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How an Execution 20 Years Ago Shaped the Fight Against Oil Pollution in the Niger Delta

The legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa, an activist who fought against the environmental destruction of the Niger Delta, still lives on two decades after he was killed by Nigeria’s military junta.

by Kayla Ruble
Nov 10 2015, 11:00am

Photo by Clive Grylls/AP

Exactly 20 years ago, Nigeria's military junta executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, an activist who fought against the environmental destruction of the Niger Delta by the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation. Today, the same destructive oil activities and pollution he rallied against still remain in the area, along with high rates of youth unemployment, poverty, and crippling health effects — but that doesn't mean Saro-Wiwa died in vain.

Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. was 27 when his father was killed on November 10, 1995. Two decades later, and now a journalist-turned-government advisor, he will use the anniversary to reflect on his father's work and legacy, which has since reached far beyond the family. The work of Saro-Wiwa Jr. continues to influence activists from the Niger Delta to Lagos, and outside of the country to London and California.

"I guess like everybody else it's sort of a reflection of where we are and what we've done," Saro-Wiwa Jr. said. "I spent most of the last 20 years trying to pick up from where he left off, but in my own time and my own way."

Related: Nigeria Set Up a Fund to Clean Up the Niger Delta — but There's Not Much Cash in It

In the 1980s and 1990s, Saro-Wiwa Sr. led a movement against Shell's activities in the Niger Delta, the area in West Africa where the Niger River pours into the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean. The activist, who also protested for government transparency and improved treatment of the Ogoni people, was arrested in 1992 and hit with controversial charges connected with the murder of local officials.

Global uproar over Saro-Wiwa Sr.'s trial turned to outrage when the military government swiftly carried out the execution. His family viewed Shell as an accomplice to the jail sentence and execution.

'It's like his legacy lives on and over the years it still changes.'

While the Niger Delta is still deeply troubled, the optimistic side of Saro-Wiwa Sr.'s legacy is the generations of Nigerians he pushed into action. Onyekachi Okoro Emmanuel, an environmental rights campaigner with the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development, was 23 when Saro-Wiwa Sr. died. He remembers not being able to explain why he was crying over the death of someone he did not know. The impact eventually inspired him to move to the Niger Delta and work for the cause.

"That seed that was planted by Ken Saro-Wiwa is growing now in people who don't even know how to read," Okoro said. "That to me is the survival, it's like his legacy lives on and over the years it still changes."

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The annual commemoration activities will take place in the heart of the Niger Delta this week to mark the anniversary — a day that also saw eight other Ogoni activists executed in connection with the same case. Overnight on Monday, the annual candlelight walk began at Saro-Wiwa's house in the Rivers State capital of Port Harcourt, later moving to the jail the Ogoni nine were detained in before their deaths and eventually ending up at the unmarked grave in the local cemetery they were buried in after the execution.

"My father was way ahead of his time, he wrote his first letter about the protest activities in Ogoni at age 17," Saro-Wiwa Jr. said. "He spent the whole of his life to change that. [The anniversary] is a bit of a stock-taking exercise, a little bittersweet in that we're still talking about these issues 20 years after, but at least we're still talking about it."

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Ogoni human rights and environmental activist Fyneface Dumnamene, who works with the NGO Social Action, will participate in the candlelight procession as he has for many years. In the 22 years since he first saw Saro-Wiwa speak in the Niger Delta, Dumnamene has grown into his own as an Ogoni rights campaigner.

"I happened to meet him, [I saw] him in 1993 in Ogoni kingdom. At that time I was a little boy," he recalled. "I saw him from afar and I was inspired by the way he worked."

Dumnamene said very little has changed for the Ogoni or others living in the Niger Delta since Saro-Wiwa's powerful campaign. "It's painful that 20 years after Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed nothing has been done in Ogoni. It's painful that 20 years after the Ogonis are waiting for justice," he said.

'Anyone who visits these spill sites can see and smell for themselves how the pollution has spread across the land.'

Shell halted operations on the indigenous group's homeland in 1993, but the company, along with Chevron and others, still operate in other parts of the Niger Delta. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) put out an environmental assessment of Ogoniland in 2011, determining that it could take up to 30 years and $1 billion to clean up the oil spills in the area. Shell is reportedly set to commit $330 million to the effort, with the remaining cash expected to come from various shareholders. Nigeria established a separate restoration fund in August.

In a report published last week, Amnesty International slammed Shell, refuting the company's claims that it had cleaned areas of the Niger Delta experiencing high levels of pollution from oil spills.

"By inadequately cleaning up the pollution from its pipelines and wells, Shell is leaving thousands of women, men and children exposed to contaminated land, water and air, in some cases for years or even decades," said Mark Dummett, a business and human rights researcher at Amnesty. "Anyone who visits these spill sites can see and smell for themselves how the pollution has spread across the land."

For its part, a spokesperson for Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (abbreviated by the company as SPDC JV) stressed that the corporation is working on both the implementation of the UNEP report and its own broader program focused on issues like remediation and community engagement.

"SPDC JV is committed to cleaning up all spills from its facilities, irrespective of cause," the spokesperson said. "This is equally the case in Ogoniland, despite the fact that it ceased producing oil and gas there in 1993."

Related: Royal Dutch Shell Agrees to $83 Million Payout for Nigerian Oil Spills

Michael Watts, a geography professor at University of California Berkeley, said Shell has spent a lot of money to prove its commitment to corporate social responsibility and the environment in the wake of the experience with the Ogoni.

"They never recovered from Ken Saro-Wiwa's hanging," he said, explaining that the company would be the first to admit that the incident permanently damaged its reputation. "They also then threw a lot of money around to demonstrate they were actually committed… and they did, they spent a lot of money."

According to Watts, however, the money they've spent has often ended up in the hands of local governments and groups without trickling down to the individual. "These type of corporate social responsibility initiatives tend to be very mixed at best and can often actually backfire," he added.

A Nigerian man looks over the scene where an oil tanker carrying fuel exploded in the Niger Delta on March 31, 2015. (Photo by Tife Owolabi/EPA)

Shell currently runs some 50 oil fields in Nigeria and has recorded 1,693 spills in the country since 2007. Amnesty claims that the true number is likely higher. Shell placed the blame on illicit activities in the Delta.

"It is crucial to put an end to the widespread theft and illegal refining of crude oil, which continue to cause new spills and impact on the environment," the company said, noting that collaboration from all stakeholders is needed for "long-term sustainability."

Conflict began to take off in the Delta in about 2006, with the armed insurgents of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Delta (MEND) carrying out attacks and operations. MEND had an environmental backbone, largely targeting Shell workers and oil infrastructure, which caused an unknown number of spills.

The situation has resulted in a generation of youth plagued by unemployment and poor living conditions, according to Stakeholder Democracy Network's Juno Fitzpatrick. A lack of jobs and inadequate education or training, she said, has also created frustration. She estimated that 34 percent of Niger Delta residents between the ages of 18-31 are unemployed.

"People are really pissed," she said. "There's been growing political consciousness that's entrenched in resentment of people of the [government]."

The government eventually reached an amnesty agreement for MEND fighters, but that program is set to end this year, leaving experts like Fitzpatrick and Watts to question what will happen next.

As Watts noted, recent events have ultimately confirmed predictions Saro-Wiwa made before his execution. While the activist pushed for non-violent action, Watts said he warned that armed conflict would arise if the environmental issues were not addressed properly.

"You can now see that it was, in a sense, not the failure of Ken Saro-Wiwa," Watts said, "but it was the fact that the oil companies and the governments failed to deal with those problems."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB