The irresistible rise of global anticapitalism


 Carnival of the Oppressed

The indigenous Ogoni people who inhabit the Niger Delta - led by writer Ken Saro-Wiwa - have led a determined opposition to the oil multinationals who have devastated the lives of those living in this rich ecological region. In 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged with 8 other Ogoni activists by the military dictatorship with the tacit support of Shell. His brother, fellow activist Owens Wiwa, went into exile. In this piece from an interview, Owens talks about what he found when he returned to Ogoniland from exile in 1999. The “Carnival of the Oppressed” held on the streets of Port Harcourt to welcome him home was part of an international day of action against global capitalism, held during the G8 summit in Cologne, Germany. While 10,000 people held a Carnival Against Capital in London, UK, Ijaw and Ogoni youth were removing the sign of main road named after the dictator General Abacha, and renamed it Ken Saro-Wiwa Road during their carnival against “imperialism and corporate rule”.


I left Ogoniland in 1994. I remember it was the 22nd of May. I found out that I was declared wanted, and so I didn’t go back. I went underground in Nigeria for a year, then I went into exile. I arrived back in Nigeria on June 10th 1999 . I flew into the airport in Port Harcourt, and five thousand people came out to receive me. It was a wonderful reception that turned into a mass demonstration against what the corporations have done to the indigenous populations of the Niger Delta.

Twenty-two communities of the Niger Delta took part in the Carnival of the Oppressed, including the Chikoko, Ijaw, Isoko, Ikwerre, the Urhobol National Congress, the Itsekiri Youth Vanguard, the Egi People’s Forum and Egi Women’s Movement - many, many different communities came in their truckloads and busloads from all the different corners of the Niger Delta. Together they created a convoy that stretched out five kilometres (2 miles) behind us.

We made a first stop at a major road junction, where we laid a wreath in memory of Ken. Then we carried mock coffins to the oil company headquarters of Agip. We went on to Ken’s old office and performed a ceremony for his martyrdom and in memory of the others that died with him.

To me the carnival was amazing. There was lots of dancing in the street. I was so honoured. There were so many dancing in the street they blocked the whole of Port Harcourt! There was carnival dancing, masquerades, music everywhere, everyone in the streets - it was quite a sight to see!

Then we went in the Shell headquarters and repeated the carnivalesque atmosphere, gave rousing speeches, and we blockaded the Shell offices. Up to ten thousand people took the great risk to come out onto the streets. Luckily we had already taken the precaution of alerting international society so that the government knew they were being watched.

From there we travelled to Ogoniland. From the moment we entered Ogoniland to the point where we reached my own village, there were thousands of people lining the roads the entire way. When we got there, every shop was shut, every market closed, the whole town had shut down and come onto the streets to welcome us home. There were 20,000 people on the roads and routes and through streets on the way down to my own villages. Masses of people from my village had come, then another 10,000 arrived. Ultimately I would say about 50-70,000 people in Ogoniland participated in my homecoming. It was very humbling.

Shell and the government tried to use force to cower us against our aspiration, but we came out to celebrate anyway.

When I went back to Ogoniland, I saw a group of people who were very visibly proud that they were able to drive one of the biggest transnational corporations in the world off their land. But I also could see that there was a lot of poverty.

Shell had not cleared up any of the spillages in Ogoniland, the pipelines were still on the surface, they had not been buried. One thing that had changed, however, was that the gas flares had gone. The Ogoni had put a stop to those. Compared to a few years earlier, when Ken was still alive, the trees were green again. There was a visible change in the vegetation due to the fact that there was no more.28 oil drilling going on.

But the people were so visibly poor, and the inner anger against Shell was visible in their faces. You could see it in their eyes when the name Shell was mentioned. People in the region had been abused, raped, beaten, tortured. Still there had been no redress, no compensation for the human rights abuse and the destruction of the environment. They’ve had no redress from Shell. But the people are still very resolute and said that they did not want Shell to ever come back to Ogoniland.

Shell has made a lot of moves to divide people, to get some in the community on their side so that they will help Shell back into Ogoniland. There is a lot of bribery going on, especially of key people like chiefs, to use their influence to invite Shell back. But the women especially, the women will not be bought over.

