IN PRISON WITH KEN SARO-WIWA


On Wednesday 13 August 1997 the Human Rights Action Group hosted Ledum Mitee, internationally renowned Nigerian activist, and former cell-mate of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Brought to New Zealand through a Body Shop initiative, Mitee gave a public talk about the situation in Nigeria since Saro-Wiwa’s death in 1995.

Who is Ledum Mitee?

Ledum Anazur Mitee, a barrister, is from Kegbara Dere in Gokana, an area of Ogoni - one of the sites for oil exploitation in the Niger delta. Since Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death on November 10 1995, Mitee has been the Acting President of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).

Mitee was detained in a cell with Saro-Wiwa and fifteen other Ogoni activists for over a year, sharing the same false charges of incitement to murder for the assassination of four prominent Ogonis in 1994, and facing the same military tribunal. All were in detention for nine months before going on trial for a further eight months.

At the tribunal, Mitee defended himself and to the surprise of all was acquitted along with six others. Ken Saro-Wiwa and the remaining eight Ogoni activists who had also been tried alongside Mitee were not so fortunate, and were sentenced to death by hanging.

Mitee has a long history of community work and activism. As Acting President of MOSOP he continues to run the movement underground in Nigeria, as well as travelling the world to raise awareness of the plight of the Ogoni people and the issues surrounding Shell’s involvement in Nigeria.

What is MOSOP?

The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) is a democratic organisation run by a steering committee drawn from various groups in the Ogoni community including teachers, doctors, youth and women.

MOSOP was formed in 1990 when the Ogoni people drafted the Ogoni Bill of Rights and presented it to the Nigerian government demanding rights to representation, religious freedom, and the right to protect their own environment. Failing to receive an adequate response from the government, they took their case to the world community and the oil companies that were involved in the devastation of their region.

MOSOP is a member organisation of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO). UNPO requires its member organisations to take a non-violent stance on campaigning and resolving conflicts.

Ogoni

Ogoni is an area in the Niger delta which is smaller than the province of Canterbury. It is home to a small ethnic minority of people called Ogonis who number around 400 000 - 500 000. Ogonis therefore only make up half a percent of the population of Nigeria. Since 1993 over 2000 Ogonis have been killed in the struggle against Nigeria’s oppressive military regime and the destructive presence of oil companies in the region, especially Shell.

Traditionally farmers and fishermen, the Ogoni people used to provide not only themselves with food, but also much of the surrounding area. However, since the 1950s when oil exploration began in Ogoni, the resulting environmental destruction has drastically altered the lives of the Ogonis and the entire ecology of the area. Acid rain now falls destroying the crops, water courses are polluted and pipelines run through villages and across farmland.

Despite mounting evidence of environmental degradation, Shell officials have gone as far as to declare that "the delta is not and never will be an area devastated by the industry", using as evidence to back this up the claim that "it is possible to drive for miles without a single indication that this (Ogoni) is a huge oil region." Environmental experts claim otherwise.

In mid-April 1997, a small team of local and international observers conducted soil and water tests at several locations throughout the delta, including Ogoni. They discovered drinking water that indicated levels of dissolved hydrocarbons that are up to a staggering 680 times higher than levels allowed in the European Community, Shell’s home.

In 1993, Shell Nigeria and MOSOP failed to come to agreement over Shell’s actions in the area and possible compensation for the devastation. Shell temporarily withdrew of its own accord in response to local dissatisfaction. Since then a lot of water has passed under the bridge. Military pressure has heightened, activists and other innocent civilians have been targeted, and in many cases killed, and MOSOP has been forced underground.

At Shell’s Annual General Meeting in 1996, it was announced that Shell would not return to Ogoni unless "invited". Numerous reports have emerged indicating that members of the Rivers State Internal Security task Force have been forcing - often at gun point - citizens, chiefs, and prisoners to sign statements "inviting" Shell to return. As Shell plans its return to Ogoni, it is expanding operations in the rest of Nigeria.

