Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ten Years Gone

There are a number of lessons to be learned from of the events of September 11th and the carnage in Iraq that followed. One is that oil politics is a violent, corrupt and authoritarian business. Another is that life in the oil states is often nasty, brutish and short. The life and memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian social activist, entrepreneur and acclaimed novelist is being celebrated this week, ten years to the day after he was hung by the Nigerian military tribunal on trumped up charges. Saro-Wiwa rose to international prominence precisely because he sought to expose, and to democratize, the sordid realities behind the quest for oil, money and power. But the tenth anniversary of his death also reminds us how little has changed in oil-rich Nigeria, indeed across the West African “Gulf oil states”.

The “judicial murder” of the Ogoni Nine – Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed along with eight other Ogoni leaders from the oil-producing Niger Delta – resulted in Nigeria’s expulsion from the Commonwealth and the severing of diplomatic relations with the country by various Western powers. Saro-Wiwa’s execution, carried out in the face of appeals for clemency from such notables as Nelson Mandela and Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter and a transnational array of human rights and advocacy organizations, exposed the deadly solicitations of what Saro-Wiwa called ‘the slick alliance’ between military junta and the oil supermajors. In the Ogoni struggle, it was Shell that was shown to be complicit in Saro-Wiwa’s arrest and execution and in the suppression of the organization he co-founded: the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). One of the many legacies of Saro-Wiwa’s death was that it proved to be a public relations nightmare for Shell and the other transnationals operating there. After years of neglecting Nigeria’s Delta region and following the outcry against the dumping of their Brent Spar platform in the North Sea, Shell responded with a massive media blitz pronouncing the company’s commitment to corporate social responsibility.

The Ogoni uprising formed part of a broader social movement to democratize Sani Abacha’s dictatorial government (1993-1998), widely assumed to be the most brutal and authoritarian in Nigeria’s long history of post-colonial military rule. But MOSOP and Saro-Wiwa’s political program emerged from the rich soil not of militarism as such, but of a violent and corrupt petro-state. Indeed, Nigeria is an archetypal oil nation. Three quarters of government revenues and almost all export earnings are derived from ‘black gold’. A member of OPEC, and the fifth largest supplier of oil exports to the US, Nigeria has pocketed $350 billion in oil revenues since 1960 (perhaps fifty billion of which have simply ‘disappeared’ overseas).

It was in the wake of Abacha’s sudden death in 1998 that Nigeria’s “transition to democracy” was formally set in motion. The election of President Obasanjo in 1999 promised something of the democratic dispensation that Saro-Wiwa had fought for. Yet today conditions in the Niger Delta remain the same, and in many respects have deteriorated despite a return to civilian rule. According to the World Bank, Nigerian average personal income now stands at $390 per year, lower than at Independence in 1960. Eighty per cent of the oil monies accrue to one per cent of the population. Almost two thirds of Nigerians live below the poverty line. Concurrently the multi-national oil companies make a killing on Nigerian territory, which holds the most important Shell and Chevron installations in West Africa. The oil-producing states in the Niger Delta have benefited least from the vast oil-wealth, devastated by the ecological costs of oil spillage and the highest gas flaring rates in the world. Why have conditions across the Delta, and indeed within the country at large, so deterioraed over the past decade?

First, the Obasanjo government is a democracy without citizenship. An internationally recognized statesman and diplomat imprisoned during the Abacha regime, Obasanjo inherited the mantle of a massively corrupt state apparatus, an economy in shambles, and a federation crippled by the longstanding ethnic enmity. Committed to reforming a corrupt and undisciplined military ­ the largest in Africa ­ and to deepening the process of democratization, Obasanjo was confronted within months of his inauguration by militant ethnic groups claiming self determination, local autonomy and resource control (meaning a greater share of the federally allocated oil revenues). In the 2003 federal elections these regional and youth movements became the tools of politicians who competed violently for control over democratic trappings. In the Delta, groups equipped with small arms fought over ballot boxes and intimidated potential voters. The result was a tally of over 90% of voters supporting Obasanjo’s People’s Democratic Party in Niger Delta constituencies. Yet in many of these constituencies, election observers reported that no one turned out to vote or that ballots were destroyed before even reaching the polling stations. The Delta’s broad disenfranchisement was reflected this past June in from which Niger Delta delegates left a National Dialogue on constitutional reform. Having already decreased their demands from 100% to 25% oil revenue allocations to the oil producing Delta region, the conference took a decision to allocate only 17% of oil revenues to the area.

Second, Nigeria’s Delta region and the country as a whole have seen deepening violence and ongoing human rights violations perpetrated primarily by state policing institutions and more recently by local militias. Two notable incidents occurred in the Delta in 1999. In Choba women were raped by the military following a peaceful protest outside the gates of the Oil contracting company Willbros; in Odi, hundreds were killed and the majority of an Ijaw village in Bayelsa State razed in a standoff between the military and displaced youth. And there have been many others in the past five years including the killing of 9 youth protesting the activities of the Italian company AGIP near the community of Olugbobiri. Most recently, in February 2005, at least seventeen were killed by the military at Odioma in Bayelsa State. Indeed some Delta activists who were key agents in the pro-democracy movements now argue that the region was better off under Abacha.

