Document of the Day: By Mark Dummett, Business and Human Rights Researcher, Amnesty International.
The Library at Maynooth University is fortunate to hold a unique and fascinating collection of letters written by Ken Saro-Wiwa, the acclaimed Nigerian author and activist, who led a peaceful grassroots protest movement highlighting the inequities of the oil industry in his home region, Ogoniland, during the first half of the 1990s.
The protest movement that he led – the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) – said that decades of pollution from oil spills and gas flares had destroyed their farmlands while others had grown rich on the proceeds.
MOSOP’s protests attracted headlines around the world after the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell withdrew from its Ogoni oil fields, which it operated in partnership with the Nigerian state, in January 1993. But the protests ended in tragedy.
Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other men from Ogoniland, in Africa’s most important oil-producing region, the Niger Delta, were executed on 10 November 1995, as Nigeria’s military government sought to silence MOSOP.
The men had been wrongly convicted of involvement in a murder, after a manifestly unfair trial, and months of harsh imprisonment. During his long incarceration (which began on 22 May 1994), Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had a heart condition, was denied medical care. Soldiers attacked his mother and family members of the other men as they brought food and visited them. Another of the accused, Baribor Bera, said that during his own brutal interrogation, soldiers knocked out his teeth and forced him to swallow them.
The situation inside Ogoniland itself was even worse. The military attacked defenceless villages, carrying out numerous, grave human rights violations, including unlawful killings, as well as torture and other ill-treatment, including rape, and the destruction of homes and livelihoods.
However, despite this grim scene, the collection of letters (sent to a Catholic Sister working in Nigeria, Sister Majella McCarron), reveals that throughout his time in detention, Ken Saro-Wiwa remained constantly upbeat. They show how he managed to keep his finger on the pulse of Ogoni and Nigerian politics from behind bars as he strived to find a solution to the crisis destroying his homeland.
The last of the 28 letters, dated 14 September 1995, is no exception. By this time, Ken Saro-Wiwa was certain he would be convicted. Not expecting to be executed, he wrote that he was gearing up to “remain in prison for as long as the authorities please.” Yet he was also discussing a “peace effort” with the commander of the military force deployed to subdue Ogoniland. He reported on persuading the commander to release three Ogoni youths from detention as a goodwill gesture, and that with the talk of reconciliation and peace deals, “Ogoni is buzzing with all sorts of noise, all sorts of expectation.”
It is a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.
Saro-Wiwa and the other men were executed just two months after this letter was written, and the abusive military force stayed in Ogoniland for years longer. To this day, no-one has been held to account for the human rights abuses that occurred, and no government has yet investigated the role that Shell may have played. Victims, who accuse the company of complicity, have been forced to file claims against Shell in foreign countries, as they see no chance of justice in Nigeria itself. A much heralded effort to finally remediate Ogoniland’s polluted environment was flagged off by the government over a year ago, but nothing substantial has yet got underway.
The reconciliation that Ken Saro-Wiwa hoped, and fought for, has still not been achieved.