Nigerian dissident faces death penalty

The sham trial of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa has angered internationa l jurists, Karl Maier in Lagos reports

"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."

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Life and Style
tech

Apple has been hit by complaints about the 1.1GB download

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff
tv

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife
film

Matt Smith is set to join cast of the Jane Austen classic - with a twist

Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
tv

Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
Life and Style
i100

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer - Watford/NW London - £320 - £330 p/d - 6 months

£320 - £330 per day: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have been engaged by a l...

Nursery assistants required in Cambridge

£10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

Year 4 Teacher

£20000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to wo...

English Teacher Thetford Secondary

£110 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: An Academy based in Thetfor...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week