The Nigerian Activist Whose Death Shamed Shell

Roy Doron
Toyin Falola

Twenty-four years ago today, environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian state. His death brought international attention to the rapacious behavior of oil companies like Shell — and their complicity in the most violent forms of repression.

Ken Saro-Wiwa. (Greenpeace)

Interview by
Portia Roelofs

Born in 1941, Ken Saro-Wiwa came of age as Nigeria gained independence and became a lifelong advocate for the importance of minority rights within a unified national identity. A member of the Ogoni ethnic group, who at only half a million hold little sway in a country of two hundred million, Saro-Wiwa was central to mobilizing a popular movement that demanded accountability for companies like Shell that were extracting oil in the creeks of the Niger Delta.

In 1990, Saro-Wiwa created MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People), which drew on Ogonis’ resentment at oil exploration for its destruction of the region’s economic foundations and its poisoning of crops and aquaculture. Despite bearing the brunt of black gold’s adverse impacts (from oil spills to gas flaring), the Ogoni were seeing scant financial benefits from the rush of oil revenues. Their homeland, Ogoniland, was being decimated. The movement grew quickly: in January 1993, a mass rally attracted three hundred thousand people, roughly two-thirds of the Ogoni.

Meanwhile, Saro-Wiwa — well-known for writing the 1980s Nigerian sitcom Basi and Company and the 1985 novel, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English — was also publishing political works. Ogoni Bill of Rights was released in 1991, and Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy came out the following year. Saro-Wiwa’s highly provocative argument: the destruction of a people’s natural environment should be considered a form of genocide.

As Saro-Wiwa gained the attention of the United Nations and Western environmental groups, MOSOP faced growing repression at the hands of the military government. A successful boycott of the 1993 elections demonstrated the potential for mass mobilization of the Ogoni but exacerbated rivalries within the movement.

In 1994, four elder elites who had taken a more conciliatory stance toward Shell were murdered by a mob. The military dictator, General Sani Abacha, used the killings as a pretext to arrest Saro-Wiwa and unleash punitive raids on over sixty villages. On November 10, 1995, after a trial marked by irregularities and naked brutality, Saro-Wiwa was hanged alongside eight other activists known as the Ogoni Nine.

Portia Roelofs recently spoke with Roy Doron and Toyin Falola, the authors of a 2016 biography of Saro-Wiwa, about the activist’s early life, his political and cultural work, and what his legacy can teach us about the unfolding prospects for environmental politics in Africa’s most populous country.

Portia Roelofs

Saro-Wiwa’s early political work was less focused on environmental questions and more on the possibility of minority ethnic self-determination within a unified federal Nigeria. How did this tension affect his choices of who to side with in the 1967–1970 Nigerian Civil War, when the Eastern Region seceded to form the short-lived Republic of Biafra?

Roy Doron and Toyin Falola

It is important to tread carefully when reading his work regarding his attitudes during the Civil War. He only penned his memoir On a Darkling Plain in 1989, when he was already planning his future agitation against the government and Shell Oil. In his memoirs, he was as much telling his story of the war as painting a picture of himself as a loyal Nigerian to shield himself from accusations of sedition, treason, and advocation of secession. Any of those charges could have landed him in serious legal peril, and he was using his memoirs to “remind” anyone who could accuse him of these kinds of crimes exactly how loyal he was to Nigeria.

A close reading of his Civil War memoir shows that though he painted a picture of himself as a loyal Nigerian from the beginning of the war, his actions call those attitudes into question. Before the war, he was at Ibadan, but left to the Eastern Region with the mass exodus of internally displaced Easterners in the aftermath of the 1966 attacks on the Igbo in the North. At the same time, he belittled those others who did the same thing, calling them weak-minded people who “only needed a word of encouragement and they were instantly on the move back home.” Yet he was one of them!

However, based either on his correct assessment of Biafra’s prospects for victory or the way the Igbo treated non-Igbos in Biafra, he quickly decided to cast his fate with Nigeria and made his way to Bonny and became a part of the civil administration during the war. The question remains as to what level his actions came from political idealism and how much of it was opportunism. Undoubtedly, he painted his role in the former.

Portia Roelofs

Saro-Wiwa was disillusioned with the Nigerian political system in the years after the war. After failing to win the Ogoni seat at the National Conference to draft the constitution in 1977, he turned instead to his business and cultural activities. How did his commercial activities intersect with his cultural and literary endeavors?

Roy Doron and Toyin Falola

After the war, he became both a businessman and civil servant in Port Harcourt. He used his latter role to self-deal and grant his companies, both his publishing arm — Saros — and his grocery chain exclusive contracts supplying books to Rivers State schools and meals with the Port Harcourt school system. Eventually, he was removed from his official positions, but his dealings made him very wealthy and that allowed him to dedicate himself to his writing, especially after his loss in the election at the National Conference, which he supposedly lost by a single vote.

He moved his family to Britain, but he spent most of his time in Nigeria writing both creatively and in serialized form in newspapers. However, it was the loss of the National Conference election more than anything that seemed to move him away from wanting to work within the Nigerian political system in a meaningful way. He instead decided to focus on forcing the system to deal with him.

