Nigeria: how Mandela stood tall for Ken Saro-Wiwa.Ten years ago, Ken Saro-Wiwa Kenule "Ken" Beeson Saro-Wiwa (October 10, 1941 – November 10, 1995) was a Nigerian author, television producer, and environmentalist. He was the son of Chief Jim Wiwa. and eight of his Ogoni compatriots were executed by General Sani Abacha's military government in Nigeria. Abacha had shut his ears to a stream of admonitions from abroad not to do so. Cameron Duodu, a friend of the slain Saro-Wiwa, went to interview Nelson Mandela Noun 1. Nelson Mandela - South African statesman who was released from prison to become the nation's first democratically elected president in 1994 (born in 1918)
Mandela, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela after the event. The then South African president made history again by describing Abacha as "an insensitive, frightened dictator" who had used a "kangaroo court kangaroo court
moblike tribunal, usually disregarding principles of justice. [Pop. Culture: Misc.]
See : Injustice " to execute innocent men ... "Abacha is sitting on a volcano and I am going to explode it from under him," Mandela vowed. Ten years on, Duodu takes us down memory lane in remembrance of his executed writer-friend who begat "Rotten English".
I first met Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1986, when he paid me a visit at the Islington, North London North London is a part of London, England which has several possible definitions. River & geography
The part of London north of the River Thames (illustrated). , offices of Index On Censorship, where I was working. Ken had just published his novel, Sozaboy, which was entirely written in what he called "Rotten English". This was the language he supposed would be used by people like the hero of the novel--a half-educated but articulate Nigerian, who would be dismissed as an illiterate by the Nigerian bourgeoisie because he could not speak "Grammar" (grammatically correct English) like them.
I realised immediately on reading Sozaboy that Ken was a rather clever chap, because someone less astute would have fallen into the trap of writing the book in the more common Pidgin pidgin (pĭj`ən), a lingua franca that is not the mother tongue of anyone using it and that has a simplified grammar and a restricted, often polyglot vocabulary. rather than Rotten English. Had he done so, the originality of his idea would have perished, for although there is very little difference between the two bastardised Adj. 1. bastardised - deriving from more than one source or style
beaux arts, fine arts - the study and creation of visual works of art
impure - combined with extraneous elements versions of English, Pidgin English Pidg·in English also pidg·in English
Any of several pidgins based on English and now spoken mostly on the Pacific islands and in West Africa. is rather well-known as a West African--and indeed--Caribbean lingo Lingo - An animation scripting language.
[MacroMind Director V3.0 Interactivity Manual, MacroMind 1991]. or patois pat·ois
n. pl. pat·ois
1. A regional dialect, especially one without a literary tradition.
a. A creole.
b. Nonstandard speech.
3. The special jargon of a group; cant. which even non-Africans could learn to write.
Rotten English, on the other hand, was crying to be read, for no-one knew what it was. Why was it "rotten" and if it was "rotten", why use it? All this was good meat for a chat between writers. So I arranged to meet Ken.
He turned up smoking a pipe, which put him at immediate risk of being typecast as an African trying to look like a "big man". The Mercedes 280S he had brought, unusual for an African not normally resident in London, reinforced the image. But I wasn't deceived; when one talked to him, there was very little pretentiousness on show. He told me, without betraying any self-consciousness, that he "dealt in" commodities.
Now, the "futures" markets in such commodities as cocoa and coffee, among others, are extremely complicated and had earned the reputation of having blown away the fortunes of many of the speculators who "played" them. If Ken was thriving in such a field, then he was obviously a rather smart bloke, or what, nowadays, one might call a "cool cat", and was entitled to his pipe and Mercedes.
In addition, he also owned a line of retail and real estate ventures in Nigeria. Living in Nigeria as Ken was, and exposed to the rough and tumble The first use of the term Rough and Tumble for fighting dates back to the early 1700s in the North American frontier. Rough and Tumble fighting was the original American No Holds Barred underground hybrid "sport" that had but one rule - you win by knocking the man out or making him of that quintessentially capitalist country, surely it was not strange that Ken would try his hand at turning a dollar or two?
