Who was Ken Saro-Wiwa?
Ken Saro-Wiwa was born in 1941 as the eldest son in an Ogoni family. After leaving university he pursued an academic career and became the most outspoken environmental activist in the Niger Delta decrying the devastation of the land, air and water at the hands of rich corporations and complicit governmental authorities.
He was a writer, artist, journalist, and television producer and became the President of the Association of Nigerian Authors for three years until 1991, when he decided to devote himself entirely to the nonviolent struggles of his fellow Ogoni people.
He chose to fight using nonviolent resistance techniques such as poetry, prose and peaceful protest. Saro-Wiwa was able to mobilize the people of the Niger Delta to push for adequate representation and the preservation of their homeland, which was continuing to be destroyed by oil exploitation.
In 1994, Saro-Wiwa was given the Right Livelihood Award, often called the “alternative Nobel Prize”, along with three other environmental activists. The following year he was given the Goldman Environmental Foundation of California prize. It didn’t take long before the Nigerian government felt their economic interest in oil exploitation was being threatened by the growing movement of Saro-Wiwa and his followers.
In May 1994, a meeting took place which broke out in violent confrontation, and four of the elders were killed. Even though Saro-Wiwa had been barred from attending the meeting, he and 8 other Ogoni leaders were held responsible and arrested. A trial took place, though independent and international witnesses claim the various circumstances surrounding the proceedings strayed from the laws outlined in the Nigerian Constitution and international human rights law. Accused of murder and without legal counsel nor right to appeal, Saro-Wiwa and the other 8 Ogoni leaders, Baribor Bera, Saturday Doobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbokoo, Barinem Kiobel, John Kpuinen, Paul Levura and Felix Nuate were hanged on November 10th, 1995.
In 1996, several environmental rights organizations and various human rights attorneys brought lawsuits against Royal Dutch Shell and the Nigerian head of Shell operations. The trial finally took place in 2009 in New York, under the Alien Tort Statute, a 200 year old statute rarely used but which makes it possible to address egregious violations of human rights in US Federal Courts that have occurred outside of the US. Following repeated efforts by Shell to have the case dismissed, each of which were rejected, an out-of-court settlement was finally agreed upon in June 2009.