Ambush In The Night

by Ike Okonta

Being an excerpt from Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights and Oil in the Niger Delta; Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas; Sierra Club Books in conjunction with Random House, New York, 2001.

From the dark days of slavery to the present, the Niger Delta has been ruled by violence and men of violence have sought to rule her by force. The area’s substantial natural and human resources have always proved an irresistible attraction for slave traders, commodity merchants, colonialists and plain fortune hunters who subjugate the inhabitants through treachery and force of arms and plunder their resources. With the discovery of oil in the area in 1956 by Shell, the oppression and exploitation of the peoples of the Niger Delta entered yet another, and even more insidious phase.

The Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) emerged in August 1990 to put to an end this dark chapter in the Niger Delta story. In the words of the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, ‘the Ogoni took stock of their condition and found that in spite of the stupendous oil and gas wealth of their land they were extremely poor, had no social amenities, that unemployment was running at over seventy per cent, and that they were powerless, as an ethnic minority in a country of 100 million people, to do anything to alleviate their condition. Worse, their environment was completely devastated by three decades of reckless oil exploitation or ecological warfare by Shell.’

In October 1990 the chiefs and community leaders of the six Ogoni clans came together at Bori and presented the Ogoni Bill of Rights (OBR), a document they had collectively adopted two months previously, to the government and the people of Nigeria. The OBR demanded for, among other things, the right of the Ogoni people to self-determination as a distinct people in the Nigerian Federation; adequate representation as of right in all Nigerian national institutions; the right to use a fair proportion of the economic resources in Ogoniland for its development; and the right to control their environment. The OBR also emphasised that MOSOP was a non-violent organisation and believed in the use of non-violent means to pursue its goals.

The Ogoni are a ‘mere’ 500,000 in a Nigeria with a population of over a 100 million people, dispersed in over two hundred nations and ethnic groups. Thus the launching of MOSOP did not even register on the national canvass save for a brief mention in some of the local newspapers in Rivers State. However, things began to change when MOSOP leaders, acting on behalf of the Ogoni people, issued on 3 November 1992, a thirty day ultimatum to all the oil companies operating on their land – Shell, Chevron and the NNPC, to pay back-rents and royalties and also compensation for land devastated by oil exploration and production activities or quit. The memorandum, addressed to Shell, demanded the following:



  • $6 billion as unpaid royalties;



  • Immediate stoppage of environmental devastation of Ogoniland with particular reference to gas flaring at Yorla, Korokoro and Bomu;



  • Burying of all high pressure oil pipelines currently exposed in all Ogoni;



  • Payment of $4 billion, being reparation for damages and compensation for environmental pollution suffered by the people and their environment; and



  • e. Dialogue between representatives of the community, Shell and the Federal Government.


The three companies, like the government two years previously, ignored the demand. But they had reckoned without Ken Saro-Wiwa’s organisational genius. A consummate publicist who had honed his craft writing novels, newspaper articles and best-selling soap operas for the government-owned television network, Saro-Wiwa, in collaboration with other MOSOP leaders, had quietly embarked on a mass mobilisation of Ogoni men, women and children shortly after the movement was launched. Such simple but ingenious innovations as the One Naira Ogoni Survival Fund, whereby all Ogoni people young and old were asked to contribute a token sum as an indication of commitment to the cause, and the formation of such pan-Ogoni organisations as the National Youth Council of Ogoni People (NYCOP), the Federation of Ogoni Women’s Associations (FOWA), the Conference of Ogoni Traditional Rulers (COTRA), the Council of Ogoni Churches (COC), the Ogoni Teachers Union (OTU), the National Union of Ogoni Students (N UOS), Ogoni Students Union (OSU), Ogoni Central Union (OCU) and the Council of Ogoni Professionals (COP), for which MOSOP served as an umbrella, ensured that the movement had a truly democratic, grassroots base.

