Judicial murder


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Category: International Date: 03 Dec 95

Let me preface this piece with the statement that in my 31 years in the world, I have learned that wealth, brute force and arms are powerful tools. Those who don’t have any of the above are subject to the caprices of those who do.


On November 10, while we were still mulling over the 17-17-2 election result, Nigerian Ken Saro-Wiwa, an Ogoni environmental activist and writer, was tried and condemned by a military tribunal, denied the right of appeal and hanged. The Guardian Weekly reports that Saro-Wiwa led the Ogoni movement against “three decades of exploitation of their lands by Shell with little to show for the billions of dollars made by polluted fields, gas flares and pipelines scarring villages. The company was callous in its treatment of the Ogonis despite its belated efforts to clean up its image.”


The Ogoni’s defiance however posed a serious challenge to Nigeria’s military rulers because it was reported to be an example of “effective organised resistance that could not be quelled with money or threats. Ogoni is the only place in Nigeria where you can go where there is no possibility of winning an election by corruption.” The writer turned environmental crusader was in no position to plot coups or organise nationwide strikes. Saro-Wiwa’s political base in fact was limited to an Ogoniland whose people account for just half of one percent of the country’s population, and most of the oil.


Saro-Wiwa was hung because he was pronounced guilty of ordering the deaths of four Ogoni traditional chiefs. A spokesman from the Nigerian Embassy in Trinidad made it very clear that the executions were an internal matter. “We have a constitution and law. The matter was handled by tribunal professionals. These people were hanged because they committed murder, not because they were environmental activists!” In any event, he said, “We should be allowed to settle the matter internally.” He added that “Nigeria has never had any problems with Shell’s activities.”


Last week South African President Nelson Mandela condemned the executions. The British Prime Minister John Major said, “I thought this was a fraudulent trial, a bad verdict. It has now been followed by judicial murder. I do not see how Nigeria can stay in the Commonwealth until they return to democratic government.” Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth for two years, a decision which Foreign Affairs Minister Ralph Maraj says Trinidad and Tobago supports. Maraj added that Trinidad and Tobago has long standing, cordial and fraternal relations with Nigeria, “and we stand ready to provide any assistance within our capacity to enable our sister nation to return to the fold of the Commonwealth.”


Despite worldwide condemnation of the executions, Shell is pressing ahead with fresh investments in Nigeria. The General Manager of Shell in Trinidad, Andrew Hepher, defends the forthright line taken by the petroleum multinational. Hepher says that although Shell is not “comfortable” with the regime, “it would be naive and unrealistic to see how we would help the Nigerian people by pulling out.” Besides Shell believes sanctions are “notoriously” ineffective. “Our aim is very much to work from within using quiet diplomacy, to use what influence we have to change their ways rather than to pull out and have no say. This intention is not helped by radical elements around the world.”


In fact, Hepher maintains the Nigerian Government and people can only gain by continued exploration for oil: “Some 6,000 people will be employed in construction on the site, and Shell has a huge land development project in the Niger Delta aimed to benefit the people.” He adds: “It is a very complex and awkward position, but our view has always been to work towards good for all. Of course we are not entirely philanthropic.”  I agreed with him: “Not entirely.”


Environmentalists claim that multinationals would never get away in their own countries with the kind of environmental degradation they create in developing countries where pressing issues of poverty preclude environmental concerns. So Nigeria is suspended from the Commonwealth. World leaders have condemned the executions. But Shell holds 24% of Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Ltd. The undemocratic military Nigerian government - led by General Sani Abacha  - which “committed judicial murder” holds 49% of shares. An African commentator says General Abacha’s most effective weapon “is a national psyche accustomed to the absence of principles, other than personal greed, as motivation for leadership.”


There has been little sign of trickle down from the enormous oil exploitation to the people of Nigeria and specifically to the Ogoni’s whose land has been polluted and made unfit for agricultural use. The Commonwealth and the UN must push for the Nigerian Government’s return to democracy where a visible and vibrant opposition can monitor the misuse of the country’s resources. If sanctions don’t work, well then, money does. Shell may not be an “entirely philanthropic” organisation, but it is desirable that the company operates within the confines of strict environmental laws. And if Mr Hepher says it will exert pressure from within to make the government “change its ways”, well that will be believed when it’s seen.


Ken Saro-Wiwa’s last words on national television was an appeal to the UN to stop this genocide, “because if nothing’s done today, in ten years time the Ogoni people will be extinct.” The powerful and rousing voice of environmentalist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa has been silenced, but it’s up to the world to continue to speak out against human rights abuses and environmental degradation.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur