Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Closing Door

Administrator | Home | Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

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“All of us have a choice, to make our children safe in the world or make the world safe for our children.”
–Ken Wiwa, Jr.

Fifteen years after the death of author Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Niger Delta region of Nigeria remains embroiled in conflict. Kidnappings and murders are on the rise, and America is more dependent on Nigerian oil than ever. If there is hope, it may be found in Saro-Wiwa’s legacy of non-violent activism. But the window of opportunity may soon be closing.

A Little Background: Why we care about Saro-Wiwa

A little background is in order. Ken Saro-Wiwa largely became known to people outside Nigeria for his activism against the degradation of his homeland in the Southern part of the country. Oil companies, particularly Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum, had destroyed this once fertile wetlands through a combination of mismanagement, gas flaring, and regular oil leaks. Fish gills filled with oil and mangroves suffocated. Largely subsistence-based communities suddenly struggled to survive, and enjoyed none of the billions in revenue. Instead of responding constructively to the peaceful protests of Saro-Wiwa and his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), the government smashed the movement violently. Gunships and unmarked paramilitary groups stormed the region. It is alleged that Royal Dutch Shell clandestinely financed these raids, or tacitly approved of them. Saro-Wiwa was subsequently accused of murder at a violent protest at which he was not even present, and killed by hanging along with eight other activists by a military tribunal on November 10, 1995.

The Event

I could only imagine that this would be a difficult panel to produce. Saro-Wiwa led such a full life as a writer and an activist that it would be difficult to capture his legacy. But the panel succeeded. We heard Larry Siems’ personal account of PEN America’s work with Saro-Wiwa, watched a short documentary, listened to a captivating reading from Saro-Wiwa’s play performed by actors Steve Connell and Sekou, heard a fascinating discussion between Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Wiwa, Jr., author Richard North Patterson, and Okey Sidibe, and finally closed with Ken Saro-Wiwa’s last words, as read by the editor of Guernica magazine. I would normally avoid listing all the people involved (and resorting to superlatives) but the event felt undeniably complete. The only thing that was lacking was more Nigerian accents.

Saro-Wiwa as a Writer

It can be easy to forget that Saro-Wiwa was first and foremost a writer. This is how he initially gained notoriety in Nigeria. He was a successful dramatist, screenwriter, and author who explored the furthest reaches of the craft. In Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English (1985), a novel of the Biafran War, he experimented with English and pidgin. He was also the creator of Nigeria’s first successful soap opera, Basi and Company.

You might equally be surprised to discover that Saro-Wiwa was a successful businessman. I mention this because he had a hell of a lot to lose when he committed himself to the Ogoni struggle. His sacrifices were real and palpable; he gave his life to his people.

Legacy of Blood

The most illuminating aspect of the event was the conversation between Ken Wiwa, Jr. and Richard North Patterson. There is a danger that history’s great activists will be turned into ’saints’ and enter an innocuous hagiography which has no effect on the ‘normal’ person. They have been ‘touched’, and were ‘chosen’ and thus are above-human. You could never be like them, the logic goes, so don’t bother. (The typical example is Hellen Keller, who is now remembered for being blind, mute, and deaf but was actually a committed social activist during her time.) Wiwa, Jr. made his father human at the panel. He noted that his father “spoke for the little people.” However, his father’s devotion to helping the Ogoni made him more distant as a parent. “All of us have choice,” Wiwa, Jr. explained, “to make our children safe in the world or to make the world safe for our children.” His father chose the latter, deciding to make the world safe for his children. His commitment to injustice allowed a ’sadness’ to peter into his otherwise ebullient personality.

Patterson for State

Richard North Patterson is a former trial lawyer who helped investigate the Watergate scandal. He then became a successful author, and recently published ‘Eclipse‘, a novel set in the fictional African country of Luandia, a stand-in for Nigeria. (As an aside, what is it with fictional African countries? They seem to breed like rabbits…) Patterson distinguished himself as an extremely eloquent speaker, and I could imagine myself crying on the jury as he told me about the mutagenic properties of asbestos or the like. “A life of meaning involves using your work in a way beyond your personal self-interest,” he said. “And I think Ken Saro-Wiwa is a perfect example of that.” Richard North Patterson for Secretary of State. (You heard it here, first, folks.)

The Way Forward

I’ll admit I was a little skeptical about this event. The reason is that the name Saro-Wiwa inevitably carries with it an overwhelming feeling of frustration. It was so clear that Saro-Wiwa was in the right, that the natural environment was being destroyed in Ogoniland, and both the government and the oil companies were complicit in this destruction. Yet in the short term nothing was done about it. Fifteen years later, natural gas continues to be flared from the crude oil. Emissions rain down upon the mangroves, and kidnappings are on the rise. There is also a real danger, as Wiwa, Jr. noted, that the next generation of children of the Delta region will never have known the bucolic estuaries of his childhood. They will have grown up in violence, and have been marred by it.

The Delta region of Nigeria is arguably even more important today for the world than it was before. It is a confluence of environmental issues. Desertification, deforestation, and rising sea levels all affect the region. So, too, do issues of corporate responsibility.

Corporate Responsibility

This is an important point. I once had the opportunity to meet with an executive of an oil concern, who ran an extraction operation in Equatorial Guinea. As he regaled me with tales of dining with the pygmy president, it struck me how much power these companies have. But he explained that his company gives the bulk of its revenue to the country. The company also gives funds to local infrastructure projects. But when the funds are mismanaged, there is only so much the company can do, because otherwise it would be appropriating the functions of the government.

Royal Dutch Shell certainly makes such arguments today, but twenty years ago its corporate responsibility in the region was atrocious. The company is being brought to court soon in the U.S. over its actions in the Delta region, I believe under the Alien Tort Claims Act. The hope is that if it is thrown out (probably for standing) then at least there will a publicly available record of the company’s oil spills and alleged funding of the paramilitary groups. That would certainly be a positive legacy for Saro-Wiwa.

Opening the Window

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Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP’s legacy was non-violent, but their protests have so far been met with violence. 99 percent of Nigeria’s GDP comes from oil, and the U.S. is dependent upon much of it after the ‘loss’ of the oil fields of Venezuela (to politics) and Iraq (to war and politics). Current Nigerian president Yar’Adua has rightfully turned his attention to the region, developing a Delta Ministry in which Wiwa, Jr. will play a role. This is certainly a positive development, I think, because there is official acknowledgment that there is a problem. Wiwa, Jr. continues to lobby, he says, for non-violent solutions. The danger is that the acknowledgment will be an excuse for the government to exercise more violence.

To Celebrate

Saro-Wiwa was emblematic of the ability of a writer to become an activist — and what must be given up to accomplish lasting aims. The hope is that his legacy will soon be celebrated instead of merely commemorated.

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