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Nigeria: Ogoni 9 activists remembered 25 years on

November 9, 2020

On November 10, 1995, nine Nigerian environmental activists accused of murder were executed by Sani Abacha's military regime. Their deaths sparked an international outcry that lingers to this day.

Ogoni clean-up operation in Bodo-Ogoni, Nigeria
Image: DW/M. Bello

Tired of seeing the environmental pollution and the exploitation of natural resources in his native Ogoniland, Ken Saro-Wiwa founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in 1990. Eight other leaders worked alongside him: Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine.

"The Ogoni bill of right was signed in 1990, and then in 1992, the struggle started," Dicks Saro Nwiko, personal assistant to the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, recalled.

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"All Ogoni people, even children in their mother's womb, had to contribute what we called 'Ogoni one naira survival fund." 

In 1957, Dutch oil giant Shell struck oil in the Niger Delta and engaged in oil production for more than 30 years. MOSOP argued that Shell's operations had devastated the region's environment while bringing no benefit to the indigenous people. Saro-Wiwa described it as an "ecological war."

Map of Nigeria showing Ogoniland

Ogoni protests against Shell pollution

On January 4, 1993, MOSOP organized a peaceful protest attended by nearly 300,000 Ogoni people in Rivers State, Nigeria. They not only decried the environmental destruction of their land caused by the Shell Petroleum Development Company Of Nigeria, but they also expressed the Ogoni Peoples' right to self-determination — including greater control over the exploitation of oil found on their lands.

Shortly afterwards, the Nigerian military occupied the territory. For more than two years — under the dictatorial military rule of General Sani Abacha — the protest campaign went on. Finally, Saro-Wiwa, and his eight colleagues, succeeded in getting support both at home and internationally.

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Amnesty International says the people of Ogoniland have been waiting for the clean-up operation for a very long time 17212307
Amnesty International says the people of Ogoniland have been waiting for the clean-up operation for a very long time Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

In 1994, Ken Saro-Wiwa was honored with the Right Livelihood Award for "exemplary courage in striving for civil, economic and environmental rights non-violently." He also won the Goldman Environmental Prize.

In marking a quarter-century since the death of the Ogoni Nine, laureates of the Right Livelihood Award released a press release calling on President Muhammadu Buhari to posthumously pardon the environmental activists and ensure the rights of the Ogoni people to a healthy environment are respected.

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A young man viewing the Goi creek
A young man viewing the Goi creek, which was damaged by devastating oil spills near Bodo village, OgonilandImage: AFP/Y. Chiba

General Abacha's brutal response

Abacha's military government accused Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots of playing a role in the murder of four pro-government Ogoni chiefs. Saro-Wiwa was detained for nearly a year and later tried under a special military tribunal. On November 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged alongside his comrades. They became known as the Ogoni Nine.

The executions triggered an international uproar that led to the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth of Nations for three years.

Some witnesses later spoke of being bribed by the government or admitted to being promised jobs by Shell. The Dutch oil company has never fully acknowledged responsibility. It maintains that most of the pollution was due to illegal refineries and sabotage. In 2009, it paid a total of $15.5 million (€13 million) to Ken Saro-Wiwa's and the other eight families. Shell insisted that this was a humanitarian gesture and not an admission of guilt.

"The struggle that Ken Saro-Wiwa started using the Ogoni people has gone far and has taken over the whole region," Sunny Zorva, former MOSOP publicity secretary, said. "At the moment, there is no Ogoni man that will not tell you about MOSOP, about the struggle for justice, about the struggle for environmental justice," Zorva told DW.

MOSOP's struggle continues amid internal wrangles

Twenty-five years since Sani Abacha's government executed the Ogoni Nine, their ideas and effort remain alive. "Shell must not get away with this," said Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International Nigeria.

"We will continue to fight until every last trace of oil is removed from Ogoniland."

For Celestine Akpobari, an environmentalist in the oil-rich Niger Delta, the Ogoniland struggle is not like it used to be during the days of Ken Saro-Wiwa." That is because of the divisions within MOSOP," Akpobari told DW. "We now have three different factions." 

According to Akpobari, nothing much has changed in Ogoniland, 25 years after Saro-Wiwa's death.

"If Ken were to wake up today, he would not want to live in this kind of environment," Akpobari said, adding that over 2,000 people were killed during the military occupation, that took place at the peak of the Ogoni protests.

Slow pace of oil clean-up

Following the Ogoni Nine's deaths, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 2011 released the first scientific analysis of pollution that confirmed Ogoniland had indeed turned into an ecological disaster.

In 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari launched a $1 billion oil clean-up exercise in the Niger Delta — promising to reverse the damage and restore the ecosystems. 

However, the Ogoni people are yet to be satisfied with the ongoing environmental cleanup recommended by the UN. They still maintain that Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight Ogoni leaders were innocent.

They have vowed to carry on with the struggle until the Ogoni Nine are exonerated and their demands — which include ensuring a fair share in their oil wealth, providing community projects, and respecting environmental laws — are fully met. 

The Ogoni agitation is said to be responsible for the Niger Delta crisis, which led to various rebel groups fighting the government. Some of the groups destroyed oil infrastructure, carried out kidnappings of oil workers — causing a considerable drop in Nigeria's oil production. At the end of 2006, the Nigerian government signed a peace agreement in the region.

Ken Saro-Wiwa once said: "I am more dangerous dead" — a quote that remains true 25 years after his death.

Muhammad Bello in Niger Delta contributed to this report.