Widely-publicised and expensive "commitments" were made by Shell in 1996 to clean up all oil spills in the region and rehabilitate some of its community projects. Ledum Mitee recently stated that the effects of this operation can hardly be seen. Pipelines still criss-cross communities, oil spills are frequent and pollution is hundreds of times higher than standards in Europe.

The Nigerian Government

Nigeria is currently governed by a military dictatorship which rules through the issue of edicts which have full power under Nigerian law. Today areas such as Ogoni are in effect militarised zones and freedoms of assembly, speech and non-violent protest are almost unknown.

In 1995 Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth after widespread condemnation and outrage over the military regime and the activities of Shell. Since its suspension, the regime has failed to talk to those in opposition and it has continued to harass and detain opposition leaders. Ledum Mitee declared in May of this year, "we refuse to negotiate at gunpoint", demanding demilitarisation and freedom of assembly as prerequisites for a settlement with Shell.

New Zealand is on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group which in October is reporting back to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Edinburgh. This group is responsible for detailing the situation in Nigeria and making recommendations for its future Commonwealth status. The British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, recently commented that Nigeria has not taken the steps towards the restoration of democracy that would allow the Commonwealth suspension to be lifted.

Shell’s part in the action

"Shell has waged an ecological war in Ogoni since 1958. An ecological war is highly lethal, the more so as it is unconventional. It is omicidal in its effect. Human life, flora, fauna, the air, fall at its feet, and finally, the land itself dies...Generally it is supported by all the traditional instruments ancillary to warfare - propaganda, money, and deceit. Victory is assessed by profits, and in this sense, Shell’s victory in Ogoni has been total." (Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1996)

Shell is the principal oil company operating in Nigeria. Over the last 39 years it has extracted an estimated $30 billion worth of oil from Ogoni, an area that produces just 3% of Nigeria’s oil. Shell provides Nigeria’s military dictatorship with almost half its annual income, as well as providing logistical support to the regime.

Shell Police for example, are an elite detachment of Nigerian police who are paid by and take orders from Shell. They have been used to guard installations, divide communities and suppress peaceful protest. Shell has also admitted that it provided transport for security forces on two occasions that involved loss of Ogoni life. Shell has also been accused of turning communities against each other and bribing witnesses to testify against environmental activists.

"New Shell" rhetoric has been criticised by activists who point to the gap between real action, and talk about business principles and a commitment to human rights and environmental protection. This year shareholders at Shell’s Annual Meeting had a unique opportunity to pass a resolution establishing internal and external review processes of the Group’s environmental policies. However, Shell’s directors unanimously recommended that the resolution be rejected, and it duly was. Significantly, 12% of Shell’s shareholders supported the resolution.

As mounting pressure from the international community grows for Shell to develop sound ethical policies to act as a foundation for its activities, the Shell parent companies are currently being sued in the United States for their crimes in Nigeria. The charges include summary execution, torture, wrongful death, and crimes against humanity.

The Ogoni 19

The Ogoni 19 are a group of Ogoni people who, like Ken Saro-Wiwa, face death by hanging because they sought social and environmental justice for the Ogoni people and their land by campaigning against Shell and the Nigerian military dictatorship. They are being held in a Nigerian prison in appalling conditions.

One of the Ogoni group has already died. The inmates are all afflicted by malnourishment, skin diseases, respiratory disorders and the effects of daily torture.

In a letter that was smuggled out of the prison to the Body Shop founders - Mr and Mrs Roddick - the Ogoni 19 described the conditions, "We are allowed to take a bath just twice a week from a well which was until recently a dumping pit for dead inmates and still contains human skeletons. This also is the source of our drinking water". The men were thrown into solitary confinement when news of the letter was reported to officials.

What’s next?

Ledum Mitee traveled through New Zealand and Australia to gain support for the Ogoni’s struggle. Pressure from people in New Zealand added to the growing international voice calling for the release of the Ogoni 19 and for positive change in Nigeria. Our efforts will also add to the pressure on Shell to improve its standards not only in Nigeria, but in the rest of the world.

From the gallows on November 10 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa offered a message of hope for those continuing to work for environmental and social justice, "Lord take my soul but the struggle continues."


Michelle Morum
Lucy Finlayson

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