Special Report

June 14, 2009

Saro-Wiwa compensation revs up struggle


THE global business environment is becoming more unpredictable in the light of   responsibilities that are now tied to a corporate organisation’s conduct in any part of the world. Shell’s agreement to pay $15.5 million as compensation to the families of Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa and the eight others the military authorities in Nigeria executed 14 years ago may not be an acceptance of guilt in the execution, but it assumes responsibility for something.

Ken Saro-Wiwa

Ken Saro-Wiwa

For the 36 years that Shell explored oil in the Ogoni, prior to the incidents in 1994, the Ogonis have held Shell responsible for the despoliation of their farms and creation of conditions that made survival in their homeland more difficult.

They fought Shell. The Nigerian government joined the fray, always on the side of the oil giant to protect its revenues from oil exploration. Shell, the largest producer of crude oil in Nigeria, was an early entrant to the field, still dominates it, and once owned and operated the country’s only refinery.

At First
Saro-Wiwa had his education at Government College, Umuahia and the University of Ibadan. He worked for the Federal Government as administrator of Bonny Island during the civil war and a commissioner in Rivers State. He protested official corruption and left to run his businesses and made more name with his books and satirical television series Basi & Company. He became a famous face, with his trademark pipe from which he rarely puffed.

4 Jan 1993
He amassed about 300,000 people to launch the Ogoni Bill of Rights, which was part of the instruments at the formation of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, MOSOP in 1990. The rally marked the beginning of his problems with the authorities. The demands were seen as threats to oil exploration and Saro-Wiwa began his dates with various jail houses and detention centres round the country. He wrote books on his ordeal which promoted his campaigns for justice for Ogonis.

Shell pulled out of Ogoniland as the protests continued at home and abroad. The tactics was not a solution, Saro-Wiwa had led his people to understand that they deserved compensation for the damage done already. Shell was not interested in listening to the figures thrown up. They ran into billions of dollars.

1994 Killings
Government’s 1994 spat with the Ogonis ran on the wheels of several allegations of Shell collaborating with the military to use force on villagers who refused to cooperate with Shell in its operations in Ogoniland. The allegations include purchase of arms for the police and provision of logistics for government security agencies that specially looked after Shell’s interests.

On their part, the Ogonis were never unanimous on how to tackle Shell which explored the division for the benefit of its business. The arrival of Kenule Saro-Wiwa on the scene changed the mode of the agitations.
He mobilised local and international opinion against Shell’s operations in Ogoniland, hinging his protest on the damage to the environment and the harm done to the people collectively. The global environmental community noted the justness of his case. He got tremendous support and the campaigns had a moral slant that no hard business talk could match. Nigerian security agencies unknowingly worked for the Saro-Wiwa campaign by detaining Kenule. Each time they took him in, his detention tied to his environmental campaigns kept the case fresh in international circles.

Shell looked to the military authorities to come to its rescue, a prayer that was answered in 1994 when the government of General Sani Abacha arrested Saro-Wiwa and eight of his kinsmen over the murder of four Ogoni elders who wanted a more moderate approach to the issues affecting the community’s relations with the oil company. There were some splinter groups in MOSOP that favoured more violent approach to the struggle. Saro-Wiwa wanted an intellectual bent to it.

The Saro-Wiwa group accused the Ogoni Four of siding with Shell and the government. In the heated passion these issues always generated, there were insinuations that the elders could have personal reasons for placing foreigners above their community.

When they were murdered, it was not difficult for those against Saro-Wiwa’s ways to point at him as the one who killed the Ogoni Four, or asked others to do it for him.

The 1995 Trial
It took 17 months of highly criticised trials for the authorities to kill Saro-Wiwa and eight of his kinsmen on 10 November 1995. Easily one of Nigeria’s best orators, Saro-Wiwa used the platform of the trial to state his case more forcefully to a global audience that Greenpeace, the environmental group, had keyed to the case.

Said Saro-Wiwa before the military tribunal, “On trial also is the Nigerian nation, its present rulers and those who assist the. Any nation which can do to the weak, and disadvantaged what the Nigerian nation has done to the Ogoni, loses a claim to independence. We all stand on trial, my lord, for by our actions we have denigrated our country and jeopardised the future of our children”.

He sounded prophetic about the Niger Delta struggle which was then in its infancy. “I repeat that we all stand before history. My colleagues and I are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial, and it is well that it is represented by a counsel said to be holding a watching brief.

“The company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and the lessons learnt here may prove useful to it for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished. The crimes of the company’s dirty war against the Ogoni people will also be punished.

“In my innocence of the false charges I face here, in my utter conviction, I call upon Ogoni people, the peoples of the Niger Delta and the oppressed ethnic minorities of Nigeria to stand up now and fight fearlessly and peacefully for their rights. History is on their side. God is on their side”.

He quoted the Quran to support his call for justice. “The Holy Quran says in Sra 42, verse 41: “All those that fight when oppressed incurno guilt, but Allah shall punish the oppressor. Come the day”.

