By Ndubuisi Ugah
Seventeen years after their execution, details have emerged on how former Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, now deceased, got members of his defunct Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) to approve the death sentence passed on environmental rights activist and author, Mr. Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight others.
Saro-Wiwa and others, who were accused of killing four Ogoni chiefs opposed to the campaign by the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), which was headed by the late author, were convicted after a controversial trial that attracted global condemnations.
MOSOP was at the vanguard of the agitation against the environmental degradation of Ogoniland arising from oil exploration.
But a memo from the meeting of the PRC, obtained by an online news medium, Premium Times, showed how council members approved Abacha’s request for the death sentence to be carried out on the Ogoni Nine so that the military junta would not be portrayed as weak.
Members of the PRC at the time were Abacha; Maj. General Patrick Aziza (Minister of Communications under Abacha); Major Gen. Tajudeen Olarenwaju (General Officer Commanding); General Abdulsalami Abubakar (Chief of Defence Staff); Lt. General Oladipo Diya (Chief of General Staff); Maj. Gen. Victor Malu (GOC); Ibrahim Coomasie (Inspector General of Police); Mike Akhigbe (Chief of Naval Staff); Maj. General Ishaya Bamaiyi (Chief of Army Staff); Nsikak Eduok (Chief of Air Staff); Lt. Gen. Jeremiah Useni (Minister of the Federal Capital Territory); and Michael Agbamuche (Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice).
During the debate on a memorandum submitted to the council by Abacha, many of the contributors had lamented how the government had been regarded as weak for heeding the pleas by the international community to pardon some coup plotters.
They had therefore stressed the need for the government to demonstrate its capacity to deal with knotty security issue that the Ogoni case had thrown up by upholding the death penalty passed on Saro-wiwa and others to serve as a deterrent to others.
According to the memo, two days before the execution, Abacha had told the PRC members that the activists deserved no sympathy, and that hanging them would stem further discontent and prove to the world the regime was bold and courageous.
“He was of the view that no sympathy should be shown to the convicts so that the sentence will be a lesson to everybody. He stated that the Ogoni issue had lingered for a very long time and should be addressed once and for all,” Abacha was quoted in the document as saying.
The late head of state accused Saro-Wiwa of being a foreign agent used to destabilise Nigeria, and a “separatist” who had hidden under the cloak of being an environmental activist to pursue his devious agenda.
The execution of the Ogoni Nine, however, sparked international outrage with the European Union and the United States placing an economic embargo and other restrictions on the country.
Shell Petroleum Development Corporation, which was at the centre of the unrest in Ogoniland, was also accused of complicity in the killings and in 2009, it paid $15.5 million as an out-of-court settlement to the families of the deceased persons.
But the company had said the payment was not a concession of guilt, but a gesture of peace.
Besides its decision to uphold the death sentence, the PRC also proscribed MOSOP and used the resources of the state to weaken support for the organisation and its leaders.
The tribunal that convicted Saro-Wiwa turned out to be one of the most controversial in the history of this country. Headed by Justice Ibrahim Auta, the current Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, the panel delivered a speedy, but severely criticised verdict on October 31, 1995, barely nine months after it was convened.
Their executions on November 10, 1995 without an opportunity to appeal the judgment, led to the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth of Nations.
Others killed were Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel and John Kpuine.