Ken Saro-Wiwa and the New Pressure for Economic Justice

Ken Saro-Wiwa and the New Pressure for Economic Justice

Vincent Obia

“O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”

–Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks

November has formed an indelible spot on the collective memory of the Niger Delta for nearly three decades. The region and, indeed, Nigeria, have ever since marked a bitter anniversary on November 10. On this day, 28 years ago, Ken Saro-Wiwa, an illustrious Ogoni son, a Niger Delta patriot, an eminent Nigerian citizen, and distinguished environmental justice advocate, was killed by a military cabal headed by Gen. Sani Abacha.

Saro-Wiwa got in the way of those who thought they had unimpeded liberty to mindlessly exploit and devastate the Niger Delta. He questioned the evil ideology, which isolated people from the resources of their God-given land, but placed upon them the full brunt of the exploitation and expropriation of those resources. He posed the Niger Delta question!

Saro-Wiwa dared to ask questions! His questions and his boldness rankled the ruling cabal, then supervised by the Abacha junta.

Saro-Wiwa led a peaceful movement for the protection of the environmental and human rights of his Ogoni people, whose oil-rich land, like other parts of the Niger Delta, was being exploited by a ruthless alliance of the Nigerian state and multinational oil companies led by Shell.

He led peaceful marches, under the aegis of Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), which they formed in 1990, to demand a fair share of oil revenues accruing from Ogoni land, some form of political autonomy to decide their own destiny, environmental remediation by the oil companies, and payment of compensation for past damage.

For daring to question the economic exploitation of his people, the devastation of their environment, and their political marginalisation, Saro-Wiwa was in and out of prisons and penitentiaries. Then in May 1994, he was abducted by state agents from his home and jailed along with other MOSOP leaders on flimsy allegations of masterminding the murder of four Ogoni leaders – Edward Kobani, Alfred Badey, Samuel Orage, and Theophilus Orage. It was a pretext for putting him out of circulation.

Abacha set up a quasi-judicial arrangement, an apparent wuru wuru to answer, which resolutely followed the script their master had written for them, thereby frustrating avenues and advocates of genuine judicial procedure, including moves by the late celebrated lawyer Gani Fawehinmi. Finally, after conviction in October 1995, Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots were murdered.

Saro-Wiwa, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine were hanged on November 10, 1995.

The hasty execution happened in a country where persons on death row are known to await execution for upwards of 10 years. The only crime the Ogoni 9 committed was to demand environmental, economic, and social justice for the Ogoni and the Niger Delta. 

Abacha himself died in 1998.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge, as they say.

But the lessons are not lost on the country.

The ruling class in Abacha’s time thought they could use strong-arm tactics to suppress a people, the Niger Delta, and the issues that bother them. They thought they could use intimidation to twist the question and insulate the rest of the country from the devastation in the Niger Delta. But they lied! They failed!

Abacha ran a dictatorial kleptocracy based on oil rent, and the fierce larceny of that regime still reverberates across the globe more than two decades after his death.

On the other hand, Saro-Wiwa’s activism has provided a great inspiration for ethnic nationalities and environmentalists in Nigeria and around the world to reimagine their futures, reflect on their oppression, and seek change.

Saro-Wiwa’s message is sinking in and garnering disciples even in the most conservative quarters.

Just recently, Niger State Governor Mohammed Bago commenced derivation claims of over N1 trillion from the federal government. Bago said the amount was from accumulated taxes for the country’s use of three hydroelectric dams located in the state.

The governor said the amount represented 13 per cent derivation payments due the state over the years from Kainji, Jebba and Shiroro dams on its soil.

A fourth dam at Zungeru, in Niger State, is under construction and this is sure to swell the demand.

Bago’s predecessor, Dr. Babangida Aliyu, had made similar requests for compensation, when he was governor, but later abandoned the cause.

Now, in a curious coincidence, just before November 10, at a time when humanity was readying to commemorate Saro-Wiwa’s death, Bago said his people had “woken up” and were ready to ask for recompense for their serial displacement and devastation to host dams that serve the whole country. It was the same demand for which Saro-Wiwa and his eight comrades were killed.

