The spirit of Saro-Wiwa rises

In one of the most polluted places on earth there’s a resurgence of resistance.

by Patrick Naagbanton via

A new wave of anger, manifesting in large protests, is sweeping through Nigeria’s Ogoni enclave. Early in the morning of 10 December 2013, over 5,000 children, women, young people and men from Ogoni villages blockaded the Akpajo Junction. Akpajo connects Ogoni territory to the oil hub of Port Harcourt. The town’s petrochemical infrastructure, two oil refineries and seaport were all forced to shut down for the day, as locals used tankers and their bodies to bring the busy junction to a standstill.

The blockade was mobilized by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). ‘The Ogoni people are on the streets over the refusal of the government to implement the UNEP report two years after it was released,’ explained Legborsi Pyagbara, MOSOP’s president. ‘We’ve given the government several opportunities to do the right thing, including publishing an open letter in the national dailies. We also gave the government a 90-day ultimatum which expired on 9 November and no steps were taken.’1

The protest was an opening shot in what looks set to be a long and determined battle. The following month saw a massive march in Bori, the headquarters of the Ogoni people. Since then, MOSOP has issued another ultimatum, and is planning a huge protest march in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, if there is still no movement.

All this is happening in the run-up to next year’s 20th anniversary of the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, which campaigners plan to use as a focal point to get justice for the Ogoni people at last.

A million lives blighted

The seeds of this upsurge in activism were sown in 2010 when the Nigerian government asked the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to carry out an independent assessment of the oil-polluted Ogoni environment.

In August 2011 UNEP presented its devastating report, which detailed high levels of contamination throughout the area: ‘The Ogoni community is exposed to hydrocarbons every day through multiple routes. While the impact of individual contaminated land sites tends to be localized, air pollution related to oil-industry operations is all-pervasive and affecting the quality of life of close to one million people.’2

After 50 years of oil pollution, UNEP called for ‘the world’s most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken’. The $1-billion cost should be borne by the Nigerian government and the oil industry, UNEP declared.

Shell admitted it was paying the military and sharing intelligence. With that false information, the military killed, maimed and raped in Ogoniland

Bariara Kpalap is a leading Ogoni activist who spent a year in secret detention during the deadly military operation that claimed the lives of his comrades. He attributes the renewed agitation to decades of horrifying devastation, pollution and intrigues, and the marginalization of his people.

‘Shell, in collusion with a succession of governments in Nigeria, is responsible for the human and environmental tragedy of the Ogoni people,’ he says. ‘It was in my community that Shell discovered oil in commercial quantities in the late 1950s. Since then, we have known no peace. I was in primary school when I witnessed the first organized demonstration against Shell. Things have not changed.’

The Ogoni ethnic group occupies about 1,000 square kilometres in the eastern Niger Delta region in southern Nigeria. Shell-BP, as it was then known, started oil extraction in Ogoniland in 1957, a year after it sunk its first Nigerian well in Ijawland.

‘Shell brought in heavy equipment, contracted small roads to their facilities and started drilling oil,’ recalls Chief Miibekee Deetogo, a retired bricklayer and K-Dere community leader. ‘Our settlement is so close. The noise from the place can be terrible.

‘Their activities caused flooding in our community. In early 1970, we had just returned home from the refugee camps during the Nigeria-Biafra war, and there was a major blowout from a Shell facility. The spill spread to other nearby villages. Our crops were killed, our streams and rivers polluted, the creatures in them died. We inhaled the bad odour of crude oil and gas. When we couldn’t bear the impacts of the pollution we protested. After a series of nonviolent protests, Shell paid our community £168 [$275]. The money was too little and couldn’t really be called compensation.’

Patrick Kane

A turning point in Nigeria’s tragic oil story?: Ogoni people protest in Port Harcourt in November 2013. Patrick Kane

The problems experienced by Chief Deetogo’s community were shared by many others as the Niger Delta was gradually transformed by Shell into one of the most polluted places on earth. This triggered a series of organized protests from the early 1970s onwards by angry Ogoni villagers. Ken Saro-Wiwa, a well-known writer, newspaper columnist and minority rights campaigner, led the struggle to new heights in the early 1990s as president of MOSOP. It claimed his life, and those of others.

Saro-Wiwa and eight of his comrades were falsely accused of murder by the Nigerian establishment and executed on 10 November 1995 following what Amnesty International describes as ‘a politically motivated prosecution and unfair trial’. They were not the only victims of the Nigerian security forces’ violent onslaught, however. Around 2,000 died, 27 villages were razed and 80,000 were displaced for taking a stand against Shell.

