Friday, September 07, 2012

189. A Month and a Day & Letters by Ken Saro-Wiwa

The Ogoni people number about 500,000 and are a separate and distinct ethnic grouping in Nigeria; since the arrival of Shell Petroleum Development Company Limited in 1958, the Ogoni land has been producing oil for the greater good of the country. However, from the over 40 billion dollars the country was estimated to have earned from oil, the Ogoni people received nothing; instead, their lands and water bodies and forest resources have been misappropriated, polluted, and used at will by Shell working in complicit with the military regime running the country at the time. Like a classic case of the Dutch Disease, the wealth of this community has triggered extreme poverty amongst the denizens and with no pipe-borne water, electricity, tarred roads, schools, clinics, they are unarguably the most poorest of communities in Nigeria. To cap it all, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria employs none of the people of Ogoni at any meaningful level. Devoid of the lands for farming and any investment in the locality, the Ogoni people have been left to their own survival devices. The community is one of the most densely populated areas of Africa with an average of 1,500 people per square mile.

It is against these planned injustices perpetrated against a minority group that Ken Saro-Wiwa worked. His writings were tailored to expose the gradual decimation of the Ogonis by the government and Shell. And he knew his opponents - a military government and a multinational - were no mere pushovers. He knew of their combined strength and their tactics - illegal laws and massaging of perceptions (or mudslinging or character assassination) respectively - and he accepted his duty as a lone ranger, a chick in the midst of hyenas. Knowing that this task is not one he alone could carry and that support from his people would be the only route to victory, he worked also to awaken his people, the Ogonis, from that lethargic social slumber - that wilful amnesia they've indulged themselves in; to open their eyes to the injustices around them and to awaken from their hearts that anaesthetised boldness that used to be their kin some period ago. Saro-Wiwa accepted his fate, his destiny, for whilst taking on this ginormous responsibility, he never once assumed that his opponents would cave-in without a fight or that the Ogoni vision would be realised in a short space of time.

Besides, the age-old axiom that writers are governments' sworn enemies which has been repeated in several dystopian books both fiction (1984 and Matigari) and non-fiction (I Write What I Like) and confirmed by several governments was no news to him. According to Ken Saro-Wiwa
[L]iterature must serve society by steeping itself in politics, by intervention, and writers must not merely write to amuse or to take a bemused, critical look at society. They must play an interventionist role. My experience has been that African governments can ignore writers, taking comfort in the fact that only few can read and write, and that those who read find little time for the luxury of literary consumption beyond the need to pass examinations based on set texts. Therefore, the writer must be l'homme engage: the intellectual man of action. (Page 55)
A Month and a Day & Letters (Ayebia Clarke, 2005 (First Pub., 1995); 224) by Ken Saro-Wiwa is a memoir that recounts the life of this Human Rights Activist during the latter part of his life when he was arrested by Ibrahim Babaginda's, the then president of Nigeria, men. However, the book is more than just his personal struggles; it chronicles the struggle of the Ogoni people of Nigeria. It's about a people whose numbers the government deemed insignificant and so could be maltreated by sentencing them to death by environmental degradation, oil exploration, exploitation and spillage without any pernicious rancour; it is about a people virtually helpless in fighting for themselves.

In this book, Ken discusses the visions, aspirations and goals of the Ogoni people. It shows how the struggle of a single man - with the help of those who believe in his vision and those who don't - can help raise awareness to one of life's most ubiquitous challenges: the exploitation of the weak. It also shows how noxious that amorphous entity commonly referred to as multinational - in this case Shell Petroleum Nigeria - could be when they get a willing listener in a dictatorial government and an absent pressure groups; how, wicked, exploitative, and utterly inhumane, these oil corporations could be when the only thought that lingers on their minds is profit and its maximisation. For anyone who still has doubts of how brutish this ginormous complexity called Capitalism could be, refer to the Ogoni situation, or better still read this book. If you have doubts, read it again. For what could be worse than Capitalism married to a weak government fraught with corruption and a leader whose eyes sees no farther than the outline of his bobbing belly?

