Ken Saro-Wiwa: Field Notes


Twenty Years Later

When Ken Saro-Wiwa and his nine Ogoni compatriots were hanged in November 1995, it both polarized and unified the fragile as well as volatile geographical entity known as Nigeria. However, this time, it wasn’t the ethnic and religious fissures that were most noticeable. Instead it was the naked fist of raw power versus the vociferous protestations of a disenfranchised minority writhing beneath the weight of a seemingly implacable military dictatorship.

Ken Saro-Wiwa became the voice, face and symbol of this aggrieved minority straining for denied civic and democratic rights. He became a hero in patently unheroic times and this is what makes his life and the loss of it so potently poignant. Indeed a martyr was able to rise from the ashes of the interrupted birth of what could have been a great nation, and because his life of searing activity and activism was such a sharp contrast to a vastness of moral turpitude, it was able to combine poesis with powerful intimations of revolution. This conjures images of blood and tears running wild in streets and overpowering the fully armed goons bent on keeping the multitude away from power.

Indeed there were several successful attempts by power to keep Saro-Wiwa placated and be one of its own. And for a while, he was seduced by the comforts of power, but the plight of his Ogoni compatriots and similar ethnic minorities became his Damascus experience. He just couldn’t look the other way and eventually turned his back on the enticements of power. Some have attempted to brand him a saint because of his tremendous courage. But perhaps it is more accurate to perceive his appeal as coming from a blend of poesis, passion and courage in an era when such an admixture had been direly lacking.

Saro-Wiwa is a hero of his times and of so many others. In an age when political and ideological co-optation has become the norm, he stood up to the crude and dominant structures of power perhaps knowing full well that his personal safety was at risk. This stance couldn’t be more different from one enabled by the extreme narcissism of the culture of celebrity. The irony of it all is that Saro-Wiwa was able rise above the cheap iconography of the culture while retaining most of its power. Saro-Wiwa stood and fought for the real while the contemporary cult of celebrity entails the light-hearted replication of inane imagery. Nothingness becomes valued because all is bedecked by endless glitter. Saro-Wiwa’s life and experience give the middle finger to all of that while still being able to charm the multitude.

While he was waging his war for ethnic and environmental rights during the early 90s, I had already been intrigued by his presence. And so when he was hanged, I embarked on a project to write about it in what became a journey that seemed unable to reach an end. The month after he was killed I traveled from Lagos to Ogoni territory, accompanied by Harrison my Ogoni friend, searching for clues that led to his death. I found the territory bruised, battered and terrorized. People were scared to talk generally but many were prepared to damn the consequences even as their land had become a militarized zone. Beneath the lush delta vegetation, forlorn pockmarked buildings loomed, often bearing tell-tales signs of death and carnage. The general gloom made the air heavy. It was as if the land had sunk under the burden of its misery. A cloak of mourning had been cast over it and people seemed to go about their daily affairs in a grim and determined manner further heightening the palpable tension. Vultures, as informants and government collaborators were known, were everywhere putting me and those who agreed to speak with me in grave danger.

The Ogoni tragedy created monsters and fascists willing to maim and kill to prove their allegiance to a depraved state. The crisis gave reason to be truly afraid, as sadistic torturers and psychopaths found plenty to do. Women were raped and children lost their parents. Private property was wantonly damaged without compensation. It appeared as if the Ogoni had been marked for extinction, as unidentified assailants armed with government-issued weapons wreaked random violence and mayhem in their territory.

Nonetheless, in the midst of this orchestrated reign of terror, there were bright spots of humanity emerging from the cracked surface of gloom. Each dusk when I returned from my dangerous field trips on motorbikes over bumpy and narrow bush paths, I quaffed lukewarm beer on hot and humid nights with newfound friends. On pitch black nights peppered with the soft creaking of crickets, there was the feeling that some earth-shaking event were about to occur; a premonition of heavy death and dreadful ordeals. And perhaps that was why everyone seemed so subdued and expectant. This was not a state of defeat. Rather it was an expectation of happenings of enormous reverberations. It didn’t require a familiarity with gnosis or hermeticism to realize something great was afoot. It felt so in the heaviness of the night, the solemn deliberateness of the air and the huddled manner of the forests. The elements appeared wound up by loss, hurt and expectancy.

