25 years on: remembering the Ogoni Nine environmental activists

Exactly 25 years ago on November 10, 1995, nine Nigerian environmental activists, accused of murder, were executed by Sani Abacha’s military regime.

In 1956, four years before Nigerian independence, Royal Dutch Shell, in collaboration with the UK government, found a commercially viable oil field on the Niger Delta. Production began in 1958.  In a 15-year period from 1976 to 1991 there were reportedly 2,976 oil spills of about 2.1 million barrels of oil in Ogoniland, accounting for about 40% of the total oil spills of the Royal Dutch Shell company worldwide

In 1990 Nigerian writer Ken Saro- Wiwa founded Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) along with eight other leaders,  Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine. The movement aimed for political control of Ogoni affairs by Ogoni people, control and use of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development, adequate and direct representation as of right for Ogoni people in all Nigerian national institutions, and the right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradation

On January 4, 1993, MOSOP organised a peaceful protest attended by nearly 300,000.  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. However, the protest campaign continued. In 1993, following protests that were designed to stop contractors from laying a new pipeline for Shell, the Nigerian Paramilitary Police raided the area. In the chaos that followed, it has been alleged that 27 villages were raided, resulting in the deaths of 2,000 Ogoni people and displacement of 80,000.

The military dictatorship of Sani Abacha accused  Saro-Wiwa and his fellow leaders of involvment 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 provoked international condemnation and led to the increasing treatment of Nigeria as a pariah state until General Abacha’s mysterious death in 1998.

At least two witnesses who testified that Saro-Wiwa was involved in the murders of the Ogoni elders later recanted, stating that they had been bribed with money and offers of jobs with Shell to give false testimony.

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 to the families of the Ogoni Nine. Shell insisted that this was a humanitarian gesture and not an admission of guilt.

The Nigerian Delta remains heavily polluted. The Ogale and Bille communities say they have suffered decades of pollution, including the contamination of their water wells with potentially cancer-causing chemicals, as well as the devastation of mangrove vegetation.

According to Shell’s own records, the community has been affected by at least 40 oil spills from its pipelines and equipment since 1989, including 23 spills in the past four years. The United Nations environment programme (UNEP) reported in 2011 that it could take 30 years to clean up the pollution caused by oil extraction and recommended an initial fund of $1bn (£800m) for the first five years to be paid by the oil companies that operate in Ogoniland – including the largest company, Shell.

As of June 2020 only 11% of the total contaminated area had been cleaned.