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Remember the dead, fight for the living

Peter Apps on a public art memorial to executed activist Ken Saro-Wiwa

October 9, 2011
5 min read

This summer, a minor Shell oil spill in the North Sea hit the headlines in Europe, while in Nigeria a UN report into the company’s practices was stirring up controversy. Unlike in the North Sea, Shell oil spills in Nigeria do not tend to make the news – and they are much less likely to be cleaned up. The UN report accused the company of 50 years of systematic pollution in the Niger Delta, which has left the region crippled, unsafe and barren. Since the report was funded by Shell, campaigners fear the full extent of the damage may be even worse than it acknowledges.

Along with other companies, Shell has been extracting the oil from the Niger Delta for decades. Since the 1960s, it has made a reported £300 billion profit from the region – at a massive cost to the local people. Poorly maintained pipes have meant constant spillages, ruining fertile land, killing fish and poisoning drinking water. One drinking well, surveyed in the UN report, showed levels of the carcinogenic chemical benzene at more than 900 times the World Health Organisation’s safe standard.

Resistance from local people to this exploitation has a rich history. In 1993, a small tribal group called the Ogoni achieved the seemingly impossible. They formed a group called Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and mounted a peaceful campaign of resistance that forced Shell out of Ogoniland, their home.

Among the leaders of this movement was Ken Saro-Wiwa, and for a while it looked as if they might succeed in reclaiming their homeland from Shell. However, the corporation – and the Nigerian government – had other ideas.

A leaked government memo from 1994 stated that ‘Shell operations are still impossible unless ruthless military actions are taken’ and suggested ‘wasting vocal individuals’. A month later, Ogoniland was invaded by a Nigerian military task force, which murdered and brutalised the local population.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, the most vocal of individuals, was in particular danger. In November 1995, he and eight other activists were arrested by the government on trumped up murder charges. Despite international condemnation of the trial, all nine men were hanged.

Before he died, Saro-Wiwa’s last words were: ‘Lord, take my soul, but the struggle continues.’

These words have proved true. While the exploitation of the region has continued, so has the resistance. In Nigeria, MOSOP is still active and still fighting against what is being done to the Ogoni people’s land. Globally, many groups have sprung up to challenge the oil companies and governments that allow it to happen.

Among them is the Remember Saro-Wiwa project, based in the UK. ‘The project is about campaigning and activism,’ says co-ordinator Ben Amunwa. ‘We’re trying to raise the issue of the Ogoni here in London, which houses many of the energy companies responsible, and is also the destination of the profits they make.’

The project has set out to create a ‘living memorial’ to Saro-Wiwa. ‘We wanted to create a unique piece of public art, something different to the Victorian-era colonial work all over London. We wanted something to highlight the effect our oil dependence has, and the suffering it causes, for communities all over the world.’

The artwork is in the form of a life-sized Nigerian-style steel bus, with the names of the nine executed Ogoni activists, and Saro-Wiwa’s words – ‘I accuse the oil companies of practising genocide against the Ogoni’ – inscribed on the side.

The ‘memorial’ also takes the form of activism and awareness campaigns. The project has plans to release research about the ongoing human rights abuses in the Niger Delta.

‘In many ways, the situation is deteriorating,’ says Amunwa. ‘Military assaults are ongoing; whole villages are being decimated by the task force. There are daily oil spills. Twice as much oil has been spilt in the Delta region than was lost in the Deepwater oil disaster last year. Gas flaring (the practice of burning oil in the open air) has continued now for four decades, and in a region where the average life expectancy is only 45. People have lived and died only ever knowing that reality.’

In Nigeria, activists are still demanding the implementation of a bill of rights for the Ogoni people, and more control over their land and resources. The Remember Saro-Wiwa project is seeking to extend that struggle to England.

‘Oil companies rely on our consent and compliance,’ says Amunwa. ‘They try to make themselves look responsible by sponsoring art galleries, exhibitions and that sort of thing. We can target sites where they have a visible presence.’

‘Many of our savings and pensions are invested in Shell, and therefore in the destruction they’re responsible for,’ he continues. ‘We should all be looking at investing our money responsibly. In the UK, we should also be asking what our government is doing to hold British companies to account.’

The bus is currently located at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham http://www.berniegrantcentre.co.uk/

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