There never seemed to be any electricity, but life went on and laughter wasn’t uncommon. My friends who were mostly younger than me were street-smart and largely optimistic. Fortunately, they hadn’t been broken down by the plight of the Ogoni and appeared perpetually on the lookout for opportunities. Even more encouragingly, they seemed to have found renewed reason to store up their dignity and humanity. This is what I found most impressive about them. Anyone who wanted to know what human dignity was only had to come live with them.

It is difficult to imagine that any outsider would have been able to gather all the information I received without the co-operation of a skilful insider. I would be eternally grateful to Young Ikpe, my friend and guide, who accommodated me in his family home and helped me navigating in the minefield of eager vultures and ruthless soldiers Ogoni land had become. Every morning, fortified by cheap home-brewed gin (ogogoro), Young’s father would pray for us as we mounted commercial motorbikes (okada) to interview the next willing interlocutor. The most unbowed and invariably the most important, were of course, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) activists who understood the history of the crisis, the stakes involved in the struggle, and the strategies by which it had to be waged. These were bold and hardened men who even when demonstrating that they had nothing to lose were filled with dignity and single-mindedness. They were ready to stand steadfast in the face of unremitting terror. I remember those humble activists who held down jobs as small-scale agriculturists, fishermen and commercial transporters. I remember Johnson Nna in Port Harcourt for his captivating eloquence and logic. I remember a rather distracted Claude Ake, the internationally renowned social scientist at the time, only months away from the mysterious plane crash that killed him in 1996. I shall never forget the invaluable assistance rendered by Perkins who was my most significant link to credible MOSOP activists and sympathizers. An ethnic minority of about half a million people in a country of much bigger and powerful ethnicities had gained the attention of the world through its determination and political awareness, and this was due to the efforts and inventiveness of largely one person: Saro-Wiwa.

Young’s father has a calm and unobtrusive paternal presence. He resides in a larger building at the entrance to the compound. Young’s shack isn’t really a shack because he has successfully managed to transform it into a home. Well-behaved friends visit for chats and warm beer. Discreet love trysts occur, again breaking out as salutary cracks over a thick blanket of gloom. It would have been most inhumane for soldiers made brutish by the drunkenness of power to invade this peaceful homestead. It would have been quite insensitive for them to rend the lush vegetation surrounding the compound by a murderous hail of bullets. Each morning as I went on those unpredictable field trips, Young’s small household would come out to the yard front to bid me farewell. It was as if they knew something I didn’t; they sensed that I might not return.

There was something ominous about how the dense plant life huddled together just as people seemed both wary and hopeful at the same time. They were wary because the soldiers who had occupied their territory appeared absolutely intent on proving just how inhumane they could be. And hopeful because the buoyant spirit of Saro-Wiwa signified an unbreakable core within the perceived understanding of justice and fair play.

This contrast extended to how the Ogoni – especially the youth – conducted themselves. During the crises, Ogoni territory was thoroughly militarized; all the youth could think of was getting out, as watercourses had become polluted and farmsteads had shriveled due to neglect. Death, though, wasn’t able to extinguish that proud and enterprising Ogoni spirit and this was evident in the gusto with which they sought to better themselves via education and the acquisition of marketable skills. During the civil war (1967-70) their oppressors had done everything possible to denigrate and vilify them. They were called Ogoni pio pio meaning idiot. This insult merely seemed to embolden the desire to surmount their difficulties and deprivations. This was evident in many instances of dirt-poor Ogoni indigenes excelling in far-flung cities by dint of talent and sheer hard work. They were discriminated against within their territory, within the region and most unfortunately within the nation. They were viewed, under the military dictatorships, as unrepentant troublemakers who had to be viciously subdued, most especially within their homeland. There was no joy to be had in remaining behind. It was better to try one’s luck in Port Harcourt, Lagos or Abuja. Better still, the United States was amenable to receiving refugees fleeing the crises. So even when death relentlessly stalked Ogoni land, the youth were prepared to make it elsewhere.