Ken Saro-Wiwa had always believed in the power of learning and the pen as instruments to help bring about progress and social change. Right from the onset he urged his fellow Ogoni to study, conscientise their fellows and educate them about what MOSOP was really about – a movement for social and ecological justice, informed by the finest traditions of African participatory democracy and powered by the philosophy of non-violence. Said Saro-Wiwa, ‘MOSOP was intent on breaking new ground in the struggle for democracy and political, economic, social and environmental rights in Africa. We believe that mass-based, disciplined organisations can successfully re-vitalise moribund societies and that relying upon their ancient values, mores and cultures, such societies can successfully re-establish themselves as self-reliant communities and at the same time successfully and peacefully challenge tyrannical governments.’ Ken Saro-Wiwa’s ultimate goal was a re-structured Nigeria, functioning as a proper Federation of equal ethnic groups and nations irrespective of size, with each group being free to control its resources and environment and also exercise its political right to rule itself according to its genius.

The immediate task in hand, though, was the strengthening of MOSOP and even more importantly, the urgent need to take its case to the Nigerian people and the international community and find allies among them. Saro-Wiwa found sympathetic ears particularly among Nigerian journalists working in the independent press where he was in any case, considered a member of the house. His talent for publicity was given free rein, and in a matter of months MOSOP and the travails of the Ogoni people became a subject of debate all over the country, especially in the early months of 1992. In his capacity as spokesman of MOSOP, Saro-Wiwa travelled to The Hague in July 1992 where he registered the movement with the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisations (UNPO), whose charter enjoins non-violence on all its members. He also brought the suffering of his people to the attention of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva, and made useful contacts with international environmental groups and business organisations such as the London-based The Body Shop International whose founder and chief executive, Anita Roddick, had long been involved in such campaigns as MOSOP was pushing in Nigeria.

On 4 January 1993, 300,000 Ogoni men, women and children took to the streets and staged a peaceful protest against Shell’s ecological war and the government’s continued denial of the Ogoni’s right to self-determination and a fair share of their natural resources. The demonstration was timed to coincide with the start of the United Nations Year of Indigenous Peoples. This protest, so brilliantly organised that not a single incident of violence marred the event, marked a turning point in MOSOP’s campaign and told the military government and the Nigerian people in clear unmistakable terms that a formidable new organisation had entered the national political stage. On that day also, now marked as the Ogoni national day, the Ogoni people crossed the psychological barrier of fear and signalled to the military junta and its civilian allies that had been holding them down for over three decades that they were now prepared to take their destiny into their hands and liberate themselves from tyranny and oppression through non-violent means.

General Ibrahim Babangida and the other members of the military junta were finally forced to take notice of MOSOP. A few days after the hugely successful January 4 demonstrations, the Inspector-General of Police invited MOSOP leaders to a parley in Abuja.8 Nothing came of the discussion, however. It was apparent the junta did not take MOSOP seriously at this time, thinking that a few harsh words would frighten the leadership into giving up this ‘dangerous’ enterprise. Consequently, Saro-Wiwa and the other MOSOP leaders were summoned to the headquarters of the dreaded State Security Service (SSS) in Abuja, where the riot act was read to them before they were sent away.

Unlike the military junta, however, Shell was monitoring MOSOP’s activities closely and its senior officials were sufficiently alarmed to initiate a strategy meeting between executives of Shell Nigeria and Shell International in Rotterdam and London in February 1993. Leaked minutes of the meeting indicated that Shell had by now recognised that ‘the main thrust of the (Ogoni) activists now seems to be directed at achieving recognition of the problems of the oil-producing areas by using the media and pressure groups.’ The meeting also decided that officials of Shell Nigeria and Shell International should keep each other more closely informed to ensure that movements of key players, what they say and to whom, was more effectively monitored to avoid unpleasant surprises adversely affecting the reputation of the Shell group as a whole.