Consequently, Mr Saro-Wiwa's struggle had a cause and it was for that cause that he formed MOSOP, that is Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, with its main aim as to cause Shell to take responsibility for its damaging actions and for the military regime of the time to begin to invest in the region that provides the resources used in developing the other areas of the country. That this simple demand will be met with all the viciousness that a military leader and a cunning multinational can muster is an event that is certain. For even though the military government of Babangida was armed with decrees, laws, and lawlessness in equal measure, it still lived in fear, fear of exposure, fear of being questioned by other international bodies (and that's what Saro-Wiwa wants and that's what a military government who had assumed power through a coup d'état abhors), fear of losing favour with the West. Shell - as a multinational - fears were that of image, damages, and penalties that await them at a court of law and consumer satisfaction. Finally, such marriages - between corrupt governments and nefarious corporations - fear the most an individual armed with the pen, the truth and an intransigent singular purpose; an individual impervious to bribery, collusion and connivance to rob the destitute of his singular meal.

Hence, the two love birds resorted to illegalities - one by force arrest and false charges and the other through character assassination, bribery and connivance - with the sole aim of  discrediting him. The opportunity came for them to act when after the failed election of 1993 several fracases erupted in several areas and communities and Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested on a charge that was not disclosed to him until later. He was moved around the country from one prison custody to the other and even though his health status was deteriorating and in need of assistance, help was hardly provided. He was finally charged with the murder of some Ogoni chiefs and was sentenced to death by hanging in 1995 by a kangaroo military court that offered him no chance to defend himself or appeal and was summarily executed. Before his conviction and sentence, Shell - having been accused of working with the government to cancel out the threats Saro-Wiwa poses to their exploration, exploitation and spillage in Nigeria - released the following message which was shared with Wole Soyinka, and which he talked about in his book You Must Set Forth at Dawn, by Ken Wiwa (Saro-Wiwa's son):
If anything untoward happened to the Ogoni Nine ... others were to blame - the agitators whose aggressive tactics only hardened the mood the military regime and undid all the careful work of the silent diplomacy being undertaken by their company, and well-meaning others. [Page xii]
Shell showed their complicity in this sentence, having already held secret meetings on strategies to neutralise Saro-Wiwa who was lucky to have received outcomes from some of these meetings. Thus, instead of correcting the problem, Shell with the military government decided to eliminate the man. The cancellation of the election results coupled with the relentless power struggle in government saw General Sani Abacha take over power from General Ibrahim Babangida whilst the latter was on a visit to Egypt. It was therefore Sani Abacha who oversaw the execution of the death sentence, having already assured the international community and presidents, including Nelson Mandela who claimed the Abacha had personally him, that nothing untoward was going to happen to the Ogoni Nine.

If there is anything that this book shows, it shows that it wasn't the combined power of Abacha-cum-Babangida and Shell that destroyed Saro-Wiwa; Saro-Wiwa's death was caused by four different groups of Nigerians who knowingly or unknowingly added their voice and strength to the draconian measures that had been set into motion by the two.

The first group is the people of Nigeria who were not directly affected by the destruction and havoc being wreaked on the Ogoni people and whose silence encouraged the government. This group of people by their silence gave meaning, substance and backing to the evil that was being perpetrated against this man and the other eight Ogoni people. For them since they will not be the direct beneficiaries should Ogoni win, there was no way they should be the direct victims of any crackdown that was sure to arise from showing their support to the accused. Remaining neutral they confirmed what Desmond Tutu said that:
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.
The second group who worked in complicit with the government to persecute Saro-Wiwa was individual Ogoni denizens. These individuals like Dr Leton, Edward Kobani, Dr Birabi, Albert Bodey, seeking their parochial interest accepted financial and positional bribes and promises to sell out their participation in the Ogoni cause. Wanting to be part of the government, to harvest some of the trappings of power, they abjured their links and worked against Saro-Wiwa. Members of this group went a long way to challenge the position of Saro-Wiwa as the leader or spokesperson of the Ogoni people; they countered every move he made to ensure his failure and their success.

