Profile: Owens Wiwa
January 11, 2002 / New Internationalist
‘We all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial… its day will surely come.’
Eight years after the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, his final words to the Nigerian Military Tribunal that sentenced him and eight other Ogoni activists to be hanged in 1995 are coming true.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was leader of the Movement for Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), who fought for self-determination in the face of the military dictatorship in Nigeria, and against oil companies like Shell who were drilling for oil on indigenous lands.
After years of being stalled by Shell’s lawyers, a US Federal Judge has ruled that the giant oil company must face in a US court the charges brought by Ken Saro-Wiwa’s surviving relatives of complicity in his detention, trial and hanging as well as related human-rights abuses.
‘I am fighting for my brother’s name to be cleared,’ Dr Owens Wiwa says. ‘I want it to be known that he was a man of peace, a man who gave his life so that those struggling against corporate power can do so without being killed.’
Shell went to great lengths to get the case dismissed, taking it all the way to the US Supreme Court. But what were they so afraid of? ‘Primarily we want to clear Ken’s name,’ Dr Wiwa explains, ‘but there is no way we can do that without also exposing the atrocities that Shell has committed. For the truth to come out, the activities of this company will have to be exposed to the whole world.’ The plaintiffs are now entitled to gather evidence by interviewing Shell employees and gaining access to company documents.
Shell might well fear such scrutiny. According to a New York Times investigation, in 1993 Shell not only transported but paid salary bonuses to soldiers taking part in attacks on the Ogoni after claims that they had sabotaged Shell equipment. The officers killed 2,000 Ogoni people and destroyed 30 villages. Shell subsequently pulled out of the oilfields in the mid-1990s claiming that the local resistance made operations too dangerous.
As a physician in Nigeria, Dr Wiwa had first-hand experience of repression. He treated and documented diseases caused by oil-industry pollution and the injuries of victims of the military dictatorship. As a result, he was arrested and detained by the military government three times and on one occasion tortured. After the execution of his brother he and his wife sought asylum in Canada.
He revisited Ogoniland in 1999, and his account of it shows that justice has yet to be done. ‘People were very visibly proud that they were able to drive one of the biggest transnational corporations in the world off their land,’ he recalls, ‘but I also could see that there was a lot of poverty. Shell had not cleared up any of the spillages, and the pipelines were still on the surface; they had not been buried.’
‘The gas flares, however, had gone. The Ogoni had put a stop to those. Compared to a few years earlier, when Ken was still alive, the trees were green again due to the fact that there was no more oil drilling going on. But the people were so poor, and the inner anger against Shell was visible in their faces. You could see it in their eyes when the name Shell was mentioned. People in the region had been abused, raped, beaten, tortured. Still there had been no redress, no compensation for the human-rights abuse and the destruction of the environment. But the people are still very resolute and said that they did not want Shell ever to come back to Ogoniland.’
However, says Dr Wiwa, ‘Shell has made a lot of moves to divide people – to get some in the community on their side so that they will help Shell back into Ogoniland. There is a lot of bribery going on, especially of key people like chiefs, to use their influence to invite Shell back. But the women especially, the women will not be bought over.’
Women, he says, have always been at the forefront of the campaign against Shell. ‘In Ogoniland we used the method of the human shield – a simple, non-violent human shield. Often it is the women who stand at the forefront. We use the biggest resource we have – humans – to prevent the oil companies from getting access to their weapons of mass destruction used to drill the earth for oil.’
Shell has attempted to reposition itself as a socially responsible company and claims to have built many community-development projects in the region. Yet, according to Dr Wiwa: ‘There is a big disconnect between the brand and the reality. When I was in Ogoniland I did not see the community development of which they speak. I saw new roads built by Shell, but these ringed the Shell facilities and served only themselves. The community-development priorities of the Ogoni are to clean up the polluted land, the polluted rivers, so that they may be used once more for farming and fishing. So that ill-health may be tackled, so that the people are no longer drinking polluted water. And so that they will not be malnourished because they can once more get the protein they need from the fish in the rivers.’ His hope is that ‘the court case will clear the clouds for everybody to see.’
The doctor takes inspiration from legal precedents such as the success of Jewish litigants who sued German companies for taking the assets of their families during the Second World War. And the Wiwa family may themselves be helping to beat a path for others seeking justice. In a landmark judgment a US federal appeals panel ruled in September 2002 that the oil company UNOCAL could be held liable in US courts for aiding and abetting human-rights violations committed in Burma. Though nothing can bring back those Ogoni, including his brother, who died, Dr Owens Wiwa believes what is under way is nothing less than a ‘paradigm shift in the way business is being held to account by people’. And that gives him hope.
Politics of Bones – Dr Owens Wiwa and the Environmental Wars in the Niger Delta, detailing anti-globalization actions in the Niger Delta in full, will be published in November 2003.
Dr Owens Wiwa talked with Katharine Ainger