Nigeria on Wednesday marked 15 years since the execution of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose campaign against the oil industry drew the world’s attention to abuses in his native region.
The anniversary comes at a tense time for Nigeria, one of the world’s largest oil exporters, ahead of elections early next year and with many of the issues his campaign highlighted far from resolved.
Ogoniland, the community in the Niger Delta region where Saro-Wiwa was from, remains impoverished and badly polluted, its creeks and rivers coated with oil sheen, the area criss-crossed by pipelines.
Kidnappings and violence have plagued the Niger Delta, the nation’s main oil-producing region, and armed gangs have flourished there in the years after Saro-Wiwa’s hanging by ex-dictator Sani Abacha’s military regime.
“We are pained because the ideals that Ken stood, fought and died for have not been realised,” said Sunny Gbobie, a community leader in the Ogoniland village of Bane, Saro-Wiwa’s family home.
Saro-Wiwa was 54 when he and eight others were hanged at a prison in the oil hub of Port Harcourt in 1995, having been convicted of the murders of four local chiefs in what was widely viewed as a show trial.
He had built a reputation as a relentless activist through his organisation, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People.
Oil giant Shell pulled out of Ogoniland in 1993 following protests that also led to a military crackdown, which rights activists said left scores of people killed. Shell declined to comment on Ogoniland issues ahead of the anniversary.
The executions came as a Commonwealth summit was being held in New Zealand, where activists were working behind the scenes to prevent the hangings.
Worldwide condemnation followed, including from leaders such as Nelson Mandela. Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Jr, was in Auckland at the time and has written of his shock upon learning of his father’s death.
“His ideals have yet to be fully realised,” Ken Jr, who now works as an adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan, a fellow Niger Delta native, told AFP this week.
“He championed many related causes — education, the use of Ogoni resources for Ogoni development, ecological protection, minority rights … and a better, safer, more prosperous Nigeria.
“All these things will take time. His great success was in drawing not just Nigeria’s, but global attention to these issues.”
Rights group Amnesty International has estimated that, if all types of oil pollution in the vast Niger Delta are added up over the past half-century, it would be “on par with the Exxon Valdez every year over the last 50 years”.
The oil industry blames a major portion of spills on sabotage, while activists in Ogoniland argue Shell is at fault.
Further complicating the matter is an illegal oil industry based on theft that many observers say is substantial and lucrative.
The United Nations’ Environment Programme is carrying out a survey of damage in the area and expects to publish a report around February next year.
Audrey Gaughran of Amnesty International said the report must be followed by clean-up and compensation plans — as well as political will in Nigeria and in the major oil companies’ home countries to change the situation.
“You either accept that the Niger Delta is lost forever, or you do something fairly big and dramatic to change what’s happened,” she said.
While Saro-Wiwa, who was also a writer, is now viewed by many as a martyr in Nigeria, no major events were announced in the capital Abuja to mark the anniversary of his execution.
His former organisation, MOSOP, planned a church service and commemoration in Ogoniland. The current leader of the group, Ledum Mitee, vowed to continue the struggle.
“The martyrs we are remembering today struggled non-violently and died for justice, and it will be befitting tributes to their memories that we do not allow these great sacrifices to be in vain,” he said. — Sapa-AFP