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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Environmental Activists, Heroes, and Martyrs

Drawing of Ken Saro-Wiwa

Drawing of Ken Saro-Wiwa

Ken Saro-Wiwa

A Continuing Struggle over Oil

Zachary Gianotti was a 2016-2017 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

The trial of Ken Saro-Wiwa is an infamous instance of oppression against indigenous environmental activism. In the early 1990s Saro-Wiwa and his people, the Ogoni, went head to head with Shell Oil and their partner the Nigerian government, which was a military dictatorship at the time. Ogoniland is located in the Niger River delta and is rich with crude oil. Shell had been extracting oil from the region for over four decades with a notorious history of unsafe petroleum waste dumping and pollution control that they continue to this day [1]. Saro-Wiwa fought to attain the right to land and a clean environment, and though he died before the end of the fight, his work continued well beyond his death.

Ken Saro-Wiwa had a turbulent life before he became an activist. He was born in 1940, in the Ogoniland village of Bori, to a forest ranger and his third wife. Growing up, Saro-Wiwa was very academically inclined and received honors from most of the institutions he attended. His main field of study was literature, but he also had a passion for acting. He was working as a lecturer in African literature at the University of Nigeria when the Nigerian civil war broke out. He returned to Ogoniland during this period and acted as a civilian ambassador for his people, speaking out in favor of the pre-dictatorship federal government. [2]

For the next twenty years Ken Saro-Wiwa focused on his writing and television work that he produced. During this time he acquired attention for his works, which were very popular. He is still famous for his political novel on the civil war that intimated the corruption found in the Nigerian military and for his own civil war diaries. [3]

It wasn’t until the 1990s when Saro-Wiwa switched his focus to environmental activism [4]. With a fierce pride for his homeland, he took personal offense to the Shell Oil’s degradation of the river delta that his people called home. From the beginning Saro-Wiwa wanted a passive non-violent resistance to the military dictatorship and their affiliation with Shell oil [5]. He lead peaceful marches and his organization MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People), drafted a Ogoni Bill of Rights, stating what they felt their people deserved with respect to their land [6]. 

“You cannot destroy an idea like mine…Even if I were to die tomorrow, even if I were to be locked up in prison…You can’t destroy an idea like mine.” (Osofisan, quoting Sarao-Wiwa)

Just when the group and their cause started to truly gain momentum, Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested [7]. Four conservative-leaning, pro-government, Ogoni chiefs were brutally murdered under suspicious circumstances, and the government took Saro-Wiwa in for questioning. After months of being held in captivity and intensive questioning Saro-Wiwa was put on trial and deemed guilty of inciting the murders of the Ogoni leaders [8]. This meant that he would be executed as was the law in Nigeria at the time.

“I have no doubt at all about the ultimate success of my cause, no matter the trials and tribulations which I and those who believe with me may encounter on our journey. Neither imprisonment nor death can stop our ultimate victory.” (Saro-Wiwa)

 He was hanged on November 10th, 1995. Even though he had only been an activist for five years, he had gained the world’s attention to his cause: there was an international outcry about what was widely viewed as a sham trial [9]. Nigeria even was suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations for three years in reaction to the trial [10]. Posthumously he won awards for his activism, the Goldman Environmental Prize and the Right Livelihood Award [4]. Soon after his death the Saro-Wiwa family started working tirelessly to seek justice for it.

The eye of the world was on the trail of Wiwa v. Shell but in the end the case was settled outside of court. Shell Corporation paid $15.5 million and got to keep the testimonies private as they do not become public record unless the case does make it to trial [11]. Some of these testimonies have come to light over the years, and seem daming to Shell, such as eyewitness testimony of Shell paying war criminals to murder the Ogoni chiefs and frame Saro-Wiwa. Those who testified against Saro-Wiwa during his trial have also come forward saying Shell paid them off and offered them jobs in exchange for their false testimony.

“Whether I live or die is immaterial. It is enough to know that there are people who commit time and energy to fight this one evil among so many others predominating worldwide. If they do not succeed today, they will succeed tomorrow. We must keep on striving to make the world a better place for all of mankind - each one contributing his bit, in his or her own way.” (McGregor, quoting Saro-Wiwa)

The fight continues to this day. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s wife and daughters are all still spreading the truth of his life. All of Saro-Wiwa’s children went into journalism and have told their own stories and stories of others who have had to endure these types of struggles. The people of Ogoniland are still fighting Shell for the continued neglect for their land and for the massive number of oil spills that have forever altered the landscape of their once fertile river delta [12]. Though Shell has not extracted new oil from Ogoniland since 1993, it has been suggested that the old oil pipelines are harming the water supply of the people living in the area.

The case of Ken Saro-Wiwa is one of many ups and downs. He dedicated the last years of his life for a cause that is still being fought today, twenty odd years later. In many cases the acts of large corporations seems to run unchecked, but as shown by Saro-Wiwa, with a loud voice, a just cause, and support from a strong community things can happen.


Photo from Dignidad Rebelde’s Flickr:

[1] Ibekwe, Nicholas, “Nigeria: Disappointment, Anger in Ogoniland Over Govt's Delay to Clean Up Oil Spills” Premium Times:

[2] “The life of Ken Saro-Wiwa” Platform:

[3] “1995: Ken Saro-Wiwa” Pen International:

[4] Doron, Falola, and Seay, “The complex life and death of Ken Saro-Wiwa” The Washington Post:

[5] Henshaw, Ken, “Ken Saro-Wiwa and the power of resistance” Red Pepper:

[6] “Ogoni Bill Of Rights” Urhobo Historical Society:

[7] “Nigeria, The Ogoni Crisis” Human Rights Watch:

[8] French, Howard, “Ignoring the Outcry, Nigeria Executes a Protest Figure” The New York Times:

[9] French, Howard, “Nigeria Executes Critic Of Regime; Nations Protest” The New York Times:

[10] “Nigeria Suspended from Commonwealth” The Commonwealth:

[11] Pilkington, Ed, “Shell pays out $15.5m over Saro-Wiwa killing” The Guardian:

[12] Vidal, John, “Ogoni king: Shell oil is killing my people” The Guardian:

[13] Hoff, Charles, “Nigeria executes 9 activists; world outraged” CNN: