The Execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa: Nigerian Environmentalist
Air Date: Week of November 17, 1995
Jan Nunley speaks with Susan Osnos (Ohz-nohss) of Human Rights Watch Africa about the international outcry against the Nigerian military government's execution-by-hanging of environmental activist, author and playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders last week.
NUNLEY: Royal Dutch Shell has announced it's going ahead with a controversial $4 billion natural gas project in Nigeria despite an international outcry against the execution of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, the president of the movement for the survival of Ogoni peoples and 8 others who had opposed oil and gas exploration on their tribal land. Saro-Wiwa was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, a Goldman Prize-winning environmental activist, and a playwright with an international reputation. But none of that kept Nigeria's military junta from sentencing him and his 8 colleagues to death. And no amount of international pressure restrained Nigerian General Saniabacha from carrying out that sentence suddenly and swiftly. A Nigerian military court convicted Saro-Wiwa and the others of contributing to the murder of 4 pro-government Ogoni chiefs, but human rights advocates say the charges were false. It's a grim reminder of the dangers many environmental activists face around the world. Susan Osnos is communications director for Human Rights Watch. She says the Ogonis are the victims of a long-standing deal between Nigeria's governments and multinational oil companies, a deal Ken Saro-Wiwa dedicated his life to fighting.
OSNOS: He became involved in environmental activism and human rights over a period of years. The Ogoni region of Nigeria, the Niger Delta, is extremely rich in oil and was discovered by multinational oil companies years ago. They were invited in by the Nigerian government, who derives an enormous proportion of their income from oil. In the course of their activities they undertook virtually no environmental protections of any kind. I'm told that there are vast areas which are just no longer livable, and that there are gushers all over the place. That the oil is just, and oil fires and stuff like that, that make the land uninhabitable. And the Ogoni people receive no recompense whatsoever.
NUNLEY: So the oil companies basically have carte blanche under the Nigerian government?
OSNOS: They do. Nigerian law has a provision which requires, in fact, oil companies to report when their activities are being interfered with at the local level. There were popular demonstrations against the oil companies in the Ogoni region, and that was interpreted under the law as interfering with the oil companies' effectiveness.
NUNLEY: Was it at one of these popular demonstrations that the incident happened which led to Ken Saro-Wiwa's arrest?
OSNOS: It was at a popular demonstration. He was not in fact there. And the connection that was never made between him and the killings of those 4 regional chiefs.
NUNLEY: To your knowledge, what effect has Ken Saro-Wiwa's death had in Nigeria?
OSNOS: I've only spoken to one Nigerian friend since this happened and he's devastated. Not actually surprised, but certainly devastated. I think the rest of us were surprised. We couldn't believe that General Abacha would fly in the face of so much pressure. My Nigerian friend, who's been involved in civil liberties in Nigeria for almost 2 decades, he understands that they are in the grip of a completely abusive military dictatorship. The Nigerian government is making it clear to its own population that anybody that doesn't toe the line is going to pay a very high price. The thing that astonished all of us was the level of international outcry on Ken Saro-Wiwa's behalf was almost unprecedented. I haven't seen activity like that probably in a decade, when Andrei Sakharov was sent off to Gorky. Governments as a rule, if they're going to hang onto these people, they use them as bargaining chips. They keep them alive because they might need them at some point. And the Nigerians created a situation where there will be no going back.
NUNLEY: What can the US do as Nigeria's largest oil customer?
OSNOS: Well, in terms of being a customer we ought to look elsewhere for our oil is my guess, that's what the United States could do. The government has done, the US government has performed well in terms of Nigeria. They've been tough on Nigeria for a long time. But my sense is that the only thing that Nigeria listens to is the sound of that black gold turning into money.
NUNLEY: Now this is not the first time that Royal Dutch Shell has been caught in some sort of controversy. I mean, obviously, there was for years the boycott of Shell for its investments and drilling in South Africa. There's the Brent Sparr situation. And now the situation in Nigeria.
OSNOS: It's interesting to me that Shell doesn't seem to care very much that they are branded in the press as being in fact complicit in the kinds of things that are happening in Nigeria. If I were Shell I wouldn't much like to see that about myself in print. In the New York Times or anyplace else. It doesn't seem to matter to them. And that's what makes me think that their shareholders are the only voice they listen to.
NUNLEY: What do you see as the best possible outcome at this point for Nigeria?
OSNOS: The best possible outcome, I think, would be coordinated outrage from the international community. We're calling for a range of measures that have to do with isolating Nigeria from the rest of the world, including not allowing senior Nigerian officials to travel, freezing their assets abroad, blocking any kind of international loans of any sort. There is a wonderful, now terrified, civil society in Nigeria, a tremendous population of people who know their rights and respect the rights of others. And have dreams and plans for Nigeria. And what needs to happen is that somehow the international community has to make it possible for those people to function and in fact to flourish.
NUNLEY: There have been many environmental activists and workers who have been endangered over the years.
OSNOS: Mm hm.
NUNLEY: This is one of the few times that an environmental activist has actually lost her or his life. I'm thinking of Chico Mendez and now Ken Saro-Wiwa. Are activists becoming an endangered species?
OSNOS: I think they always have been endangered. Because the truth is that Chico Mendez and Ken Saro-Wiwa are the names that the world knows. For every Chico Mendez and every Ken Saro-Wiwa there are tens if not hundreds of others who pay the ultimate price for that kind of activity.
NUNLEY: Susan Osnos is Communications Director for Human Rights Watch. Executed along with Ken Saro-Wiwa were Barinem Klobel, John Kpunien, Baribor Bera, Saturday Dobee, Felix Nwate, Nordu Eawo, Paul Levura, and Daniel Gbokoo.
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