The first real confrontation between MOSOP and Shell came on April 30. Willbros, a U.S. pipeline contractor commissioned by Shell, was digging up newly-planted farmland and laying pipelines in the Ogoni village of Biara. The local farmers came out and challenged the Willbros workers, pointing out that they had neither been paid any compensation for their land nor had a proper environmental impact assessment been conducted for the project as stipulated by Nigerian law. A contingent of the Nigerian Army accompanied the Willbros workers. These soldiers subsequently shot at, and dispersed the protesters. A young man, Nnah Uabari, aged nineteen, was killed on the spot. Eleven others received gunshot wounds.

Following this incident there were spontaneous peaceful demonstrations all over Ogoniland to protest these destructive acts by Shell, Willbros and soldiers of the Nigerian Army. Calm was however restored when MOSOP’s Steering Committee despatched Ken Saro-Wiwa and two others to speak to the people. Shell subsequently claimed that it had ceased operations and pulled out of Ogoni because of the hostility of the people to its activities. Not a single Shell worker was visited with ‘hostile acts’ by MOSOP members, however. All they did was empower their fellow Ogoni to stand up for their rights.

The news that the oil giant had been ‘forced’ out of one of its oilfields in the Niger Delta sent shock waves through the country’s security apparatus. There was an immediate national alert, and references to ‘another Biafra’ were routinely made in the security reports that streamed to Abuja from Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital. On 7 May, one week after the Biara shootings, MOSOP leaders were invited to Abuja to a meeting with the top echelon of the military junta’s security establishment. The Ogoni were represented by Ken Saro-Wiwa, Dr. G.B. Leton, A.T. Badey and Chief E.N. Kobani. Badey and Kobani, along with two other chiefs, were later to be killed by an angry mob who accused them of collaborating with Shell and the government to subvert the MOSOP cause. The junta was represented by Major-General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, National Security Adviser, Brigadier-General Ali Akilu, Director of National Intelligence, and Alhaji Aliyu Mohammed, Secretary to the Federal Government . The Ogoni leaders were asked to prepare a paper detailing their demands, a list of unemployed Ogoni youth and a summary of the relationship of oil-producing communities in other parts of the world with their various governments and the oil companies. After the meeting the four Ogoni leaders departed and nothing more was heard from the junta. To all intents and purposes, the Ogoni demands had been ignored.

Seeds of discord

Shell was determined to return to Ogoni. The five oil fields were producing an estimated 30,000 barrels a day before the company announced in 1993 that it had pulled out of the area. Compared to the 1 million barrels Shell extracts from the other oil fields this was really a trifle. Shell officials were, however, anxious to see that the Ogoni ‘virus’ did not spread to the other oil-producing communities in the Niger Delta, and the only way to ensure this was to suppress MOSOP and use this as an example for other communities who might be tempted to tread a similar path in the future. And Shell set about this with great cunning.

Shortly after the four Ogoni leaders returned from their trip to Abuja, Ken Saro-Wiwa embarked on yet another European tour to drum up support for the Ogoni cause. While he was away Dr Garrick Leton, MOSOP’s President and the late Chief Edward Kobani, the Vice President, reportedly convened several public meetings in mid-May and attempted to convince the Ogoni people to allow Willbros, the Shell contractor, to resume the laying of pipelines. When the people of the Gokana village through whose land the pipelines were due to pass, sought reasons for this sudden about face, they did not receive any satisfactory explanation. They subsequently refused to let Willbros step into their land. Ken Saro-Wiwa returned from his trip on 1 June, in time for a crucial meeting of the Steering Committee where a motion to boycott the presidential elections scheduled for 12 June was to be debated. By this time however, it was clear that the cancer of discord had been introduced into MOSOP’s body syste m by agents provocateurs.

Going by the philosophical underpinning of MOSOP as reflected in the Ogoni Bill of Rights, the 12 June motion ought to have been a simple matter. MOSOP officials had been advised to shun party politics and the two political parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republic Convention (NRC) which General Babangida had created by military fiat. The Constitution under which the presidential elections were being held also did not reflect the wishes and aspirations of the Ogoni people as contained in their bill of rights, and so the logical thing to do was to boycott the election and thus demonstrate to the government and indeed the entire world that MOSOP had no part in yet another election charade whose results would only perpetuate the regime of injustice and exploitation they were working peacefully to overthrow. Some pro-government community leaders, according to press reports at the time, saw things differently, though. They allegedly wanted Shell to resume oper ations in Ogoni. They also wanted MOSOP to participate in the presidential elections.

