being emotive”
In 2006, the Nigerian government invited the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to assess the environment and public health impacts of oil contamination in Ogoniland and the Niger delta. Among its sobering findings was the conclusion that restoring Ogoniland may take 25-30 years. Although the report was not comprehensive, it represents the most detailed and evidence-based analysis of the situation in Ogoni. In one community, researchers reported that surface water contained 900 times acceptable levels of cancer-causing benzene. UNEP even recommends that Nigeria establish a community cancer registry.
And although the UNEP report was delivered in August 2011, the implementation of its recommendations is proving to be a political, fiscal, legal and administrative challenge to the government. Shell has retained kittish hypersensitivity to criticism of its Ogoniland operations. In spite of repeated assurances of the organisation’s readiness to pay its share of the $1bn (£650m) that UNEP recommended to kick-start the cleanup the Ogoni community is still waiting for social justice, with gathering impatience.
In the past 10 years, writes Ken, the Ogoni have registered landmark victories in court cases against Shell in New York and London. He holds the confidence that his father will be looking down and chuckling that activists who cut their teeth on the Ogoni case were part of the coalition that last week pushed President Obama to reject the controversial Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline. At the same time Exxon is facing the possibility of legal action over claims that it lied about climate change risks, which Exxon denies.
in conclusion Ken believes we may finally be arriving at a tipping point in the carbon economy, and perhaps one day his father’s story will be more than a footnote in that history.
Sometimes, he added, it seems as if 10 November 1995 was another era. In some ways it was, and in others it feels like it was just yesterday. He mused that between the disabling nature of his fathers death and the enabling tests of time, one thought still sustains him: it is the old idea that the arc of the moral universe may be long, but it still bends towards justice.
• Ken Wiwa, the son of the Nigerian human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, was a Nigerian government adviser from 2006 to 2015
Original story from SaharaReporters and The Guardian (UK)