In fact, I was to discover that he was something of a paradox: having been administrator of the oil depot An oil depot (sometimes called a Tank Farm, an "Installation" or an oil terminal) is an industrial facility for the storage of oil and/or petrochemical products and from which these products are usually transported to end users or further storage facilities. of Bonny Island Bonny Island is situated at the southern edge of Rivers State in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. In the early 1990s the Federal Government of Nigeria, in collaboration with 3 international partners, Shell Gas BV., CLEAG Limited [ELF] and AGIP International BV. in the Rivers State Rivers State is one of the 36 states of Nigeria. Its capital is Port Harcourt. It is bounded on the South by the Atlantic Ocean, to the North by Imo and Abia States, to the East by Akwa Ibom State and to the West by Bayelsa and Delta states. of Nigeria, during the Biafran civil war (1967-70), and minister of education in the Rivers State government thereafter, he was a member par excellence of the Nigerian power elite.
And yet he cared enough about the viewpoint of the "ordinary" Nigerian as to write a novel from the point of view of a foot soldier, and to invent a language for the soldier to communicate his thoughts. This meant that he was a writer who did not merely tell stories but thought deeply about what he was doing before doing it.
I drove with Ken to my house in South London South London (known colloquially as South of the River) is the area of London south of the River Thames. Some neighbourhoods north of the Thames have South London postal codes (SW), but these neighbourhoods are classified as West or Central London. , where we talked over a good Scotch. I discovered that his strenuous business life notwithstanding, he was a prolific writer who had produced about 20 books, some of which he had published himself through a company called Saros International. He was also writing and producing an extremely popular and hilarious soap opera soap opera
Broadcast serial drama, characterized by a permanent cast of actors, a continuing story, tangled interpersonal situations, and a melodramatic or sentimental style. on Nigerian television called Basi and Company, and thus married together business and art.
Instead of just writing the scripts and handing them over to the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA NTA National Tour Association
NTA Nitrilotriacetic Acid
NTA National Treatment Agency (for Substance Misuse; UK)
NTA Net Tangible Asset
NTA National Tutoring Association
NTA National Transportation Agency ) to produce, as most writers would do, he had formed his own production company which shot and edited the series, and sold them as a complete package to the NTA. The series went into 150 editions before the Nigerian military government, headed by General Ibrahim Babangida, had it cancelled by the NTA in 1992.
I wrote up our interview for South magazine and from then on, Ken phoned me up whenever he came over to London. Around 1989, I began to worry about him, for he was writing a lot in West Africa West Africa
A region of western Africa between the Sahara Desert and the Gulf of Guinea. It was largely controlled by colonial powers until the 20th century.
West African adj. & n. magazine about his birthplace, Ogoniland, in Nigeria. In these and other articles, he explained to the world that the Ogoni are a distinct ethnic group, numbering a mere 500,000, who inhabit the coastal plains terraces to the north of the Niger delta The Niger Delta, the delta of the Niger River in Nigeria, is a densely populated region sometimes called the Oil Rivers because it was once a major producer of palm oil. , in south-east Nigeria. "Living in an area of 404 square miles, Ogoni is one of the most densely populated rural areas in the world," he wrote.
Ken said that "oil was discovered in Ogoni by Shell in 1958" and that since then "about 900 million barrels of oil", with an "estimated value of US$30bn" had been extracted from the area. Shell's oil pipelines criss-crossed the surface of Ogoni lands dangerously. There were, as well, a fertiliser plant, two oil refineries This is a list of oil refineries. The Oil and Gas Journal also publishes a worldwide list of refineries annually in a country-by-country tabulation that includes for each refinery: location, crude oil daily processing capacity, and the size of each process unit in the refinery. , a petrochemical plant and a seaport, all posing health and environmental hazards to the people.
In 1990, the Ogoni had taken stock of their condition and determined that in spite of the stupendous stu·pen·dous
1. Of astounding force, volume, degree, or excellence; marvelous.
2. Amazingly large or great; huge. See Synonyms at enormous. oil and gas wealth of their land, they were extremely poor and had no social amenities, such as health clinics and schools. Unemployment was running at over 70% there, but they were powerless, as an ethnic minority in a country of 100m people, to do anything to alleviate their condition.
