Sierra Club: The Planet--July/August 1996
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The Planet
Hanging of Nigerian Activist Prompts Club Boycott of Shell Oil

The Sierra Club Board of Directors announced in December a membership-wide boycott of Shell Oil and urged an international embargo of Nigerian oil and oil products in response to the Nov. 10 execution of environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

"Shell should feel considerable responsibility for Ken Saro-Wiwa's death," said Stephen Mills, Human Rights and Environment Campaign Director for the Sierra Club. "He was hanged because he dared to speak out against the company's pollution and neglect in Nigeria."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate introduced S. 1419 -- a bill similar to the Sierra Club Board of Directors' resolution -- calling for an embargo on the sale or distribution of any crude oil or refined petroleum product from Nigeria, the prohibition of new investment in Nigeria, the freezing of Nigerian assets and a ban on Nigerian participation in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. A sanctions bill in the House, H.R. 2697, also calls for a ban on new investments in the country.

An Activist Silenced by Death

Saro-Wiwa, a member of the Ogoni ethnic minority, was a longtime crusader against the environmental degradation caused by Shell in his homeland. Since 1958, Royal Dutch Shell (Shell Oil's parent company) has extracted $30 billion in oil from Ogoniland. The United States is Nigeria's biggest customer, consuming nearly half of its oil exports.

While royalties from these sales fill the coffers of the Nigerian government, the Ogoni have been forced into poverty, their rich farmlands devastated by oil spills and the venting of toxic gases. The Ogoni -- who number about 500,000 of Nigeria's 90 million people -- also lack running water, electricity, adequate schools or health care. Their attempts at resistance have been met with violent repression by the Nigerian military regime.

A successful playwright and television producer, Saro-Wiwa never forgot his roots. He founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People and used his name and connections to heighten global awareness of the Ogoni people's plight. Saro-Wiwa was awarded a 1995 Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts.

In May 1994, Saro-Wiwa was jailed along with 15 others by the Nigerian government, which claimed he had a connection to the murder of four Ogoni leaders during a mob riot. Declared a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International, Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned for eight months before being charged and brought before a military-appointed tribunal in February 1995.

Despite international pressure on Shell in the months leading up to Saro-Wiwa's execution, the company took no action to intervene on his behalf until the final hours. Ignoring public protest, Shell is moving ahead with plans for a vast new natural gas operation in Nigeria.

"After 30-odd years of being a Shell customer, I can no longer consider utilizing Shell products," said Sierra Club Honorary President Edgar Wayburn. "It is impossible to comprehend how an international corporation of longstanding repute could callously condone such appalling human suffering and perpetrate such environmental devastation."

More on Ken Saro-Wiwa

More on Human Rights and the Environment


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