Ken Saro-Wiwa - the man who took on Shell

Godwin Ojo

13 November 2015

Twenty years after he was executed in Nigeria, Ken Saro-Wiwa's legacy echoes from the grassroots to the global stage.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a rare and wonderful human being - a poet-writer turned non-violent resistance leader.

But like so many non-violent resistance leaders, he was executed by the people whose interests he challenged. 10 November is the 20th anniversary of his death in his motherland, Nigeria.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and Shell

Known on the international stage for his David-and-Goliath struggle with oil giant Shell, Ken Saro-Wiwa (main picture) is lionised by activists all over the world, who see his example as a great victory for people-power over formidable corporate giants.

Human rights and corporations

He has also inspired a growing movement that’s lobbying the UN and governments to regulate multinational corporations with respect to human rights.

Climate justice explained

And though he might not have recognised the term at the time, Ken and his fellow activists were some of the trailblazers for what we now call “climate justice” – the fair treatment of all people when it comes to policies that address climate change, and the causes of them.

Say no to fracking

I was fortunate enough to meet Ken once in the early 1990s. Ken was President of the national body of the Association of Nigeria Authors while I was an Assistant Secretary in a local branch.

The ANA group had organised a writers’ clinic, which I attended, and I cherish Ken's signature on my attendance certificate.

I remember him as having the hint of a perpetual smile and an unmistakable presence that commanded your attention 


Oil damage Goi, Nigeria
Oil damage in Goi, Ogoniland, Niger Delta, April 2005 © Brian-Shaad

Pollution in the Niger Delta

Ken’s activist work centred on Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta, an area that’s suffered environmental degradation since multinational oil companies began extracting oil in the 1950s.

This includes massive pollution by oil spills and gas flaring  - which, as well as its devastating impacts on local people, farmland and fresh water, is a major cause of climate change.

Say no to fracking

Ken’s opposition to oil company activities (most notably Shell’s) extended to the Nigerian government, which had failed to enforce environmental regulations.

At the height of his campaigning around 400,000 people took part in a demonstration opposing Shell's operations and demanding the oil giant leave their territory.

Ken’s ability to mobilise people caused panic among the authorities and oil companies – not only Shell. The Nigerian government's brutal response (pdf) saw 27 villages razed, some 2,000 people killed and at least 80,000 displaced.

Death of Ken Saro-Wiwa

Ultimately, the government cooked up fraudulent charges against Ken, implicating him in the murder of the Gokana Ogoni chiefs. He was hanged in 1995, prompting widespread international condemnation.

Legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa

The work of Ken and other local activists, however, saw Shell routed from Ogoniland. Drilling for oil in the area has completely stopped for the past 20 years.

But large areas of Ogoniland remain polluted and in 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a damning report stating that vast areas are unsafe for human habitation due to oil pollution.

The report found that, in over 40 locations tested, the soil is polluted to a depth of 5 metres. Ogoniland's water bodies are all polluted.

The UNEP report recommended that US$1 billion be allocated for the clean up. In the 4 years since the report was published Shell and the Nigerian government has failed to implement its recommendations.  

However, the resilience of the Ogonis and pressure by environmental and human rights groups, brought the current government of President Buhari to commit to implement the UNEP report. With an initial pledge of US$10m there are high expectations.

Ken Saro-Wiwa today

Ken Saro-Wiwa continues to inspire. Friends of the Earth Nigeria (Environmental Rights Action), for instance, supports local communities in their call to “leave the oil in the soil”, demanding the Nigerian government open no new oil fields. Instead, and as a response to climate change too, it is calling for a clean energy transition from fossil fuels to alternatives in renewable energy.

And Friends of the Earth Nigeria has been involved in numerous campaigns and lawsuits to hold corporations accountable, including the 2005 landmark ruling by a Nigerian High Court that gas flaring is unconstitutional and damages people and the environment.  

Lawsuits against Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian operation have been fought in Dutch, US and British courts. 

The Bodo community filed a case in in London to sue Shell for damages to their community. Shell admitted liability in 2011.

Meanwhile a case brought by 4 Nigerian farmers, plus Friends of the Earth Netherlands and Nigeria, is ongoing.  

So Ken Saro-Wiwa did not die in vain. Not only is he a source of inspiration for those who want to see a better world, but also a beacon of hope to marginalised people across the planet.

Dr Godwin Uyi Ojo is Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria

The farmers taking Shell to court

Chief Fidelis Oguru and his wife from Oruma
Chief Fidelis Oguru and his wife, from Oruma, Niger Delta © Milieudefensie/Akintunde Akinleye.

Before a 2005 oil spill in Oruma, Chief Fidelis was managing a whole farm and describes himself as comfortable. Now, he says, he is having difficulties feeding my family. 

"Shell handed the cleaning work over to boys from Oruma," he says. "It quickly became clear that the work could never be completed. Too much oil had been leaked."

They just dug a hole, poured in the oil and left it there. During the rainy season, the crude oil spread all over the land again.

Chief Fidelis Oguru

Eric Dooh from Goi
Eric Dooh from Goi, Niger Delta © Milieudefensie/Akintunde Akinleye.

In 2004 oil from a leak in the Trans-Niger pipeline, near Goi, streamed into the local creeks and caught fire. Eric, a farmer, lost everything

Now nobody has good food from here. Look at the palm trees. They are dying. The whole mangrove forest has been completely destroyed by the oil pollution

Eric Dooh

Alali Efanga from Oruma
Alali Efanga, from Oruma, Niger Delta © Milieudefensie/Akintunde Akinleye.

In Oruma in 2005 oil spilled for 12 days during the rainy season, polluting the fish ponds which Alali Efanga used to make a living. The oil killed everything in the ponds and the polluted land was never properly cleaned up.

I ask myself, if this happened in their own land or fish pond, their only source of livelihood, will they take it lightly?  

Alali Efanga

Say no to fracking

First published on 9 November 2015

Ken Saro-Wiwa