Special Report

June 14, 2009

The forgotten Four


Last week, relatives and supporters of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni activist and writer, secured a historic $15.5 million settlement from Shell, the international oil company they have persistently blamed for Ken’s November l995 execution.

Given that Ken has, for nearly twocades, been regarded as an iconic environmental and human rights champion by many credible individuals in many countries, I wasn’t taken aback by the fact that many observers delightedly expressed the view that “justice has finally been done” when they heard about Shell’s mammoth payout.

But I didn’t participate in the widespread jubiliation because I happen to be an Ogoni who knows a lot about Ken and the events that led to his death; and I hate to offend his traumatized family and well-intentioned fans club but feel morally obliged to say that I have long felt a) that Ken doesn’t deserve the near-cononization that has been unconditionally lavished on him and b) that his so-called adversaries have been unfairly demonized, disrespected and disregarded.

Ken – who possessed a fine intellect and great sense of humour – was certainly impressive in some ways. He was one of my favourite elders for ages. I still look back with fond nostalgia at the many enjoyable interactions I had with him.

And I admire the fact that he rescued Ogonis from obscurity and put us on the map.
But no mere mortal is all good. And I think that Ken (who was, despite his pacifist reputation, prone to alarmingly extremist verbal outbursts) was partly responsible for transforming Ogoniland into a toxic location in which violent hotheads were encouraged to contemptuously dismiss moderates as “vultures” or “traitors”.

Eventually, four prominent chiefs – Edward Kobani (Ken’s onetime benefactor), Albert Badey (a former Secretary to Rivers State Government), Theophilus Orage and Sam Orage (Ken’s brothers-in-law) – paid for their moderation with their lives. They were assassinated in broad daylight by a frenzied, baying, bloodthirsty pro-Ken mob. And yet, they were just as committed to their tribe’s interests as Ken was, their only “crime” being their fear that Ken’s radicalism would cause dangerous overheating at the grassroots level and their belief that Ogoniland’s conflicts with Shell and its Governmental partners could be resolved via civilized dialogue.

My own father, who also disagreed with Ken’s tactics, was nearly slaughtered with Kobani et al and only escaped from the grisly murder scene by the skin of his teeth

I am totally opposed to capital punishment and have always regretted Abacha’s decision to execute Ken for inciting the above murders. But I also held my uncles, Edward, Albert, Sam and Theophilus in enormous esteem and have spent many sleepless nights angrily recalling Ken’s failure to nip in the bud, before it was too late, the homicidal aggression his acolytes displayed towards his political “enemies”. A road has been named after Ken. Awards have been bestowed on Ken. Memorial rallies are held in Ken’s honour. Flattering books have been written about Ken. It is even rumoured that Ken will soon star, posthumously, in a Hollywood movie.

But who remembers the Forgotten Four or gives a damn about their shameful tragic fates? Did you know that their butchered bodies were never recovered? Are you aware that their weeping relatives buried empty coffins at their funerals?

The Forgotten Four are rarely mentioned when Ken’s legacy is being enthusiastically discussed. Even when their existences and demises are acknowledged, most commentators tend to be partisan and to hint, insultingly, that they were either irrelevant nonentities or corrupt Establishment stooges.

I have tried to analyse the reasons for this terrible perceptional imbalance and have concluded that the general public’s blatant preference for Ken’s side of the story is, to some extent, completely understandable…given the following factors. Firstly, Abacha was a nortorious dictator whose operatives had gotten into the habit of targeting innocent citizens. They gunned MKO Abiola’s wife Kudirat down, incarcerated the Sultan of Sokoto and caused the death of Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, our current President’s revered sibling. So who can blame anyone who – when the ugly Ogoni drama unfolded – simply didn’t buy Abacha’s anti-Ken accusations?

Secondly, Ken was a charismatic and articulate media professional who performed magnificently whenever spotlights were trained on him. Two of his offspring also happen to be media professionals; and they’ve inherited his high profile and formidable communication skills…and have benefitted from the automatic goodwill that most journalists (whether they be Nigerian or foreign) direct at each other.

It is also worth noting that journalists almost always instinctively side with The Underdog and were absolutely mesmerised by the idea that Ken, a relatively powerless pipe-smoking literary “one of us” little guy who claimed to be motivated by principles rather than money, was a “David” of biblical proportions who’d had the guts to challenge a powerful, profit-orientated “Goliath” like Shell.

The Kobani, Badey and Orage clans probably never stood a chance of winning the majority of hearts and minds because they are not members of this cosy, global audience-friendly and essentially left-wing cabal that has grave reservations about the very notion of Big Business. The Kobanis et al are “mere” lawyers, civil servants, etc. And they don’t have a clue how to be beguilingly plausible.

When Ken’s media-unsavvy “rivals” are invited, once in a blue moon, to explain their positions, they hesitate nervously, sound like the PR amateurs they are and can’t easily razzle-dazzle onlookers into believing that their case is worth listening to.Shell has also, if you ask me, been a victim of the relentlessly effective Ken PR Bandwagon. And I’m sure that I’ll probably receive outraged letters galore for daring to utter this “unacceptable” opinion, but I am absolutely convinced that Shell did NOT urge Abacha to dispatch Ken to his Maker.
I was in London at the height of the Ogoni Crisis; and I vividly recall senior Shell employees being immensely worried when it started to look as if Ken’s life was on the line and saying that they’d asked the authorities to spare him. I also told various Government officials that I didn’t, despite my Dad’s harrowing experience, want Ken to die. But Abacha had his own agenda and did as he pleased. Appearances can be deceptive.

Some “saints” have dodgy halos and some alleged villains are not irredeemably nasty. The bottom line is that Life is as much about subtle shades of grey as about unambiguous all-black or all-white scenarios. So, yes, Shell’s Ogoni track record is definitely far from satisfactory. But Shell often does more for host communities in oil-producing areas than the Government; and I seriously doubt the allegation that Shell is dishing out mega-dollars to Ken’s heirs because it knows that it has been “evil” and is tacitly admitting that it set out to ruthlessly obliterate Ken for undermining its finances and corporate image.

I strongly strongly suspect that Shell just – perhaps naively – hopes that peace can be bought and that embarrassing quarrels that will be hard to win will be ended.

Let’s face it: If clever and dogged populist agitators (who are backed by immensely influential media outlets in all four corners of the world) relentlessly hound a rich multinational that has sensitive Western shareholders, the multinational’s management team might be well-advised to wearily succumb to the pressure and deliver whatever pounds of flesh its possibly insincere detractors are demanding.

It remains to be seen whether Shell’s pragmatic strategy will produce the desired results. But I’m not holding my breath. Some sagas are destined to run and run.
Suage Badey, who is not only the Action Congress Chairman in Rivers State but son of the late Albert says: “I have felt utterly cheated and humiliated for at least l5 years and regard the recent settlement between Shell and Ken’s kids as a conscience-less blood money transaction that should be vigorously challenged.”