Anti-oil activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was to be honoured 20 years after his death with a sculpture, until it was seized by Nigerian customs.
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It was supposed to be a homecoming.
Twenty years after Nigerian anti-oil activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed on drummed-up charges, groups in the U.K. and Nigeria teamed up to send a sculpture made in his honour to his hometown of Bori.
But when the work of art arrived at the port of Lagos in early September, it was seized by customs officers led by a member of the tribunal that condemned Saro-Wiwa and eight other indigenous activists to death so many years ago.
The incident is a reminder that while Nigeria may have gotten rid of its military dictatorship, the influence of the army and the oil industry remains very much present, said Suzanne Dhaliwal, a campaigner with the U.K. group Platform, which has been using the “battle bus” sculpture to increase awareness of the oil pollution left on indigenous Ogoni territory in southern Nigeria.
“The bus is a living accusation against the oil companies,” Dhaliwal said. “It has too much political value to be released.”
The full-sized steel bus, created by British-Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp in 2006, carries oil barrels on its roof and is emblazoned with one of Saro-Wiwa’s most stark and enduring phrases: “I accuse the oil companies of practising genocide against the Ogoni.”
Its return to Nigeria was supposed to inspire youth in the oil-producing regions to hold their government and the oil companies to their promises to clean up the oil spills that have littered the area for decades, poisoning rivers and rendering farms barren. Instead, its seizure has served the same purpose.
“When the story went out, it went all over the Internet in Nigeria and there was a mass call for the bus to be released,” said Dhaliwal.
“The bus has become a symbol of the ongoing censorship of communities in Nigeria and it has also made explicit the links between the violence and corruption and the influence the oil companies . . . have in the region.”
Platform’s Nigerian partner, Social Action, has petitioned the government to release the bus and this week threatened to begin direct action protests in Ogoniland, the traditional lands of the Ogoni people.
“If the intervention at the national assembly fails, then we will only have one choice: to embark on a serious protest that would cripple the economy of the entire state,” said Social Action member Celestine Akpobari.
This is the same kind of non-violent civil disobedience that Saro-Wiwa and his supporters used in the 1990s to pressure Shell to share the wealth produced in Ogoniland with the Ogoni people and to clean up the spills affecting their health.
Akpobari says Saro-Wiwa’s struggle isn’t over because the pollution and poverty he railed against are still present. While Shell has shut down its operations in Ogoni territory, its pipelines still pass through the area and locals say they continue to rupture.
“It’s both in the water and on the land. But people have no choice. So they have to drink this polluted water, even when they see oil on it. As for the soil, it is completely dead. It can no longer support a harvest,” said Akpobari. “Our means of livelihood have been destroyed.”
In 2011, the UN Environmental Programme found that decades of oil spills have seeped into the ground, so that even where the surface appears unaffected, the soil underneath is “in reality severely contaminated.” The agency recommended that the Nigerian government and oil companies set up a $1-billion fund to pay for environmental restoration, something that has yet to see the light of day.
This month, Amnesty International released a report documenting what it calls “half-hearted clean-up attempts.”
Shell has also been targeted by several lawsuits, brought by the families of the victims of violence in the region in the 1980s, as well as those who live there now and continue to be affected by pollution.
On its website, the company acknowledges that it was accused of being a “collaborator” with the military government and inflicting “environmental despoliation” on local populations.
“Shell has since strived to follow a policy of demonstrating its community of interests and reciprocal good feeling with both the governments and the local populaces it deals with,” it states.
Two decades after his hanging, Saro-Wiwa’s name continues to serve as a rallying cry for environmentalists and indigenous groups around the world, from Idle No More to the opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Or as his son, Ken Wiwa, put it: “We may finally be arriving at a tipping point in the carbon economy, and perhaps one day my father’s story will be more than a footnote in that history.