The Spirit of Saro-Wiwa fights again in the Niger Delta

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The spirit of Saro-Wiwa fights again in the Niger Delta

In one of the most polluted places on earth, people are starting to fight. Patrick Naagbanton reports.


‘It is terrifying to discover that every part of Ogoni territory – water, land and air – is contaminated.’ (© George Osodi / Panos)

There is a lot of anger and big protests in Ogoni, Nigeria. Early in the morning of 10 December 2013, more than 5,000 children, women, young people and men from Ogoni villages protested at the Akpajo Junction. Akpajo connects Ogoni land to the oil centre of Port Harcourt. All the petrochemical works, two oil refineries and the seaport had to close for the day, because the local people used tankers and their bodies to stop everything going past.

The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) organised this. ‘The Ogoni people are on the streets because the government will not do what it says in the UNEP report two years after it was written,’ said Legborsi Pyagbara, president of MOSOP. ‘We’ve given the government many opportunities to do the right thing. We sent an open letter in the national newspapers. We also gave the government 90 days to do something. This ended on 9 November and they did nothing.’

The protest was the beginning of a long fight. The following month, there was a very big march in Bori, the centre of the Ogoni people. MOSOP demanded action again. And they are planning a bigger protest march in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, if the government do nothing.

Next year is the 20th anniversary of the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa. The campaigners plan to use this as a central point to get justice for the Ogoni people at last.

A million people suffer

This campaign started in 2010. The Nigerian government asked the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to study the oil pollution in the Ogoni area.

The UNEP report was in August 2011. It said there are high levels of contamination in the whole area: ‘The Ogoni people live with hydrocarbons every day in the earth and air. This affects nearly one million people.’

After 50 years of oil pollution, UNEP said they need ‘the biggest oil clean-up in the world ever’. And UNEP said the Nigerian government and the oil industry must pay the $1 billion this will cost.

Bariara Kpalap is one of the important Ogoni activists. He was in a secret prison for a year in the deadly military operation that killed a lot of other activists. He says people want to fight now because of decades of terrible destruction, pollution and plots. And the government do not listen to the Ogoni people.

‘Shell has been working with many different governments in Nigeria. They are responsible for the human and environmental tragedy of the Ogoni people,’ he says. ‘Shell discovered a lot of oil in the Ogoni area in the late 1950s. Since then, we have had no peace. When I was in primary school, I saw the first organized demonstration against Shell. Things have not changed.’

The Ogoni ethnic group lives in about 1,000 square kilometres in the east Niger Delta area in south Nigeria. Shell-BP (as it was then) started taking the oil in Ogoniland in 1957, a year after it made its first Nigerian oil well in Ijawland. ‘Shell brought in heavy equipment, built small roads and started drilling oil,’ says Chief Miibekee Deetogo, a retired bricklayer and K-Dere community leader. ‘Our settlement is so close. The noise from the place can be terrible.

‘The oil work caused floods in our area. In early 1970, we had just come home from the refugee camps in the Nigeria-Biafra war, and there was a big problem with oil spilling from a Shell oilworks. The oil went to other villages too. It killed our crops, it polluted our streams and rivers, the animals and fish died. We breathed in the bad smell of oil and gas. It was so bad that we protested. After many nonviolent protests, Shell paid our community £168 [$275]. The money was too little. They cannot say it was compensation.’


Will Nigeria's terrible oil story change?: Ogoni people protest in Port Harcourt in November 2013. (Patrick Kane)

Many other communities had the same problems as Chief Deetogo’s community. Shell slowly changed the Niger Delta into one of the most polluted places on earth. So the angry Ogoni villagers started many protests started in the early 1970s. Ken Saro-Wiwa, a well-known writer, journalist and minority rights campaigner, became a leader and president of MOSOP in the early 1990s. He died and so did many others.

The Nigerian government said that Saro-Wiwa and eight others were murderers and executed them on 10 November 1995. Amnesty International says their trial was political and unfair. They were not the only people to die. About 2,000 others died, 27 villages were destroyed and 80,000 people lost their homes because they protested against Shell.

Kpalap says that Shell helped kill his comrades. ‘When the military arrested and tortured me, the only question they were asking me was why I and other Ogonis were making problems for Shell’s work. At the Human Rights Violation and Investigation Commission in 2000, Shell agreed that it was paying the military and giving them information about Ogoniland and our people.

