The Open Wound – keeping eyes on the constant injustice of oil production in Nigeria

9 Nov 2021 james

26th Anniversary of the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 Ogoni comrades



Authored by James Marriott of Platform drawing from the collective experience of so many others in Platform and the multiple organisations we’ve collaborated with.


On the morning of 10th November 1995 in a Port Harcourt goal, Nigeria were murdered:

Ken Saro-Wiwa

Baribor Bera

Saturday Dobee

Nordu Eawo

Daniel Gbokoo

Barinem Kiobel

John Kpuinen

Paul Levula

Felix Nuate


They were all hung by the Nigerian state on a trumped up charge. But the world knew that they had been killed in order to silence a powerful campaign, of which Saro-Wiwa was the figurehead, which demanded justice for the ecological destruction of their homeland, Ogoni.

The intensity of the injustice keeps burning, the wound still bleeds.

In 1957, oil – in quantities from which profit could be generated – was discovered in the Niger Delta, in the British colony of Nigeria. Since that moment of first production there has been, day in day out, constant oil spills in the farmlands and creeks. Night after night has been ripped by the flares from the oil fields. The myriad communities through which oil is piped have been forced to see their rivers polluted. Those villages close to the oil wells have been forced to live amidst the constant roar of the gas.

In Crude Britannia, Lazarus Tamana – now head of MOSOP – describes growing up in the village of Bodo, in Ogoni:

‘When I was in primary school we would go to fish in the nearby waters. My house was just 200 yards away from the creek. We would finish school, drop our bags, run into the creek and use our bare hands to catch fish and mudskippers and crab and all those things.’ 

And he described the arrival of the oil machine:

‘I remember very, very vividly when the tractors were rolling in some part of Bodo. Those heavy equipments. Shell were rolling in and laying pipes and digging the ground. We used to go and see them, look at them because for us kids it was exciting. After some time we started seeing some black stuff appearing on the surface of the mangrove forests, on the creek because we’d normally go and bathe in those waters before we’d go to school in the morning.’ 

And continues:

‘There were a lot of whites because of the heavy equipment they were using and it was whites who were driving them, who were directing these things. The menial jobs like digging were done by the Nigerians.’

The first protests in Ogoni began in 1963. What followed was over three decades of destruction and growing opposition, until in 1993 an astounding 50% of the population of Ogoni took to the streets demanding Shell leave their land. The company had no option but to cease operations, but what followed was intense repression by the Nigerian state and killings by the Nigerian military. This culminated in the arrest, imprisonment and murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 Ogoni fellow activists.


Front page of the Daily Telegraph on the morning of November 11th 1995

I remember well the morning that the news broke. I was in Glasgow with fellow Platformer, Dan Gretton. The shock went through us like a bolt. The events around it are beautifully described in Gretton’s book ‘I You We Them’ – recently reissued in paperback. Since that day Platform has endeavoured to mark each passing year and act in solidarity where possible. Over this vigil of the years, we have created works such as Remember Saro Wiwa living memorial sculpture which toured England and is now incarcerated in Lagos, Nigeria.

Some of us from Platform have travelled in Ogoni to carry out consultations and research leading to important reports such as ‘Counting the Cost’ written by Ben Amunwa. And most recently, through a Global Arts Night co-hosted by MOSOP ‘Dance the Guns to Silence III’ we commemorated the 25th Anniversary of the tragic 1995 events and the ongoing Ogoni-led struggle for reparations and justice.

Again and again we’ve been inspired by the line from Milan Kundera:

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

It is a statement that echoes the demands of the Climate Reparations movement which marched this Saturday in London. The bloc boldly declared: ‘We are hearing greenwash pledges to get to ‘Net Zero’ with techno-fixes and false solutions. Net Zero is NOT zero. To meet the UK’s fair share of 1.5C to stay alive, we need a rapid and justice-centred transition to get to real zero carbon emissions by 2030.’ The ‘Climate Reparations bloc’ led the COP26 coalition march with a banner from indigenous and POC-led collective ‘Wretched of the Earth’. The banner read:

Still fighting Co2 lonialism. Your climate profits kill.

This year of 2021, the anniversary of the murder of the Ogoni 9 falls within the COP 26 conference in Glasgow. This massive gathering is obsessively focused on the future with the repeated cry of ‘the future is our hands’. But whose futures?

