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Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa

20 October 2005 at 18:50 | 353 views

By Ike Okonta

It’s nearly ten years after Nigerian activist and writer Ken Saro-
Wiwa and eight other members of the Movement for the Survival of
Ogoni People (MOSOP) were hanged on the morning of 10 November, 1995.
Present day Nigeria faces fresh protests in Saro-Wiwa’s stomping
ground of the Niger Delta over authoritarian rule and the plunder of
the environment by big oil companies. Ike Okonta writes that despite
a strategy of state intimidation to suppress the demands of the Ogoni
people, the words of Ken Saro-Wiwa live on and are firmly embedded in
the political soil of the Niger Delta.

In life, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and minority rights
activist, was an elemental force. Like the sun that illuminates all
that it touches, Saro-Wiwa’s work beamed a powerful searchlight on
the crummy corners of the Nigerian state, illuminating the sordid
acts of injustice and oppression that have been visited on the poor
and the powerless in the country since it was cobbled together by
imperial Britain in 1914.
It was a light that the wealthy and powerful found discomforting, and
they resolved to extinguish it. Ken Saro-Wiwa was saying things they
did not want to hear, even if all of it was true. Even more worrying,
he had mobilized his people, the Ogoni, a small ethnic group in
Nigeria’s Niger Delta where Royal/Dutch Shell and several other
transnational companies had been producing oil for four decades
without giving them any of the proceeds, to stand up and insist that
enough was enough.

This was in the early 1990s. Ken Saro-Wiwa had written a small
pamphlet in 1990 in which he spelled out the grievances of the Ogoni
against the Nigerian state and Shell that was exploiting several oil
fields in the area and had subjected the farmlands and fishing rivers
of local people to devastation. Saro-Wiwa also spelled out how these
grievances might be ameliorated, informed by a regime of rights that
have been observed only in the breach since the turn of the 20th
century. The Ogoni had been reduced to subjects by the British with
the advent of colonial rule, an unhappy state of affairs that had
been perpetuated by subsequent Nigerian governing elites. They wanted
to reclaim their rights as citizens.
This pamphlet, which has since attained iconic status in the
international environmental and human rights community, is the Ogoni
Bill of Rights. A few months after it was published, Ken Saro-Wiwa
and other Ogoni worthies banded together and established the Movement
for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), a grassroots political
organization they planned to use as a vehicle to achieve all the
demands and goals in the Ogoni Bill of Rights.

MOSOP was a run-away success from the onset. The organization was
ingeniously structured, taping into the age-old republican norms of
the six federating Ogoni clans and embedding itself in all hamlets,
villages, and towns in the Ogoni nation. MOSOP was not just an ethnic
movement. It combined the civic and communal, encouraging women,
youth, workers organizations and self-help groups to form their own
branches that were then affiliated with the umbrella organization.
Ken Saro-Wiwa, the guiding genius of MOSOP, was appointed its
spokesman by popular acclaim.
On January 4, 1993, MOSOP and the Ogoni people marked the United
Nations day of the world’s indigenous peoples with a peaceful march
that saw 300,000 children, women and men in the streets of Bori and
other Ogoni towns and villages singing songs of protest.

The Nigerian subsidiary of Shell was declared persona non grata and its workers in
Ogoni were peacefully expelled from the oil fields. The Nigerian
military government was also asked to account for the 30 billion
dollars worth of oil taken from the Ogoni oil fields since 1958, and
to recognize the demand of the people for a measure of political and
economic autonomy within the Nigerian federation.

This was the beginning of MOSOP and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s travails.
Nigeria’s political elites had since the oil boom of the early 1970s,
considered the oil fields of the Niger delta as a private fief, for
them to do with as they saw fit. A raft of decrees and laws had been
passed taking over the oil-bearing land of local communities in the
area and transferring it to the central government in Abuja,
Nigeria’s capital. Shell and the other oil companies had been
encouraged to barge into this land to mine oil without paying
adequate compensation to the rightful owners. Billions of dollars had
poured into the coffers of these elites and their accomplices in
Shell while the Ogoni, the Ijaw and the other minority groups pined
away in poverty and neglect, denied such basic amenities as water,
power, roads, schools, and hospitals.

