By Cathy Nugent
In November 1995 Ken Saro-Wiwa, the best known leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, was executed by the Nigerian government. The Ogoni are an ethnic minority of 500,000 who live in about 350 square miles in the impoverished Niger river delta region of Nigeria.
Saro-Wiwa, a novelist and TV producer, was killed, along with eight other Ogoni activists, because they seriously challenged Nigeria’s status quo — they wanted to stop the oil companies, in collusion with the government, destroying the environment and lives of the Niger delta people.
Over forty years successive Nigerian governments, both civilian and military, have plundered the oil revenues from the Niger delta region, while leaving the vast majority of Nigeria’s diverse people in dire poverty.
Oil accounts for over 90% of Nigeria’s export earnings and some 80% of government revenue, controlling the entire Nigerian economy. And the land of the Niger Delta is the source of over 90% of Nigeria’s oil.
Two million barrels of oil a day are pumped from the region, providing US $100 million a day to be shared between the companies — Shell, ExxonMobil and TotalFinaElf — and the government.
An estimated US $350 billion was earned from oil by the Nigerian governments between 1965 and 2000. But these people did nothing to alleviate poverty in Nigeria. In many ways they exacerbated deprivation through the corruption they fostered as the oil wealth flowed in. Nigeria is among the 15 poorest countries in the world, and 70% of its people live below the poverty line.
Ken Saro-Wiwa founded MOSOP in 1990. In January 1993 MOSOP organised marches of around 300,000 people. Shell decided to cease operations in the region, but the company later went back — this time under the protection of the Nigerian military. During that period the government instigated “ethnic conflicts” between the Ogoni and other ethnic groups in the area. In April 1994, a huge military operation was launched by the government, destroying Ogoni lives and property, to make the region safe for the oil companies. More than 3000 people died.
Now under a civilian government, the situation in the Niger delta remains dire and dangerous.
Agricultural production has been devastated by loss of farmlands through oil polution. Fishing grounds have been rendered useless by oil spills.
There are a number of reasons for spills. Poorly maintained infrastructure fails under high pressure. Accidents occur and pipelines running over ground get ruptured. Yet there are no clean up operations by the companies.
The companies hide behind the burgeoning trade in stolen oil which also causes spills. So the companies can blame the local people and criminal gangs.
One part of the region now sees armed conflict and infighting between rival armed militas tied to a particular ethnic groups. But ordinary people, caught up in these battles, are losing their lives and their homes. The battle is fuelled by poverty, but the groups also benefit from the corrupt sponsorship of some in the state government.
More gas is flared in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world, causing local pollution and contributing to climate change. Nobody benefits from the energy the gas contains. But the flares contain toxins such as benzene, which pollute the air.
Local people complain of respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis. Yet Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo has recently decided to put back the “flares-out” deadline to 2008.
Nearly all oil workers are people who come from outside the area. Besides the oil installations and refineries, there are no manufacturing industries in the area to reduce unemployment.
Health facilities are almost non-existent and school buildings are collapsing. A couple of community self-help initiatives by the people were branded “MOSOP-inspired” by the government and stopped.
Whether under military rule or civilian government the Nigerian ruling class remains the same: multi-millionaires happy to work hand in glove with multi-nationals. And this is a government which needs no prodding from the G8 to introduce privatisation and “liberalisation”. A civilian government which has proved itself more than willing to call in the military against the people.
Organised workers in Nigeria have fought back. The trade union federation, the Nigerian Labour Congress, which is in many ways conciliatory towards the government, also organised three general strikes last year (not something you would see the British TUC doing). Oil workers, strategically so important and powerful in Nigeria, have also organised strike action in recent years, though they suffer terrible conditions, poor wages and casualisation. In 2002 hundreds of women occupied the Chevron Texaco oil terminal to demand jobs and local development. A similar protest was organised in February of this year. This grass roots working class force, united with local movements for social and environmental justice, will bring about change in the future.
Statement made by Saro-Wiwa just before his execution:
“We all stand on trial, for by our actions we have denigrated our country and jeopardised the future of our children. As we subscribe to the subnormal and accept double standards, as we lie and cheat openly, as we protect injustice and oppression, we empty our classrooms, degrade our hospitals, and make ourselves the slaves of those who subscribe to higher standards, who pursue the truth, and honour justice, freedom and hard work”