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Struggling for autonomy

The discovery of oil in Ogoniland in 1958 has singularly been the worst event in Ogoni history. The intervention of Ken Saro Wiwa, in what had become a tragedy for Ogoni people, had a significant impact on a struggle which would lead to the judicial murder of nine Ogoni activists in 1995. 

The hanging of the Ogoni Nine marks a defining moment in Nigeria’s history. It was the moment when the line was crossed, even by the standards of Nigeria’s successive military dictatorships. If proof was ever needed of the corrupt and violent nature of Nigerian rulers, this was that moment. In 1992, Shell Petroleum Development Company (a joint venture with Elf and Agip) were responsible for nearly half of Nigeria’s oil production. Of the 94 oil fields [1], five were in Ogoniland.

The aim of the Ogoni people’s struggle against the dual tyrannies of the Nigerian state and Shell was to achieve an alternative to their existence as part of the Nigerian rentier state. Nigeria’s federal and highly militarized system was riddled with corruption and nepotism and had degenerated into a ‘cannibalistic vampire state.... a self-consuming predatory regime’ [2]  whose loyalties lay firmly with the multinationals, who were given free rein to abuse people and resources in their business of oil. 

The Ogoni were adamant that the federal government should no longer be the sole definer of all things Ogoni and that the oil companies should no longer be able to act with impunity, destroying the ecological system at will. In leading the struggle, Ken Saro Wiwa set himself on a direct collision course with three separate but interlinked opponents: the Nigerian state, Shell and, to a lesser but ultimately more significant extent, the Ogoni élite and the traditional rulers [3].
Saro Wiwa was therefore left with only the masses as his power base in the struggle for autonomy and self-determination. The first step was to reinvent and create a sense of what it meant to be an Ogoni person, and to build a cohesive and universal Ogoni identity, one that went beyond the divisions created by the six separate Ogoni Kingdoms – Babbe, Eleme, Gokana, Ken-Khana, Nyo-Khana, and Tai.   

The instruments for achieving change and for creating a new Ogoni identity were to be the Ogoni Bill of Rights and the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People [MOSOP], backed up with the mobilization of the Ogoni people. The Bill of Rights was written by Ken Saro Wiwa, and on 26 August 1990 it was signed by 30 prominent Ogoni, including the heads of five of the six clans. [4]. The leaders of the Eleme clan declined to sign the document, choosing to distance themselves from the Ogoni struggle as determined by Ken Saro Wiwa. In retrospect, the Eleme refusal is an example of the self-interest and many fault lines within MOSOP and the Ogoni struggle, which would lead to the final isolation of Saro Wiwa.  

The Ogani Bill of Rights outlined Ogoni pre-colonial history and pointed to the huge revenue contributions Ogoni oil had made to the Nigerian state, for which the Ogoni received nothing in return. The Bill also alluded to the ‘genocidal’ tendencies of the federal government – tendencies which were leading to the disappearance of Ogoni languages and the extinction of the Ogoni themselves. Finally, the Bill listed seven specific demands of the Nigerian state, which can be summarized as the demand for resource control, political and ethnic autonomy and protection of the environment from further destruction. 

Whilst it had been a relatively easy task to persude the Ogoni élite to sign the Bill of Rights, persuading them to join MOSOP was a different matter. In his book, When Citizens Revolt, Ike Okonta explains the complexities of Ogoni inter-clan politics which Saro Wiwa had to negotiate, and describes MOSOP as a ‘fragile coalition from the outset’ [5].

Nonetheless, the Ogoni Bill of Rights and MOSOP were key to the formation of a new Ogoni identity, which moved the Ogoni from ‘an ethnic group-in-itself to an ethnic group-for-itself’. [6]. Saro Wiwa’s vision of MOSOP was for an inclusive mass movement, which would include the two marginalized groups – youth and women – who formed the core of his constituency and continue to do so. The National Youth Council of Ogoni People (NYCOP) and the Federation of Ogoni Women Associations (FOWA) were both crucial to the movement and to Saro Wiwa’s leadership. However the reality was somewhat different. 

‘The MOSOP that emerged in September 1990 was a political movement of the Ogoni élite led by the Ogoni élite and conducted its politics in the conventional élite grammar of petition writing and public speeches in English, which ordinary Ogoni, the overwhelming majority, did not understand.’[7] 

Within a year, the fault lines within Ogoni unity and MOSOP began to show.  Ken Saro Wiwa had quickly become ‘the man of the people’ with the support of women and the ordinary Ogoni. This caused considerable concern amongst the élite, who saw the support of Saro Wiwa as a threat to their self-interest and power base. Ato Quayson summarizes well the effect of Saro Wiwa’s mobilization of the masses on the various interest groups:

‘In launching a mass mobilization drive against a multinational oil company and the state, Saro Wiwa located himself at the vortex of multiple historical processes and interests. At the level of the state, his effect of mobilizing a hitherto quiescent minority around oil and environmental rights was a dangerous signal of a new praxis for other disposed minorities, both in the oil producing regions and in Nigeria more generally. At a more local level, he clashed with traditional and more conservative authorities who could not fully grasp the significance of the revolutionary processes that were being unleashed.’ [8] 

This is just a brief introduction to the Ogoni struggle against tyranny, to explain how and why things went wrong. As we look to the forthcoming trial of Shell for environmental damage and complicity in the death of the Ogoni Nine, a trial which starts on 26 May in New York, it is worth reminding ourselves of what happened, and why. I will return to the Ogoni in future blogs.

[1] Okonta, Ike – When Citizens Revolt”, Ofrima Publishing House, 2008,ousHouse,  p198

[2] Apter, Andrew – “Death and the King’s Henchmen: Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Political Ecology of Citizenship in Nigeria” in in Agony Agonies edited by Abdul Rasheed Na’Allah. Africa World Press, 1998, p.132

[3] Quayson, Ato – “Through the Prism of Tragedy” in Agony Agonies edited by Abdul Rasheed Na’Allah. Africa World Press, 1998, p69

[4] Okonta p180

[5] Okonta, p193

[6] Quayson, p70

[7] Okonta, p193

[8] Quayson, p75

Further reading:
Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas “Where Vultures Feast”
Ken Saro-Wiwa “A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary
Ahmed Khan “Nigeria: The Political Economy of Oil”