Talking Point

June 16, 2009

Finally, justice from America

By Rotimi Fasan

PERHAPS the ghosts of the dead can now go to rest having stayed in purgatory waiting  for justice these past 14 years. Perhaps this is signal to take the struggle to the next level, seeking more substantial compensation for past damages.

Perhaps it is even time to question the euphoria that has followed what may seem like the exaggerated importance of the mere rap on the offending wrist of oil multinational, Shell, by the American court that heard the suit brought by the families of the slain Ogoni activists.

But nothing can be more heart-warming, if for no one else but the families of nine Ogoni men judicially murdered by a shabbily constituted tribunal of the Sani Abacha regime on November 10, 1995- nothing can be more gratifying than the fact that the right that comes with might has finally be questioned and the weak, it is hoped, can be sure of justice even in the court of the strong however late.

It is one of the cruel ironies of life that all but one of those nine men sent to their graves in the morning of their lives have been reduced to mere statistics in the national narrative.

The Ogoni Nine, they are called, and the singular face of that group of brave men slain on the orders of a junta, faced with a crisis of legitimacy and was for that reason bent on scapegoating a few of those that had shown it up for the rogue regime that it was, a fatherless cabal of buccaneers- the face of that group of nine men was that of the writer and environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa.

He was the President of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) and his effort to bring to justice the oil multinationals operating in Ogoniland for the systematic destruction of Ogoniland would pitch him against other leaders of the Ogoni community as well as the military regime then exercising power without authority.

The disagreement among Ogoni leaders was all the regime needed to execute its evil plans against the potentially rich but unspeakably impoverished Ogoni.

It was the worse time for the kind of struggle MOSOP then waged against Abacha who was at the material time being buffeted on all sides.

The so-called planners of a phantom coup-plot, including former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, had escaped the executioner’s bullet by the skin of their teeth, but Abacha still needed to prove to the world that he could bite as much as he could bite.

And Ken Saro-Wiwa and his kinsmen became the sacrificial offerings, unfortunate victims, in the court of a deity that was thirsty for blood.

It was a measure of the regime’s bestiality that it was not satisfied that it had cornered and executed its preys; it saw to it, reports gave out, that they were doused in acid. A warning, if nothing else, of what fate awaited other agitators poised against the regime.

The Saro-Wiwa struggle seems many lifetimes away from the armed rebellion led by alike genuine and fake ‘militants’ that has brought the flaming bullet of the Nigerian Armed Forces to the creeks of Gbaramatu and other oil-rich enclaves of the Niger Delta.

Without prejudice to the rectitude or otherwise of the current offensive by the JTF in the Niger-Delta, the judgment from America may well be a favourable omen for the struggles of the Niger Delta people. $15.5million is nothing compared to a human life, to say nothing of nine family heads whose only crime was that they asked for a fair deal in the allocation of wealth that comes from their land.

True, $15.5 million cannot bring back the dead but it represents a step forward in the continuing struggle for justice, gives the people of Ogoniland and the entire Niger Delta confidence that the world is not silent to their struggles. They can yet ask for more without the need to repair to the trenches.

We may need to know why it was possible for Nigerians to seek and get from America justice they couldn’t get from their own country.

This judgement is the outcome of a peculiar law, Alien Tort Act that makes it possible for US courts to hear cases of human rights abuse involving citizens of other land. Enacted in the few years after America’s independence, the Act is not widely known outside America nor is it enforceable by less powerful nations.

But it is a far-sighted law that shows how America sees herself and role in the context of international politics.

She knows the price of freedom, justice and fairplay even if she is not seen to apply the principles underlying these notions equitably in many circumstances, not to say every circumstance. America recognises the right of the ordinary person against powerful groups, individuals and even multinationals.

Clearly this is more than anybody can say for the Nigerian state which all the while conflated its interest with those of the multinationals operating within her borders.

It was quick to come to their aid, lining behind them in the manner of chicks behind a hen. Nigeria does not seem to ask questions even when the activities of the companies operating here may not necessarily (and they can’t necessarily be) be in the in larger interest of the Nigerian people.

We have taken the goodwill and fairness of these organisations for granted. It’s for this reason they do as a matter of right or good business practice things they dare not do in other parts of the world. In America Shell took responsibility for some of its actions.

It may not be a bad idea, after all, if every other multinational company operating in Nigeria takes stock of their activities and review their modes of operation. Or must we go to the Hague next time Nigerians want justice?