In brief, "the Ogoni were faced with environmental degradation Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water and soil; the destruction of ecosystems and the extinction of wildlife. , political marginalisation Noun 1. marginalisation - the social process of becoming or being made marginal (especially as a group within the larger society); "the marginalization of the underclass"; "the marginalization of literature"
marginalization , economic strangulation Noun 1. economic strangulation - punishment of a group by cutting off commercial dealings with them; "the economic strangulation of the Jews by the Nazi Party"
penalisation, penalization, penalty, punishment - the act of punishing , slavery and possible extinction."
So the chiefs and leaders of the Ogoni had adopted an "Ogoni Bill of Rights" in which they demanded: (a) the right to self-determination as a distinct people in the Nigerian Federation; (b) adequate representation as of right in all Nigerian national institutions; (c) the right to use a fair proportion of the economic resources of their land for their own development; and (d) the right to control their environment.
These demands were presented to the government and people of Nigeria in October 1990. Ken formed the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) is a campaigning organization representing the Ogoni people in their struggle for ethnic and environmental rights. (MOSOP MOSOP Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People
MOSOP Missouri Sex Offender Program ) to pursue these demands. I had begun to detect in his writing about Ogoniland suggestions that he might be moving towards the secession of Ogoniland from Nigeria. He laughed when I put this to him, for as someone who had worked against Biafran secession, he was not about to make the same mistake as Col. Emeka Ojukwu. The strong language in his Ogoni advocacy was meant to drive the Nigerian federal establishment to the negotiating table. That was all.
But Ken had underestimated the brutality with which the Nigerian military could pursue repression when they thought they faced a dangerous foe. Peaceful protests by the Ogoni people The Ogoni people are one of the many indigenous peoples in the Niger Delta region of southeast Nigeria. They number about a half million people and live in a 404-square mile homeland which they also refer to as Ogoni, or Ogoniland. were dispersed by force of arms. Some Ogoni villages were burned down; and many people were either gunned down or detained.
Ken himself was abducted abducted Distal angulation of an extremity away from the midline of the body in a transverse plane and away from a sagittal plane passing through the proximal aspect of the foot or part, or away from some other specified reference point on the streets of Port Harcourt on 21 June 1993. He remained in detention for 31 days. Mean-while, a new decree was enacted by Abacha's government which prescribed the death penalty for anyone found guilty by a special military tribunal of conspiring, within or outside Nigeria, to do "anything" capable of disrupting the "general fabric" of the Nigerian nation, or any parts of it.
It was so obvious that the decree was aimed at Ken that it became known immediately as the Ken Saro-Wiwa Decree. At this stage, the British weekly newspaper, The Observer, true to its campaigning spirit, began to take an active interest in what was going on in Ogoniland. It invited me to write one of its world-famous Profiles, with Ken Saro-Wiwa as the subject. It appeared on 11 July 1993. I wrote:
"Saro-Wiwa, aged 52, is again in prison in Nigeria. He has not yet been charged with treason, but there is doubting the desire of the Nigerian military authorities to silence him after he turned from writing satirical articles and television sitcoms and began to expose the plight of the Niger Delta's Ogoni people. The federal government sucks up proceeds from the petroleum production to finance its bloated expenditure (most of which ends up in the pockets of the ruling soldiers and their business associates) while delivering a mere pittance pit·tance
1. A meager monetary allowance, wage, or remuneration.
2. A very small amount: not a pittance of remorse. to the Ogoni, whose land is ruined by pollution. Oil provides Nigeria with 90% of its national revenue. The federal government owns majority shares in most of the foreign companies which operate in Nigeria, through the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) , sometimes known as the Nigerian National Petroleum Company, is the state oil corporation through which the federal government of Nigeria regulates and participates in the country's petroleum industry. . It tends to see any attack on the oil companies as an attack on itself and reacts ruthlessly against protests.
"As the federal government has also vested all the country's lands in itself, through a 'Lands Use Decree', it means the people of the oil production areas have no recourse against their grievances. It is enough to create a Thomas Paine out of the most wooden-headed wood·en·head
A stupid person; a blockhead.
wooden-headed adj. inhabitant INHABITANT. One who has his domicil in a place is an inhabitant of that place; one who has an actual fixed residence in a place.
