Nigeria: A new generation fights for a pollution-free future

On the anniversary of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution, we meet one of the young Nigerians now challenging Shell to clean up massive oil pollution across the Niger Delta.

“People talk about pollution,” says Fyneface Dumnamene Fyneface (pictured above). “But many have not experienced it. I have felt pollution. I have drunk polluted water. I have spent my whole life in a polluted environment.”

This life steeped in pollution propelled Fyneface into a movement made famous by another tenacious activist: the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa -­ an icon of the struggle for human rights and environmental justice in Nigeria.

Fyneface may indeed have a ‘fine face’, but he has made a name for himself as a vocal opponent of the oil companies that started pumping oil out of the Niger Delta long before he was born.

People’s livelihoods have been destroyed,” says Fyneface, his energy and anger palpable as he stands in front of a Ken Saro-Wiwa poster in his office in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

“They don’t have good water to drink. Seafood has been destroyed. Their cassava and other things they plant on the farms are no longer doing well.”

Right now, people worldwide are telling Shell to live up to its ambitions to “make the future” by cleaning up 50 years of devastating oil pollution in Nigeria. 

An international outcry

“Ken Saro Wiwa’s activism played a significant role in my life,” Fyneface continues. “It inspired me to work for the Ogoni people [Ogoniland is part of the wider, oil-rich Niger Delta region]. I saw him once speaking in 1992, three years before he was killed.”

Saro-Wiwa formed the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People in 1990 to challenge the oil companies’ toxic legacy. Thousands of oil spills have killed plants and wildlife, stolen people’s jobs and poisoned the land and water here since the 1950s.

Saro-Wiwa led a mass movement challenging Nigeria’s then military rulers to give Ogoniland political autonomy, and a bigger share of the oil wealth.

The region’s unfolding environmental disaster made international headlines when the Nigerian military government condemned Saro-Wiwa to death alongside eight other men in 1995. Together, they became known as the Ogoni 9.

Their execution on 10 November 1995 sparked a worldwide outcry. Nigeria’s environmental movement had lost a dynamic leader. But since then a new generation has stepped in to carry on the legacy.

Contaminated land around Shell's Bomu Manifold site, near K. Dere village. Contaminated land around Shell's Bomu Manifold site, near K. Dere village.
Land contaminated with oil around Shell's Bomu Manifold site, near K. Dere village in the Niger Delta. © Amnesty International

Clean it up

Fyneface started young. As a university student, he coined the term “Fynefaceism” to fight corruption in the school exam system.

Today, he works hard to keep the issue alive – often appearing on radio and TV programmes. Amnesty and a local organization - the Center for the Environment Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) - have also trained Fyneface and many other activists to monitor how Shell responds when oil spills happen in their communities.

Amnesty’s research shows that the company is very slow to clean up when spills happen. In August this year, we found that least four oil spill sites - which Shell publicly says it has cleaned up - are still contaminated.

Fyneface recently returned from a trip to Bodo in Ogoniland, a community that won £55 million in compensation from Shell in January 2015. But the local water and soil are still polluted, and Fyneface is determined to get Shell to clean up the mess - not just in Bodo, but across the Niger Delta.

“Shell needs to do more,” he says. “Wherever they go, they must protect our environment for the present generation and the generation yet unborn.”

The Nigerian government has its own part to play in this tragedy. Fyneface wants it to pass a new law guaranteeing stronger regulation of the oil industry, and that people will benefit from local oil projects.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of nine environmental activists from Ogoniland in the Niger Delta who were executed after a grossly unfair trial on 10 November 1995. © Amnesty International/Karen de Groot

Carrying on the legacy

Candlelit vigils will be held in Nigeria and worldwide to mark the 20th anniversary of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution on 10 November. Thousands will remember the sacrifice he and his eight colleagues made all those years ago, hanged after being found guilty of murder following a grossly unfair trial.

To Fyneface, the anniversary is an opportunity for us all to carry on their legacy. “I will not forget Amnesty and other groups that have come together to make the Ogoni voice heard,” he says, smiling broadly. “But more needs to be done.”

He can’t help feeling frustrated by the failures littering the landscape of the past.

“Twenty years and Ogoniland is still polluted,” says Fyneface. “20 years and no justice has been achieved. Twenty years have gone by and what they fought for still has not been addressed. That cannot continue.”

And this is what really gets Fyneface going. This refusal to accept the status quo. This determination to achieve what Ken Saro-Wiwa and his movement fought so hard for.

“This 20th anniversary should be used to amplify the voice of the people of the Niger Delta,” he says.

I’m ready to continue from where Ken Saro-Wiwa stopped. Let’s carry on his legacy alongside a new generation of Nigerian activists, and make the future clean in the Niger Delta.
Fyneface Dumnamene Fyneface