Yore Lore: Ken Saro-Wiwa

Standing up for a cause requires a belief in yourself and your ideals. It also requires guts. Speaking for myself, I find it difficult to imagine I would be willing lay down my life for a political cause. I think many current late-teens and early 20-year olds would find it hard to envisage such a scenario. And yet, when I think of the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa of the Ogoni people, I can understand the reasoning of an individual who decisively laid down his life for a cause.

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life and death and the political struggle of the Ogoni people against the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company is a “David and Goliath” story, and can be explained by a very brief background history of the Ogoni in Nigeria, and an explanation of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s contribution to the political struggle against Shell.

The Ogoni are a microminority in the Igbo region of Nigeria. The identity and rights of small ethnic groups such as the Ogoni in Nigeria continue to challenge the centralist ambitions of the government and ethnic majorities of the country.

Nigeria inherited from its Portuguese and British colonial past three distinct regions based on ethnic affiliations: the Hausa-Falani (Northern), Vorupa (Western) and Igbo (Southern) people. During 1967-70, there was civil war in Nigeria and the Igbo attempted to establish a country independent of Nigeria called Biafra. This led to increased attempts at assimilation of Igbo ethnic minorities such as the Ogoni. In 1970, when the civil war in Igbo was put down, the federal government created 12 states in Nigeria to replace ethnic regions with federated administrative units. The resources of Nigeria, however, were disbursed mainly among three ethnic majorities, and these resources strengthened the political power of the northern ethnic majority of Hausa-Fulani. In this system the Ogoni had very little opportunity to share the political power or wealth generated by the resources in their region.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was born in British ruled Nigeria in 1941. He had a scholarship-funded colonial education at Government College in Umuahia. After Nigerian independence from Britain in 1965, he graduated from the University of Ibadan, majoring in English literature. He was part of an intellectual elite that had easy access to influential and lucrative governmental positions, but he was at a disadvantage being of Ogoni background in a region dominated by the Igbo. In 1975, he set up his own business and became highly successful, eventually forming Saros International, a company dealing with land, food imports and publishing. Around 1977, he became an author and activist.

During 1985-88, Saro-Wiwa produced a sitcom called Basi and Company, which attracted a viewing audience of 30 million each week. He started MOSOP (Movement for Survival of Ogoni People) in 1990 and was active in the Movement till his death in 1995. During 1990-95, he devoted all his energy, writing and money solely to the cause of Ogoni rights.

The multinational company Shell Petroleum Development Corporation, through its subsidiary Royal Dutch Shell, began extracting oil from Ogoniland in 1958. The Ogoni people were given less than 1.5 per cent of the money generated from oil drilling on their land

When Ken Saro-Wiwa established the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), he encouraged his people to protest non-violently against their political oppressors. He created the Ogoni Bill of Rights, which consisted of demands for Ogoni political autonomy, direct representation in the Nigerian national government, and the right to control their land’s economic resources, which included the oil being drilled by Shell.

In May 1994, during a political rally initiated by Saro-Wiwa, four Ogoni chiefs were murdered. Saro-Wiwa had not been near the area of the murders, as he was prevented by military personnel from attending the MOSOP political rally. In spite of this, Saro-Wiwa was arrested for the murders of the four Ogoni chiefs by the same military personnel who prevented him from attending the political rally. They charged him with “procuring and inciting” the murders, along with four other Ogoni activists. Saro-Wiwa and his comrades were put on trial for eight months. After his trial, Saro-Wiwa was declared guilty and executed.

Saro-Wiwa was tortured in prison, given an unfair, secretive trial, and sentenced to death. His closing testimonial was somehow smuggled out by his compatriots: “I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial and it is as well that it is represented by counsel said to be holding a watching brief. The Company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and the lessons learnt here may prove useful to it for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished. The crime of the Company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will also be punished.”

Saro-Wiwa’s death is memorialized in popular media as a tale of a victim of the evil multinational corporation and in the documentary, The Power of Corporations. Hundreds of websites scatter the web, all memorials to him, the most notable being Remembersarowiwa.com. Furthermore, this past June, Shell agreed to an out-of-court settlement of US$15.5 million to Ogoni victims’ families. The company denied any liability for the deaths, stating that the payment was part of a reconciliation process. In a statement given after the settlement, Shell suggested that the money was being provided to the relatives of Saro-Wiwa and the eight other victims, in order to cover the legal costs of the case and also in recognition of the events that took place in the region.

Sir Wilfred Laurier once said when speaking about Louis Riel “What is hateful is not rebellion but the despotism that induces that rebellion.” Saro-Wiwa’s life definitely makes one think about the lengths an individual may be willing to go in order to fight for a cause.