Supporters of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa Tuesday marked the 20th anniversary of his execution, with the country’s main human rights body calling for a posthumous pardon. Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the General Sani Abacha junta after a three-member tribunal convicted him and eight of his colleagues in a secret trial over their alleged involvement in the killing of four prominent chiefs in the Ogoniland region of southern Nigeria.
He always denied involvement and the executions on November 10, 1995 triggered an international outcry and sanctions against Nigeria, including a four-year suspension from the Commonwealth.
According to AFP, Several days of celebrations, including church services, poetry readings, music concerts and candlelit processions, culminated in a memorial rally in Ogoniland’s main town of Bori yesterday.
But many in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, where farming and fishing have been hit by repeated spills, say the concerns Saro-Wiwa highlighted have gone unaddressed in the last two decades.
“Government has done little or nothing to assuage the sufferings of the Ogoni people or address their complaints,” said Ledum Mitee, who was Saro-Wiwa’s deputy in the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).
A 2011 UN environment agency report recommended that the Nigerian government and oil giant Shell clean up Ogoniland, but last week rights groups said both had still failed to act.
“Even after the execution, the poverty level in Ogoniland is still high,” Mitee, who was acquitted at the 1995 trial, told AFP.
“People still… face challenges of water, decent living and environmental pollution, devastation of farmland and gas flaring.”
Amnesty International’s Nigeria director M.K. Ibrahim described the lack of development in 20 years as a “heartbreaking tragedy”.
The secret trial and conviction of Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues and the failure to allow an appeal led to calls of “judicial murder” against Nigeria’s then-military regime headed by the late Abacha.
A retired army colonel, Hammed Ali, sat on the tribunal. Nigeria’s current President Muhammadu Buhari recently appointed him head of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS).
Yesterday, the head of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, Chidi Odinkalu, said it was beyond doubt the trial was “deeply flawed” and “unsafe” as due process was not followed.
Confirmation of the verdict should have gone to the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC), the ruling junta at the time for consideration before capital punishment was carried out, he said in an email.
A posthumous pardon for the writer and environmental activist was the only way to restore the integrity of the state that “breached its own laws to procure a killing”, he added.
Britain’s newspaper last week said a memorial sculpture of a bus inscribed with the words “I accuse the oil companies of…” was sent as a gift to mark the anniversary of the execution.
But customs officials in Lagos refused to release it, citing its “political value”.
In Bori, Mitee described the 20th anniversary as one of “sober reflection”, not only for his colleagues but his own brush with death.
“I attended the candlelight procession for the late heroes yesterday night (Monday). I am keeping to myself today to reflect on my life and the struggle,” he added.
For Hossanna Kpniem, an Ogoni activist, the daily struggle has hit the campaign for development in the region.
“Primary to me now is the fight to fill my stomach,” she said.
Saatah Nubari, another Ogoni activist, blamed the current leaders of Ogoniland for failing to build on Saro-Wiwa’s struggle.
In a related development, five environmental rights groups have called on the federal government to set a $100 billion clean up and restoration fund for the entire Niger Delta region to tackle the devastation of the region as a result of oil exploration activities.
The groups: Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Friends of the Earth International (FoEI), the Social Integrated Development Centre (Social Action), the Ogoni Solidarity Forum (OSF) and MOSOP, made the demand yesterday at a joint press conference in Port Harcourt as part of activities marking the 20th anniversary of the hanging of Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogonis.
Speaking on behalf of the groups, Executive Director of ERA, Dr. Godwin Ojo, also called on President Buhari to order officials of the customs service to release the seized Kenule Saro-Wiwa memorial bus.
They also called for the immediate and comprehensive implementation of the recommendations of the report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on Ogoni.
“While we support the initial take off grant of $1 billion as recommended by the UNEP for the clean up and restoration of the Ogoni environment, we also demand a $100 billion clean up and restoration fund for the entire Niger Delta.
“The federal government’s recent promise of $10 million for the clean up process in Ogoniland is a good step. However, the continuous foot-dragging in commencing the implementation proper sustains the deprivation and suffering of the affected Ogoni communities.
“We still believe that while the governing council requires enlargement to incorporate civil society, Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP), an administrative unit under the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, cannot be the institution for the implementation of the UNEP report.
“We demand a comprehensive implementation of the UNEP report and it must commence immediately. The clean up must go hand-in-hand with relief materials and adequate compensation for the killings and loss of livelihoods these past decades,” the groups said.
They also wondered why the memorial bus, a sculpture depicting the struggles of late Saro-Wiwa, was withheld by the customs, while every effort aimed at getting the monument released had not yielded meaningful results.
Ojo said: “It is an irony that a sculpture depicting the struggles of Ken Saro-Wiwa on a bus is being withheld by the Nigerian Custom Service with every effort to get the monument released failing so far.”
The leader of Ogoni Solidarity Front, Mr. Celestine Akpobari, in response to a question, also called on the customs service in Lagos and the federal government to release the seized Ogoni martyrs’ memorial artifact, warning that supporters would be forced to shut down all oil installations in Ogoniland if their request is not met.