I’d been following the story of nine activists who were days away from death over what seemed to be the duration of one week; I was ten years old. Before the days when the Internet was widely available, the News and my parents’ conversations were my sole sources of information fuelling my hungry, little mind.
I will never forget watching the live coverage, 21 years ago this month, knowing that within just a few minutes one man and his fellow activists were to be hanged. I wept and shouted at the TV whilst my mum sat static with horror.
This news story played out in my conscience repeatedly for days, months, years later in a way like no other had. At the time, I couldn’t fully articulate the depths of what I felt, but in retrospect, it was significant because it was one my earliest recollections of evil operating at an institutional ( global ) level.
With baited breath my family and I watched the News that evening hopeful of a last minute reprieve. It didn’t come. Despite outrage from the ‘international’ community, the Nigerian government remained defiant; death by hanging, an effective deterrent to any potential ‘upstarts’ seeking to challenge the status quo.
The murdered activists were known as the Ogoni nine; the leader, Mr Ken Saro-Wiwa.
His death had a profound personal impact for a number of reasons beyond the obvious injustice. It was the first time I had publicly witnessed, in my own lifetime, someone (previously alive) possess an ideal for which they were literally prepared to die and did. It also resonated due to its proximity; despite being geographically thousands of miles away from our London home, my mother’s family originate from the very region it all happened – the Niger Delta.
Weeks after the execution, I had to write a piece at primary school about my hero. I had no hesitation in writing about Mr Saro-Wiwa. I remember passionately scribbling down my thoughts, raw emotion, etched on paper. I have no recollection of what I wrote except that it resonated with my peers and my teacher. Today, 21 years later, he still remains one of my ‘heroes’ – a term I do not use lightly. And like then, today I write this piece in remembrance of him.
For years the oil company, Royal Dutch Shell, had been extracting oil from the Niger Delta – profiting millions if not billions of pounds to the detriment of local communities.
Spillages were commonplace causing irreversible damage to the local environment and ecosystems. Rivers were poisoned for profit – destroying the main source of livelihood for many of the Ogoni people. Thousands have been harmed both directly and indirectly; death, a common consequence of their operations.
The full extent of the damage caused will never be fully known but there is sufficient evidence to show serious human rights abuses occurred.
Mr Saro-Wiwa was one of, if not, the most prominent voice drawing the world’s attention to the environmental crisis in his native Ogoniland. And clearly to great effect; such that he, along with members of the Ogoni leadership (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) and many other ordinary citizens, were subjected to a horrific campaign of harassment, murder and intimidation.
Last year Shell promised to pay out £55million pounds in an out-of- court settlement to communities affected by the oil spills in the Delta region. They have also since publicly acknowledged the human right abuses caused… its a sort of ‘progress’ I suppose.
The story is far from finished but there are encouraging developments demonstrating Mr Saro-Wiwa’s sacrifice was not in vain, nor the countless other victims, whose blood cries out from the Niger Delta soil.