2. A mere intention to remove to a place will not make a man an inhabitant of such place, although as a sign of such intention he of the oil-producing areas. Now, Ken Saro-Wiwa is bright. Very bright. His people number 500,000 but 150,000 barrels of oil are produced every day on their land. Since they made him the spokesman of their 'Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People', he has alerted the United Nations to their plight. His current imprisonment Imprisonment
See also Isolation.
former federal maximum security penitentiary, near San Francisco; “escapeproof.” [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 218]
German prison ship in World War II. [Br. Hist. is to prevent him from travelling to New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of to invoke 'Procedure 1/503' of the United Nations Charter--which allows individuals to protest against the infringement of their human rights by their governments.
"Prison will present few difficulties for Saro-Wiwa. For several years, he wrote a funny column in the Lagos Vanguard reporting on 'The Prisoners of Jebs' (now collected and published by Saros International). The Prisoners of Jebs contains Ken Saro-Wiwa's epitaph epitaph, strictly, an inscription on a tomb; by extension, a statement, usually in verse, commemorating the dead. The earliest such inscriptions are those found on Egyptian sarcophagi. to himself:
"The Director of [Jebs Prison] sent for Peter Dumbrook. Peter confirmed that he knew Mr Saro-Wiwa, by ill-repute if nothing else. He is a mean, spiteful little wretch, and so small you wouldn't find him among a colony of soldier ants. He is learning to be a satirist. What does a satirist do? He holds up a distorting mirror before the people. Some people look into the mirror and see their reflection and get scared. There are some pretty scared people in Nigeria right now. The world should ensure that they do not make Ken Saro-Wiwa their scapegoat'."
Ken was not immediately charged, but by December 1994, he had been charged, not with treason--as expected--but with murder. The allegation against him was that he had given orders for four Ogoni elders who didn't agree with the methods of MOSOP, to be killed. A special military tribunal was set up to try him and eight other Ogonis. Everyone knew what the verdict would be: death for all of them. And in fact, they were sentenced to death, on 31 October 1995.
In one of those rare events which are difficult to explain, one night in a dream I saw Ken quite clearly, asking me: "Cameron, why are you allowing them to kill us?" This really frightened me, and I called The Observer, very often, seeking space to campaign for Ken's release. To their credit, the foreign editor, Adrian Hamilton, and the editor, Jonathan Fenby, were more than willing to allow me generous space to write about Ken and his fellow doomed men.
But it was in vain. On 10 November 1995, a date that will forever be etched in my memory, all nine Ogonis were hanged at Port Harcourt prison. The circumstances in which the sad news reached me need recounting:
I spent the early morning in the London Foreign Correspondents Association building, taking part in a live TV discussion for BBC World, on the importance of the Commonwealth with regard to international relations. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, abbreviated to CHOGM, is a biennial summit meeting of the heads of government from all Commonwealth nations. Every two years the meeting is held in a different member state, and is chaired by that nation's respective Prime in Auckland, New Zealand New Zealand (zē`lənd), island country (2005 est. pop. 4,035,000), 104,454 sq mi (270,534 sq km), in the S Pacific Ocean, over 1,000 mi (1,600 km) SE of Australia. The capital is Wellington; the largest city and leading port is Auckland. , was being opened that very day, even as we spoke.
We were halfway through the TV discussion programme when the producer flashed the news to us that Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogoni activists had been hanged. This was quite simply unbelievable. Many statesmen had appealed to General Sani Abacha, who had taken over from General Babangida, not to execute the men. But Abacha went on to execute them even though the evidence against them was absolutely flimsy.
The trial itself was full of irregularities: almost every submission made by the defence was rejected. Many witnesses were found to have sworn false affidavits after either being bribed or threatened with torture. As a result, many of the lawyers for the defence had withdrawn from the case.
Michael Birnbaum, a Queen's Counsel (QC) sent to Nigeria to investigate the trial by the Human Rights Committee of the United Kingdom Bar Council, said of the tribunal: "It is my view that the breaches of fundamental rights I have identified are so serious as to arouse grave concern that any trial before this tribunal will be fundamentally flawed and unfair."