These men, however, ran into a wall of opposition during the debate. Those who canvassed the position that Ogoni people boycott the elections carried the day. Attempts were reportedly made to pressure Ken Saro-Wiwa into rescinding the decision of the Steering Committee. He, however, insisted that he would not be party to such an act. A few days later, Dr Leton and Chief Kobani announced that they had decided to resign their positions as President and Vice President of MOSOP respectively. 12 June came and the boycott was a resounding success, in spite of desperate attempts by some chiefs to lure the Ogoni into voting by sending out false information that Saro-Wiwa, who had travelled to Europe in the line of his publicity and diplomacy duties as MOSOP spokesman, had asked them to vote on the day.

Henceforth, Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other MOSOP activists who believed like him that dialogue could only be initiated with Shell and the junta based on the demands of the Ogoni people in their bill of rights, became marked men. In line with the resolution during the meeting of senior Shell executives in Rotterdam and London the previous February, Saro-Wiwa was followed everywhere by government and Shell security operatives and his activities closely monitored. Irene Bloemink, of the Amsterdam-based environmental pressure group, Milleu Defensie, also narrated how Shell officials monitored Saro-Wiwa’s movements while he was on a visit to that city in February 1994 and even followed him into a meeting hall were he was to address Dutch environmental campaigners.

The Ogoni leader had previously been detained by the military junta in April 1993 on frivolous charges. Following MOSOP’s success in organising a National Ogoni Vigil, a candle-light event to keep the struggle alive, attended by thousands, the military junta enacted the Treason and Treasonable Offences Decree of 1993 on 2 May, specifically equating secession with treason, punishable by death. It became clear that the ground was being prepared for a major offensive against Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP. On 21 June, he was arrested and detained, along with two other MOSOP activists, N.G. Dube and Kobari Nwile. Criminal charges were brought against them for belonging to MOSOP. While they were in detention in Owerri, matters came to head in the movement as a faction led by Leton, who had earlier resigned his office as president, attempted to re-structure MOSOP by suggesting that it cease to be an umbrella organisation for NYCOP, COTRA and the other sub-groups. Leton and his group also levell ed several allegations against Saro-Wiwa, among which was that he sought to ‘hijack’ the organisation and also encouraged his supporters to employ ‘militant tactics.’ The rank and file members of MOSOP did not see any merit in Leton’s case, however, and on 6 July, MOSOP’s Steering Committee elected Ken Saro-Wiwa President and spokesman of MOSOP in absentia. Ledum Mitee, a lawyer, was elected Vice President.

Shell’s cat among the pigeons

The Ogoni are a predominantly fishing and farming community who have always lived in peace and harmony with their neighbours – the Andoni, the Okrika and the Ndoki. However, following the failure of the pro-government community leaders to ‘persuade’ the majority of MOSOP activists to ‘see reason’ with Shell, a plan, involving security operatives in Rivers State working with directives from Abuja, was hatched to cause mayhem in Ogoni under the guise of communal clashes. In July 1993, one hundred and thirty-two Ogoni men, women and children returning from a trip to the Cameroons were massacred on the Andoni river by uniformed men wielding automatic weapons. In August, the Ogoni market village of Kaa on the Andoni border was attacked by a troop of men using grenades, mortar shells and automatic weapons. Two hundred and forty-seven people were slaughtered and the community primary and secondary school buildings set upon and destroyed. Even as this grisly carnage was going on the Ogoni villages of Tenama and Tera’ue, again on the Andoni border, were ransacked and several people killed.

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1 comment

Louise From Northern Ireland January 1, 1970 - 12:00 am

I wish all you lovely people od Ogoniland all the best for the future! i was watching a program last night that featured Ken Saro Wiwa sister i thought she had an amazing personality and is a credit to her brother.


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