Saro-Wiwa led non-violent protests against environmental destruction in the Niger Delta [AFP]

It was only a matter of time before the perils of activism caught up to Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian writer and activist hanged by his country's rulers on November 10, 1995.

Long before the oil rush in Nigeria, Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic Nigerian minority living in the delta of the River Niger who called Ogoniland their homeland.

Unfortunately for the Ogonis, they watched their land of forests and creeks turn into a toxic waste dump when Royal Dutch Shell, the world's second-largest oil company, discovered the land to be oil-bearing in 1958.

But his reluctance to accept the changes being made allowed him to pave a distinguished record of opposition against Shell and other multinational companies operating in Ogoniland.

In 1990, Saro-Wiwa founded and became the president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop), a nonviolent campaign that worked to protect his indigenous tribe.

He led rallies against Shell and blamed the company for myriad oil spills and gas fires in the southeastern region of Nigeria.

At the height of his activism, Saro-Wiwa and eight other Mosop members were arrested, tried by a special military tribunal and killed by the Nigerian military.

'Ecological war'

Saro-Wiwa's death later provoked international outrage and the immediate suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth of Nations.

In his final words before his execution, he warned that Shell's actions in Nigeria would return to haunt them.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the company has waged in the Delta will be called into question sooner than later and the crimes of that war duly punished," he said.

In 1996, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), EarthRights International (ERI), and other human rights attorneys were able to bring a series of cases to hold Shell accountable for human rights violations in Nigeria.

In a lawsuit brought in a New York court, Shell was accused of crimes against humanity for allegedly encouraging Nigeria to clamp down on the activists because their protests threatened oil production in the lucrative Niger Delta.

The lawsuit claimed that in the 1990s, Shell officials helped furnish Nigerian police with weapons, participated in security sweeps of the area, and asked government troops to shoot villagers protesting against the construction of a pipeline that later leaked oil.

The plaintiffs also say Shell helped the government capture and hang Saro-Wiwa, John Kpuinen, Saturday Doobee, Felix Nuate, Daniel Gbokoo and Barinem Kiobel.

After spending 13 years in fighting the lawsuit and denying all claims, Shell, which racked up a corporate record of $31.4 billion annual profit in 2008, agreed to a $15.5 million dollar settlement.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies