Nigeria: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


The Prisoners for Peace honour roll cannot include all the nonviolent social activists imprisoned in the pursuit of peace, freedom, and justice. Every year, however, WRI highlights one such struggle-this year, the focus is on nonviolent civil resistance to military rule in Nigeria.


When news of the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists spread to the world's press on Saturday 11 November, almost everybody shook their head in disbelief. International campaigners who had intensified their calls for the release of the prisoners; journalists who could not believe general Abacha would act so swiftly and publicly; heads of government at the Commonwealth summit in Auckland, among them Nelson Mandela, who only the day before had refused to call for immediate sanctions, arguing that "if persuasion does not succeed it will be time enough to consider other options". Those least likely to be surprised were probably the Nigerians themselves, who over 24 years of various military regimes have seen it all.

The Good ...

Clearly, Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) were prisoners of conscience and prisoners for peace. They had chosen nonviolent civil resistance to protest against the devastation of their land by foreign and national oil companies. They were demanding more autonomy-but not independence-for the Ogoni people and were becoming an increasingly painful thorn in the side of the military junta. Their struggle, and eventually their death, had everything to do with a goal shared by all pacifists, the demilitarisation of society.

The Bad ...

The four years of peaceful campaign against the environmental destruction of Ogoni land was met with savage repression by the Nigerian dictatorship. Human rights organisations report that since the cancellation of presidential elections in 1993 over 2000 Ogoni died during army raids on cities and villages and 30,000 people were expelled from their farms. The slaughter of civilians was usually blamed by their real instigators on inter-ethnic tensions. Environmental and pro-democracy activists from the region were also arbitrarily detained and routinely tortured.

The tensions culminated in the killing, by a mob, of four pro-government Ogoni elders in May 1994, for which Saro-Wiwa-who was nowhere near the murder scene-and other Ogoni leaders were immediately held responsible. They were detained without access to lawyers or doctors for nine months, shackled hand and foot, and repeatedly abused. The military-appointed Special Tribunal sentenced them to death in what was widely described as a judicial farce.

... and The Ugly

The main reason for such brutal handling of the protests is that MOSOP touched the army's rawest nerve-its source of cash. Nigeria derives over 90 per cent of its national income from the export of oil, and all governments have been keen to protect the vast economic interests of foreign oil companies. Leading them with a share of 50 per cent of the market is the British-Dutch Shell corporation.

Through its Nigerian sister company, Shell has been pumping oil from the Ogoni lands for the past 30 years. Far from benefitting the local economy, oil production has ruined the lives of many inhabitants by leaving a legacy of environmental disasters. The list runs from frequent oilspills-more than 220 of them have been registered on Shell facilities since 1989, spilling 1.2 million litres over the landscape-to air and water pollution and acid rain, causing respiratory deseases, cancer, and deformities.

The giant corporation has consistently refused to even consider environmental clean up operations or to pay compensation to the local population, arguing that this was the responsibility of the government. Not only that: When indigenous protests against ruthless oil drilling became too powerful, Shell called in the military governor's police for help. As they did not manage to silence the population, a special army unit moved in, causing widespread massacres.

Damage limitation

In the wake of the nine executions, and with the international spotlight turned on Shell's shared responsibility in the repression of the Ogoni people, the company has become engaged in a frantic damage limitation exercise. But whether this will be enough to diffuse the threat of an international boycott campaign by environmental and human rights organisations remains to be seen.

Foreign governments are also trying to shore up their image by vigorously condemning general Abacha-after having stubbornly stuck to a so-called "quiet diplomacy" path for months. Nigeria's two-year suspension from the Commonwealth can only be regarded as a rather timid reprimand. Given the huge economic interests involved, the sanctions that some consider the most efficient-a trade and oil embargo-are not likely to be agreed.

The choice of the best tools for re-establishing democracy should be decided by Nigerian activists themselves, but it is clear that the pro-democracy movement now needs international support more than ever. The dismissal of trade union leaders and the arbitrary imprisonments which have followed a wave of general strikes in 1994 have taken their toll, and the opposition inside the country has grown increasingly quiet.

The scope for international action is wide. Several organisations, such as Greenpeace International, Friends of the Earth, and the Ogoni Community Association, have decided to devise a common action campaign, a fact rare enough in itself to be noteworthy.

With human rights violations continuing in Nigeria, activists should be lobbying their governments to grant asylum to the growing flow of political refugees. In Britain, for example, the number of Nigerian asylum-seekers has jumped from about 50 a month before 1993 to between 400 and 500 currently. Yet the Home Office has refused all but one of the 2032 applications processed so far this year. It appears already to be operating a de facto "white list" of "safe countries" (which includes Nigeria, Turkey and Algeria!), ahead of the announcement of new asylum legislation expected during November.

Ogoni Community Association UK, Suite 5, 3-4 Albion Place, Galena Road, Hammersmith, London W6 0LT, England (+44 1903 844 244)

Greenpeace International, Keizersgracht 176, 1016 DW Amsterdam, Netherlands (tel +31 20 523 6222; fax 523 6200)

Friends of the Earth International Secretariat, PO Box 19199, 1000 GD Amsterdam, Netherlands (tel +31 20 622 1369; fax 639 2181; e-mail

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