Recounting the tragedies and triumphs of Nigeria's Ogoni people

International human-rights struggles tend to outlive their moment in the media spotlight -- if they are lucky enough to ever enjoy a moment in the media spotlight. Where do the local heroes go when the cameras go away? What do they do? If we are speaking about the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), one of the places they went is South St. Louis, and one of the things they do is celebrate the birth of their struggle every Jan. 4. Even here, far from the swampy, oily Niger delta where this all began.

The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People got its 15 seconds (so to speak) on CNN in November 1995, when its courageous leader, the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, was executed by the Nigerian military government. Nigeria was trying to silence a movement of indigenous people against the despoliation of their land by Shell Oil, the prime profiteer off Ogoni soil since British colonial days. An international outcry was briefly heard via the media, but Nigeria hanged Saro-Wiwa (and eight other core MOSOP leaders) anyway and got away with it.

Then, when they got away with it, the dictatorship declared a manhunt on other key activists, and many fled into exile, congregating initially at a refugee camp in Benin. From there, thousands of Ogoni were relocated through the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Eight MOSOP activists -- including Noble Obani-Nwibari, a vice president of the movement -- turned up in St. Louis in February 1996 and soon started appearing in the pages of the RFT as they translated their struggle to the streets of St. Louis, picketing Shell stations and attracting strong local support. They must have done something right, because their efforts repeatedly drew Shell officials to St. Louis and did not go without mention in Nigeria.

If the local MOSOP contingent has fallen somewhat silent in these pages of late, it is not because they have been inactive. Perhaps they have been most tangibly successful in their effort to get colleagues and loved ones out of the refugee camp and into apartments in South St. Louis, which has become a sort of Little Ogoni. More than 100 MOSOP activists live here now, most of them in the South Grand neighborhood, prompting local supporter Tim Pickering to dub Ellenwood -- a street with a particularly acute concentration of the exiles -- "Ogoniwood." Pickering has been particularly helpful with some of the less glamorous (and, indeed, scarcely political) aspects of supporting political exiles, such as furnishing homes with bare necessities like couches and tilapia, a favored Ogoni fish. (Pickering jokes that he heads a new activist group, MFMOOF -- Movement for the Movement of Ogoni Furniture.)

The local Ogoni have had occasions to celebrate other than the welcoming of loved ones to safety and hopes of employment and nourishment. In June 1998, Gen. Sani Abacha -- the dictator who had ordered the hanging of Saro-Wiwa -- fell dead of a heart attack, which the fervently Christian Ogoni interpreted as prayers come true. After a period of transitional military rule, on May 29 of this year the democratically elected Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn into the Nigerian presidency, a development that Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka deemed "sad" but one that MOSOP generally views as a step in the right direction -- without forgetting that when Obasanjo ruled Nigeria as a military man he facilitated the exploitation of natural resources like Ogoni oil. "The people of the Niger delta have not forgotten that Obasanjo's military government promulgated the Land Use Decree of 1978, one of the most obnoxious decrees that usurped their natural rights to the ownership of their land and natural resources," MOSOP activist Barika Idamkue has written.

The new, civilian Obasanjo has given the Ogoni one great reason to celebrate. Among the Ogoni's many reasons to mourn -- besides destroyed villages, executed leaders, polluted land, widespread poverty, exile -- has been the fact that Saro-Wiwa and the other eight MOSOP leaders hanged by Abacha were never given proper burial in Ogoni soil. One suspects some latent reverence for spirits of the earth in the insistence that Ogoni remains must be returned to Ogoni soil, but Noble Obani-Nwibari, the MOSOP vice president who lives in St. Louis, cites a different religious tradition: "The Bible says we must return to the dust where we came out from," he says, and, indeed, Obasanjo has agreed that on April 24, 2000, Saro-Wiwa and the other executed MOSOP leaders will be interred in Ogoni soil.

That will be a big day for the Ogoni people -- and MOSOP's most choice political moment since Saro-Wiwa's hanging. (They may even enjoy another day of international headlines and sound bites. All those old support Web sites may click to life once again.) But every year MOSOP has a day that is vital to the Ogoni struggle -- Jan. 4, Ogoni Day -- the date on which, in 1993, MOSOP first came out en masse, announcing a struggle for environmental justice and human rights from a people who had previously been silent. "Every Jan. 4," Obani-Nwibari says, "we gather to remember the day we woke up from our slumber to confront injustice. We gather to educate people about the troubles in the Niger delta and the importance of the environment. The environment is human beings' No. 1 wealth, our No. 1 right."

In St. Louis, Ogoni Day has come to mean, typically, a Shell picket and a cultural celebration tinged with Christian worship. This year will be no exception, though a little dramatic color has been added in the form of a candlelit procession. MOSOP and its supporters will meet at 7 p.m. Jan. 4 at the Shell station at the corner of Grand and Gravois (deep in the heart of Little Ogoni), then proceed -- after a few hearty cries of "Boycott Shell!" -- by that candlelit procession to Messiah Lutheran Church, 2846 S. Grand Blvd., where, in the words of Obani-Nwibari, "we will pray to God for strength and recite some of Ken's works and show a video and provide some of our Ogoni cultural dances." Activists willing to brave the cold -- and anyone curious about political exiles from Africa now making their way on Ted Drewes' turf -- should come get to know the courageous people CNN forgot.

For more information, call 832-5551.

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