Challenging Nigeria and big oil Hopkins student fights homeland's rulers

January 04, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Growing up in Nigeria surrounded by oil wells, Owens Wiwa barely knew a fresh-water stream that wasn't covered by a film of petroleum. He remembers rain blackened by soot, farms ruined by spillage and oilfield fires so loud that they drove away wildlife.

When he became a physician, Wiwa treated respiratory and skin diseases that he now links to pollution. His indigenous Ogoni people got little or no benefit from their underground wealth, not even electricity or piped water, he says.

Now, from a North Baltimore studio apartment containing little more than a desk, a disheveled bed and a bookcase, Wiwa, 40, is trying to shake up Africa's most populous nation, campaigning for a boycott against the oil giant Shell and for an end to Nigeria's military dictatorship.

"Our livelihood, our right to work and our right to good health had been taken away," he says, describing his crusade, one previously led by his older brother, author-activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose execution in 1995 drove Owens Wiwa into exile.

It's an uphill struggle, even with the backing of human rights and environmental groups, with widespread international condemnation of Nigeria's governmental corruption, suppression of dissent and other human rights abuses and with its major role in world drug trafficking.

Wiwa says a succession of military regimes has allowed multinational oil companies to despoil Nigeria's land and waterways.

While some experts on Africa question the extent of health damage caused by pollution, there is widespread agreement that oil production has damaged the environment.

The main target of his campaign is Royal Dutch/Shell, the chief exporter of Nigerian oil to the United States. Shell has suspended its operations in the Ogoni region in the wake of unrest there, but Ogonis are demanding substantial compensation.

So far, the Clinton administration has sharply criticized Nigeria and imposed a series of limited sanctions, but it has stopped short of the one measure critics say would be effective: an oil embargo.

Administration officials have tried to enlist Europe in imposing stiff punishment short of an oil embargo, with little success. Another complicating factor in U.S. policy is a split in the Congressional Black Caucus between critics of Nigeria and its sympathizers.

Range of problems

U.S. policy-makers have been daunted by Nigeria's array of problems and possibilities: its population of 100 million divided among more than 200 ethnic groups, the legacy of a civil war in the late 1960s that left 1 million dead, the prospect of new ethnic turmoil.

Despite a wealth of natural resources, Nigeria is an economic basket case. It could be a military and political anchor for Africa, but even its peacekeeping role in the strife-torn nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia has been troubled.

Nigeria has been able to tap its oil riches to buy powerful lobbying help in Washington. Such are its size and economic influence -- despite the grinding poverty of the majority of Nigerians -- that it has a powerful ally in corporate America.

While carrying his message to more than 30 college campuses around the United States, Wiwa is pursuing a master's degree in public hygiene at the Johns Hopkins University.

His wife, Diana, also an activist, and their 4-year-old son, Befii, are in Toronto, where the Wiwas make their home.

Wiwa's odyssey from country doctor to student-activist began in the Niger River Delta, near Nigeria's Atlantic coast, home to the 500,000-member Ogonis.

Born into a polygamous household of 35 children, Wiwa grew up just as oil was being exploited beneath the Niger Delta.

In the Ogoni area's 160 square miles, there are more than 100 oil wells, five gas flow stations, a petro-chemical complex, two oil refineries and fertilizer production sites, Wiwa says. His Anglican Sunday school teacher used to point to the flames bursting from the oil wells as a vivid depiction of hell.

After studying medicine on a scholarship and a period of national service spent treating student officers, he returned to practice in the Niger Delta in the mid-1980s.

At the Ogonis' only hospital, "I was shocked by the high incidence of respiratory and skin diseases," he later said in his application to Hopkins.

He also became increasingly aware of environmental damage: "Gas flares poisoned the air. Oil seepage and spillages into the streams polluted the water supply. Large areas of land had been destroyed by blow-outs from the oil wells."

Opening two health clinics, he treated and documented ailments related to environmental damage, he says.

The extent of health damage has been called into question by a 1995 World Bank study, which said the effect of pollution on health was not expected to be substantial.

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