Kpalap accuses Shell of complicity in the executions of his comrades. ‘When I was arrested and tortured by the military, the only question they were asking me was why I and other Ogonis were disturbing Shell’s operations. At the Human Rights Violation and Investigation Commission in 2000, Shell admitted that it was paying the military and sharing intelligence with them about Ogoniland and our people. With that false information, the military killed, maimed and raped in Ogoniland. Though I still have health problems from the torture, I am happy, because I can still tell my story and the stories of others, whether alive or killed.’

‘They should come and clean the land’

Almost 20 years later, the ecological problems and political marginalization that led the Ogoni people into this struggle have still not been addressed. But after many years of fear and repression, people are starting to act once again, building on the high local awareness of environmental injustice that is the legacy of Saro-Wiwa and his comrades.

When the UNEP report was released in 2011 there was an international outcry. But the Ogoni people themselves were not surprised at its findings. As Rose Zaranen, an Ogoni leader, puts it: ‘The report only confirmed what we had always said. Now they have discovered for themselves that they have been poisoning our land and people. They should come and clean the land as UNEP has asked them to do. Since they don’t want to listen to us they should listen to UNEP.’

‘The discovery that every part of Ogoni territory – water, land and air – is contaminated is terrifying,’ says Dr Nenibarini Zabbey, a hydro-biologist and co-ordinator of the local Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD). ‘It is alarming to have recorded levels that high of BTEX [benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes] in the groundwater people have been relying on over the years. The concentration is about 900 times above the permissible limit set by the World Health Organization.’ This may help explain why life expectancy in the Niger Delta is just 45 years.

Calls for the urgent clean-up of Ogoniland’s devastated ecology began to grow. Local groups like MOSOP, CEHRD and Environmental Rights Action, and their international allies, started to put enormous pressure on the Nigerian government. Their sense of frustration is articulated by Nnimmo Bassey, local NGO leader, prolific poet and writer, and former chair of Friends of the Earth International. ‘The UNEP report clearly attests to the decades of ecological aggression in Ogoniland. It is scandalous that no real action has been taken. Each passing day of delay places a death sentence on the people.’

In July 2012 the government half-heartedly responded, and set up the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project. Unfortunately, the project is part of the Petroleum Resources Ministry, not the Environment Ministry. Since its formation, its greatest achievement has been putting up warning billboards on polluted sites in Ogoniland, saying: ‘Public notice – prohibition! Contamination area – keep off.’

World’s largest environmental trial

The clean-up is not just the government’s responsibility, however. Activists are also directing their calls for implementation at Shell, which is responsible for thousands of the spills that are still poisoning the Ogoni people’s land and water today.

The company stopped its extraction activities in Ogoniland in 1993 following sustained MOSOP protests. However, Shell oil extracted from elsewhere in the Niger Delta still flows through the region, via the Trans Niger Pipeline.

On 28 August 2008, a new tragedy struck. A fault in the pipeline resulted in a significant oil spill into Bodo Creek in Ogoniland. Shell – now known in Nigeria as Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) – repaired its facility the following November, but didn’t clean up the spill. Oil poured into the swamp and creek for weeks, covering the area in a thick slick and killing the fish that people depend on for their food and livelihood. 2009 saw a second spill.

Faced with overwhelming evidence, Shell has been ruled liable for the spill – a ground-breaking legal decision

Leigh Day, a London-based law firm, is now representing 15,000 members of the Bodo community in a lawsuit against Shell. The preliminary proceedings in what could be one of the world’s largest ever environmental trials have begun in Britain – and there has already been an important victory.

Faced with overwhelming evidence that the pipeline had not been adequately protected or repaired, Shell has been ruled liable for the impacts of the spill – a ground-breaking legal decision that could open the floodgates to other similar cases. The company has offered to pay $51 million to settle, which the Bodo lawyers described as ‘insulting’: it would not remotely cover the costs of what the community members have lost. All eyes will be on the full trial in May 2015.

Next year could be a turning point in Nigeria’s tragic oil story. MOSOP’s UNEP campaign is gaining sympathy locally and internationally as the Ogoni people’s nonviolent direct actions gather momentum. There will be a general election, giving the Ogoni an opportunity to campaign and vote for someone who will implement the UNEP report and end the community’s political marginalization.

Meanwhile, Shell is losing profits in many of its Niger Delta oilfields, and is faced with a potentially huge payout from the Bodo trial. Added to this, the 20th anniversary of Saro-Wiwa’s execution will provide added inspiration and focus for many to take up his struggle for environmental and political justice for his people.

Given the wider political problems facing Nigeria today, the future is by no means certain. But one thing is clear: the spirit of Saro-Wiwa stalks the land once again.

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

  1. ‘Oil spills infuriate local communities in Nigeria’, EuroAsia News, December 11 2013,

  2. ‘UNEP Ogoniland Oil Assessment Reveals Extent of Environmental Contamination and Threats to Human Health’, UNEP, August 4 2011,

– See more at: