Nigerian activist speaks out

By Mike Bowerman

Dr. Owen Wiwa learned more about the power of money and the oil industry than he ever wanted to know when his brother Ken Sero-Wiwa, a prominent critic of the oil industry, was publicly hung by the Nigerian military in 1995. A prisoner of the military on three occasions, the doctor-turned-activist now brings light to injustices heaped on the people of Nigeria for the sake of corporate profit, lecturing to audiences around the world about his experiences. As coordinator for the "Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People," Wiwa brought his message to the University of Calgary campus where he received a standing ovation from a crowd of hundreds of activists and concerned citizens inspired by his fight against Royal Dutch/Shell Petroleum.

The Ogoni claim that oil spills on cropland, ground-level flaring of gas near their homes, water pollution and other environmental abuses were destroying their people. Organization against the pervasive oppression brought a brutal backlash from the government, which claimed at least 2,000 lives. Yet the Ogoni persisted in using systematic tactics of direct, non-violent action and eventually Shell left the region. With billions of dollars worth of oil in Nigeria still untapped, Shell is considering a return, and the Ogoni fear that this return will result in more pollution and lost lives.

In a candid interview on Sat., June 10, Dr. Wiwa shed light on the problems facing his people.

Gauntlet: What went on in Nigeria that created the need for MOSOP?

Wiwa: One, the political system did not recognize the rights of minorities like the Ogonis. Two, the environmental racism and prejudice by Shell that did not pay attention to the right to a good environment, [and] deprived us of our livelihood as farmers and fishermen. When we tried litigation and other individual means of complaint the company ignored it.

G: After MOSOP organized the Ogoni in nonviolent resistance and protest, the military intervened. What activities were the military involved in?

W: The systematic abuse of rights–freedom of expression, freedom of association, they arrested people habitually and tortured [them]. They killed–they just shoot at you if you are protesting. They raped women, they extorted money from households and individuals. All those systematic abuses of rights culminated in the hanging of my brother, an activist. Those are the patterns of abuse that the military tried to use to suppress legitimate agitation for our rights.

G: Shell says they are not responsible for what the military does and that they did not have any direct involvement. How do you respond?

W: I would say that is not correct, because the first military act of violence, of human rights abuse in Ogoni, was as a response to a Shell request that they should come. We have documents that show that Shell brought arms into the country and we also have documents, that Shell have accepted, that they did pay some of the military officers who took part in these violations of rights.

G: Families from other regions of Nigeria are suing Chevron for deaths that were a result of military activity alleged to have taken place through the support of the company. Is your family or other Ogoni considering a similar course against Shell?

W: Since 1993 when the military repression started, an Ogoni person cannot even attempt to take Shell to court in Nigeria. Those who have been driven to exile–their first thought is just how to survive in the West; they think about how to get away from the psychology of fear, from physical insecurity. Going to court as a first option is not what people think about.

In Nigeria there is still repression of the Ogoni people. To talk about taking Shell to court is a way to get in prison. The average Ogoni’s relationship with the justice system has not been a very positive one. Even here in Canada and America I don’t look at the justice system as somewhere that I can go to get justice.

G: Do you feel that public protest in Canada, like what’s going on at the World Petroleum Congress, is going to help people in Nigeria?

W: It’s wonderful. It’s going to make the companies take another look. They can’t get away with murder or with destruction of the environment over there that they would never do here. This is a pointer to the oil companies that people over here, even the consumers, are watching what they are doing. In that way, it will indirectly lead to the survival of a few trees or freedom for one or two people in Nigeria.

G: Many people in the Calgary community take these protests personally. They consider a protest against oil as a sort of protest against them if they work in the oil industry. What would you say to them and to students who might be considering a career in the industry?

W: I mentioned in my speech, when I knew that there were lots of people that were listening that might end up in the oil industry, I was happy. Once they make that decision to work there, they will take environmental and human rights externalities into that decision-making process. In the short run, the Calgary population might have concern about our intentions, or their future and these protests. I think, in the long run, it’s for their own freedom. Freedom in their minds, whether they have done the best that they can in putting environmental and human rights protections in place where they work.

We are not against the creation of wealth; we are only saying that, as you create this wealth, don’t kill people or don’t use processes that will lead to people having less quality of life for your own employment. We should work together at making the world a better place for us all, both the physical things we get and the emotional things we think inside about what we are doing.

G: You were detained on three occasions by the military. What were those experiences like?

W: The initial time, I just took it as the price that one has to pay for the freedom to have a good environment. By the second detention, they had killed some people. I said, ‘hey, I’m only detained–some people are dead.’ So I took that more lightly.

G: What sort of conditions would make it possible for you to go back to Nigeria?

W: Once Shell does not make any overtures that it wants to go back to Ogoni then it will be safe, because the only way companies like Shell can go back to Ogoni is when we are dead. As long as they want to go back, I am under threat.

G: Is MOSOP affiliated with any efforts to liberate the rest of the Niger Delta?

W: MOSOP activists are working with some groups in the Niger Delta, but not all, [just] the groups who are taking the direct nonviolent actions that we prefer. The groups that have as a goal the survival of their plants, of their trees, of clear water, we are working directly and indirectly with them.

G: Are you going to be joining the protests?

W: I am going to protest tomorrow.

Leave a comment