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Thursday, 21 September, 2000, 22:48 GMT 23:48 UK
Obasanjo: Unite for Saro-Wiwa's sake
Ken Saro-Wiwa
Ken Saro-Wiwa: Revered by the Ogoni people
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has visited Ogoniland in the Niger Delta and appealed to its people to unite in memory of their late leader Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Thousands of people came out to welcome President Obasanjo who was elected in 1999, after more than 15 years of military rule.


I know what it means to have death hanging over your head

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo

He is the first Nigerian leader to visit the politically explosive region since Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and human rights activist, was executed in 1995 along with eight supporters.

Mr Saro-Wiwa led a campaign against the Nigerian government and oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell for a better deal for Ogonis, saying oil exploitation had devastated their environment and left them in poverty.

'Supreme sacrifce'

The hanging of the nine activists led to international sanctions against Nigeria and its suspension from the Commonwealth.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo
Obasanjo: Jailed during military regime

The president asked the crowd to hold a minute's silence for the executed men whom he described as "the sons of Ogoni who paid the supreme sacrifice".

The Ogonis are just one of dozens of small ethnic minorities in the impoverished oil-producing region which was under heavy military control for much of the 1990s.

Mr Obasanjo himself spent more than three years in jail during the rule of late military dictator General Sani Abacha and was given a death sentence which was later reprieved.

He said he understood what the Ogonis had suffered.

"I feel touched because I know what it means to have death hanging over your head," he said.

The president urged the region's people to work together to develop the economy of an impoverished area, rich in oil but poor in infrastructure and jobs.

"I don't want to say forget the past, otherwise we might repeat the mistakes of the past," Mr Obasanjo said. "But let us put the past behind us so that we can move forward."

Controversy

The president arrived in the regional capital Bori at about 1000 (0900 GMT) Thursday and was greeted by local Ogoni chiefs. He was given a traditional Ogoni costume and other gifts.

It was the second day of a three-day visit to the oil-producing region. The president was later due to visit nearby Bonny Island to officially open a massive new natural gas plant.

The organisation founded by Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, welcomed the president's visit.

"It is long overdue. He is the president of Nigeria and of course he should come," a spokesman said.

But the visit was not without controversy. Some people are critical of the president over human rights, including the destruction by the army last year of the town of Odi in Bayelsa State where 12 policemen were killed.

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See also:

25 Apr 00 | Africa
Symbolic funeral for Saro-Wiwa
11 Apr 00 | Africa
Killings in Nigeria's Ogoniland
05 Jun 99 | Africa
Nigeria to probe human rights
19 May 99 | Africa
Nigeria Commonwealth ban lifted
21 Oct 98 | Africa
Oil wealth: An unequal bounty
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