On the very day last week when only 38 U.S. senators voted to raise the minimum gasoline mileage for American cars to 35 miles per gallon by the year 2020, Nigerian writer Ken Wiwa was speaking on the campus of the University of Montana about how his father was killed defending his land and people, the Ogoni, from injustices that he claims were dealt out by the multinational oil company Royal Dutch Petroleum/Shell on the Niger Delta in Nigeria.
Wiwa’s father, Ken Wiwa-Saro, had organized some 300,000 Ogoni people into a protest against the company’s practices on its lands, which prompted Shell to issue an internal memo in 1994 that reads, in part: “Shell operations impossible without ruthless actions against Ogoni protests.” Ten days later, four Ogoni were killed. Wiwa-Saro and eight other Ogoni were arrested, tried, and convicted by General Sani Abacha’s government for the murders of their fellow protesters. On Nov. 12, 1995, all nine were hanged.
Since then, Ken Wiwa has taken his father’s cause to the international stage, writing and speaking on the dangers of corporate power and the ruthless relationship between oil and blood. His book, In the Shadow of a Saint, has received major critical acclaim. Wiwa has also filed suit against Shell in the United States, seeking to implicate the company as a known conspirator in his father’s death. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision will allow the long-stalled civil lawsuit to proceed in federal district court in Manhattan.
Wiwa’s talk was sponsored by a broad coalition of local, national and international environmental and human rights groups, a testament to the fact that issues of social justice, the environment, alternative transportation and soul-searching share a growing piece of common ground.
Although the United States contributes only 3 percent to the world’s oil supply, Americans use 25 percent of the world’s oil, 40 percent of which is imported from Nigeria. Since oil was discovered on the Niger Delta in 1956, some $30 billion worth of oil has been removed from the ground beneath the Ogoni people. Nevertheless, they continue to live in absolute squalor, in the ghostly light of gas flares from the nearby refinery that have been burning 24 hours a day for the last 30 years, with oil wells in backyards and miles of leaky pipes crisscrossing their land. As Ken Wiwa puts it, “Nigeria can be considered a division of Shell.”