All Lives Institute
All Lives Institute

The Ogoni (HIIN=29)

The Ogoni, 850,000 strong, live in Ogoniland in the Rivers State of the Niger Delta. They work in agriculture and fishing and cultivate palm oil. They practice Christianity (mostly Protestant) and animism - worshiping their river as a god (as we Celts did). They operate a political hierarchy: the Gbenemene, or 'king', rules over the kingdom. The Mene Bua, or 'high chief', rules over a group of villages/towns. The Mene Buen, or 'chief', governs a single village/town. A 'lower chief' or Mene Zeu rules subdivisions of this.

When Royal Dutch Shell began oil extraction in 1958, in Ogoniland, Nigeria was still (and for a further 2 years) an English colony. Over 15 years, an estimated 2.1m barrels of oil were spilled (40% of the global oil spills by Shell), damaging the environment and people's livelihoods.

In 1990, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a poet and writer, and eight others, led a campaign against the plunder of Ogoni resources. The Movement for Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) was established and it joined Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO). The Movement sought economic development and autonomy. They produced an Ogoni Bill of Rights, addressed to and ignored by the Nigerian Government, demanding $6bn for social and economic recovery and $4bn to address environmental destruction. Reflecting overwhelming incidences of lung cancer, asthma and bronchitis, an excerpt reads:

"The Ogoni people want.. Freedom from oppressive and discriminatory Nigerian laws. Freedom from Shell's ecological war that sends over 200 Ogonis to untimely graves every week".

In 1993, MOSOP mobilised over half the Ogoni people, in peaceful marches, to demand a share of oil revenue, greater political autonomy and other rights. It was the call for self-determination which led Shell and the Nigerian Government to see MOSOP as a threat. Over 4,000 Ogoni were killed in the years following 1993, from state-sponsored terrorism. Many leaders of MOSOP were killed in violent clashes. Official policy set factions of the Ogoni The United Nations Environmental Programme's (UNEP) Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland, which was published in 2011, noted that restoring the environment would take decades.

Fisheries and agricultural land in Ogoniland were destroyed by oil spills. Associated fires killed vegetation, leaving a crust of ash and tar, making soil recovery difficult. Furthermore, the Ogoni were exposed to high concentrations of hydrocarbons in the air, water and land. Gaseous fractions of crude were burned off, with gas flaring, which put toxic pollutants into the atmosphere. Groundwater was contaminated with carcinogens. High rates of infant mortality have persisted, for example, with 4 out of 10 children dying within 3 months of being born.

A military crackdown began in May, 1994, when four pro-government Ogoni leaders were killed, in disputed circumstances. The Nigerian Government arrested Ken Saro Wiwa and his colleagues - Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel and John Kpuine. They were imprisoned, at Bori Military Camp, for a year. They were declared guilty by a tribunal and hanged, in November 1995. Many witnesses against the Ogoni Nine during their trial, later recanted, admitting to accepting Nigerian Government bribes and employment with Shell.

The Rivers State Internal Security Task Force (a military unit) then embarked on raids on Ogoni villages, with human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shooting, arbitrary arrests, floggings, rapes, looting and extortion. Military checkpoints were established across Ogoniland. Suspected members of MOSOP were arrested. Many of those taken in were never seen again. Shell was alleged to have provided the Nigerian army with vehicles, patrol boats and ammunition and to have helped plan raids and terror campaigns.

Beginning in 1996, the Wiwa family brought three lawsuits against Shell, its subsidiary Shell Nigeria and the subsidiary's CEO Brian Anderson, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, under the Alien Tort Statute, the Torture Victim Protection Act and Racketeer-influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The lawsuits were filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and co-counsel from EarthRights International. Finally, in 2002, the Supreme Court reversed a previous dismissal, ruling that the plaintiffs could proceed. In 2005, the Nigerian federal high court judge ruled that the gas flaring in the Niger Delta violated the rights to life, health, and dignity of the region's residents. Oil accounted for 80% of Nigeria's export income at the time. After 12 years of Shell petitioning courts not to hear the cases, they were heard, in 2009. {The Irish Corrib Gas Field (Co Mayo) also evoked controversy about Shell operations.}

In June 2009, the court case of Saro-Wiwa Vs Shell reached a $15.5m settlement. The oil giant agreed to pay $15.5m (9.6m pounds) to settle a legal action in which it was accused of having -collaborated in the execution of the poet, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight Ogoni leaders. The settlement, reached on the eve of a trial in a federal court in New York, was one of the largest payouts by a multinational corporation.

Out of the $15.5m settlement, $5m was used to set up a trust called Kiisi - meaning 'progress' - to support developmental initiatives in the Niger Delta, including education in the Ogoni languages: Khana, Gokhana, Eleme and Tae, which form a distinct Benue-Congo linguistic group.

Media reports, in 1999, indicated that MOSOP is still fighting for economic justice and human rights - including the right to choose how their land and resources are used - and a future free from violence.