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Decades After Activist Executions, Niger Delta Oil Spills Remain

Twenty years ago today, Nigeria’s military government executed environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa along with eight of his colleagues in a move widely seen as retaliation for his activism against oil giant Shell.

The three-member tribunal had alleged their involvement in the killing of four prominent chiefs in the Ogoniland region of southern Nigeria, which, according to Agence France Presse, "triggered a flurry of international outcry and sanctions against Nigeria, including a four-year suspension from the Commonwealth."

Communities there said the multinational oil company was polluting their land and fishing waters, accusations that have since been validated by the U.N. Environmental Program. UNEP said in a 2011 report that the pollution could take as many as 30 years to clean up. On November 3, Amnesty International and the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development in Nigeria said Shell has not cleaned up four oil spill sites in the Niger Delta, as the company claims.

The pollution and poverty in the Niger Delta sparked a violent insurgency that only ended in 2009, when the government started paying militants off as part of an amnesty agreement. Those payments reduced the violence, but people still sabotage pipelines, and it is unclear if the amnesty payments will continue beyond this year.

Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., who worked in the administration of former president Goodluck Jonathan, thinks that insurgency could have been avoided had the military government responded differently to the community grievances raised by his father.

"If it had been dealt with dialogue back then rather than violence, we might have a more secure outcome than we have now,” he said.

Even in the democratic Nigeria of today, Saro-Wiwa remains a touchy subject. A large memorial sculpture to Saro-Wiwa that was shipped to Nigeria for the anniversary was denied entry, sparking outrage. But Saro-Wiwa Jr. says that’s a distraction.

"You know, federal government, Shell and the communities are working hard to try to arrive at a place where we can begin to earnestly implement the UNEP report," he said. "It would be nice to, on the 20th anniversary, be focusing on that.”

The best way to honor his father’s legacy, Saro-Wiwa Jr. says, is to clean up Ogoniland.

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