Creation Myths: Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian state under General Sani Abacha on November 10th 1995. Why did this happen? Ike Okonta explains..

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.

I still remember the day, a Friday. The immediate week before the execution there was a scramble by heads of states, religious leaders, human rights organizations and individuals to try to prevent the hanging by appealing to General Abacha. Right until the very moment we all persuaded ourselves it would not happen. On the Saturday morning I remember clearly lying in bed staring at the ceiling when the phone rang. It was a call from a relative in Port Harcourt telling me what I already knew but was now confirmed. Eight members of MOSOP, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Barinem Kiobel, Fexlix Nuate, John Kpuinen, Daniel Gbokoo, Baribor Bera, Nordu Eawo, Saturday Doobe, Paul Levura had been executed.

I just finished reading Create Dangerously, by the Haitian American writer, Edwidge Danticat in which she asks all of us – immigrants and exiles, to bear witness for who we are as we pass through our life’s journey. For this we may need to develop a set of “creation myths”. Those stories which haunt us and within which we can begin our own story. “Creation myths” generally involve..

heartrending clash of life and death, homeland and exile ………disobeyed directive from a higher authority and a brutal punishment as a result. If we think back to the biggest creation myth of all, the world’s very first people, Adam and Even, disobeyed the superior being that fashioned them out of chaos, defying God’s order not to eat what must have been the world’s most desirable apple. [P6]

The ultimate punishment for Adam and Eve, unlike the Ogoni 9 who were executed, was banishment from Paradise which in a sense makes us all exile. Exiles with cracked hearts, roaming the world in search of a home.

One of my creation myths is this day 15 years ago. Although I wasn’t living in Nigeria at the time of the formation of MOSOP in 1990, it was a period when I visited the country twice a year for about 3/4 weeks each time. As soon as I arrived in Lagos, I would start to buy all the newspapers and magazines searching for news of the Niger Delta and MOSOP. I cannot remember reading anything positive. I cannot remember hearing anything positive from family in Port Harcourt. It seemed to me like my whole family had been brain washed by the military regimes. Being “a visitor” I was accused of “not understanding” of “not knowing” – the usual disparaging remarks received in response to anti-government propaganda. It reminds me of the ‘UnNigerian’ ‘UnAfrican” comments one gets if you act or speak remotely different to the commonly agreed dialogue. In short, it was a time of rising consciousness around the Niger Delta and the possibility of autonomy and self-determination for the many minorities in the region. My first creation myth started much earlier but that’s another story. This one was my second ‘creation myth’ – the execution of the Ogoni Nine, 15 years ago. It’s a reminder that the struggle begun by Ken is not only not over after 15 years, but has ironically, become an even greater struggle under the another mythical story that of Nigerian democracies of “civilian” leadership.

Shell Guilty – Secrets and Lies

Documents have now been found which further reveal the dirty dealing of Shell in the framing of the Ogoni 9 and the post execution strategy of divide and rule.

The documents outline a tactic of divide and rule, where Shell planned to work with some of its critics but isolate others. Under the “occupying new ground” scenario, the document detail how Shell would “create coalitions, isolate the opposition and shift the debate.”

Dividing NGOs into friends and foes, Shell emphasised the need to “work with [and] sway ‘middle of the road’ activists”. The Body Shop, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were seen as unlikely to change their position. One suggested tactic to counter these organisations was to “challenge [the] basis on which they continue their campaign against Shell in order to make it more difficult for them to sustain it”. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were seen as more easily persuaded. The document suggests building relationships with the organisations and encouraging “buy-in to the complexity of the issue”………Continue reading

Who will dance with the devil?

In the brief extract of his poem “Epitaph for Biafra” Ken could easily have been speaking about the Niger Delta militants of today –

They will play at Rebels
And Vandals
Fill the nation with blood
And scandal.

Then they will return as agents
And angels
Laughing and weeping and begging
For minor mercies.

Links: Make the Delta the test of Nigeria’s elections

Cross posted from New Internationalist Blog