Everywhere I went in Ogoni land, people referred to him as simply Ken. It was clear they spoke about him with deep respect and affection. More hauntingly, they spoke about him as if he was still alive. He seemed to be still very much around and MOSOP activists seemed to have their antennas at the ready to receive telepathic messages from their departed hero. At the time, no one had been able to figure out the gravity of the loss. Indeed it would have been very difficult to do so. Saro-Wiwa had single-handedly transformed the tempo of the Ogoni struggle in a way that it became impossible to forge ahead without him. The loss was both personal and collective at many levels and rather than confront it head on, it was preferable to delay its estimation so as not to inflict further damage to the collective self. The death of Saro-Wiwa was akin to a nightmare that would someday disappear just as a bad dream. Ken dead? How was that possible? The Ogoni found themselves as stranded orphans upon the melancholy and dusky swamps of the delta. It was hoped that his powerful spirit would somehow manage to lead them to the promised land through some sort of messianic intervention. Anything short of that would only serve to worsen their enormous sense of bereavement.

Messianism has always been preoccupied by the notion of the ‘return’, or ‘the second coming’. This longing was evident after the death of Saro-Wiwa and there was the feeling that the Ogoni struggle could only be consummated with his involvement, and what was the struggle’s most valuable asset eventually became its greatest impediment. MOSOP and its affiliated organs were evidently galvanized by one man’s vision, charisma and energy. When he died, it was as if the life was sucked out of MOSOP and it subsequently dwindled away. It is a shame that the very messianism that had given the wings for MOSOP’s flight plunged it to sordid earth once its charismatic leader was no more. Vultures and short-sighted political opportunists quickly assumed the position he once held, and then of course the Ogoni cause receded to the back burner.

-The Ogoni Bill of Rights handed to the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida in 1993 had included the following complaints and demands:

-- That neglectful environmental pollution law and sub-standard inspection techniques of the Federal authorities have led to the complete degradation of the Ogoni environment, turning our homeland into an ecological disaster. -- That the Ogoni people lack education, health and other social facilities -- That it is intolerable that one of the richest areas of Nigeria should wallow in abject poverty and destitution. -- That successive Federal administrations have trampled on every minority right enshrined in the Nigerian constitution to the detriment of the Ogoni and have, by administrative restructuring and other noxious acts, transferred Ogoni wealth exclusively to other parts of the republic. -- That the Ogoni people wish to manage their own affairs.

Obviously, the federal military government could not tolerate the questioning of the inequitable federal arrangement which also jeopardized its long-standing understanding with predatory multinational petroleum concerns. The Bill of Rights even went one step further by demanding the prerogative of “managing their own affairs” which seemed a slap on the face of the government. Who the hell did this ethnic minority think it was by demanding to change the configuration of the nation? The Ogoni had to be put in their place by employing time-tested methods of terror. The notorious Major Paul Okuntimo became a noted butcher of Ogoni land who boasted openly about his casual sadism. In promoting the likes of Okuntimo, it didn’t occur to the federal government that it was eroding the foundation of its own legitimacy, an act which would one day come to undermine it and ultimately tarnish any notion of democracy to which it subscribed. So even as the buffeted military establishment scrambled to hand over power to a civilian dispensation, it did so with an extremely blemished concept of democracy that could only be operationalized in an illicit context. In essence, it dug not only its own grave but also that of a large portion of the nation. Dialogue and consensus-building, in spite of numerous collective attempts to problematize the idea of the national question, consequently became serious challenges. Blind force and violence are what came to take their place, a replacement that unfortunately isn’t the sole preserve of the government but also stokes virulent pockets of vigilantism.

