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Activists team up to condemn regimes in Kenya and Nigeria

By Pratap Chatterjee

WASHINGTON, Oct 19 (IPS) -- Wangari Maathai, a leading Kenyan democracy and environmental activist, marched and chanted outside an office building in the business district of this city Thursday with a little black plastic bottle balanced on her head.

The bottle was an empty container of Shell oil; the building housed the Washington offices of Shell. Marching and chanting with Maathai were another 50-odd people, including Barbara Dudley, the head of Greenpeace USA, and William Shulz, chief of Amnesty International USA.

Maathai and the other activists were gathered to condemn both the government of Nigeria as well as that of Kenya for human rights abuses and to call on companies like Shell in Nigeria and Abercrombie and Kent, a tourism multinational operateing in Kenya, to pull out of those countries.

Amnesty International has launched an international campaign to press both governments to respect human rights and release political prisoners.

''Shell oil, you're in cahoots, Nigeria kills for your loot. Shell, Shell get it straight, no pollution, pillage or rape,'' sang the activists as they marched.

Beside them, activists held banners that read, ''Wake up Shell, you hold the key to freedom in Nigeria,'' and ''No blood for oil,'' a reference to the environmental and human rights abuses on the land of the Ogoni indigenous people in the West African country where Shell is extracting oil.

Half an hour before the protest started outside the Shell offices, the three activists addressed journalists a few blocks away. Joining them on the podium was Randall Robinson, the president of TransAfrica, an African-American foreign policy lobby group, and Donald Payne, the leader of the caucus of black members of the U.S. Congress.

The activists told journalists that over 1500 people have died in ethnic violence in the Rift Valley of Kenya in the last few years, while 300,000 more have been forced out of their homes.

Amnesty believes that this violence was instigated by the government of President Daniel arap Moi which has governed the country since 1978. The Moi government held multi-party elections in 1992 which resulted in victory for his own party.

Amnesty also said that Koigi wa Wamwere, a human rights activist and former member of parliament, was thrown in prison for trying to investigate the violence and was sentenced to a lengthy jail term. Another 79 journalists, together with 56 opposition and 80 elderly women have been harassed, mistreated, arrested or convicted on similar charges including Maathai, Amnesty said.

Maathai, who became famous for starting the Greenbelt Movement, a women's group that carries out grassroots reforestation projects, said the government is now stealing the reforested areas. ''Moi has taken ur forest land to reward his stooges despite the fact that only three percent of my country is covered with forests,'' she told journalists.

''If it is bad to kill people in Rwanda, it ought to be bad to kill people by destroying their land and siphoning off their resources. You cannot just say I do not approve of the slave trade without condemning the slave traders also,'' she added.

The activists pointed out that multinational businesses held powerful leverage over the two governments. Tourism accounts for 40 percent of Kenya's revenue, while 80 percent of Nigeria's export earnings come from oil production, most of which is pumped by Shell.

''Shell Oil is clearly putting profits before human rights in the most self-serving of ways. Amnesty international calls upon Shell oil at all its corporate levels to face up to the nature of the regime with which it has linked hands and to realise that it is now pumping the blood of innocents along with its gas,'' said Shulz.

''Shell has made 30 billion dollars from our lands since 1958,'' said Barika Idamkue, a representative of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni people (MOSOP) from Nigeria. ''In other countries people would go smiling to the bank but what we receive is death. We have no water, no electricity, no schools, no roads and no hospitals for 500,000 people,'' he told journalists.

Several of the speakers referred to the plight of Ken Saro- Wiwa, the leader of MOSOP, who was abducted from his home by the Nigerian military and police early on a Sunday morning in May, 1994.

''Today, almost 17 months later, he is still in jail, awaiting the judgement of a military tribunal which has mocked justice since its inception. In eleven days, on October 30, the Nigerian military will decide whether Ken Saro-Wiwa lives or dies,'' said Idamkue.

Shulz argued that the U.S. government should also take up this matter. ''Why should any of this matter to the United States? Kenya is key to access to the Horn of Africa: it was the seat from which U.S. operations in Somalia were launched. Nigeria supplies us with up to ten percent of our oil,'' he said.

Shell denies that the problem in Nigeria is the government's fault. ''We're upset because not all the facts are correct,'' said a spokesperson for Shell in New York. ''We stopped our operations in Ogoni territory in 1993 after our flow stations were vandalised by the community. Some 69 percent of the problems with our pipelines since 1985 have been traced to hacksaw cuts and tampering by the community,'' he said.

''We don't collude with the Nigerian government and we cannot influence them. We are a commercial business and not a political one. That is the way we operated in South Africa and that is the way we have operated in every country,'' he added.

''We are very upset about the treatment of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the abuse of democracy. We support human rights principles and we believe he has the right to air and hold his own views,'' he said.(ENDS/IPS/PC/JL/95)