Nigerian dissident faces death penalty

The sham trial of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa has angered internationa l jurists, Karl Maier in Lagos reports
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The Independent Online
"TRUTH IS powerful and always victorious. It may lose sometimes, but only for a while." So wrote Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni leader on trial for murder, in his volume of folk tales, The Singing Anthill.

But there is little chance that the truth will emerge this week, either for Mr Saro-Wiwa or for the four traditional chiefs who were slaughtered by a mob of his supporters last May. A tribunal appointed by Nigeria's military government is about to give its verdict after the 10-month trial of 15 Ogoni activists charged with murder. Mr Saro-Wiwa and his fellow- accused face the death penalty if convicted.

Dismissed as a show trial by Nigerian and international legal experts, the tribunal was appointed by General Sani Abacha's military government and consists of two judges and a military officer. There is no right of appeal and it will be up to General Abacha's Provisional Ruling Council to confirm the sentences. The accused were unable to meet their defence counsel until the trial started and after that only with the consent, and often the presence, of the regional military commander, Lt-Col Paul Okuntimo - a man who has been quoted as saying he knows 204 ways to kill a person.

Mr Saro-Wiwa, who suffers from a weak heart, says he was tortured in detention.

The original defence team of respected human rights lawyers, headed by Chief Gani Fawehinmi, withdrew in protest at the tribunal's slipshod handling of justice. Two prosecution witnesses have sworn they were bribed to give false testimony.

At best, Mr Saro-Wiwa is likely to join former president Olusegun Obasanjo, Chief Moshood Abiola, winner of the annulled presidential elections of 1993, and the Campaign for Democracy leader, Beko Ransome-Kuti, for an extended stay in jail.

"It is my view that the breaches of fundamental rights ... are so serious as to arouse grave concern that any trial before this tribunal will be fundamentally flawed and unfair," Michael Birnbaum QC, a British criminal lawyer, wrote in a report published by Article 19 in association with the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, and the Law Society.

Mr Saro-Wiwa and the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop) he leads have been a thorn in the side of the government ever since they began campaigning five years ago to force the Shell oil company to clean up the environmental mess caused by its operations and to pass a greater share of revenues to the Ogonis. Mosop has called for its own state within Nigeria.

Thirty-seven years after Shell began drilling for oil in the area, the 400 square miles of Ogoniland in Rivers State of the Niger delta is dotted with oil spills, contaminated water and gas flares. Its 500,000 people live in one of the most heavily populated and polluted places on earth, with few schools and health clinics. Shell halted operations in Ogoniland in mid-1993 in the face of strident Mosop protests.

By targeting the oil industry, which provides more than 80 per cent of Nigeria's export revenues, Mr Saro-Wiwa attacked the vital artery that has kept the heart of military rule beating for all but 10 of the country's 35 years of independence. A special government commission reported last year that the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida, in which General Abacha served as No 2, had misappropriated $12bn (pounds 7.8bn).

Widespread repression of the Ogonis by the security forces drove Mosop into a mental bunker of intolerance against any Ogoni leaders who urged moderation and negotiation.

Those who attacked a meeting of Ogoni chiefs in the village of Goikoo, killing four of them, including a former Mosop vice-president, Edward Kobani, were supporters of Mr Saro-Wiwa, although he has accused the military of planning to kill Ogonis to stir up internal divisions.

Mosop was formed in October 1990, and led a demonstration against Shell that month in Umuechem, an oil-producing area 10 miles east of Ogoniland. Shell asked for protection, and the mobile police, commonly known in Nigeria as "kill and go", attacked the demonstrators with gunfire and teargas. The next day the police returned and up to 80 people were killed. The operation set the pattern for the next five years.

Garrick Leton, who was president of Mosop, and Chief Kobani broke with Mr Saro- Wiwa, then the publicity secretary, in 1993. They resigned in opposition to his confrontational tactics, his decision to set up Mosop-controlled subsidiary organisations, such as a youth council (Nycop), a women's association, and a council of traditional leaders. They disagreed with his call for a boycott of the 1993 presidential elections.

In August 1993, the militarybegan to encourage neighbouring ethnic groups to attack the Ogonis, starting with an assault on the village of Kaa by a combined force of Andonis and soldiers. The government dismissed the raid as a tribal clash, but villagers said they had seen soldiers using automatic weapons and grenades.

Since then, Mr Saro-Wiwa has won widespread, often uncritical international support. He has won several human rights awards, the latest of which was accepted by his son in London last week. But in Ogoniland, Mosop and its youth wing have been harsh to Ogonis who question Mosop's tactics. Many conservative chiefs have fled to Port Harcourt in fear of their lives.

On 21 May last year, Mr Saro-Wiwa was travelling to a rally when soldiers stopped his car at Kpopie junction, less than a mile from Goikoo, where the more conservative chiefs were meeting. The soldiers told Mr Saro-Wiwa to turn back. Before he did, the prosecution alleges, he told supporters to "deal" with the "vultures", an epithet for opponents of Mosop. Mr Saro- Wiwa denies saying those words.

Over the next six months, Lt-Col Okuntimo's men launched a wave of repression against at least 60 villages. Human rights groups have accused the security forces of up to 50 extra-judicial executions. "Soldiers and mobile police stormed houses, breaking down doors and windows with their boots, the butts of their guns, and machetes," said New York-based Human Rights Watch/ Africa. "Villagers, including children and the elderly, were severely beaten and sometimes shot. Many women were raped."

After the sentencing, Mr Saro-Wiwa will be looking to international pressure for succour. His defence statement said: "Any nation which can do to the weak and disadvantaged what the Nigerian nation has done to the Ogoni loses a claim to independence and to freedom from outside influence."