By Albert Afeso Akanbi
Ebi was 11 when late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha ordered a military crackdown on Ogoni land in 1994. He recalls with nostalgia how the kids would crowd late Ken Saro-Wiwa in those days, continuously pulling at his traditional attire which he was fond of wearing, until he sat them down and told them evening stories. Stories of the rich cultural heritage of his Ogoni people, how blessed their land and how the big corporations, in active connivance with corrupt government officials were ruining the place in a massive oil exploration enterprise.
He insists the massacre that happened in Odi, Bayelsa State and in fact all the other “massacres” in Nigeria’s history, were all child’s play compared to what happened in Ogoni.
Prior to that time, four elderly Ogoni chiefs known to be opponents of Saro-Wiwa’s MOSOP had been gruesomely murdered. General Abacha had blamed MOSOP and ordered a crackdown in which scores were arrested including Ken Saro-Wiwa, one Barinem Kiobel and 7 others. Kiobel was not a member of MOSOP, but was a senior government official who had been critical of the military government.
For days Ebi told me, kids were separated from their parents in the thick forests around Ogoni into which they had fled, feeding on wild fruits and any edible thing they could find, drinking from whatever stream they saw, they survived for weeks. The entire land was depleted, youths were killed, women raped irrespective of age and the place plundered. And in the end, for a land as strategic in oil exploration as Ogoni, that had suffered so much injustice in terms of land degradation, water and air pollution, human right abuses, poverty, what the government did was to build the biggest prison in that area, for them!
As I listened to Ebi, a few questions came to my mind. How did we come to a point where a government, in attempt to solve a crime, could order a crackdown on a town within its own country? How did the West, the acclaimed custodian of civilization, democracy and morality, not see the rightness in the cause for which Saro-Wiwa fought, for which his life was forfeit? Are we to believe that the West could not, in all honesty, stop the execution? Why haven’t we seen a real commitment to change, both on the part of the Nigerian government and its Western multinationals, in Nigeria’s Niger/Delta region today, despite the fact that a United Nations Environmental Program report later validated his claim about how the oil companies were devastating their environment?
The story of Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa popularly known as Ken, a Nigerian writer, television producer, environmental activist, and winner of many wards including one for “exemplary courage in striving non-violently for civil, economic and environmental rights”, was an eventful one.
Born in October 1941 as the eldest son in a prominent family in Ogoni, today’s Rivers State, Nigeria, Saro-Wiwa had pursued a career in academics before landing a job as a Civilian Administrator during the Biafran war in 1967-1970. He would later join the River State Government as Regional Commissioner for Education from where he was dismissed because of his consistent advocacy for greater Ogoni autonomy.
Ken went on to become 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. In the 1970s he built a business in real estate and in the 1980s concentrated on his writing, journalism and television production.
But throughout his work, he never took his face off the exploitation he saw around him as the oil and gas industry took riches from beneath the feet of his people, and in return left them polluted and disenfranchised.
In one of his works, “Night Ride”, he explained on his anger at seeing multinational oil companies, like Shell, appropriating land from local people.
He related how he “cursed the earth for spouting oil, black gold” and “the gods for not drying the oil wells”. And asked if “…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?”
In 1990, Saro-Wiwa co-founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, MOSOP and 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 accused the oil companies and the Nigerian government of waging an ecological war against 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 triumph turned Saro-Wiwa and his acolytes into a real menace for General Sani Abacha’s military dictatorship. Abacha responded to the MOSOP protests with force, committing numerous serious human rights violations including killings, torture and rape in the process.
Both Shell and the Nigerian government wanted to get rid of Ken and his brothers at all cost because at the time, Shell was pumping almost one million barrels of crude oil a day, roughly half of Nigeria’s total daily oil production and exports made up some 96% of the country’s foreign earnings.
Saro-Wiwa and his brothers were tortured, deprived of family members and friends, and their deaths by hanging deprived their various families the right to family life too. The government even went as far as bribing prosecution witnesses to frame Saro-Wiwa and his men, when attempt to bribe Saro-Wiwa himself failed.
Up till this very moment, the level of injustice in the Niger Delta can better be imagined. Even the current government has not done much to reverse the trend least of all exonerate Saro-Wiwa who was unjustly killed. As a matter of fact, Hammed Ali, one of those who sat on the panel that condemned the man is the head of the Nigerian Customs today while Professor Gambari who justified the killing to the international community is General Buhari’s Chief of Staff.
Africa is not poor, Nigeria is not either, both are being looted! And those who do so, do so at the expense of the well-being of the majority of the real owners of the wealth. And they will do anything to silence dissent, and this is what happened to Saro-Wiwa.
A recent report claim that sub Saharan Africa is a net creditor to the world to the tune of more than $41bn, yet, $203bn is leaving the continent annually through dodged tax and outright stealing from multinational companies and their conniving local collaborators. Even the profits that these multinational make here are sent back to their home countries, especially the UK which is awash with profits and resources extracted Africa through sweat and blood!
Illegal logging, fishing, oil bunkering, wild life trading etc. are just a few means by which billions of dollars are being stolen from Africa yearly! The combination of staggering wealth in terms of human and capital resources, rampant violence and corruption and abject poverty of Africans is no coincidence, but a pattern. How can Africa but this rich and yet so poor at the same time?
Expert say the wholesale expropriation of resources since the time of slave trade through colonialism has not slowed down or halted. In Nigeria for example, when the colonial masters where leaving, they made sure to hand power to a corrupt “extractor elite”, a cabal that has been transforming itself over the years, that wields both commercial and political power, and continue to draw to itself the rent that oil and other resources generate, at the expense of the peoples who’s land the resource are and anyone who dares to question them is taken out.
Then if we consider the stifling loans, the negative narrative that African needs help, the wars that are being fought here using weapons made in peaceful countries, we realize that Saro-Wiwa grossly underestimated the powers he fought, powers that feeds on the blood of Africa for survival!
Continue to rest in peace Ken, God bless Nigeria!
Albert Afeso Akanbi is a Public Affairs Analyst.