Saro-Wiwa and his kinsmen were hanged at Port Harcourt Prisons before they could appeal their death sentence. The world was appalled, in particular over the denial of the right of appeal. Details of the tortuous hanging and stories that the bodies were doused with acid to ensure that they could not be recovered repulsed a world that already dealt with Nigeria’s maximum leader, General Abacha from a distance.

Global television showed Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Chief Tom Ikimi being thrown out of the Commonwealth summit in Australia. The government he was defending did not tell him it had chosen when Commonwealth leaders were meeting to execute the Ogoni Nine for full impact on the world.

Military Zone
Ogoni remained a highly militarised zone. At the height of the security operations that devastated Ogoniland, the Rivers State Government set up a special security task force, whose boss boasted that he was trained in more than 130 ways of killing people, but had only tested less than 20 of them.

Street riots broke out in Australia, America,  and England over the killings. Condemnations of the kills did not perturb the Nigerian government which insisted that the Ogoni Nine had a fair trial and a court convicted them.
Environmental groups began calls for the boycott of Shell’s products. Shops selling Shell products round the world were picketed, drawing more international interest to the cause of the Ogonis.

In death, Saro-Wiwa prospered the cause of the Ogonis more than in life. He became a reference point that refuses to go away and a big symbol of the struggle for emancipation of the Niger Delta. Ogoni demands included cleaning of their polluted rivers, streams, farm lands, in addition to complete cessation of oil exploration in their area without their full involvement in how it should be done and appropriate rents paid for denying them the rights to their property.

Shell was consistently accused of using government forces to  scare villagers off their property so that it could continue oil exploration without hindrance. The oil company vehemently denies any wrong doing.

Evidence In New York
The  Centre for Constitutional Rights, CCR, filed the case in 1996 on behalf of the Ogoni Nine. Among the evidences the plaintiff produced in the New York trials of a Shell subsidiary were letters to confirm that the oil company used soldiers to recover one of its fire trucks.

Shell denies a role in the violence in Ogoniland , calling the $15.5 million payment “a humanitarian gesture to set up a trust fund to benefit the Ogoni people”. Ogoni people are not impressed and have warned Shell that this “gesture” would not reconcile them to the Ogonis.

“This is a lawsuit filed by 10 persons, including the estate of my brother,” Dr. Owen Wiwa, Kenule’s younger brother said “it may open the door for people to seek justice in different ways and it is a continuation of the non-violent struggle and not the end of it”.

Families of those who sued would benefit from the money, out of which $8.7 million has been put aside for legal fees and a $5 million trust for the Ogonis, though the suit was not on behalf of the Ogonis as a community. Each of the 10 families would get $700,000 which they would share in their different homes.

Ogonis’ Stand
The settlement, said the Ogonis, does not mean Shell would be welcome to their communities again. Already the Federal Government had said that Shell’s licence in Ogoni expired after Shell failed to operate there for more than 10 years. The Ogonis are asking Shell to respect that decision and leave them alone.

Oil companies have to bear the extra burden of acting more responsibly in their dealings with their host communities. Nigerians who now know that they can get justice in the USA or another country could file a flurry of suits against oil companies operating in the country.

There are thousands of cases of environmental violation in the Niger Delta, the forceful acquisition of property of indigenes for oil exploration and the use of force to  bring them to compliance. In the process people are maimed, some die and others are left with ravaging poverty – deprived of all possible sources of economic and social engagement – as their enduring memory of oil exploration.

War in the creeks, the ongoing military action that has claimed hundreds of lives and has hampered the future of many others  is the same punctuation of the rights of the indigenes of the oil producing areas by other means.
Fourteen years ago, kidnapping and bunkering, the alleged reasons for this war, were no issues. Saro-Wiwa had alluded to the fact that the issues around oil and gas exploration required urgent settlement to forestall the recourse to violence.

Things have gone full circle. Nobody mentions non-violent protests as Saro-Wiwa was wont to lecture his followers under the umbrella of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, MOSOP.  Many groups have latched on to government’s inactions in the Niger Delta to create their spheres of influence. Ironically, the oil companies and government prefer to deal with these individual groups who have turned the region into a Somalia of sorts, setting up their own administrations, collecting tolls and providing security for oil operations, including  illegal bunkering ad theft of crude oil.

Business Unusual
Businesses have strayed into a more challenging  realm with this judgement. Their offences in Africa, and parts of the world they take for granted, can be contested in courts abroad, where the laws setting up these companies expect them to operate in civilised manners that would befit humanity and sustain the wellness of the environment.

Jennie Green, a CCR attorney staff, who commenced the case in 1996 noted that, “This was one of the first cases to charge a multi-national corporation with human rights violations, and this settlement confirms that multi-national corporations can no longer act with the impunity they once enjoyed”.

Environmental concerns are at the centre of the oil business all over the world. The Ogoni Nine in this case tied environmental devastation to the violation of their rights, outside the outright military harassments.  The issue gets scant attention in Nigeria.

A more embarrassing example is gas flaring which has been on since 1956 when oil was discovered in Oloibiri, now in Bayelsa State. Oloibiri epitomises some of the neglects of the oil producing areas. When its wells ran out, the oil companies abandoned it. A stump capping the oil well, its wretchedness, its ancient surroundings  and foundations of an oil museum  proposed 28 years ago are its own story of the wealth from oil.