The battle in Glasgow is to put a halt to the investment plans of the fossil fuel corporations. To use civil society pressure, sporadically expressed through state politicians, to stop the plans of a handful of private companies to drill for oil in the North Sea, the Niger Delta and elsewhere across the planet. And a handful of private companies to mine coal in Cumbria, in West Virginia, and elsewhere across the planet. These plans can and will be stopped in the months around Glasgow and the years that follow. This can and will be done – it will be won in the streets, in parliament chambers, in the courts, in council pension fund meetings.

In the Niger Delta too, change will come. At the AGM of Shell in May this year, the CEO of the company, Ben van Beurden, intimated for the first time that the company would relinquish its onshore oil and gas fields in the Niger Delta. The moment that Shell withdraws from the Delta will be a victory, for the company will only relinquish these assets because the return on capital they provide is no longer sufficient to outweigh the constant challenge of civil society resistance.

However the oil and gas projects are unlikely to be closed down and their operations to cease, rather they will be sold on to other companies less concerned by the resistance and the questioning of these schemes in the global media. The task ahead of us all will be to keep a close scrutiny upon these oil & gas fields as they slip from the hands of high profile corporations, such as Shell, into the hands of corporations such as Vitol or private equity companies.[1]

And most importantly, the withdrawal of Shell from the Delta will not be the end of the destruction that is experienced by the communities of Ogoni and elsewhere. Future owners may continue to operate at such low standards, water courses may still be polluted by oil spills. Furthermore the long vaunted UN Environment Programme to ‘Clean up Ogoni’ and address decades of toxification of land and waterways, is still struggling to be realised. It is a massive task – in places the pollution in soil is the depth of two London Double Decker buses.

But this is not all, the Niger Delta is under radical threat from climate change. The Delta is a mighty fan of low-lying land, once essentially tropical rainforest, that faces the Gulf of Guinea. It is home to approximately 30 million people living in towns and villages amongst the complex web of oil and gas wells, pipelines and terminals. The area is the size of Belgium.


Map of the Niger Delta region showing the network of oil and gas installations.

The COP process was born out of the Earth Summit in 1992 in Brazil. At that conference the River Chiefs of the Niger Delta presented a memorandum that warned about sea-level rise from climate change as well as subsidence caused by oil and gas operations.

Led by Chief Dappa-Biriye, the report stated: “If we superimpose the predicted sea level rise on the gradually subsidising Niger Delta (subsidence exacerbated by oil and gas extraction), the net effect is that … about a 40 km-wide strip of the Niger Delta and its peoples would be submerged and rendered extinct.” The report continued: “Thus the very existence of the indigenous people of the Niger Delta and adjoining coastal zone is seriously threatened by environmental degradation caused by petroleum industrial pollution”.[2]

Clearly this is a place that faces a severe threat of sea level rise. The rising oceans due in large part to the melting of the ice caps, will lead to inundations across the globe. The scale of the rise and the speed at which it does so is, of course, hard to predict. But the inequity of the impacts is clear.

I urge you as a reader to take a moment to use this tool by Climate Central.

Of course like all predictions it may be inaccurate but it will, surely, be as equally inaccurate in Glasgow as it is in Ogoni. Sir David King, former UK government chief scientific adviser, talked in the BBC documentary ‘Black Black Oil’ of the probability of a sea level rise of 24 feet. If you toggle the website you will see that in the heart of Glasgow such an inundation looks like this:


Flood map of 24 feet sea level rise in Glasgow area

Whereas in the Niger Delta it looks like this – and this map shows a far far larger area than that above:


Map of flooding from 24 feet sea level rise in the Niger Delta

All the forest and the fields, all the villages and the towns, indeed all the oil and gas installations, have been swallowed by the sea.

And this leaves out the fact that Glasgow will be at least in part protected from the sea by concrete flood defences financed by the UK or Scottish state. It is extremely unlikely that the Nigerian state will have the funds to undertake even a partial defence of the Delta, a reality which we can’t separate from the structural impoverishment the country has suffered against its will through decades of British colonialism.

These are the graphic realities of climate injustice that we must struggle against, as we keep learning how to show solidarity towards those who feel the brunt of it first hand. When we fail to bear witness to these dynamics, it is our own humanity and ability for compassion and repair that we deny ourselves. And we all deserve better.


With thanks for the inspiration and aid of Lazarus Tamana, Laurie Mompelat, Andy Rowell and Terry Macalister.


[1] It is a challenge that is also being faced in the UK North Sea and elsewhere around the world, as capital changes shape. As oil companies shift from being publicaly limited corporations to private equity concerns.


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