Port Harcourt, Nigeria—It was a cool afternoon on November 10, 1995, in the Bundu Waterside area of Port Harcourt in southern Nigeria. In the local prison, the Ogoni environmental rights activist Kenule Saro-Wiwa sat awaiting execution. He had already been detained for a year, charged with murdering four Ogoni leaders. The charges were spurious. The four had actually died during a protest against oil pollution and government neglect. Saro-Wiwa had been caught between the demonstrators and heavily armed police—the real killers of the Ogoni four.

Police and army troops stood guard in front of the prison. Some distance away, townsfolk gathered, speechless with their hands folded solemnly. The atmosphere was at once volatile and sad. On this November day, the Nigerian state hanged Saro-Wiwa and eight other Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) environmental activists after a secret,...

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