November 16, 2015

Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa

We are prepared to fight to the last cup of blood…/The Ogoni people are determined: everyman, woman/And child will die before Nigerians will steal their /Oil anymore

– Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1945)

TWENTY years ago on November 10, 1995, more than two years after he made this grim prediction, Ken Saro-Wiwa, renowned writer, TV producer, newspaper columnist and irrepressible minority and environment rights campaigner did indeed die. But not a natural death. He was executed along with eight others by a Nigerian state in the grip of military dictator Sani Abacha who felt he had run out of patience with the man that pummeled Nigeria for her tragic ecological record in the Niger Delta notably, Ogoni land.

Ken battled the reckless degradation of Ogoni as no one else did. For years before he was arrested and subjected to a kangaroo trial that ended with his execution, Saro-Wiwa stood on the tripod of intellectual discourse, writing and peaceful protests to lash out at the conspiracy of government and the oil companies that despoiled his people.

He argued that this infernal bond between an “irresponsible” government and “indifferent” oil companies resulting in death-dealing blows on his kinsmen was unacceptable. Big money came from the frenetic oil exploration (exploitation). But Ogoni had nothing to show for being the bird that produced the golden eggs. Instead Ogoni had pain. Saro-Wiwa lamented that these arose from the fact that in a so-called federal set up the rights of the minority were appropriated by the state and added to the rights of the majority ethnic groups.

So quite early in his life, Saro-Wiwa decided to fight the system that encouraged this arrangement. He studied the writings of the great Chief Obafemi Awolowo, for whom he had a god-like reverence. Awo’s philosophy on how to handle the minority question-detailed in three of the major books he wrote between the 50s and 60s-warned against a contraption justifying or allowing for the economic and political suppression of the small groups by the ethnic ones. The system must accommodate the minorities as equal partners enjoying the same rights as the majors; they must have autonomy and be allowed control of their resources and their environment in the same way the majority was allowed. He predicted calamitous outcome if the minorities were not so permitted to be. The collapse of Yugoslavia and USSR proved Awolowo right.

Now Saro-Wiwa looked at Ogoni and concluded that its minority status (they were 500,000 in 1993) and the country’s dim view of such a group were responsible for its suffering. The system must be displaced to give the Ogoni a better deal. The problem had nothing to do with the size of Ogoni. The culprit was the system.

But how would one man and a defenceless half a million win a physical war against a country of 80million with a well kitted military force headed by a draconian military ruler?

Secession was out of the question. It would be suicidal, according to Saro-Wiwa. Rebellion of the type Isaac Adaka Boro, another Niger Delta son, tried was also ruled out. So what could Saro-Wiwa do? Intellectual agitation and peaceful activism won the day. This is what he told a journalist: “My effort is very intellectual. It is backed by theories, thoughts and ideas which will in fact matter to the rest of Africa in the course of time.”

Ken Saro-Wiwa began to prepare for the crusade of liberating Ogoni from the hands of the state and the oil companies. His sojourn in government as Regional Commissioner for Education in the early 70s was a disaster as he was dismissed in 1973 because of his support for Ogoni autonomy. He had also been a teaching assistant at the University of Lagos and civilian administrator of Bonny, a port city, after being a strong supporter of the federal forces during the Civil War. He didn’t make sufficient money from his salaries to launch him into a long-haul battle against the system that oppressed his people.

So from 1974, he went into business, buying and selling. “By 1984,” he said, “I felt I had earned enough money for the purpose I wanted to live for.”

The ethical intellectual that he was, Saro-Wiwa took to writing. He had an engaging column Similia in a leading newspaper. But the authorities stopped him from continuing because according to one editor, “Ken was using the column for Ogoni politics.” The activist also launched the hilarious TV soap Basi&Co that pilloried the foibles of the society. He wrote well-received books, Sozaboy: a novel in rotten English and On a darkling plain: an account of the Nigerian Civil War, among several other literary efforts.

From 1990, Saro-Wiwa opened the chapter that led to his fatal confrontation with the government. He used every available forum he came across-local and global-to condemn in very strong terms the destruction of lives in Ogoni through oil exploration. He calculated quite methodically that the Nigerian government and the oil companies owed his people rents and royalties the ginormous sum of 30billion dollars. He asked the government and the companies to pay the debt by way of redressing the wrongs done against his people.

His platforms were the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni people (MOSOP) and peaceful protests, rallies and conferences. He was never known to opt for violence. Instead he wielded brain power based on superior historical analysis.

But Nigeria under Abacha would not let such a man have his way, a man who sought to re-order the polity to the path of sanity, since Saro-Wiwa’s agenda would deny the dictator along with the local exploiter class and the foreign collaborators the wealth they were using to emasculate the Ogoni. There were trumped up charges of murder that sent Saro-Wiwa to the gallows on Nov.10, 1995. But death has not silenced the battle he fought.

Indeed twenty years after that death, Saro-Wiwa has been vindicated. The recent reality of a minority president of Nigeria is one such recognition. The proclamation of a highly successful Amnesty programme for the Niger Delta militants is another positive outcome. It is part of what he did that led the United Nations in 2011 to call for an unprecedented clean-up fund of one billion dollars for oil spills in Ogoni land.

The UN report on this recalled virtually everything Ken Saro-Wiwa said: “I looked at Ogoni and found that the entire place was now a waste land; and that we are the victims of an ecological war, an ecological war that is very serious and unconventional. It is unconventional because no bones are broken, no one is maimed. People are not alarmed because they can’t see what is happening. But human beings are at risk. The air and water are poisoned. Finally, the land itself dies. That is what is happening to the Ogoni people.”

Now how do you honor such a visionary patriot? First the government needs to clear him of the murder verdict that led to his death. Next we must erect a befitting national monument in Ogoni in his honor. We must also be serious with the project of cleaning up Ogoni land as demanded by Saro-Wiwa and the United Nations. That is the only way the living can honour the ideals of those who died in the struggle for justice.


Mr.  Banji Ojewale, a commentator on national issues, wrote from Lagos.