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Human rights, corporations and your campus

by Archives March 16, 2005

“Media warrior” Ken Wiwa addressed a packed house Thursday in Concordia’s Hall building, speaking about his experiences as an activist and the need for students to protect their campuses from corporate monopolization.

His lecture, “Human Rights, Corporations and Your Campus”, was standing room only as students and faculty members packed H-110 to listen to the words of one of today’s most vigorous activists.

“It’s getting harder and harder to see where a campus ends and a corporation begins,” said Wiwa.

Born in Nigeria and educated at the University of London, Wiwa is the eldest son of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the internationally renowned ecologist who was put to death in Nigeria on Dec. 10, 1995. Since then, Wiwa has dedicated himself to helping the Ogoni people in their ongoing fight against Shell Oil, a corporation that has earned over $100 billion from Nigeria’s oil supply while the country racked up a $40 billion debt.

“The people of Nigeria have suffered genocide,” said Wiwa. “If you look up the UN’s definition of genocide, you will see that this is true.”

Wiwa explained how in 1956, Nigeria’s people and land were “cursed” when an abundant oil supply was found in the heart of the country. He said that what had once been a self-sufficient country is now a place where food, water and shelter are often scarce.

“Only last year did they receive electricity,” Wiwa said of his people, “and they still have no access to clean water.”

In 1990, Wiwa’s father had envisioned the non-violent uprising of the Ogoni people. Protest marches were organized and Saro-Wiwa began receiving substantial media coverage. Wiwa still believes that Shell conspired with the military government to kill his father and thousands of other Ogoni people between 1993 and 1995.

“My father was killed because he tried to expose corporations,” Wiwa said. “He was arrested five times in his last 18 months and after his death, Shell said that it was a victim of unscrupulous activists.”

Wiwa said that approximately 70 per cent of Nigerians live in poverty.

“The country exists to serve corporations’ interests,” Wiwa said.

Philip Watts, the former chief executive for Royal Dutch/Shell Group, announced in the mid-’90s that he had overstated Shell’s reserves by four million barrels. Following a media frenzy, Shell’s stock plummeted and the company was sued.

Wiwa, on the other hand, has been involved in a 10-year human rights lawsuit with Shell and has received minimal media attention. “It shows what’s wrong with our economic system,” Wiwa explained. “Private agendas will always be put before the public interest.”

Furthermore, after retiring in March 2004, Watts was named one of the best managers in 2004 by Business Week Online for running a company where 14 per cent of total profits came from Nigeria.

“They said that they were struggling to have their story told, a story that involved state-run ownership leading the show.”

According to Wiwa, the 21st century began in 1989 with the close of the Cold War. He said it was then that people were promised ecological advancements, or what is known as a green revolution. He explained that promises to enfranchise different peoples were broken because the flow of oil had to continue.

“People who have taken on these corporations have seen how [the companies] can flex their economic muscles,” Wiwa said, adding that corporations can do good but are often unable to resist temptations.

“Big businesses know that they need a social dimension,” Wiwa said, “but it’s a realization of a problem they would never admit.”

Wiwa also spoke about changes to universities, saying that new technologies are de-humanizing campus life and that most universities are placing profit ahead of anything else.

Responding to an audience member’s question, Wiwa said he is much better off following the path he is on now, rather than staging the mass uprising his father had envisioned. He explained that corporations are becoming increasingly frustrated with his small gestures of protest.

“It’s not much that they see me on BBC,” Wiwa explained, “but it’s the small gestures that get to these people. I continued to protest and speak and it is of great [concern] to them.”

Wiwa encouraged Concordia’s student body to stand firm on issues that affect their campus, most notably the recent decision to strike due to the province’s cuts to student bursaries.

“Continue to do what you do. Corporations thrive off of silence,” Wiwa said. “They want your silence.”

In closing, Wiwa said that people need to find a way to remake the world. He said free trade would be good if it actually operated according to its definition instead of the way it is presently being managed.

“The landscape is getting more difficult,” Wiwa said, “and with that you’ll have to become more creative.”

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