The oil producing companies find all the excuses to continue gas flaring. Their strongest ally in this violation is the government which through puny legal measures that make gas flaring profitable, as the fines for violation are miniscule, encourage the oil companies to keep wasting the gas and polluting the environment.

The deadline for ending gas flaring has become a huge joke. Each time it is fixed, it is certain to be shifted – both the oil companies and government ignore gas flaring by refusing to implement projects that could use the wasted gas.
Despoliation of the environment was central  to this suit. Shell’s recourse to an out of court settlement could have been a ploy to halt further exposure in court of the way it operates in the Niger Delta.

“The fortitude shown by our clients in the 13-year struggle to hold Shell accountable has helped establish a principle that goes beyond Shell and Nigeria – that corporations, no matter how powerful, will be held to universal human rights standards,” Judith Chomsky of CCR, told an international news agency.

Future Of Niger Delta
The landmark case the Ogoni Nine won has opened another flank from which to address the issues in the Niger Delta. The hefty legal charges involved can be a deterrent, but the friends and allies of the Ogoni have shown that there are ways of tackling these issues even when poor, oppressed people are the plaintiffs.

Said Paul Hoffman, a human rights attorney and trial counsel in the Saro-Wiwa case, “This settlement is only a first step towards the resolution of still outstanding issues between Shell and the Ogoni people”.

Ogoni Nine and their people got this far in the struggle as a result of the profound intellectual content of their case. The Niger Delta in the contest for space against the Federal Government and the oil companies cannot get a better example of how to fight, die fighting, and make provisions for the living to free themselves from the oppressive whims of companies and governments that thrive on the peoples’ blood.
The struggle has assumed a new dimension, let all parties note.

Ogoni Bill of Rights
This is why the political autonomy for the Ogoni people is still very much on the table and on the front burner of the Ogoni race. This political autonomy is to allow for the Ogoni people to be in charge of the affairs of the Ogoni people within the framework of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, within the Nigerian federation. We also said that a state for the Ogoni is the minimum for the definition of that political autonomy, this is very central.

If the Ogoni people have their own state or exercise political autonomy you are able to protect the environment of the Ogoni people, develop the culture of the Ogoni people, promote economic development to a substantial proportion or using the resources from Ogoniland to develop Ogoni. Nothing can change these demands from the minds of the Ogonis even though we know that there have been a lot of distractions in these past years as nobody seems to be talking about the Ogoni Bill of Rights.

Henceforth it should be our daily talk, we should be talking about it everyday. The Ogoni people are key to this because they have to stand up for what they really want; this is what this struggle has always been about.
You have always mentioned dialogue when talking about the Ogoni struggle, are there people willing to listen to you when you talk about dialogue?

It would be foolhardy for anybody not to listen to me even after all these years and nothing has changed, also given the situation in neighbouring communities where oil is produced in Nigeria. The violence and turbulence in the region is not part of our struggle we are basically non-violent and we intend to keep it so.

Recently the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, and the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP said they were jointly undertaking a project to assess the environmental impacts associated with the oil field operations in Ogoniland.  But the offices are to be located in Abuja, Nigeria, and you are saying that they should relocate to Ogoniland, why is this so?

We are saying that the implementation     centre for that project, which     is for Ogoni people, should be in Ogoni and not in Port Harcourt, Lagos, Abuja, London, New York, Washington DC, The Hague,  Amsterdam or Paris but in Ogoniland. We have space, sufficient office space for any number of people that would be involved in the implementation of this project, if it is for Ogoni it should be in Ogoni. We are not under any colonial or foreign administration.

Well as you know, these are foreign organisations and the fear may be that the violence in the region may disrupt the citing of the office(s) here, hence the preference for Abuja?

Not in Ogoni, there is no violence in Ogoni, this is why the lumping of Ogoni with the Niger Delta is silly.
Why do you want the office(s) in Ogoniland?

Because the entire thing is about Ogoni and I think it is very important because this would give the Ogoni people a sense of ownership of that project and that in itself will be in line with the UNEP and UNDP philosophy. This is also in terms of partnership and leadership criteria. Projects by these organs are in about 166 countries and they emphasize community participation to show that it is not a gimmick.

Community participation would define the openness, transparency and it would create an enabling environment for the kind of dialogue that I have called for with the government (NNPC), Shell, Chevron and other multinational companies operating in Ogoniland.

They should not just imagine that when they hire people from Ogoni ‘and we are done’, no. The Ogoni people should be able to work to that office and follow up and ask questions if need be or contribute where necessary and of course work on this projects. So if this project is operated from a long distance it would discourage the Ogoni people and there would be a lot of unanswered questions.

This is the first time any serious attention would be paid, if at all, to the devastation of the environment of the Ogoni people. If oil has been discovered in Ogoni it cannot be drilled. from Abuja. Like Chief MKO Abiola would say that you cannot shave my hair in my absence, the hair of the Ogonis cannot be shaved in their absence.