Ken Saro-Wiwa threatened this cozy arrangement between Nigeria’s
corrupt power elite and the oil companies, and they determined to do
away with him. Beginning in mid 1993, a special military task force
was established by the military government, and with the active
cooperation of senior Shell Nigeria officials, proceeded on a
campaign of terror, mayhem, and mass murder in Ogoniland. MOSOP
elements were identified, isolated, and murdered or maimed. Women
were raped. Homes were looted and razed to the ground. In all, 102
Ogoni villages were plundered and their inhabitants either murdered
or driven out into the forests.
In May 1994 Saro-Wiwa was arrested by the government on trumped up
charges of murder. Several other MOSOP members were detained along
with him. After a judicially flawed trial that was widely condemned
by human rights groups and opinion leaders world-wide, Ken Saro-Wiwa
and eight other MOSOP leaders were hanged in a Nigerian prison in the
morning of 10 November, 1995.

In November 2005 it will be ten years since Ken Saro-Wiwa and the
Ogoni Eight were murdered in cold blood by the Nigerian military
junta and dumped into unmarked graves. Their intent was to remove the
writer and activist from political contention in the Niger delta, and
also rid Shell of its most powerful critic. But Saro-Wiwa dead has
become even more of a potent force in the burgeoning campaign for
minority rights, corporate social responsibility, and environmental
protection than when he was alive. He has joined the eternal greats
beautified by their selfless service to humanity, even at the cost of
their lives.
All over the world preparations are being made to mark the tenth
anniversary of Saro-Wiwa’s passing. Several non governmental
organizations in Nigeria are banding together to establish a writers
resort for the late writer who gave African literature such classics
as ‘Soza-boy: A Novel in Rotten English’, ‘On a Darkling Plain’, and
‘A Forest of Flowers’. A memorial statute of Saro-Wiwa will be
erected in London by a group of environmental and human rights
groups. San Francisco will offer a musical concert and fundraiser on
behalf of the Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation, recently established by the
late writer’s son, Ken Wiwa Jnr.

Still, the present Nigerian government, and the oil companies to
which it is in hock, are working feverishly to undermine the legacies
of this moral and political giant, in the Niger delta and elsewhere
in the country. A fresh wave of communal and civic unrest is sweeping
through the delta as youth, women and communal leaders join their
counterparts in other parts of the country to demand an end to
authoritarian rule and the regime of impunity that has enabled the
transnational oil companies to plunder the resources of local people
and despoil their environment.

The government took delivery of yet another batch of fast attack
boats from the United States in early September and has deployed them
to the delta, ostensibly to check the activities of oil smugglers.
But local activists say there has been a marked increase in military
deployments in the region of recent, coinciding with the mass
mobilisation of civic and political groups in the delta to frustrate
the ruling government’s plot to perpetuate itself in office beyond
2007 when fresh presidential and local elections are due.
Niger delta leaders walked out of a conference convened by the
central government in February to work out a new federal framework
and an acceptable formula for sharing the oil revenue when their
demand for twenty percent of oil receipts was rejected. They also
refused to back a covert plan that would have enabled the President,
Olusegun Obasanjo, to alter the provisions of the constitution and
continue in office when his term expires in May 2007.

The increased military presence in the region, and the recent spate
of detention of local leaders, is President Obasanjo’s way of
retaliating against those in the region he now characterises as
‘subversive elements’. It is, however, unlikely, that these strong-
arm methods will suppress the clamour for democratic accountability,
self-representation, and proper consideration for the environment in
the region. Saro-Wiwa was hanged in order that Shell might return to
its oil wells in Ogoni. But the Ogoni have refused to back down, and
the oil company is still persona non grata in the area twelve years
after it was peacefully expelled from the Ogoni oil fields. The
present wave of military intimidation will not achieve the result
Nigeria’s authoritarian leaders desire: unchecked plunder of the oil
wealth of the delta communities. Saro-Wiwa’s words have embedded
firmly in the political soil of the Niger Delta.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was a writer and a man of ideas. He believed that the
written word was potent, and that good ideas would endure no matter
the travails and obstacles placed on their path. Saro-Wiwa was right.
Ten years after he was brutally cut down, his word and ideas are as
potent as when he first uttered them in the early 1990s.

Photo: Ken Saro-Wiwa

Dr Ike Okonta is a Junior Research Fellow in the Department of
Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. He’s co-
author of ‘Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights and Oil’ (Verso:
London, 2003). He writes a weekly column for the Lagos daily, ThisDay.

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