Environmental activist, writer, dramatist and human rights campaigner Kenule Saro-Wiwa was allegedly killed 20 years ago today by the late Nigerian maximum ruler, General Sani Abacha for his dogged fight and demand for the preservation of the Ogoni in the Niger Delta and their environment. At the throes of extinction due to massive oil pollution, degradation and oil spills that had and continue to ravage the lives, livelihood and existence of the Ogoni people Saro-Wiwa and the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), which he founded and led, demanded that the Ogoniland be treated with respect and their environment accorded dignity. The Ogoni protested the incessant spills and pollution of their land by the Oil multinational Shell Petroleum Development Company, the land which is not just their means of livelihood for fishing and farming but also a sacred space their ancestors have nurtured and lived on for generations. The Ogoni demand for fairness, respect for their land and insistence that Shell clean up and compensate the people quickly turned them into an endangered species, and the illegitimate government of General Sani Abacha became very desperate in its zeal to continue to allow the oil giant to carry on drilling in the Ogoni nation.
The survival of the Ogoni people truly became a cause for concern for many. The struggle for survival itself became a lifelong objective for Saro-Wiwa and many of the leaders of MOSOP. MOSOP in no time became a target of the Abacha dictatorship. Soldiers were sent into Ogoni land and the people were held captive, harassed, intimidated, tortured and many killed. The prime target of the dictatorship however was Saro-Wiwa, the unrelenting force and leader of MOSOP.
How can I forget where I was when Kenule Saro-Wiwa was brutally killed by the Abacha Junta? It was such a dark day and a time of national mourning and anguish in Nigeria that offices quickly close and shops and businesses voluntarily shut down in the nation’s business and economic capital of Lagos and other Nigerian cities. No one could believe it; it was like a bad joke, a terrible dream you wish to quickly emerge from. My colleagues and I from a leading audit, consulting and management firm were working on an organizational design project for a bank in Victoria Island, Lagos when the terrible news of Saro-Wiwa’s hanging came to us. The angry and visibly shaken bearer of the news was no other than the managing director of the bank. He walked into our consulting office to inform us and at that point every one of us just froze. Tears laced on most eyes and silence enveloped the room before we were led into the MD’s office to listen to the terrible news again and again on the BBC. The MD came to our office first because we have been discussing the trial at the kangaroo military court where Saro-Wiwa and the 8 other Ogoni were being tried. We all used to pour scorn on the Justice Ibrahim Auta Tribunal as a joke and a travesty that cannot hold water, but started getting worried when Mr. Auta started making some strange decisions and the repeated assault by security forces and the Armed Forces on Chief Gani Fawehinmi the lead defence counsel and lawyer to Saro-Wiwa.
There was a day during the trial when Mr. Auta announced a verdict after some submissions by the prosecution and the defence without taking any recess. He was challenged by the defence about how quickly the verdict was reached. His response was that he had consulted with the others on the tribunal! When did the members of the tribunal consulted to arrive at that verdict? One of the defence lawyers remarked that the consultation must have been done by telepathy, nothing else. After suffering weeks of physical and emotional abuse cum assault from the military and repeated bashing at the tribunal entrance by soldiers, the lead defence counsel Chief Fawehinmi withdrew from the tribunal. Chief Fawehinmi, a staunch defender of peoples’ rights and human right campaigner declared that the tribunal was established for one sole purpose: to convict Saro-Wiwa at all cost. Mr. Auta was the willing tool of the Abacha Junta. He showed a lack of conscience and was prepared to serve his masters for whatever it was worth. It is shocking that despite a return to democracy the likes of Ibrahim Auta are still actively involved and present in our judicial system.
We huddled together in disbelieve in the MD’s office while he sent a message to the Human Resources department to send all staff home and close the bank. News report from around the world started filtering in. The report of the anger of the then president of South Africa Mr. Nelson Mandela about the hanging topped all the reports. Mandela was very angry and visibly shaken because he felt aggrieved that despite the promise of Mr. Abacha to him that Saro-Wiwa wil not be killed, the junta went ahead to kill an innocent man. He said something to the effect that he, Mandela could have been killed as well by the Apartheid regime and he would not have been alive then to be South Africa’s president. Nigeria was immediately kicked out of the on-going Auckland Commonwealth of Nations meeting. Despite international condemnation of the pseudo-trial and its skewed procedures, and along with clear disregard for the time set aside for appeal, the Ogoni 9 were killed by a government referred to by the international community as “barbaric.” November 10, 1995 will forever remain a day to remember in the struggle by the Ogoni and our people against powerful oil multinationals and the governments that collaborate with them in the destruction of the Niger Delta and its communities.
A vast swath of the Niger Delta is now heavily polluted and inhabitable, a sharp contrast to Galveston, Texas, USA and other cities around it, which I visited two months ago. Oil spills are not happening in these places because the penalties for spills are huge as confirmed by the BP Deepwater Spill Settlement that cost BP more than $20 billion and an environmental fine of $18.7 billion to settle legal actions brought by the US government and several states following the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But in the case of Nigeria it was the government that colluded with the oil company (and other oil companies) and stood behind these multinational oil giants to our destroy communities and our peoples’ livelihood. Though Shell paid $15.5 million in an out-of-court settlement to the families of the Ogoni 9, it has remained a highly distrusted company in the Niger Delta and its image has forever been damaged by its actions and inactions in the Niger Delta. The other Ogoni heroes hanged by the junta are Sunday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel and John Kpuine. They will never be forgotten for the ultimate sacrifice they made. President Buhari must clear the Ogoni Nine today and reverse the action of Auta’s kangaroo court. Mr. Auta and the members of his tribunal must be held to account. Auta must open up now and come clean.
Ajayi wrote via [email protected]… Courtesy: AFRICAN EXAMINER