Hundreds of members of Nigeria's Ogoni minority have marched in the oil city of Port Harcourt to mark the tenth anniversary of the execution of rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa after he protested against the energy giant Shell.
Following an overnight candlelit vigil in Bori Thursday, the would-be "capital" of Ogoni, more than 1,000 of Saro-Wiwa's supporters marched through the centre of the southern city to protest what they allege is their people's continued persecution and economic marginalisation by the Nigerian state.
"Once our people is united around a just cause we must win, we shall win," declared Ledum Mitee, a lawyer who took on Saro-Wiwa's mantle as leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), a non-violent group pushing for Ogoni autonomy.
Mitee led the march to Isaac Boro Park, named after a former ethnic Ijaw separatist leader who was assassinated during Nigeria's 1967-70 civil war.
Large numbers of police armed with assault rifles were deployed around the area, but there was no initial sign of trouble and organisers called on MOSOP supporters to remain calm.
"Ken Saro-Wiwa was our leader and is still our leader even in his grave. We believe in this struggle," said 35-year-old civil servant Raphael Saue, as protesters waved the Ogoni banner and sang traditional songs.
"You can kill the messenger, but not the message. Ogoni must survive," read one banner.
Saro-Wiwa and eight of his comrades in MOSOP were hanged on November 10, 1995, by Nigeria's then military regime after a controversial trial in which the writer and politician was accused of ordering the murder of four prominent Ogonis.
The executions sparked international condemnation -- Nigeria was kicked out of the Commonwealth -- and most Ogonis still believe that Saro-Wiwa was framed because he opposed the government and Anglo-Dutch oil firm Royal Dutch Shell.
Ogoniland is a tract of densely-inhabited forest and farmland lying along the fringes of the Niger Delta wetlands north and east of Port Harcourt. It is home to around 500,000 Ogonis and massive and proven oil and gas reserves.
Shell owns the rights to pump Ogoni oil and was already earning large revenues from the territory in the early 1990s when MOSOP began to mount protests.
Saro-Wiwa argued that Ogoni farmland and fishing areas were being damaged by oil pollution and that the industry's profits were not being shared with local communities. The military reacted with savage punishment raids, driving thousands of Ogonis into exile.
Mitee said that Shell would not be allowed to return to Ogoniland until it found a way to prevent pollution poisoning the region and paid full compensation to the community.
Earlier this year, the Nigerian government set up a committee, headed by a Roman Catholic cleric, Matthew Hassan Kukah, to reconcile Shell with MOSOP. The panel has made little progress, however, and Shell officials say they are in no hurry to return.
Shell has always insisted it had nothing to do with the decision to try Saro-Wiwa, but in the face of local anger and an international consumer boycott it shut down its Ogoni operations in 1993 -- before the executions took place -- and has yet to reopen the pumps.
Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999 but, while Ogoniland has been spared much of the violence that has raged elsewhere in the delta in recent years, Saro-Wiwa's people remain politically weak and mired in poverty.
Many villages which had once hoped to become the hubs of an oil-rich autonomous ethnic region are now poverty-stricken backwaters of mud-brick homes whose bitter owners have no running water or mains electricity.
Bane, Saro-Wiwa's village, has neither electricity, tarred roads nor clean drinking water. Villagers drink from a stream.
Since the days of Saro-Wiwa MOSOP has led a non-violent struggle for autonomy and control over mineral resources, but elsewhere in the delta armed groups representing other minorities and political factions have caused mayhem.
Conflict experts estimate that more than 1,000 people are killed every year in clashes between the gang and security forces.
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