Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa And The Struggle For Justice In Nigeria
October 13, 2005
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. (See below for
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.
* 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.