Many other groups in the Niger Delta had also become aware of the economic, environmental, and human rights abuses going on and have increased their actions in working against Shell and other oil companies in the area. The oil companies’ activities are backed up by the military police. Aside from Shell, the other companies involved in oil drilling in the Niger Delta include Chevron, Agip, Mobil, Elf, and BP. These are the main players in the region.

I also saw more drilling, both on and off-shore, than when Ken was alive - but not in Ogoniland. There was definitely an increased environmental a wareness around the whole community, with an increase in civil actions. In relation to government, there was more freedom of speech and association but still incidents of senior military personnel arresting and molesting people, especially those resisting the oil companies.

When I was in Ogoniland, I did not see the community development of which Shell speaks. [Shell’s “Profits and principles, does there have to be a choice?” report claims it has built many community development projects in the region.] I saw new roads built by Shell, but these were ringing their own facilities, and served only Shell. The roads I saw were not the priority of the Ogoni people. Ogonis don’t have cars, and these roads take up the land and carry loggers to our remaining

The community development priorities of the Ogoni people are to clean up the polluted land, and the polluted rivers, so that they may be used once more for farming and fishing. So that ill health maybe tackled, so that the people are no longer drinking polluted water. And so that they will not be malnourished because they can once more get the protein they need from the fish in the rivers. The killing off of the fish in the waters means people are malnourished and especially vulnerable to disease.

“For a commercial company trying to make investments, you need a stable environment ... Dictatorships can give you that.”
- Naemeka Achebe, Shell’s general manager in Nigeria, in 1995, a few months before the Nigerian government hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa.

So there is a big disconnect between the brand and the reality. It’s very important and strengthening to know that our struggle is not just local. Solidarity is always hopeful in many ways . Linking all our struggles, which we realize are really the same, gives us great encouragement - to see that others are in the struggle. If we connect with people in other places our struggle becomes internationalised, in that way we can look at our programmatic similarities and we don’t just remain isolated. And if we stay isolated, we will be wiped out. If the government knows we are part of a wider network they know they have to be more cautious.

Marginalised peoples in all parts of the world need to be making connections, coming together to develop conjoined solutions. You can see commonalties for example between the indigenous peoples in the Amazon, in Australia. The process of globalisation has destroyed our wealth, the natural resources we use to sustain ourselves with and that made us prosper. But we draw great hope from this globalisation from be l o w. It is going well. But it is a very slow process. To do it properly, really from the ground up, is a very slow process. I have grown to understand that good things come slowly to people like us.

I worry that our collective pace in combating globalisation is too slow compared to the rapid rate that economic globalisation is occurring. It is creating a space that nothing is filling. Our own slowness of movement cannot catch up with the fast pace of economic globalisation - its speed, its momentum is like a train going too fast. Perhaps we do need to speed up our protest and our resistance, roadblock the rails or pursue the train faster. It is very difficult.

I was in Seattle. It was incredibly gratifying to see people from the U.S. on the streets protesting against corporate rule there. But one thing our friends in the North should know: that big corporations, the extractive industries - if you want to stop them, you have got to stop them at the point of production, as well as disrupting the meetings. So it is especially important to disrupt the process at the other end, to support the people who are fighting globalisation from the grassroots in Southern countries.

In Ogoniland we use the method of the human shield - a simple, nonviolent human shield. Often it is the women who stand at the forefront. We use the biggest resource we have - humans - to prevent the oil companies from getting access to their weapons of mass destruction - to drill the earth, spoil the earth, drill for oil. Our processes involve making sure every body is involved through democratic processes, holding a council meeting. We held lots of rallies in every village every week and different groups choose to form together, through self-organisation, through self-building. In this way everybody in the community becomes mobilized.

We are working for freedom, for economic and social freedom. The corporations are dictating our lives right now. And I am fighting for my brother’s name to be cleared. I want it to be known that he was a man of peace, a man who gave his life so that those struggling against corporate power can do so without being killed, so that people can live in dignity.

-Owens Wiwa