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Ken Saro-Wiwa: Nigeria Marks 10 Years ....

Posted by By DULUE MBACHU, Associated Press Writer on 2005/11/09 | Views: 1301 |

Ken Saro-Wiwa: Nigeria Marks 10 Years ....

From his studio overlooking Port Harcourt cemetery, Pius Waritimi watched a police truck deliver the bodies of nine human rights and environmental activists fresh from the gallows.

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria -- From his studio overlooking Port Harcourt cemetery, Pius Waritimi watched a police truck deliver the bodies of nine human rights and environmental activists fresh from the gallows.

As police whipped onlookers, the sculptor tried to intervene and suffered a punctured eardrum. Tadi Chukwukere said he and the other gravediggers were all detained for weeks lest they divulge the location of the graves.

Ten years later, the dictator who ordered the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow campaigners against the oil multinationals in Nigeria is dead. Nigeria has a democratically elected government and Saro-Wiwa, now entombed with honor in his hometown, is a global icon.

As Nigeria marks the 10th anniversary of the hangings Thursday, multinational oil companies are under increased scrutiny over their environmental records and business dealings with corrupt governments, and more funds are flowing to the oil-rich Niger Delta, where the troubles began.

But rights groups say the violent tussles over oil wealth aren't over.

Amnesty International cites the February shooting of protesters who tried to enter a Chevron export terminal, and an attack on a delta town by troops pursuing an armed gang in which 17 people were killed and 80 percent of the houses were razed.

Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues were hanged on murder charges. But people in the delta believe his real offense was leading protests against the operations of a joint venture of multinational companies and the dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha, which they accuse of pocketing oil wealth while leaving them in poverty.

The new face of the struggle of the Niger Delta is no longer Saro-Wiwa, but Moujahid Dokubo-Asari of the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, whose threat to wage war on the government and oil companies last year helped drive oil prices past $50 for the first time. He is under arrest on treason charges.

For decades, the poor who inhabit most of the oil region had watched as their region's wealth was cornered by oil companies and the political elite from the three biggest of Nigeria's over 250 ethnic groups.

Saro-Wiwa's group came together in 1990 as MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, demanding more local control over oil wealth and billions of dollars in compensation for pollution from Shell, which had been operating here since 1958.

But MOSOP fell into disarray, culminating in the lynching of four of Saro-Wiwa's rivals allegedly by his supporters.

"For the first time the Nigerian state was confronted by a well-organized group that mobilized the community against the system that has been in operation for a long time," said Owens Wiwa, Saro-Wiwa's younger brother. "The military in power at the time couldn't understand it, because it was new, it was powerful and their reaction was to criminalize all dissent. But it failed."

Andy Corrigan, Shell spokesman in London, said the company "has learned some important lessons since that tragedy of 10 years ago."

Shell's new environmental standards have reduced the number of oil spills in Nigeria due to pipeline corrosion and human error from 11,500 barrels in 1995 to 290 barrels last year, Corrigan said.

A study by experts commissioned by Shell in 2003 partly blamed the company for some of the communal violence afflicting the region and claiming more than 1,000 lives a year. It warned that if nothing changed, Shell might be forced to halt all onshore oil production by 2008.

U.S. oil giant Chevron has publicly acknowledged that some of its corporate practices in the delta contributed to violence, and pledged steps to promote peace and development.

But it may be too late. Moderate elders have given way to militant youths whose tactics include hostage-taking, violent disruption of oil operations and tapping of crude from pipelines for sale to rogue tankers waiting offshore.

Shell facilities in Ogoni, Saro-Wiwa's home district, which once produced 28,000 barrels daily -- about 3 percent of the company's Nigerian production -- lie abandoned.

"Since Shell left our vegetation is greener and the harvest has improved," said 25-year-old Sunday Nzor as he played checkers by an abandoned oil pumping station. "We don't even want them to come back."

Meanwhile, Dokubo-Asari, who claims inspiration from Saro-Wiwa, faces possible life imprisonment. His trial is set to resume Thursday.

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