My association with the Ogoni cause appeared fairly simple: to attempt to understand the fate that befell Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots and then present my findings to like-minded individuals. But alas, the project was forced to undergo numerous trials and tribulations. General Sani Abacha, the dictator who pronounced the death sentence on Saro-Wiwa, outlived him by three years. I was understandably angry over Saro-Wiwa’s death and my report sometimes betrayed it. But on the whole, I had tried to be as factual and as dispassionate as possible. The findings of my investigation into the Ogoni issue were to be published by the organization – IFRA-Nigeria – which had commissioned it, but it wasn’t. No official reason was offered and I merely heard through informal channels that the report couldn’t be released given the highly combustible political situation in the country and that security operatives might find it reprehensible. Perhaps I had a premonition of this outcome just after I concluded my trip to Ogoni land. An uncustomary sadness had overwhelmed me before I boarded the bus leaving Ogoni territory. I am not sure whether this was as a result of leaving behind a noble land and people and the incomparable sense of loss caused by it or by some feelings of inadequacy in my personal relation to the Ogoni tragedy. However, this sadness remained with me until just before I started to write a 150-page report of my Ogoni experience which after completion gathered dust for the entirety of a decade. In the intervening period, life went on and the question of the unpublished report tugged at my mind from time to time.

About ten years later, I was granted a research fellowship at the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and the first thing I did when I got there was to notify my colleagues that I had penned a 150-page study of the Ogoni crisis and asked if the editorial collective would be willing to have a look at it with a view to publication. The collective was amenable to the idea but indicated it could only publish an abridged version and not the entire work. Grudgingly, I agreed and commenced work on updating and fleshing out the work into a full-length book. This effort took more than a year and then after many hiccups, I was able to find a publisher in London and the work was eventually released as Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow: Politics, Nationalism and the Ogoni Protest Movement in 2007.

Ken Saro-Wiwa is a highly complex figure; at once traditionalist, modernist and globalist. His traditionalism stems from having to espouse a form of ethnonationalism that evidently conflicted with a broader nation-building project. The modernism is largely based on his advocacy of democracy and the rights of minorities, while his globalism stems from a conception of environmentalism that appreciates the interconnectedness of all regions and continents of the globe. These notable polarities are perhaps what account for his lasting appeal. It is unfortunate, though, that because of the ethnocentric coloration of his activism, he was unable to transcend the long established anti-nationalistic tendencies within the Nigerian polity. Here was a leader who had both modern and postmodern persuasions and who could have therefore re-fashioned the marred Nigerian nation-building project by virtue of his cosmopolitan ethic but who failed to do so because his form of politics owed its initial impetus to an ethnonationalistic orientation.

In fairness to him, no Nigerian political figure has been able to surmount this crippling limitation. Thus ethnonationalism and other forms of political parochialism have always provided the basis to launch an apparently broader nationalist initiative, with the result that the issue of nationhood remains exceedingly intractable, far from complete, and left to fester and disintegrate. This has been the source of the irredeemable failure of not only the Nigerian state, but also the nation and its people. Nigeria has consequently been a discomforting chimera to be used and abused by everyone and anyone. It is a nation that thoroughly exhausts its citizens and those remotely connected to it.

Ken Saro-Wiwa had both the energy and vision to change this state of affairs but for whatever reason chose not to do so. And so we are left to ponder what might have been had the case been otherwise. But these limitations aren’t restricted to him alone. Indeed they are those any sincere Nigerian leader would have to scale in order to alter the fate of the nation. In spite of the advent of democracy, in spite of having to exist in a global postmodern world, elements of feudalism within the Nigerian milieu are still very much present. It is a bandit’s and predator’s paradise up for the taking by the bold and the ruthless, which makes the country often uninhabitable. Indeed it can often be an unkind and uncharitable place as everyone simply wants to bleed it to death while it responds with equal fury and resistance. And that is why it was possible that Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots ended the way they did. There is no mercy here and those unlucky to exist within the country do so at their own peril. Perhaps this is putting too harshly. A predator’s paradise can be as unpredictable as a roll of the dice in which ruination and fortune are inextricably intertwined. One minute you’re up and the next you’re down in the pit; just like that as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would say. And so the nation even as it burns to its roots is always filled with excitement and able to elicit inexplicable hope.

