New Internationalist

Who will dance with the devil?

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian state under General Sani Abacha on 10 November 1995. Why did this happen? Ike Okonta explains:

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.

I still remember that day, a Friday. The week immediately before the execution there was a scramble by heads of state, religious leaders, human rights organizations and individuals to try to prevent the hanging by appealing to General Abacha. Right until the very moment we all persuaded ourselves it would not happen.

I remember clearly lying in bed on Saturday morning, when the phone rang. It was a call from a relative in Port Harcourt confirming what I already knew. Nine members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) – Ken Saro-Wiwa, Barinem Kiobel, Fexlix Nuate, John Kpuinen, Daniel Gbokoo, Baribor Bera, Nordu Eawo, Saturday Doobe and Paul Levura, had been executed.

I have just finished reading Create Dangerously, written by Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat, in which she asks all of us – immigrants and exiles – to bear witness to who we are as we pass through our life’s journey. For this we may need to develop a set of ‘creation myths’, stories which haunt us and within which we can begin our own story. ‘Creation myths’ generally involve:

‘heartrending clash of life and death, homeland and exile … disobeyed directive from a higher authority and a brutal punishment as a result. If we think back to the biggest creation myth of all, the world’s very first people, Adam and Eve, disobeyed the superior being that fashioned them out of chaos, defying God’s order not to eat what must have been the world’s most desirable apple.’ (p. 6)

The ultimate punishment for Adam and Eve, unlike the Ogoni Nine who were executed, was banishment from Paradise, which in a sense makes us all exiles. Exiles with cracked hearts, roaming the world in search of a home.

One of my creation myths is this day 15 years ago. Although I wasn’t living in Nigeria at the time of the formation of MOSOP in 1990, it was a period when I visited the country twice a year for three to four weeks every time. As soon as I arrived in Lagos, I would buy all the newspapers and magazines searching for news of the Niger Delta and MOSOP. I cannot remember reading anything positive. I cannot remember hearing anything positive from my family in Port Harcourt. It seemed to me like my whole family had been brainwashed by the military regimes.

Being ‘a visitor’, I was accused of ‘not understanding’ or ‘not knowing’ – the usual disparaging remarks received in response to anti-government propaganda. It reminds me of the ‘UnNigerian’ and ‘UnAfrican’ comments one gets if one acts or speaks something remotely different from the commonly agreed dialogue. In short, it was a time of rising consciousness around the Niger Delta and the possibility of autonomy and self-determination for the many minorities in the region.

My first creation myth started much earlier, but that’s another story. The execution of the Ogoni Nine was my second ‘creation myth’. It’s a reminder that the struggle begun by Ken is not only not over after 15 years, but has, ironically, become an even greater struggle under another mythical story – that of Nigerian democracies of ‘civilian’ leadership.

Shell Guilty – Secrets and Lies

Documents have now been found which further reveal the dirty dealing of Shell in the framing of the Ogoni Nine and the post-execution strategy of divide and rule.

The documents outline a tactic of divide and rule, where Shell planned to work with some of its critics but isolate others. Under the ‘occupying new ground’ scenario, the documents detail how Shell would ‘create coalitions, isolate the opposition and shift the debate’. Dividing NGOs into friends and foes, Shell emphasized the need to ‘work with [and] sway “middle of the road” activists’. The Body Shop, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were seen as unlikely to change their position. One suggested tactic to counter these organizations was to ‘challenge [the] basis on which they continue their campaign against Shell in order to make it more difficult for them to sustain it’. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were seen as more easily persuaded. The document suggests building relationships with the organizations and encouraging ‘buy-in to the complexity of the issue’. (Continue reading here.)

Who will dance with the devil?

In the brief extract of his poem ‘Epitaph for Biafra’, Ken could easily have been speaking about the Niger Delta militants of today –

They will play at

Rebels And Vandals

Fill the nation with blood

And scandal.

   Then they will return as agents 

   And angels

   Laughing and weeping and begging

   For minor mercies.

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