The Ogoni Struggle in Nigeria

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Nigeria was a colony of Great Britain from the turn of the twentieth century until 1960. It is about 1/3 larger than the state of Texas, but is by far the most populous country in Africa with over 120 million people. There are about 250 distinct ethnic groups in the country, each with its own language. Perhaps ten million people from twelve major ethnic groups live in the Niger Delta. Among them are the Ogoni, a group of perhaps 500,000 who live right in the oil fields. Before proceeding, I want to point out that I use the term “ethnic group” rather than “tribe” quite deliberately. Perhaps Africans would feel better about the way Westerners use the term “tribe” if we also applied it to the European people in the former Yugoslavia or similar cases elsewhere. “Tribe” has a negative connotation implying “primitive.” Such conceptions immediately call up stereotypical conceptions of “tribal” warfare, negating the need for rigorous analysis of political and economic factors behind events.
Nigeria is the world’s eighth largest producer of oil, but most of its people remain poor, lacking running water, health care, and other social services. Counter-intuitively, oil riches often bring trouble rather than prosperity. Oil wealth is often kept in the hands of the few, a national elite allied with transnational corporations, such as Shell Oil in Ogoniland and Chevron in other areas of the Niger Delta. Mobil is also present in other areas of the country. Shell produces half of Nigeria’s oil, 14% of Shell’s worldwide production, $300 billion worth since 1958. As in other oil rich countries, US power has propped up successive dictatorships, i.e., governments friendly to transnational corporations and the Western powers. One of the most brutal military dictators, General Ibrahim Babangida, received military training in the US. The United States is Nigeria’s largest oil market, consuming 40% of Nigeria’s oil production. Nigeria is the fifth largest oil supplier to the US providing 10% of US needs. Nigeria is the largest US trading partner in Africa south of the Sahara.

The Ogoni Struggle
Great Britain completed its subjugation of Nigeria in 1906, but Shell Oil didn’t appear until 1958, two years before political independence. As other Nigerians, the Ogoni suffered through many military regimes. Repression intensified under General Babangida who took power in 1985. For example, the Etche community, neighbors of the Ogoni, suffered 80 killed and 495 houses burned down in 1990 for daring to protest around their environmental concerns.
The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) came to the fore around this time. This grassroots organization was led by one of Nigeria’s most famous writers, Ken Saro-Wiwa. MOSOP issued its Ogoni Bill of Rights in 1990, 1/3which called for community control over its own resources and autonomy over its own affairs. It looked like military rule would finally come to end when Moshood Abiola was elected on June 12, 1993 but General Sani Abacha took power instead. Abiola was eventually sent to prison and ended up dying there under very suspicious circumstances. Meanwhile the Ogoni people were still suffering the devastation of their polluted land. The Nigerian dictatorship was spending about $15 million per year on public relations in the United States, and organized propaganda tours for prominent African-Americans including Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun (a factor in her eventual election defeat).
Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP activists were convicted by secret military tribunal of killing some community leaders in 1995 on clearly fraudulent charges. They were sent to prison. Ken’s brother, Dr. Owens Wiwa, then met with Shell’s Managing Director, Brian Anderson. Shell’s role came out into the open when Anderson guaranteed saving Saro-Wiwa’s life if MOSOP would call off its campaign. Nelson Mandela called for the release of Saro-Wiwa and urged sanctions against Nigeria at the Commonwealth Conference. But on November 10, 1995, during the conference, Abacha had Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other eight MOSOP members executed. It was obvious that Abacha could not have cared less about international opinion. This led to a worldwide sanctions movement and Shell boycott, including in Champaign/Urbana. Members of our community picketed the Shell Gas Station, then on the corner of Green and Neil Streets. As with the current sweatshop movement, this is an example of local movements at the point of production working with local movements at the point of consumption, a necessary strategy in the globalized world. The main organizations promoting the struggle against Shell were Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and many churches. Unfortunately little changed for the Ogoni people. Abacha arranged for an illegal $500,000 contribution to Clinton election campaign in 1996 and the US adopted a policy of “constructive engagement,” just as President Reagan had done with South Africa where Shell had broken the oil embargo against the apartheid regime. Just as depicted in the Delta Force video, pipeline breaks continued, and some of them were actually caused by local people who siphoned off the oil to make a meager living. A 1998 pipeline valve break and subsequent fire killed 1000 people who were trying to retrieve oil while wading in it. Shell admitted spilling 50,200 barrels in 1998. Due to massive protests, Shell suspended it operations in Ogoniland, leaving its infrastructure intact and continuing operations in neighboring provinces. The assassination of dictator Abacha in 1998 led to calls for installation of Abiola, winner of the 1993 elections, as President. Abacha’s successor, General Abubakar offered freedom to Abiola, only on the condition that he give up his claim to the Presidency. Mysteriously, Abiola died during a visit from an official US delegation which had come to convince him to give up his election. The military explained his death as a heart attack. In May of the following year, 1999, another general, Olusegun Obasanjo, was elected in what most think was a fair election. With the promise of stability, US aid went from $7 million to $170 million per year. In 1999, Shell further damaged the Nigerian environment by spilling 123,377 barrels of oil. And it is still trying to resume its former operations in Ogoniland–and even to open new oil fields offshore. In April 2000, security forces killed 5 people and burned 20 homes during a peaceful protest against Shell’s attempt to resume operations. In June 2000, a court ordered $40 million compensation to Ebubu village for river pollution, but Shell is appealing. In August 2000, thugs attacked Korokoro village where Shell was trying to restart work. Federal troops destroyed Odi Town and killed 42 in November 2000. Another pipeline explosion killed 50 in December 2000. Finally, in November 2002, there was a community meeting with the Nigerian Government to negotiate a settlement for Ogoni claims. It remains to be seen whether or not the Government will honor the agreement.

Nigeria, International Oil Politics, and the “War on Terrorism”
The relationship between oil and “terrorism of course extends well beyond the terrorism directed against the Ogoni people by Nigerian dictators at the behest of the Nigerian elite and Shell Oil. Indeed, the Nigerian case is a great help in understanding the current world situation and the US “War against Terrorism.” The Caspian Sea in Central Asia may have more oil than the Persian Gulf. In 1995, Unocal Oil decided that it needed a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea, but the Taliban were not cooperative. Unocal Oil hosted Taliban delegates in Texas in 1997 and gave an initial $1 million for a job-training program in Kandahar. Unocal eventually spent about $20 million on this project, but they were hedging their bets by also hosting some of the Northern Alliance warlords. In 1998 testimony before the US Congress, a Unocal official said, “If the Taliban leads to stability and international recognition, then its positive.” A September 2001 US Energy Information Administration (a federal agency) document issued before September 11th noted Afghanistan’s key position for the needed pipeline in its first paragraph. Of course, oil doesn’t explain everything about the US war against Afghanistan, but it is an important component.
Postscript This article follows on a December 2001 IMC event, a benefit for the new Nigerian IMC. We had live African music and a showing of the video, Delta Force, about the struggle of the Ogoni people of Nigeria against Shell Oil and the Nigeria Government. For those who would like to see it, a copy of the video is available in the IMC Library at 218 W. Main St. in Urbana. Al Kagan is the African Studies Bibliographer at the University of Illinois Library.

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