By Mark Sandell
“When Your Excellency recently honoured this division with an extensive tour, you were shown large acres of mangrove swamps that have been destroyed by the periodic out-flow of crude oil into our rivers and streams, which have killed off not only mangrove trees, but fishes and crabs, mudskippers, oysters, shell-fishes, etc., on which the livelihood of the poorer people depends. Neither from the Shell-BP nor from the successive governments have we received the slightest consideration in the widespread destitution that has been our sad lot as a direct result of the oil industry in Ogoni Division. The uprooted and displaced farmers are left without alternative means of subsistence. No special consideration was ever given to the employment of our people in the services of the company.”
“...we are crying out for sympathy because we have these recent years been victims of a callous neglect by successive governments whose only interests are the royalties which accrue to them every year from the oil companies. The millions of pounds which the Shell-BP constantly pays to our government is blood-money, extracted from the very veins of our dying people.”
The above quote is taken from a petition of complaint written by Ogoni leaders in 1970 quoted by Ken Saro-Wiwa in his book Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy.
It marks the beginning of the Ogoni people’s fight against the destruction of their environment and livelihoods at the hands of the oil companies and the Nigerian state. The Ogoni are an ethnic minority of about 500,000 who live in an impoverished area of about 350 square miles in the Niger river delta of Nigeria.
In 1990 the Ogoniland resistance organisation was founded. By 1995, 1,800 Ogoni people had been killed by Nigerian troops. Ken Sara-Wiwa become a leading figure in the campaign for Ogoni self-determination. He was picked out on a trumped-up charge along with eight others by the Nigerian military regime in 1995, they were all executed.
Oil accounts for more than 95% of Nigeria’ís foreign exchange earnings. Military dictatorships interspersed by equally corrupt civilian governments have plundered the revenue from oil for decades but Nigeria is now one of the 20 poorest counties in the world. Revoltingly rich military and civilian leaders who grow fat on corruption are happy to sign up to IMF “Reconstruction” programmes that mean savage cuts in most people’s living standards and rising unemployment (85% among the Ogoni)
Ethnic tensions have plagued Nigeria since its foundation as an independent nation. Nigeria was created by British colonialism but, even while bundling together a muti-ethnic state, the British played the major groups off against each other. In 1967 a civil war broke out when the eastern Republic of Biafra declared independence following an exitus due to pogroms against Biafra’s main group, the Ibos in the north east. Over one million people died in a three year Nigerian imperialist war to keep Biafra.
The Nigerian ruling class rely on their ethnic identity to keep political control in doing so, they whip up the existing ethnic tensions. This is part of the picture in the Niger delta where the military have whipped up tensions amongst the peoples of the delta to divide and rule leading to serious inter ethnic conflict often aided by the military.
The Nigerian ruling class includes many multi-millionaires happy to work hand in glove with muti-national corporations. The oil companies have only one interest — profit. They have covertly supported the military’s terrorist war against the Ogoni people. They welcomed the use of military rule against the strike wave led by the oil workers unions in 1993.
The story of oil in Nigeria is a tragic one, but it is also one of hope: the Ogoni people have organised and fought back against the state and the oil companies. They are a small group against a giant state and muti-national oil companies but they have gained world attention and support. The story of oil in Nigeria is also the story of those who mine it, the oil workers. The oil workers’ unions led a national strike against military rule in 1993; they brought the country to its knees in a strike for democracy. The military had to arrest union leaders and enforce marshal law to break the strike.
The strike and the Ogoni campaign show the potential that workers and the oppressed have to fight back. In the future, these two groups united against the oil companies and the Nigerian ruling class can win.
By Mark Sandell