Ken Saro-Wiwa – October 10 commemoration – World Day Against the Death Penalty wrap-up

Contribution by Ursula Wöll

October 10 is the “International Day against the Death Penalty.” What an irony: On October 10, the Nigerian civil rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa would have turned 80. If the military dictatorship had not hanged him in 1995 at the age of 54, hanged together with eight comrades-in-arms. They had protested by peaceful means against the ecological destruction of the Niger Delta by the Shell oil company. The broken Niger Delta is the world’s most glaring example of how oil as a raw material destroys the environment even as it is extracted.

The Niger Delta in Nigeria’s south is larger than Switzerland and very densely populated for a rural area. Discovered in 1956, oil became a curse for farmers and fishermen, as the extraction of crude oil by Royal Dutch Shell and Shevron soon devastated the delta to such an extent that the life expectancy of the people living there plummeted. Ken Saro-Wiwa was born in the Niger Delta, became a journalist, author and a filmmaker known in his homeland, then also winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize in 1994 because of his commitment. This was directed against the ecological destruction of his homeland.

Oil production destroys nature

He founded the MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni) and was thus at the forefront of the protest. Since he himself belonged to the Ogoni tribe, he found the strongest support among them. “The multinational oil companies, namely Shell and Chevron have destroyed our environment and economy, flared gas in our villages for thirty years, caused contamination through oil leaks, blowouts and so on,” was how he repeatedly justified the people’s protests. “The Ogoni have been threatened and endangered since oil was discovered in their area in 1958. Plants, wildlife and fish populations are being destroyed, air and water polluted, and the land is dying. Today, Ogoni has degenerated into wasteland.” This is true of the entire densely populated delta with its 6 million inhabitants, of which the Ogoni are only a part.

Criticism was also directed at the Nigerian state then and still is today. Its laws were said to be too lax, and even the few that existed were violated because the authorities hardly controlled their observance. No wonder, since the corrupt government itself profits from the ruthless exploitation. The Niger Delta is also the backbone of Nigeria’s national budget, as the largest oil-producing region in all of Africa. But the oil companies continue to pocket the billions in profits, while the population of the delta is increasingly impoverished because farming and fishing have become almost impossible.

Life is a universal human right

After the death sentences on Ken Saro-Wiwa and his comrades-in-arms were passed in a show trial in 1995 and executed in Port Harcourt just ten days later, DIE ZEIT No. 47 of 1995 headlined a report by its Africa correspondent Bartholomäus Grill with the title “Shell and Co. are killing us”. Ken Saro-Wiwa is said to have strode to the gallows with his head held high because he believed in future success. But it was not until the spring of 2021 that a court in The Hague, the headquarters of Royal Dutch Shell, finally upheld the claims of some farmers from the Niger Delta. They had been supported for years by Friends of the Earth. The oil company is now to pay a sum of millions in compensation and end the contamination of the delta by replacing the old rusty pipes. The mills of justice also grind slowly with regard to the abolition of the death penalty. Every now and then a small country decides to do so, but except in China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, state killing continues unabated in the United States. There is a task awaiting our new administration. It must repeatedly point out to our allies in Washington that they are violating a human right and insist on the abolition of the death penalty in the USA.

Ursula Wöll is a member of the German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and gave us permission to put this article, first published by her in the “Landbote“, online on our website as well.


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