Indeed the passing of Ken Saro-Wiwa culminated in a watershed. The tenets for which he gave his life were eventually vulgarized, commercialized and oftentimes brazenly criminalized. After him, the kidnapping of foreign oil workers became rampant. Unscrupulous gangs and sects had discovered a way to profit from the sordid plight of millions. The values of sustainable environmentalism, democracy and human rights gave way to rabid opportunism, spiraling corruption and various forms of violence both organized and disorganized. It became convenient to reason that if Saro-Wiwa had been failed by the virtues of dialogue and temperance, why was it necessary to continue to pursue his methods? The Nigerian state was built upon, and maintained by, violence and brute force and so it could only be confronted by the same.

It is a shame that Saro-Wiwa’s unjust death has not been confronted by the Nigerian state. Even though a thick shroud of mists now dwells between the state and the tragedy, the former has not be able to account for its omissions regarding the affair and prefers to pretend it is a non-issue, forgetting that its stubborn policy of amnesia is a recipe for similar tragedies. Just as a no-victor-no-vanquished creed was proclaimed at the end of the Nigerian Civil War, the state chooses to believe that the tragedy wasn’t as horrific as held by all and sundry; that it is a minor or at best unfortunate affair destined for the less visited margins of history. But it is possible to discern the correlation between the rise of armed free-floating vigilantism and the emergence and decline of MOSOP.

Nigeria particularly despises heroes and prophets and this why its political history is devoid of the galvanizing power of myth and romance. Instead, it is littered with missed opportunities and heart-breaking tales detailing the roads to ruin. Nigerian national history, apart from the mythological and actual accounts of the great nationalities of West Africa, is characterized by powerful undercurrents of cynicism and negative mirth, as reality is often too painful to bear. Nigeria’s greatest leaders of the colonial era – Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo – in spite of their inspirational anti-colonialism never acquired real federal power, and the characters who managed to succeed where these illustrious figures failed were more than atrocious.

Saro-Wiwa’s death serves as a reminder that ethnically diverse countries cannot afford to take their diversity for granted. The man stood for the necessity to speak out against the evil of dictatorship. He was wasted by probably Nigeria’s most heinous despot at a time when the question of minority rights was becoming ever more urgent and assuming a centrality in public discourse, when the issue of democracy was uppermost on the national agenda and when the insufferable plight of those living in the Niger Delta was fast becoming a global concern. Indeed Saro-Wiwa’s life and work formed a crucial ideological turning-point for those who hoped that Nigeria was still a worthwhile project to pursue.

It has been two decades since the barbaric death of Saro-Wiwa, and the Nigerian political landscape has been unrecognizably transformed. Saro-Wiwa’s struggle exemplified certain core values and tenets: democracy, minority rights, environmental awareness, non-violence and respect for human dignity. But as he lived and worked in an antithetical political context governed by venality, despotism and philistinism, he was brutally cut down. Even more tragically, criminal elements were able to pervert his values and vision to their advantage thereby steering away focus from them. Moreover, the abandonment (one hopes this is only partial) of the Ogoni cause has also meant a diminution of the Nigerian democratic project, a narrowing of its conceptual space and validity in a manner from which it hasn’t quite recovered. Instead, in his wake, ethnic militias of all manner have emerged staking a bewildering array of untenable claims to the Nigerian federation, one that has become doubly greedy, corrupt and unaccountable.

Its nemesis is Boko Haram, which in the name of a sociopathic faith pronounces death and destruction upon those who have the temerity to disagree with it. The violence which the Nigerian state had thrived upon has now been turned against it in the era of democracy. For decades, it had enforced its sectarian will by fear, repression and exclusion. Saro-Wiwa had provided a generous opportunity to rethink and reform its ways but it declined it, and since then it has fallen even lower within the chasm of degradation. And what has his ordeal taught us? Let us cherish and respect our dissenters because they often bear the truths, however uncomfortable they might seem to us, that we need to transform and hopefully transcend ourselves.