Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa

by Annie Leonard

November 10, 2015

20 years ago today, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed following his work to rescue his homeland in Nigeria from the destruction of oil drilling by Shell. Join me in honoring and remembering this courageous activist.

© Tim Lambon / Greenpeace

There are moments in life when something so shocking, so seemingly impossible happens, that you forever remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about it. For me, November 10th 1995 – exactly 20 years ago today – will always be one of those moments. I was standing in Riverside Church in New York City, surrounded by environmental and human rights activists, when I heard that Ken Saro-Wiwa had been executed by the Nigerian government.

Whether or not you have heard Ken’s story, please take a few minutes with me today to pay tribute to this courageous activist and consider how his struggle lives on.

Ken Saro-Wiwa led the peaceful resistance against Shell in Nigeria, as its insatiable thirst for profit bled his home of Ogoniland dry. In 1958, when Shell first arrived in Ogoniland, it was one of the most fertile regions in the country, but the Ogoni people had no legal rights to the natural resources that had sustained them for generations. Over the next several decades, Shell plundered the oil from Ogoniland, devastating farmland and waterways with constant toxic spills and flare burns.

Refusing to sit by as their homeland was decimated, the Ogoni people formed a peaceful resistance group called MOSOP (the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) led by Ken Saro-Wiwa. He organized and he inspired, posing a clear threat to Shell’s operations and the military dictatorship that ruled Nigeria. Evidence that’s since been used in court against Shell shows that it provided arms, transportation, collaboration and direction to the Nigerian military to suppress Ogoni opposition. That suppression was brutally violent. Ken and 8 of his colleagues were framed for a murder that Ken was nowhere near.  20 years ago today, they were all hung to death by the Nigerian government.

No doubt Shell would like us to forget Ken and the devastation of Ogoniland he fought against.

Shell would like us to think the problem is solved. But investigations by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2011 found refined oil still contaminating water sources there, highly carcinogenic substances threatening the health of local communities, and concluded that cleaning up the pollution could take 25 to 30 years. Just this week Amnesty International released new findings that four oil spill sites which Shell has claimed to have had cleaned up since the UNEP report, are still very much polluted. This is what happens when Shell makes promises to respect the rights of indigenous communities. This is what happens when Shell claims it can drill safely.

I shudder to think what could have happened if Shell had struck oil in the Arctic this summer.

Cleaning up a remote disaster in freezing Arctic waters would have been impossible. The livelihoods of the Arctic’s indigenous communities would have been destroyed. Thankfully, a powerful summer of peaceful protest this year has resulted in Shell cancelling its Arctic drilling program for the foreseeable future. Though if we’re to prevent repeating what Shell did to Ogoniland, President Obama needs to shut the door on drilling in the Arctic for good by removing the Arctic Ocean from the U.S. offshore drilling program.

In the speech Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote for the sham trial that led to his execution, but was never allowed to deliver, he reflected that Shell’s “day will surely come … for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later”. I often wonder what Ken Saro-Wiwa would be doing now, were he still with us. In his absence it’s up to all of us to take up the mantle, and hold companies responsible for ecological crimes against humanity to account.





Annie Leonard

By Annie Leonard

Annie Leonard is the co-Executive Director of Greenpeace USA. Leonard began her career at Greenpeace in 1988 and has returned to help the organization inspire and mobilize millions of people to take action to create a more sustainable future together. She is based in San Francisco.

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