Portia Roelofs

Saro-Wiwa helped redefine African literature and television, most notably through the pan-Nigerian appeal of TV comedy Basi and Company, which ran from 1985 to 1990, and the linguistic innovations of his 1985 novel, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English. How did these works help build a shared national identity, and why were they so influential?

Roy Doron and Toyin Falola

Though Sozaboy is his most critically acclaimed work, Basi and Company is probably his most influential body of work, at least in Nigeria. It was both a commercial and cultural success, in no small part due to the almost complete absence of ethnicity in the entire series.

Saro-Wiwa used Basi and his screwball supporting cast to let Nigerians laugh at aspects of their life that they could immediately recognize regardless of whether they lived in a remote part of the Niger Delta or the major metropolises of Lagos or Kano. In its five-year run, the show tackled issues of corruption and Nigerians’ penchant for get-rich-quick schemes.

As testament to Saro-Wiwa’s desire to reach as broad an audience as possible, Basi used proper English, as opposed to the pidgin in Sozaboy. Sozaboy, on the other hand, largely made him well-known in literary circles outside of Nigeria and helped him forge the connections that he would need later in his career, as he began his activist phase.

Basi and Company also proved to be a financial boon for Saro-Wiwa, as the program always ended with a reference to Saros, and people could readily buy novelizations, children’s books, and other material based on the show.

Portia Roelofs

While much has been written about the patronage networks that emerge in petrostates, a neglected consequence is the way oil dependence makes calls for environmental protection being treated as a direct threat to the ruling class. Under dictator Sani Abacha, the state reacted to the Ogoni mobilization with spectacular levels of violence.

Four years after Saro-Wiwa’s death, Nigeria transitioned back to democracy, and in the last two decades “corporate social responsibility” has become a buzzword for transnational oil companies. How has the state’s response to environmental destruction associated with the oil industry evolved?

Roy Doron and Toyin Falola

One of the main issues with Nigerian politics is that the Niger Delta oil is the source of nearly all government revenue. As such, any attempt to challenge that revenue and attempt to argue for more local control represents an existential threat to the government’s ability to maintain its revenue flow and sustain its staggering level of graft, theft, and corruption. Whether the Nigerian government is military or civilian, it will depend on the revenues from the oil industry for the foreseeable future and, as such, cannot afford to antagonize corporate interests.

Many of the oil companies today talk about corporate responsibility, and many of their apologists in the media and academia cheer Shell, Eni, and other oil companies’ initiatives to clean up their act after decades of devastation and collusion to pollute and destroy environments. However, much of the oil companies’ work is little more than public relations aimed at Western audiences and allaying investor guilt than actually making a difference to the communities impacted by years of oil spills, gas flaring, and systemic land dispossession.

Where able, those communities have been forced to use foreign court systems with varying degrees of success. In the United States, Shell successfully fought Ogoni plaintiffs in the Kiobel case all the way to the Supreme Court and changed the interpretation of the Alien Tort Claims Act to better suit corporate interests. In the Netherlands, environmental plaintiffs have had more successes, but these are long and costly battles that poor farmers generally cannot sustain.

Portia Roelofs

Though Saro-Wiwa wrote extensively about environmental destruction caused by oil spills and gas flaring directly, he said little about the effects of oil on global processes of ecosystem damage. Is ethnic mobilization able to engage with these issues which play out on local, national, and global levels?

Roy Doron and Toyin Falola

Most ethnic mobilization is local by nature, and the Ogoni are no exception. Saro-Wiwa was able to mobilize over half of the Ogoni, and in doing so garnered the world’s attention. Local groups, especially in developing areas, usually suffer the brunt of the environmental destruction because of weak state control and collusive corruption with the oil companies.

Also, when Saro-Wiwa began his activism, issues like global warming did not factor into the global discussion on the use of petro-fuels. These issues have evolved since Saro-Wiwa’s murder, and local groups have been at the forefront of fighting on local and global levels. The Dakota Access Pipeline protest movement [led by indigenous people in the United States] is a clear indication that local groups with a strong ethnic component can bring their concerns to global audiences and have an impact.

However, the same protest also failed precisely because the system has been increasingly supporting moneyed interests at the expense of local environmental and human rights concerns. As such, these movements succeed in garnering attention, but the coercive nature of the state is still squarely in the pocket of corporate interests.

Portia Roelofs

What are the prospects for an emancipatory environmental politics in Nigeria today?

Roy Doron and Toyin Falola

The political situation in Nigeria is very problematic because of the government’s reliance on oil for its continued survival. Any attempt to change the oil companies’ ability to work there as cheaply as possible (with all the environmental destruction that ensues) or to divert oil revenue funds to more locally controlled actors will always be met with oppressive force.

The only organizations that have had even moderate successes in forcing the Nigerian government to enact any reforms are those like MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) that have resorted to violence, either in disrupting the oil supply itself or holding workers for ransom.

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Roy Doron is associate professor of history at Winston-Salem State University.

Toyin Falola is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin and has written and edited over a hundred books.

Portia Roelofs is an activist and a junior research fellow in politics and political thought at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

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