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NIGERIA: Son of Fallen Activist on U.S. “Price of Oil” Tour

Madhuri Mohindar

NEW YORK, Sep 29 2005 (IPS) - “In my book, I imagine my father’s last day before his execution. I went into his head, reconstructing it from his letters and poems from prison. He was always convincing me to write, and now I understand why. It’s because what you write is what you leave behind.”

Ken Wiwa, son of executed Nigerian environmentalist and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, then began to read from “In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son’s Journey to Understand His Father’s Legacy”.

Wiwa was speaking as part of a nine-city tour launched by the U.S.-based advocacy group Oil Change International, Amnesty International and others to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death.

Ending next month, it also aims to raise attention about the true “Price of Oil” in terms of climate change, oil-fuelled armed conflicts and the human rights of local communities targeted by the extractive industries.

“Ken sparked a global oil resistance movement, inspiring communities in countries as far apart as Burma and Ecuador,” said Stephanie Alston, coordinator for “The Price of Oil” tour. “We want to honour him and use his story as a legend that exemplifies just how dirty oil is. These tours are a way to inspire people to take action.”

Even as the tour picked up steam, news emerged that another oil pumping station in the Niger Delta region had been closed last week due to threats by militia groups. The violence of the current struggle highlights the tragedy of Saro-Wiwa’s 1995 execution under the military dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha, activists say.

“This was a man who spent his entire life advocating non-violence,” explained Dimicari Von Kemedi, a grassroots activist with the Ijaw community who brokers peace agreements with militias in the region.

“This is why he was the greatest threat to the Nigerian government, and this is why the charges of murder against him were so ridiculous,” he said.

In 1990, Saro-Wiwa launched the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) to fight for ecological and social justice. He was so successful that three years later, Shell withdrew its operations from Ogoni land. In his own writings, he expresses the injustice that moved him to action.

Explaining that “500,000 Ogoni people live on 404 square miles in the Niger Delta region”, Saro-Wiwa relates that since the first well was drilled in 1958, the oil companies Shell and Chevron extracted an estimated 30 billion dollars worth of oil.

“Yet, the Ogoni have received no royalty for the oil, nor do they have any electricity, pipe water, telephones, education or health facilities. Instead, 30,000 Ogoni have been displaced, 1,000 Ogoni massacred and eight villages razed.”

A man who believed that a clean environment was human beings’ first right, he rallied against multinational corporations and the Nigerian military dictatorship, who he believed were complicit in devastating the environment and committing human rights violations.

Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa, and the 11th largest in the world. Ninety-five percent of its oil and gas production is carried out by multinational corporations through joint ventures with the Nigerian government, of which Shell is the largest.

The country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission estimates that 45 percent of Nigeria’s oil revenues are wasted, stolen or siphoned by corrupt officials. Besides the corruption, there is also a need to build up the country’s infrastructure. Nigeria exports some 1.86 million barrels of crude oil a day but then imports the refined product at a far higher price.

Some 66 percent of its people live below the poverty line, and the Niger Delta is the poorest and least developed region, even though it accounts for most of the oil produced by Nigeria.

“My father wrote poetry, novels, memoirs, history and newspaper articles. As a writer in Africa, you cannot divorce your art from your political beliefs. He wrote to reach out to the masses. But in a country where many are illiterate, he decided to abandon writing and take his beliefs to the street,” said Ken Wiwa.

His example inspired many, including Kemedi. “After Ken was hanged, the military head of state held a meeting addressing labour unions, student leaders, ethnic community leaders, and others, to explain their actions,” he recalled.

“They acted like they had killed a common criminal. Everyone was quiet. I decided to speak up. I said ‘with all due respect you should not have done what you did, but now let’s live up to Ken’s legacy and do what he fought for’.”

“I then organised a massive demonstration in Port Harcourt. A few months later I was seized by guards without reason. Eventually they let me go, but since then my life’s work has taken a turn and I have addressed myself to issues of the Delta.”

Nigeria now has an elected leader, President Olusegun Obasanjo, who created the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDP) in response to community demands for greater ownership of oil resources. Shell has also adopted resolutions aimed at higher environmental standards, stoppage of gas flaring, and reconciliation with communities.

Kemedi, however, is unappeased. “The current government continues the policies of General Abacha by repressing people’s voices. At least with Abacha, we knew what we were dealing with… Today, there are more troops operating in the Delta than ever before,” he said.

With respect to Shell, Kemedi says the rhetoric has changed, but there are still many problems, including gas flares, oil spills and explosions.

The Niger Delta region contains the third largest mangrove forest in the world. It is also home to diverse ethnic communities, each of which bears a burden of environmental damage caused by oil production.

“Things are much worse today than they were 10 years ago. Today, there are militias that are threatening to shut down the petroleum industry. This sends a very dangerous message to the world. Shell is actually contemplating coming back into Ogoni but no one has as yet been held responsible for the crimes of the past,” said Ken Wiwa.

The New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights has brought lawsuits against Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary for orchestrating the arrest and execution of the Ogoni Nine, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, by paying the Nigerian government to crush the protest movement and bribe witnesses to give false testimony. They continue to wait for their day in court.

Meanwhile, the environmental problems persist. The greatest danger comes from gas flaring, which occurs when gas released in the process of oil drilling is burned into the atmosphere.

A report by Environmental Rights Action, a local group, found that Nigeria is responsible for 20 percent of global gas flaring, more than anywhere else in the world. This wasted gas costs an estimated 2.5 billion dollars a year, and makes Nigeria the greatest contributor to greenhouse gases than all of sub-Saharan Africa combined.

On its website, Shell maintains that it had no right to interfere in domestic politics, yet did its utmost to secure clemency for Saro-Wiwa and maintain his human rights.

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