The third group is the civil servants (lawyers, policemen, military men, doctors, judges) who through that universal anthem of justification - 'I'm only doing my work' - ensured that he was arrested, mentally tortured, neglected, falsely charged, poorly defended, and hanged. This group to show their impotence pretended to pity him when in custody. Some will go a long to offer such 'services' they described to be a prohibition for a person in custody to have, to show their solidarity with him. Yet 'in doing their work' they ensured the implementation of the death-sentence of an innocent man whose only work was to ask why. Saro-Wiwa bitterly wrote about that female judge who charged him falsely and the likes of Mr Inah and Ada George. What does one do when the officers of the law who have sworn to protect the law subvert the law? What does one do when they turn this law to commit crimes against humanity and against the spirit of the law? This group of people only have temporary relief for their conscience do forever haunts them. This is a poem Saro-Wiwa wrote, titled The True Prison, to describe those who sold their conscience:
It is not the leaking roof
Nor the singing mosquitoes
In the damp, wretched cell.
It is not the clank of the key
As the warder locks you in.
It is not the measly rations
Unfit for man or beast
It is the lies that have been drummed
Into your ears for one generation
It is the security agent running amok
Executing callous calamitous orders
In exchange for a wretched meal a day
The magistrate writing in her book
Punishment she knows is undeserved
The moral decrepitude
Mental ineptitude
Lending dictatorship spurious legitimacy
Cowardice masked as obedience
Lurking in denigrated souls
It is fear damping trousers
We dare not wash off our urine
It is this
Dear friend, turns our free world
Into a dreary prison. [Page 156]
The fourth group are international groups and leaders of countries who either refused to speak publicly against Abacha's regime or spoke feebly against it or even spoke strongly against it whilst patting its back in camera for fear of losing oil supply. Was all that could have been done to ensure a fair trial done? Is it coincidence that 'access to oil' is a pun of 'axis of evil'?

In the light of this, it is sad to read of Babangida still commenting and dreaming of the presidency in Nigeria. This book is an interesting book and it will show you the levels of human wickedness. My only problem with the book is that the other eight individuals were hardly mentioned or talked about and there could be reasons for this. It could be that Ken Saro-Wiwa initially did not know all the people who have been arrested and got to know of this when they were charged with murder, the trial of which is not recorded in the boo. Or it could also be that as a memoir, Saro-Wiwa wanted to speak for himself. Regardless of this, the wickedness of man against man, of black oppression upon black folks, in some way reminds me of The Book Thief. A Month and a Day & Letters is Highly recommended. You can also read my poem - Echoes in a Dying Head - written for him.
About the author: Kenule "Ken" Beeson Saro Wiwa (10 October 1941 – 10 November 1995) was a Nigerian author, television producer, environmental activist, and winner of theRight Livelihood Award and the Goldman Environmental Prize. Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in Nigeria whose homeland, Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta has been targeted for crude oil extraction since the 1950s and which has suffered extreme and unremediated environmental damage from decades of indiscriminate petroleum waste dumping. Initially as spokesperson, and then as President, of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Saro-Wiwa led a nonviolent campaign against environmental degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland by the operations of the multinational petroleum industry, especially the Royal Dutch Shell company. He was also an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government, which he viewed as reluctant to enforce environmental regulations on the foreign petroleum companies operating in the area. At the peak of his non-violent campaign, Saro-Wiwa was arrested, hastily tried by a special military tribunal, and hanged in 1995 by the military government of General Sani Abacha, all on charges widely viewed as entirely politically motivated and completely unfounded. His execution provoked international outrage and resulted in Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations for over three years. (Source)


  1. What a brilliant, compelling and fascinating review. Your anayses of the underying issues of Saro Wiwa's death is deep, intelligent and clearly unbiased. Well done, Nana.


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