Today makes it 25 years since the death of the Ogoni nine. On November 10 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP leaders were killed by hanging by the military government in Nigeria for fighting for social and ecological justice.
This date is special in the hearts of Nigerians who know their history. It is a day to remember the struggles of the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, MOSOP.
Saro-Wiwa was an accomplished novelist who was conformable. He however, left his comfort zone when he felt that oil was becoming a curse, rather than a blessing to his people.
As a tribute to the late activist, The Columnist decided to ask some youths who are graduates and undergraduates about Ken Saro-Wiwa. 20 youths were asked about him. Unfortunately, only four of them said they know the name. 10 of them said that the name ‘Ken Saro-Wiwa’ rings a bell but they know nothing about him. While six of them said they have never heard of such name before.
Could this be attributed to the decline of reading culture in Nigeria?
In this report which aims to remind people about him, we take a look at the life and times of Ken Saro-Wiwa, especially his quest to see a better Ogoni land.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was born in October 1941 and died in November 1995. He was the eldest son of a prominent family in Ogoni, which is today in Rivers State, Nigeria.
He spent his childhood in an Anglican home and eventually proved himself to be an excellent student; he attended secondary school at Government College Umuahia and on completion obtained a scholarship to study English at the University of Ibadan and briefly became a teaching assistant at the University of Lagos.
During the Biafran war (1967-1970) he was a civilian administrator for the Port of Bonny, near Ogoni in the Niger Delta. He went on to be a businessman, novelist and television producer. His long-running satirical TV series Basi & Company was believed to be the most watched soap opera in Africa.
Saro-Wiwa was a man of diverse talents. Aside from being a soap opera producer, he was also a great writer. Two of his best known works were drawn from his observations and experiences of the Biafran war. His most famous work is a book titled Sozaboy. The author’s use of ‘rotten English’ – a mixture of Nigerian Pidgin English, broken English and idiomatic English – makes this a unique and powerful novel.
He also wrote, Genocide in Nigeria, Basi and Company, Just before dawn, a month and a day: A detention diary, Singing Anthill and Oral performance in Africa.
During the 1970s he built up his businesses in real estate and retail and in the 1980s concentrated on his writing, journalism and television production.
Apart from his artistic and business side, what many remember him for was his doggedness in seeing that the people of Ogoni were given a better life. Oil exploration had made life difficult for people in that area. While fishermen could no longer fish due to oil spillage, farmers had their crops destroyed by the very thing that makes Nigeria tick.
While the operatives of Shell and government officials enjoyed the largess of the natural resource of the land, its people wallowed in abject poverty and were deprived of the little they had as a result of oil. To them it was a curse rather than a blessing.
Someone had to take up the mantle of leadership in that regard. The dogged Saro-Wiwa stepped up to the plate.
He was consistently concerned about the treatment of Ogoni within the Nigerian Federation and in 1973 was dismissed from his post as Regional Commissioner for Education in the Rivers State cabinet, for advocating greater Ogoni autonomy.
He began to agitate via his works. Throughout his work he often made references to the exploitation he saw around him as the oil and gas industry took riches from beneath the feet of the poor Ogoni farmers, and in return left them polluted and disenfranchised.
In his book of short stories, Forest of Flowers (1986), the following passage from the story Night Ride, reflects Saro-Wiwa’s anger at seeing multinational oil companies, like Shell, appropriating land from local people:
“An old woman had hobbled up to him. My son, they arrived this morning and dug up my entire farm, my only farm. They mowed down the toil of my brows, the pride of the waiting months. They say they will pay me compensation. Can they compensate me for my labours? The joy I receive when I see the vegetables sprouting, God’s revelation to me in my old age? Oh my son, what can I do?
What answer now could he give her? I’ll look into it later, he had replied tamely.”
Look into it later. He could almost hate himself for telling that lie. He cursed the earth for spouting oil, black gold, they called it. And he cursed the gods for not drying the oil wells. What did it matter that millions of barrels of oil were mined and exported daily, so long as this poor woman wept those tears of despair? What could he look into later? Could he make alternate land available? And would the lawmakers revise the laws just to bring a bit more happiness to these unhappy wretches whom the search for oil had reduced to an animal existence?”
“They ought to send the oil royalties to the men whose farms and land were despoiled and ruined. But the lawyers were in the pay of the oil companies and the government people in the pay of the lawyers and the companies. So how could he look into it later?”
As a result of what he saw as unreasonable, he began agitating for rights of his people to lead a better life. He focused on his homeland, Ogoni, as a starting point. He launched a non-violent campaign just like the late Reverend Martin Luther King jnr did in the United States.
In this role, he attacked the oil companies and the Nigerian government (verbally) accusing them of waging an ecological war against the Ogoni and precipitating the genocide of the Ogoni people. The campaign was so effective, that by 1993 the oil companies had to pull out of Ogoni. This cost him his life.
The peak of his struggle was during the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha.
Abacha was a ruthless head of state who could not withstand anyone opposing his views. The likes of Noble Laureate winner, Wole Soyinka and former Lagos State governor, Bola Ahmed Tinubu ran out of the country as a result of Abacha’s terror. Many were of the view that Ken Saro-Wiwa would incur the wrath of Abacha and so it was.
Saro-Wiwa was arrested and detained by Nigerian authorities in June 1993. He was released after a month. On 21 May 1994, four Ogoni chiefs were brutally murdered. Saro-Wiwa had been denied entry to Ogoni land on the day of the murders, but he was arrested and accused of inciting them against the government.
He denied the charges but was imprisoned for over a year before being found guilty and sentenced to death by a specially convened tribunal. The same happened to other MOSOP leaders (Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine). They were buried in Port Harcourt Cemetery.
Some of the defendant’s lawyers resigned in protest against the alleged rigging of the trial by the Abacha regime. Civil society and members of the public felt there was foul play in the trial of the defendants because so many witnesses testified against Saro-Wiwa and his group.
Money had ex-changed hands in order for the government to nail Saro-Wiwa.
In what appeared not have surprised anyone, many of the supposed witnesses later admitted that they had been bribed by the Nigerian government to support the criminal allegations against Saro-Wiwa and his peers.
At least two witnesses who testified that Saro-Wiwa was involved in the murders of the Ogoni elders later recanted, stating that they had been bribed with money and offers of jobs with Shell to give false testimony in the presence of Shell’s lawyer.
The trial was widely criticized by human rights organizations and, half a year later, Ken Saro-Wiwa received the Right Livelihood Award for his courage as well as the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Saro-Wiwa’s death provoked international outrage and the immediate suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth of Nations, as well as the calling back of many foreign diplomats for consultation. The United States and other countries considered imposing economic sanctions. His execution also inspired local and international writers and singers.
Fast forward to 23 years later, we have militants groups, notably, the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND and Niger Delta Avengers which have resulted from the same problems Saro-wiwa campaigned against.
Yusuf Mohammed is a journalist based in Lagos