Human Rights Heroes

Ken Saro-Wiwa

Kenule “Ken” Beeson Saro Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in Nigeria whose homeland, Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta has been targeted for crude oil extraction since the 1950s, The region has suffered extreme environmental damage from decades of indiscriminate petroleum waste dumping.

Saro-Wiwa was one of the founding members, and later president, of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), leading a nonviolent campaign against environmental degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland by the Royal Dutch Shell company and other multinational oil companies. He was also an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government for their failure to enforce environmental regulations on the foreign petroleum companies operating in the area.

In 1992, Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned for several months, without trial, by the Nigerian military government. In January 1993, MOSOP organised peaceful marches of around 300,000 Ogoni people – more than half of the Ogoni population – through four Ogoni urban centres, drawing international attention and media. In response the Nigerian government occupied the region militarily.

On 21 May 1994 four Ogoni chiefs (all on the conservative side of a schism within MOSOP over strategy) were brutally murdered. Saro-Wiwa had been denied entry to Ogoniland on the day of the murders, but he was arrested and accused of incitement to them. He denied the charges but was imprisoned for over a year before being found guilty and sentenced to death by a specially convened tribunal.

Saro-Wiwa’s defense attorney and others resigned in protest of the conduct of the trial. At least two witnesses who testified that Saro-Wiwa was involved in the murders of the Ogoni elders later recanted, stating that they had been bribed with money and offers of jobs with Shell to give false testimony – in the presence of Shell’s lawyer.

Over international outcry and outrage, on 10 November 1995, Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP leaders (the “Ogoni Nine”) were executed by hanging. His execution provoked international outrage and the immediate suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth of Nations. The United States and other countries considered imposing economic sanctions.