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Problems persist in oil-rich delta 10 years after activist’s death

[Nigeria] Ken Saro-Wiwa, writer and environmental campaigner that was hanged along with eight other Ogoni people after protesting the degradation of the Niger Delta by oil companies. [1995]
Ken Saro-Wiwa, writer and environmental campaigner (Greenpeace)

Ten years after the execution in Nigeria of writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, his non-violent campaign has been replaced by an armed protest against oil companies operating in the oil-rich Niger Delta that claims hundreds of lives each year.

With many of the issues of oil wealth distribution that so angered Saro-Wiwa unresolved, and oil spills still frequent, the southeastern region has become the scene of frequent clashes between troops and well-armed militia fighters likely to resort to techniques such as kidnappings to disrupt oil operations.

Oil produced in the Niger Delta accounts for some 80 percent of government revenues, yet its people are impoverished, left to cope with a deterioration of once fertile farmland in the wake of decades of oil exploration and production.

On 10 November 1995, and to international outcry, Saro-Wiwa and eight other members of the Ogoni people who live in the Delta, were hanged for murder by special order of then military ruler, General Sani Abacha after a trial widely condemned as flawed and before an appeal could be made.

At the heart of the scandal was oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, which pumps nearly half of Nigeria’s 2.5 million barrels of crude oil exported each year.

Faced with growing hostility from the half a million Ogonis, Shell finally closed down all operations in Ogoni territories and a decade on has not returned.

“We don’t really want Shell to come back,” said Ogoni youth Sunday Nzor, loitering by an empty and rusted shell pumping facility in the village of Kegbara Dere, locally known as K-Dere. “Since they left, our vegetation is greener and our harvests have improved.”

In the 1970s, a massive oil spill at the Shell plant at Kegbara Dere outraged the young Saro-Wiwa. Weeks before his execution, Saro-Wiwa wrote how the event fuelled his campaign against Shell.

“Water sources were poisoned, the air was polluted, farmland devastated. I watched with absolute dismay as indigent citizens found neither succour, nor help from Shell for the ruin of the town,” wrote Saro-Wiwa.

A Shell representative told IRIN that the company had learned hard lessons in Nigeria and “new and more stringent standards for environmental and social impact assessments have been put in place”.

Nonetheless, continued hostility towards the company means they have limited access to Ogoni territories, which they say hampers their ability to clean up spills or other degradation cause by oil operations more than ten years ago.

In 1990, Saro-Wiwa and a group of other educated Ogonis, set up the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).

Their dual goals were to call companies like Shell to account for the negative impact oil operations had on the mangrove swamps and farmland of the Niger Delta and to gain a larger control of the oil wealth for the Ogonis and other ethnic groups that live there.

MOSOP also demanded US $40 billion as compensation from Shell for accumulated environmental pollution and degradation since 1958, when oil operations first began in their area.

“MOSOP empowered people to demand their rights,” Owens Wiwa, younger brother of Saro-Wiwa, told IRIN looking back over the past decade. “The government and the oil multinationals could not understand it, they were frightened. And their reaction led to what we saw.”

Oil was a jealously guarded source of income for a succession of governments, and was often the object of deadly power play that fed Nigeria’s chequered history of bloody coups and brutal military rule.

The soldier presidents of the early 1990s, including General Ibrahim Babangida and later Abacha, took a dim view of MOSOP’s campaign and subjected its leaders to harassment by state security police.

So when Saro-Wiwa’s old friend-turned-rival Edward Kobani and three others were killed by a mob in May 1994, then-ruler Abacha was quick to order the writer’s arrest for the murders.

The action failed to end the conflict in Ogoni country and drew global attention to the operations of oil companies in Nigeria.

Human rights and environmental groups accused the international conglomerates and Shell in particular, of collaborating with corrupt and brutal regimes, such as Abacha’s, and applying sub-standard environmental practice in poor countries.

A decade after Saro-Wiwa’s death, Delta residents complain that oil companies are still not taking responsibility to clean up spills while environmentalists say that the giant flares that burn off unwanted natural gas around the clock are a major source of greenhouse emissions worldwide.

Gas flaring is to be ended in 2008, but by then Shell may have been forced out of all onshore operations in Nigeria, according to a study commissioned by the oil giant itself two years ago.

Armed militias have gained a strong following among the disaffected Delta youths, especially among the Ijaw, the dominant ethnic group in the region.

And in 2004, oil prices shot to over US $50 a barrel when one 3,000-strong militia group, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) led by Moujahid Dokubo-Asari, threatened to wage war on oil companies with his 3,000-strong militia.

Talks with the militia leader hurriedly convened by President Olusegun Obasanjo led to the NDPVF agreeing to disarm in return for cash.

But one year on, Dokuba-Asari faces life imprisonment if found guilty of impending treason charges, and while attacks against oil installations have lulled since his arrest, threats of further violent attack have been issued.

Dokuba-Asari, arrested for a newspaper interview in which he allegedly said he was fighting for the disintegration of Nigeria, is to go before a court on 10 January 2006 -- meaning unrest in the Delta is far from over.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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