With that false information, the military killed, injured and raped in Ogoniland. I still have health problems from the torture, but I am happy, because I can still tell my story and the stories of others, alive or dead.’

‘They should come and clean the land’

Almost 20 years later, no-one has done anything yet about the ecological and political problems of the Ogoni people. But after many years of fear and repression, people are starting to do something again. They are using what everyone knows about the environmental injustice of Saro-Wiwa and his comrades.

Many people around the world were shocked at the UNEP report in 2011. But the Ogoni people were not surprised. Rose Zaranen, an Ogoni leader, said: ‘The report only said what we had always said. Now they understand that they have been poisoning our land and people. They should come and clean the land as UNEP has asked them to do. They don’t want to listen to us, but they should listen to UNEP.’

‘It is terrifying to find that every part of Ogoni territory – water, land and air – is contaminated,’ says Dr Nenibarini Zabbey. He is a hydro-biologist and co-ordinator of the local Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD). ‘It is very worrying to have these high levels of BTEX [benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes] in the groundwater people have been using for years. The levels are about 900 times more than the maximum limit agreed by the World Health Organization.’ This is why life expectancy in the Niger Delta is only 45 years.

More people began to demand the urgent clean-up of Ogoniland. Local groups like MOSOP, CEHRD and Environmental Rights Action, and their international friends, started to put a lot of pressure on the Nigerian government. Nnimmo Bassey, local NGO leader, poet and writer, and former chair of Friends of the Earth International says: ‘The UNEP report shows how bad the pollution has been in Ogoniland for many years. It is a scandal that no real action has been taken. Each day that passes without action kills more people.’

In July 2012 the government set up the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project. But the project is part of the Petroleum Resources Ministry, not the Environment Ministry. The most important thing they have done is to put up big signs on polluted sites in Ogoniland: ‘Public notice – prohibition! Contamination area – keep off.’

World’s largest environmental trial

The clean-up is not just the responsibility of the government. Activists say Shell must do something too. Shell is responsible for thousands of oil spills that are still poisoning the Ogoni people’s land and water today.

The company stopped taking oil from Ogoniland in 1993 after a lot of MOSOP protests. But Shell oil from other places in the Niger Delta still goes through the area in the Trans Niger Pipeline.

On 28 August 2008, there was a new tragedy. There was a problem with the pipeline and a lot of oil spilled into Bodo Creek in Ogoniland. Shell (now ‘Shell Petroleum Development Company’ - SPDC - in Nigeria) repaired the pipeline the following November, but didn’t clean up the oil spill. A very large amount of oil poured into the water areas for weeks. It covered the area with oil and killed the fish that people need for their food and jobs. In 2009 there was another oil spill. Leigh Day, a London law company, is now representing 15,000 members of the Bodo community who are fighting against Shell. This could be one of the world’s largest ever environmental trials and it has begun in Britain. They have already had an important victory.

There is a lot of evidence that the pipeline was not protected or repaired enough. So it has been decided that Shell is responsible for the effects of the oil spill. This is the first legal decision like this, and many other similar cases could follow. Shell has offered to pay $51 million. But the Bodo lawyers say this is ‘insulting’: it is not nearly enough to pay for what people in the community have lost. Many people will be looking at the full trial in May 2015.

Next year could be a very important time in Nigeria’s tragic oil story. The UNEP campaign of MOSOP is getting a lot more support locally and internationally. The Ogoni people’s nonviolent direct actions are getting stronger. There will be a general election, so the Ogoni will be able to campaign and vote for someone who will do what the UNEP report says they must and give the community a voice.

Now Shell is losing money in many of its Niger Delta oilfields. And maybe they will have to pay a lot of money from the Bodo trial. Also, the 20th anniversary of Saro-Wiwa’s execution will make a lot more people fight for environmental and political justice for his people.

Nigeria has a lot of political problems now and in the future. But one thing is clear: the spirit of Saro-Wiwa is going to help the land again.

Patrick Naagbanton was born in Bodo, Ogoniland, in Nigeria. He is a travel journalist, poet, human and environmental rights activist.

Nigeria's oil

Oil and gas are 14% of Nigeria's GDP.

Nigeria is Africa's biggest oil producer.

Nigeria produced 2.3 million barrels of oil per day in August 2014, the most since January 2006.

About $400 billion has gone missing from oil money in Nigeria over the last 50 years.

84% of Nigerians live on less than $2 a day.

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