The tragedy of Ken Saro-Wiwa

There have been thousands of inspiring stories from the African continent. And there have been a number of tragic ones from which many drew inspiration even in the face of the demise of their great protagonists. The tale of Ken Saro-Wiwa is one such tragedy.

Saro-Wiwa was born October 10, 1941, the eldest son of a prominent family in Ogoni, which is today in Rivers State, Nigeria. After leaving university he initially pursued an academic career.

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 & Co was purported to be the most watched soap opera in Africa.

Two of his best-known works were drawn from his observations and experiences of the Biafran war. His most famous work, Sozaboy: a Novel in Rotten English, is a harrowing tale of a naive village boy recruited into the army. On a Darkling Plain, is a diary of his experiences during the war.

Saro-Wiwa 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.

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.

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?

In 1990, Saro-Wiwa started to dedicate himself to the amelioration of the problems of the oil-producing regions of the Niger Delta. Focusing on his homeland, Ogoni, he launched a non-violent movement for social and ecological justice. In this role he attacked the oil companies and the Nigerian government accusing them of waging an ecological war against the Ogoni and precipitating the genocide of the Ogoni people. He was so effective, that by 1993 the oil companies had to pull out of Ogoni. This agitation would cost him his life.

In 1994 Saro-Wiwa was arrested along with others after the deaths of four Ogoni chiefs at a political rally. In a trial by a special tribunal that was denounced by foreign human rights groups, he was found guilty of alleged complicity in the murders and was convicted on October 31.

Saro-Wiwa insisted he was framed because of his opposition to Nigeria’s military dictator Sani Abacha, and the oil industry, which accounted for about 80 per cent of the country’s foreign income.

Several newspapers reported that only hours after the government upheld the death sentences, nine coffins were moved to the Port Harcourt prison. The junta apparently wanted the executions to take place immediately but later found that Port Harcourt, which had held no executions since Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960, did not have the equipment for hangings.

Executioners were subsequently flown in from the northern Muslim city of Sokoto. They took rooms in a hotel and awaited their task.

At daybreak on November 10, 1995, Saro-Wiwa and his eight companions were roused from their cells at the army camp where they had been held since their convictions. They were told they were being taken to the Port Harcourt prison, on the purported grounds that there was reason to suspect the army camp might be attacked by Ogoni youths.

Once inside the prison, the nine men were herded into one room and shackles were placed on their wrists and ankles. They were then led out, one after the other, beginning with Saro-Wiwa. After the executions, the bodies were taken under armed guard to the public cemetery about 3.15 p.m. Relatives were not allowed to visit the graves.

In a written response to questions from a magazine that were smuggled out of his prison cell before his death, Saro-Wiwa said that he did not fear being executed. “I expect it,” he said. “The men we are dealing with are mindless, Stone Age dictators addicted to blood. [Nigeria’s rulers] have been responsible for the African nightmare, afraid as they are of ideas and men of ideas. They are daylight robbers who kill for money,” Saro-Wiwi wrote.

It reportedly took five attempts to hang Saro-Wiwa before the Nigerian writer spoke his last words and his body went limp. “Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues,” were the anti-government activist’s final words before he died blindfolded and dangling from a rope. According to the Lagos daily AM News, the hangmen made four attempts before finally killing Saro-Wiwa on the fifth one. At one point Saro- Wiwa asked: “Why are you people treating me like this? Which type of country is this?”

Their execution led to Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations, which lasted for over three years.

The Royal Dutch Shell and Brian Anderson, head of its Nigeria Operations, were believed to have connived with the military government on Saro-Wiwa’s trial and execution.

The company denied the allegations, despite testimonies stating otherwise, and it agreed a $15.5 million out-of-court settlement in favour of the families of the victims in 2009, saying however that the payment was not a concession of guilt, but a gesture for peace.

The cases were brought under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 statute giving non-U.S. citizens the right to file suits in U.S. courts for international human rights violations; and the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows individuals to seek damages in the U.S. for torture or extrajudicial killing, regardless of where the violations take place.

A United Nations report titled “UNEP Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland” and submitted to the Federal Government showed how 50 years of crude oil operations in Ogoniland had caused severe environmental pollution to the Rivers State community.

Part of the observations of the UNEP scientific assessment was the presence of benzene in wells in Nisisioken Ogale area of Ogoni at a level over 900 per cent higher than the accepted World Health Organisation guidelines.

The report also made recommendations for the immediate clean-up of the community with a takeoff fund termed “Environmental Restoration Fund for Ogoniland,’ with an initial sum of $1billion to be contributed by Shell Petroleum Development Company, the Nigerian Government, and other oil companies operating in Ogoniland.

Abacha died of a reported heart attack three years after orchestrating Saro-Wiwa’s execution but it was believed he was poisoned. (Adapted)

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