Twenty years ago this November, my brother, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was executed for his work to rescue our Ogoni homeland in Nigeria from further destruction at the hands of Royal Dutch Shell. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t miss my brother, but he has been on my mind in a special way the past six months. I wish he could have seen the growing global movement rising up against Shell’s latest destructive plan: drilling in the ecologically important and fragile Arctic. Activists took to the water in colorful kayaks, hung from a 200 foot-high bridge, sent letters to President Barack Obama and filled social media with cries of “Shell NO!”
In response, Shell was quoted by the news media as saying, “We have consistently stated that we respect the right of individuals to protest our Arctic operations so long as they do so safely and within the boundaries of law.” This false benevolence was not in evidence on November 10, 1995, when Shell allowed my brother and eight of his compatriots to be put to death, by the Nigerian maximum dictator, Mr. Sani Abacha, for protesting the company’s operations in Ogoniland.
I do not know how Ken would have felt about the hand over of the Nigerian Presidency from a Niger Deltan Goodluck Jonathan to an ex-military dictator, Muhammadu Buhari. Former President Jonathan appointed Justice Ibrahim Auta, who sat on a military appointed “kangaroo court” that sentenced Ken to death, to be the Chief Judge of Abuja High Court. He also gave a national award to the late General Sani Abacha. President Buhari has described thieving Abacha, whose family is still returning hundreds of millions of dollars of Nigeria’s stolen money, as a “good man.” He also quickly appointed Colonel Hameed Ali (rtd), who commanded the affairs of the same murderous kangaroo court, as the Comptroller General of the Nigerian Customs. What kind of messages do these actions send to the people of the Niger Delta?
I know what it is like to live amidst Shell’s oil operations. Ogoniland rests on some 1,000 square kilometers in the Niger Delta region of southern Nigeria. In 1958, oil was discovered in Ogoniland and, over the next several decades, Shell became comfortable in its occupation, taking our centuries old home as though it were theirs. But, where the Ogoni had practiced caretaking and stewardship for this place that fed and provided for us, Shell left a trail of environmental devastation and terrible health impacts on the people still living there.
The slow poisoning of the land and water began almost immediately. There were constant oil spills and uncontrolled flares. Once thriving fishing areas grew too toxic to support even the smallest creatures, and the mangroves—which acted as nurseries for marine life in its infancy—were choked at the roots. The ecology’s once bountiful leaves were stripped away, leaving behind only skeletons.
When my brother insisted that Shell was committing genocide, the company bristled at the suggestion and took exception to his use of such an emotive word. Well, now an independent study, funded by Shell, has provided compelling evidence and data that incontrovertibly vindicate my brother’s claims. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report on the environmental devastation in Ogoni lays the blame for the ecological ruin in my community firmly at Shell’s door. The report also concluded that it might take 25-30 years to clean up our environment. To me this sounds like the classic UN definition of genocide.
We have lost our land and livelihood. And I lost my brother Ken. But Shell says it respects the right of individuals to protest.
It was 1990 when my brother, a brilliant writer, founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). It was clear that Shell had no regard for the Ogoni people or this land that had been our home since before recorded history. By this time, Ken had already spent more than 20 years advocating for greater Ogoni autonomy, at one point sacrificing a prestigious position as Regional Commissioner for Education in the Rivers State cabinet for his beliefs.
With MOSOP, Ken spoke and wrote about our plight. He educated and organized. He opened eyes to the tremendous price being paid by our community in the pursuit of the great rewards that Shell promised. He mobilized voices in solidarity and hope.
On January 4, 1993, 300,000 Ogoni celebrated the Year of Indigenous Peoples by protesting Shell. My brother addressed the crowd saying, “We have woken up to find our lands devastated by agents of death called oil companies. Our atmosphere has been totally polluted, our lands degraded, our waters contaminated, our trees poisoned, so much so that our flora and fauna have virtually disappeared.”
The show of strength in the face of their oppression worried Shell’s leadership. In a partnership as horrifying as it was unbelievable, the company began conspiring with the Nigerian military. Soldiers—operating with financial support from Shell—brutalized the Ogoni people, then took my brother into custody, tortured him and ultimately put him to death. All for trying to prevent Shell from leaving Ogoniland an empty, poisoned husk.
But Shell says it respects the right of individuals to protest.
A study by the United Nations Environment Program has shown that, despite the fact no oil production has taken place in Ogoniland since 1993, oil spills continue to occur with fierce regularity. The production facilities that Shell used to crowd out farmers and fishermen have fallen to rust and ruin, and neglected, antiquated pipelines continue to leak oil as they snake from other parts of Nigeria through Ogoniland. Fishermen and farmers can no longer make their living or feed their families from the water or the field.
This is the bounty that Shell has brought to the Indigenous people of Ogoniland. The company had promised prosperity and a bright tomorrow. When it wants to distract people from the price that will eventually be paid, Shell talks of jobs, crows about its lavish philanthropy, and promises that no harm will be done, no chaos left in its wake.
I am hugely relieved for the people of the Arctic, many of whose families have lived there for thousands of years. Shell recently announced it was retreating from Arctic drilling for the foreseeable future. But this is a company that postures about concern and compassion for human beings when its only true concern is for where new money can be found. No doubt Shell’s sights are already set on its next oil field conquest, irrespective of who lives there or their history with that land.
When my brother Ken was executed, his last words were, “Lord, take my soul…but the struggle continues.” I hope Ken is watching and seeing that, yes, that struggle continues. From Ogoniland to the Arctic and beyond, people are rising up to say “Shell No!” They are standing strong against a corporation and an entire industry that determined to mortgage our future for quick profits.
It is a great legacy, and I can’t think of a better way to honor my brother.
Owens Wiwa a Global Health Consultant and Human Rights Activist resides in Abuja.