There was no appeal against the tribunal's verdict, and even though Abacha's government was supposed to carry out a full review of the verdict before confirming or not confirming it, there had not been enough time for the patchy secretarial services available in Port Harcourt to even prepare the transcripts for such a review.
From the Foreign Correspondents Association, the BBC BBC
in full British Broadcasting Corp.
Publicly financed broadcasting system in Britain. A private company at its founding in 1922, it was replaced by a public corporation under royal charter in 1927. drove me to its Television Centre in White City (West London), where I spent over four hours talking almost non-stop, in live news bulletins, about the executions.
In the days following the hangings, a lot of time was spent trying to pin the blame for Abacha's brutality on someone. Attention fell on the then South African president, Nelson Mandela, who, some felt, had not lent his full weight to the pressures exerted by the Commonwealth on Abacha. One London newspaper likened Mandela's position in Auckland to that of "the man who wasn't there". When I read it, I felt it was a great injustice, for I knew, from previous meetings with Mandela, that his humanitarian attitude would have spurred him to try everything he could, in private, to get Abacha not to hang the men. That Abacha had not listened to him would have hurt him deeply. To now accuse him of not having done enough, when he could not possibly have revealed to the public what he had been doing in private (since that would have killed any influence he had with Abacha stone dead), was quite simply absurd.
So I asked Mandela's office in Pretoria whether he would grant me an interview to state his side of the matter. He said "Yes", and I went to see him at home in Houghton, Johannesburg.
Now, as is well known, African leaders who took over from our former colonial rulers inherited, and continued to practise, all the hackneyed usages associated with "diplomacy". They addressed each other as "Excellency". They met at airports to the strains of national anthems bleated out on the very self-same musical instruments formerly used to play marches that incited soldiers to go and shoot Africans in Sharpeville, or burn towns like Kumase.
They drove to and from airports in the same Rolls-Royce and Mercedes limousines used by plume-helmeted governors to blow dust on African schoolchildren schoolchildren school npl → écoliers mpl;
(at secondary school) → collégiens mpl; lycéens mpl
schoolchildren school who had been ordered to line the roads and wave flags at the unknown white personages inside those limos.
These protocol-conscious African presidents saw no evil, heard no evil, and spoke no evil about their "brother" heads of state. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda once summoned the courage to denounce them for forming a "trade union". But he soon became a checked-off member of the union himself.
It was only when the leaders' direct interests were involved--such as Nyerere attacking Idi Amin of Uganda for invading parts of Tanzania, or Houphouet-Boigny of the Cote d'Ivoire and Maurice Yameogo of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) attacking Nkrumah for harbouring their political opponents--that they expressed their outrage in public. Attacking another leader purely on principle was practically unheard of in Africa.
But when I interviewed Mandela, he tore that bit of Africa's political history onto the rubbish heap. He proved to be the most candid politician I had ever talked to. He described Abacha as "an insensitive, frightened dictator" who had used a "kangaroo court" to execute innocent men. He urged the Nigerian opposition to "light the fires of resistance" inside the country, and get rid of Abacha's "barbaric, corrupt, irresponsible and arrogant dictatorship".
He added that it was of no use for Nigerian leaders to "shout from abroad" and not to ensure that the fires of resistance were burning from inside the country. He concluded: "Abacha is sitting on a volcano and I am going to explode it from under him." He explained, though, that there was no quarrel between the peoples of Nigeria and South Africa.
My interview led the BBC World Service
The BBC World Service is one of the most widely recognised international broadcasters, transmitting in 33 languages to many parts of the world through multiple technologies. news for a whole day. It was also carried by The Observer in London, De Volkskrant in Amsterdam, and splashed across the front page of The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg (26 Nov. 1995).
Everyone who heard the interview or read it was astonished a·ston·ish
tr.v. as·ton·ished, as·ton·ish·ing, as·ton·ish·es
To fill with sudden wonder or amazement. See Synonyms at surprise. . For never in the history of Africa The History of Africa began in the Bronze Age with the earliest written records from ancient Egypt. Evolution of hominids and Homo sapiens in Africa
Me? I shall forever be proud to have been chosen as the instrument that Mandela used to set such a worthy precedent for his "brother" African heads of state.