The other day, too, it was Zamfara State, where then Governor Bello Matawalle announced in October 2020 that the state had established a “gold reserve” with gold that was, reportedly, mined and refined by artisanal miners in the state.

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), reportedly, purchased gold from Zamfara State under the Presidential Artisanal Gold Mining Development Initiative (PAGMI), launched in 2019 by the then Muhammadu Buhari government. The controversy generated by this scheme resurrected questions around the ownership and distribution of proceeds of natural resources in the country.

Between Saro-Wiwa and the current tribe of resource advocates, the missing link seems to be that the latter may not be willing to commit the “class suicide” the former had elected to use to drive home his message. Will Bago and others genuinely pursue this change consciousness by willingly sacrificing the immediate material interests of their social class and the privileges they confer in order to identify with sincere resource rights advocates, especially, from Saro-Wiwa’s Niger Delta?

Africa’s foremost rights champion Amilcar Cabral believes such “class suicide” by the activist tribe of the petty-bourgeois leadership is key to the possibility of the kind of fundamental change in the system of resource ownership and distribution that many Nigerians now crave.

Since the days of Saro-Wiwa until now, the message has remained the same. More and more Nigerians are waking up to their environmental and economic rights.

The state, through successive governments, has engaged palliatives to try to placate those posing the fundamental resource questions rather than addressing their root causes.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo set up the 13 per cent derivation fund for the oil producing states. Obasanjo also established institutions, like the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs to oversee the development of the oil-rich region.

These establishments have done very little to address the economic and environmental issues in the Niger Delta owing to a combination of factors, including corruption, lack of funding, and lack of political will on the part of the federal authorities and their local and foreign collaborators.

Years after Obasanjo, Buhari launched an ambitious clean-up plan for Ogoni land. But he hardly deployed the will, effort, and skill such a programme needed to succeed.

Buhari also toyed with the idea of pardon for the murdered Ogoni sons, saying his government would “consider the request for the grant of pardon to finally close the Ogoni saga”.

He said his government was “committed to ensuring clemency and national integration as part of this administration’s bid to lay the foundation for genuine reconciliation and bring closure to the issues of Ogoniland”.

Buhari did not elaborate on the source of the alleged “request” for pardon for Saro-Wiwa and his fellow Ogonis murdered by Abacha.

But the Ogoni have since rejected the pardon offer, and demanded, instead, the exoneration of the Ogoni 9. Saro-Wiwa’s brother, Dr. Owens Wiwa, in a statement on behalf of the Board of Directors of Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation (KSWF), said, “Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other eight Ogonis were not criminals. They were innocent activists unjustly murdered for fighting for a just cause on behalf of their oppressed community.

“The path to true peace in the region begins with justice. The cleaning up of the environment for which they campaigned and died for is a first good step.”

Justice is still a great distance away in the Ogoni issue and, indeed, the Niger Delta question.

The palliatives regime since Obasanjo only gives the appearance that the resource problem is being addressed. It’s never meant to solve the problem.

The resource crisis in Nigeria must be addressed from the root causes.

The current system that vests all lands in which mineral resources are found or contained in the federal government, supposedly, in “trust” for the whole country, has become anachronistic, de-developmental, and, in fact, crisis-ridden.

The government of Buhari presented a new bill, Minerals and Mining Act (Repeal & Re-enactment) Bill, 2023, to the National Assembly, just before the end of that administration in May 2023. It is difficult to determine how well this bill fared in the federal legislature, or how interested the current National Assembly may be in resuscitating the amendment.

But no one in Nigeria – north, south, east, or west – seems to be in doubt that the time has come to change the system that makes people slaves – at best, tenants – in their own land. A genuine process of changing this outdated system should be the first step towards enthroning the justice that Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots fought for. It is also the first step towards the new Nigeria that many now seek.

•Obia, a journalist, lives in Lagos.

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