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Development and the arts

Novelist, activist, martyr

by Bimbola Oyesola
On November 10, it was fourteen years ago that Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian writer, was murdered alongside eight of his compatriots. During the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, they were sentenced to death. The regime had hoped to end opposition in the Niger Delta that way. Instead, violence escalated. Peace has only recently begun to look viable, and increasingly authorities are acting according to ideas Saro-Wiwa spelled out 20 years ago. [ By Bimbola Oyesola ]

Besides being a successful writer, Saro-Wiwa was active in politics. He criticised the Federal Government for exploiting the oil resources of his tribe’s traditional homeland in Rivers State. He was a founding member of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), the author of the Ogoni Bill of Rights and the primary opposition leader in the early 1990s.

The Ogoni are an ethnic group living in Rivers State, an area with huge oil and gas resources. About 900 millions barrels of oil have been mined there, mainly by the multinational Shell, since 1958. Despite the oil wealth, the people of the Niger-Delta are extremely poor and have to cope with environmental pollution and illiteracy.

In view of the downsides of multinational oil companies’ activities, Saro-Wiwa drew attention to environmental violation and people’s victimisation. An activist at heart, he took more proactive steps like organising protest marches. He stated that “the writer must be actively involved in shaping his present and future”. So, in January 1993, Saro-Wiwa gathered 300,000 members of the Ogoni people to march peacefully, demanding a share in oil revenues and some form of political autonomy.

Saro-Wiwa paid a high price for his activism. He was detained on several occasions. He was arrested in May 1994 for alleged incitement to murder. A harrowing and lengthy trial followed. In the end, he was sentenced to death and hanged alongside eight other activists in November 1995. His case drew international attention to the cause of the Ogoni people, though the solidarity campaign was not strong enough to prevent the execution of the “Ogoni Nine”.

It is fourteen long years ago that Saro-Wiwa was killed. But his ideas remain very much alive. The flame of activism lit by the martyr has defied every effort to douse it. In his last speech at the tribunal Saro-Wiwa said: “We all stand before history. My colleagues and I are not the only ones on trial. The company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will come. The lessons learned here may prove useful for there is no doubt that the ecological war the company has waged in the Delta, also against the Ogoni, will be questioned and punished sooner than later. In my innocence and in my utter conviction, I call upon the oppressed ethnic minorities of Nigeria to stand up and fight fearlessly and peacefully for their rights.”

Contrary to this plea, violence escalated in the Delta region, with various rebel groups fighting the government and, increasingly, one another. Oil production has dropped, and the country’s political leaders finally understood that they could not afford to stay aloof.

Lasting ideas

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo began to make an effort to recognise the activists’ legacy by financing a unity hall in memory of the fallen heroes. The present government of President Umar Musa Yar’Adua is making more progress. An amnesty programme for suspected militants in the region has been finalised, and in April the president approved the immediate start of a technical study of all locations affected by oil spillage in Ogoniland as a necessary prelude to the clean up. The government has drafted plans to spend 10 % of oil revenues on infrastructure and other services in the Delta Region. After years of strife, peace seems possible once more, as London’s Economist reported recently.

Elijah Okougho, General Secretary of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) believes that Saro-Wiwa will remain “celebrated in eternity”. He points out that before his death, there was no armed struggle in the Delta: “Saro-Wiwa was an intellectual and a man of peace. He did neither take up arms nor encourage people to armed struggle.” What turned protestors into militants, in this view, was the execution of the novelist/activist.

Bamidele Aturu, a constitutional lawyer and a human right activist, sees Saro-Wiwa in a similar light: “He made his contribution to the development of his region by drawing attention to the plights of his people, the utter degradation and environmental pollution.” Aturu adds that the government is acting according to his ideas in terms of developing the region today.

Abiodun Aremu, a vocal activist and top official of United Action for Democracy (UAD), stresses that development “is not just building infrastructure”. In his eyes, the development of human capital matters more: “And that is enshrined in the Ogoni Bill of Rights.” Celestine Akpoloaki of the Ogoni Solidarity Forum disagrees: “Nobody is even talking about the fundamental issues in the Niger-Delta these days. Everybody is talking about money while basic necessities of life are missing”.

Saro-Wiwa’s family sued Shell in the USA. This summer, the oil giant agreed to pay $ 15.5 million in an out-of-court settlement. A spokesperson of Shell stated that the company did not acknowledge any guilt, but was prepared to contribute to a process of reconciliation.