In the early 1990s state violence against Delta residents was largely concentrated in the Ogoni region and immediate surroundings. What has transpired in the last decade is a sort of dispersion of violence attributable to a deepening of local grievances, the failure of community development by the oil companies (who have contributed in their ‘cash payment’ system to a radical dislocation of customary forms of community governance across the oilfields), large scale oil theft, and the compromised loyalties of the state military. Upper level military officers are rumored to have increasing ties to the trade in contraband oil (known locally as bunkering), in which various politicians are also implicated. The proliferation of small arms to support this trade has facilitated increasing access to, and control over, the means of violence by youth movements.

The assertion of localized ‘territorial security forces’, as these youth militias are sometimes known, obviously weakens the military’s ability to enforce rule as an arm of the central State. The most visible among them ­ Alhaji Asari’s Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force ­ has gained increasing notoriety as the Delta’s new insurgent movement. The process of democratization and liberalization has dressed up corporate industrial policing in new ‘indigenous’ clothing ­ as youth insurgent movements double as both security and threat to oil installations. The militias, and the apparent ease with which they can disrupt oil operations, prompted increasing American support for the militarization of the Niger Delta and the oil rich Gulf of Guinea just offshore.

Third, there is the question of the oil companies themselves who fail to live up to human rights principles. In a new report entitled “Ten Years On: Injustice and Violence Haunt the oil Delta”, Amnesty International concludes that the security forces still operate with impunity, the government has failed to protect communities in oil producing areas while providing security to the oil industry, and the oil companies themselves bear a share of the responsibility for the appalling misery and the political instability across the region. While Saro-Wiwa’s death may have strengthened the Shell boycott, particularly in Europe, it also prompted Shell’s move to take a leading role in the global business movement for Corporate Social Responsibility. By 1998, when the Ijaw Youth Council adopted the mantle of the Ogoni calling for major reforms of both the foreign oil industry and the Nigerian State, Shell had already reinvented itself globally as a leader in the greening of industry. In June 2004, the leak of an internally commissioned Shell Nigeria report revealed in no uncertain terms the company’s direct contribution to corrupt practices and inter-community violence ­ key factors in Delta’s ongoing social crisis. The report stated that Shell might be required to move its Nigeria operations entirely offshore if it wished to comply with its own global business principles. In May of 2005 Shell indicated that it would be unable to meet its 2008 deadline to end flaring of associated gas produced in Nigeria. The effects of flaring have had untold environmental consequences for fishing and farming communities in the Delta – the results of a major baseline environmental survey conducted over the past decade were never made public. The oil companies acknowledgment of their community failures ­ what Chevron described as “inadequate, expensive and divisive” ­ points to the systematic erosion of what they their “license to operate”.

The deteriorating conditions in the Delta are rendered more troubling by the world oil market and the prospect of Nigerian Presidential elections in 2007. With oil prices at $60 per barrel, the windfall oil profits provide an extraordinary war chest for corrupt politicians prepared to deployed ‘restive youth’ and the ethnic militias for their own purposes in the run up to the elections. Equally the centrality of oil from the Gulf of Guinea for the US market establishes a ground on which the further militarization of the Niger Delta, with US backing, could derail the entire democratic project in Nigeria. Yet international press coverage of violence in the Niger Delta contributes to volatility of the oil markets and to rising oil prices that underlie corporate profitability ­ who at the end of October declared record takings in the third quarter.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a democrat, committed to non-violence and accountability at all levels. In a short story in 1986 he wrote the following words of an old woman: “My son, they arrived this morning and dug up my entire farm, my only farm. They mowed down the toil of my brows, the price of the waiting months. They say they will pay me compensation. Can they compensate me for my labors? The joy I receive when I see the vegetables sprouting. God’s revelation to me in my old age?” The young man to whom she speaks ponders the injustices committed by the government and the companies and thinks “He should have told that woman to despair”.

Ken Saro-Wiwa did not see old age, and the fruits of his labors remain to be harvested. Ten years after his death, the dividends of violence are still reaped by those who sell oil, and the residents of the Niger Deltan still see their night skies lit up by its flares. But he did not despair and the women and men who protest in the contemporary Delta remain inspired by his legacy. On a wall at Bera, Ogoni are written the words: “Ken Saro-Wiwa Great Ogoni Man Would Not Surrender and We Are Feeling the Pains.”

Sofiri Peterside and Patterson Ogon are associated with the CASS and the Ijaw Youth Council in Port Harcourt, Nigeria; Michael Watts and Anna Zalik teach at the University of California, Berkeley. They may be reached at: