Revenge and the love of Saro-Wiwa
For Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ogoni was the land. Ogoni was also the people. Saro-Wiwa was in love with Ogoni, the land and the people in Rivers State of Nigeria. Throughout his life, 1941 to 1995, he witnessed the transformation of Ogoni into a land of waste and wealth; waste from the oil, wealth from the oil and desiccation to last for generations.
Two weeks ago, the world finally decided to pay part of the debt it owes Ogoni. For the next 30 years, top class environmental scientists and technicians would be at work in Ogoni to clean the land of oil pollution that has turned the once fertile mangrove forest into a waste land. With the good work and returning cleanliness, the water of Ogoni may even begin to inhabit fishes again, the kind that Saro-Wiwa knew when he was young. But real fish may not return until the next 50 years.
Late in 1993, Saro-Wiwa came to our office at the then headquarters of TELL magazine on Acme Road, Ikeja. He was thinking of the troubled fishermen of Ogoni and their future in Nigeria. He had just returned from Abuja from a meeting with the new strongman, General Sani Abacha, who had recently executed a perfect coup against Chief Ernest Adegunle Shonekan, head of the Interim National Government, ING.
Abacha and Saro-Wiwa had been friends from the Civil War days when the latter was a commissioner in the old Rivers State government headed by the military governor, Alfred Diette-Spiff. On the strength of that friendship, Abacha had sent a presidential jet to fetch Saro-Wiwa from Port Harcourt, capital of Rivers State.
Saro-Wiwa told us he was not surprised about the royal treatment for Abacha had been a generous friend. Abacha made his offer to the President of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, MOSOP. Would he like to be the Minister of Petroleum Resources? Saro-Wiwa declined. What he wanted, he told Abacha, was for the head of the ruling junta to help him implement the Ogoni Bill of Rights. The meeting ended as a fiasco. Abacha threw the Ogoni Bill of Rights into the waste bin. No more presidential jet for Saro-Wiwa. He was asked to find his way home. They were never to meet again. About 24 months later in 1995, Saro-Wiwa and eight of his compatriots in the MOSOP leadership were executed in what was called “judicial murder.”
It was for the sake of the long run that Saro-Wiwa waged his war for justice with so much eloquence and audacity. He believed that Nigerians need to learn to discuss and negotiate peacefully the future of their great country. He was a tireless advocate because he had witnessed the futility of war.
Saro-Wiwa wanted the future of Ogoni to be negotiated. He believes in the potency of the written word and with this weapon, he pursued the oil giant, Royal Dutch Shell, the main oil company in Ogoni, to the end of the earth over the pollution of his homeland. He wanted a national conference that would debate the future of the Nigerian federation and grant some level of self-determination to his Ogoni. Abacha did not have a listening ear and Saro-Wiwa ended up at the gallows.
Now the children of Saro-Wiwa are doing the same thing that even the most vicious company could never contemplate: the deliberate, systematic and continuous ruination of their ancestral land through constant oil pollution. In the last few months since they began their campaign, the Niger Delta Avengers, NDA, have poured oil through the breaking of pipelines into the soil. They have achieved more destruction of their ancestral land than all the oil companies have done in the last 58 years. They do not know how to write to the United Nations like Saro-Wiwa or send a protest letter to the National Assembly or make a demand on the President or put an advert in the newspapers. They only believe in the eloquence of violence. They are young, violent, restless and too much in a hurry. They called themselves militants and they want the original treatment where they can sit at home and collect billions of naira in compensation.
The NDA may not know that for a society to survive, it must learn the art of constant debate and continuous self-evaluation. In our history, Africa has lost too much because it often refuses to engage in internal dialogue and, therefore, exposing itself to external danger. By the middle of the 19th Century, many European powers, especially Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Belgium and Spain were competing for spheres of influence on the African continent. Europe had gone through the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars and its gruesome aftermath. One statesman, Otto Von Bismarck of Germany, thought Europe needed to learn from its blood-soaked history.
Bismarck called the Berlin Conference which lasted for two years where the European powers agreed to partition Africa. Thus Britain was given the territories of Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda and many other countries. Germany had Namibia, Cameroon and Togo. France had the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Niger, Chad and many others. Belgium had Congo and Italy had Somaliland. Though the fate of Africa was at stake, no African was invited to the Berlin Conference. When the Organisation of African Unity met for the first time in 1963, it was resolved that the borders agreed to at Berlin should be respected among the new African countries. This was to forestall the danger of irredentism that may develop.
More than 100 years after the Berlin Conference, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo became an elected President of Nigeria. He agreed with President Paul Biya of Cameroon that the Bakassi Peninsula dispute between the two countries which had been lingering for more than 40 years, should be resolved by the World Court. In the end, the World Court ruled that by the agreement between Germany and Britain in 1886, Bakassi belonged to Cameroon. The might of the Nigerian Army, our Navy and our Air Force could not override the wisdom of these few gentlemen who sat on the World Court Bench.
In 2016, though the parties did not go to the World Court, it was obvious that the Federal Government and the Communication behemoth, MTN, knew there was need for negotiation and peaceful resolution of their dispute. The National Communications Commission had slammed a fine of N1.04 trillion on the MTN, for failure to disconnect 5.1 million lines that were not properly registered. In its struggle to get a reprieve, the MTN tried to seek forgiveness through goodwill ambassadors and its considerable diplomatic clouts.
It did not try to draw its sword. Instead, it reaches for the song of peace and negotiation. At last, the tactics worked and the behemoth is getting away with only a few strokes of the cane instead of a decapitation. The new fine of N330 billion would convey the message that Nigeria is open for business on civilised terms. The MTN too would remain a chastised giant which is happy to continue on the path of righteousness. In reaching an agreement, both parties realised that the interest of Nigeria must remain paramount.
Unlike the Federal Government and the MTN, the Niger Delta Avengers is pursuing a policy that is obviously not in the interest of the Niger Delta. It claims to be on a mission of revenge. Obviously it has not thought about the Ijaw (Izon) people in 200 years time when the oil pollution it is causing today would still be visible in the desiccation of the land, the land that Saro-Wiwa loved so much. This campaign of the Avengers may have certain consequences. One, it may lead to increased military activities in their areas of operations in Bayelsa, Rivers and Delta states. It may intimidate the Federal Government to employ the formula of new pay-off to create another tribe of jobless billionaires. It would certainly make their people poorer both in the short and the long run.
It was for the sake of the long run that Saro-Wiwa waged his war for justice with so much eloquence and audacity. He believed that Nigerians need to learn to discuss and negotiate peacefully the future of their great country. He was a tireless advocate because he had witnessed the futility of war. “Is there anything that we achieved with the Civil War that we couldn’t have gotten through the Conference table?”
I thank God for Saro-Wiwa. The letter he wrote to the United Nations more than 30 years ago has borne fruits. It shows the power of the word over the eloquence of the machine gun. The cleaning up of Ogoni land, a slow and painful process that may last up to 30 years, is a great victory for Saro-Wiwa. The NDA needs to ponder on this. They need to know that revenge is not a sustainable policy for development.
Ah! Ogoni, the land, the people! How much Saro-Wiwa loves you!!