Ken Saro-Wiwa is on my mind. I am thinking of him, especially in these times. He had a cause. And he prosecuted this cause even with the last breath in him. It is instructive to appreciate here that, in the course of his forced departure from this earthly divide, his final words were: ‘Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues’. Needless to say, the struggle has since continued. But the enemy has changed. The enemies to some extent can be identified beyond the multinational oil companies and the central government whom Ken loved to lampoon.
While his earthly efforts lasted, I was fascinated with the Saro-Wiwa phenomenon. He made us to think deeply about Nigeria and Nigerians. Such were the smug assumptions that most of us simply thought about Nigeria as a triad: Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba. But Ken said no. According to him, an unravelling of the Nigerian black box would reveal this triad and many more. One of these ‘many more’ was the Ogoni people. A group that was hitherto largely unknown started to loom large in our consciousness, courtesy of this very tall man, as Ken humorously described himself, since physically and in real terms he came near to being vertically challenged!
While his struggle lasted, it was really something of an encounter between David and Goliath. This could be observed at two levels. There was Ken pitting the Ogoni against the federal might. There was also Ken pitting the Ogoni and himself against the oil giant, Shell.
If you want to appreciate just how big Shell is, you only have to take a look at some of the literature on oil. Anthony Sampson, in a rather poetic way, contends for instance that ‘Shell oil was pumped from Shell oil fields to Shell tankers, to Shell refineries, to Shell service stations’. Our colleagues in economics would tell you that this was a clear case of vertical integration, in which outsiders could not easily muscle into the oil business. And if we want to further appreciate the enormous reach of Shell, we may as well turn to Peter Odell. In his book, ‘Oil and World Power’, this Rotterdam-based professor contended that in reality, Shell was in fact the other arm of the British diplomatic service, with substantial backing from another industrial power – Netherlands. This, indeed, was the kind of powerful entity, or behemoth if you wish, that this courageous man stood up against.
On a particular and memorable occasion, I had a ringside seat to an encounter between Ken Saro-Wiwa and a representative of Shell. We were at a seminar in Port Harcourt in 1993. The theme of the seminar was ‘The Relationship between Oil Companies and Oil Communities’. In the course of the seminar, there was a stormy face-off between Ken Saro-Wiwa and a representative of Shell who, incidentally, was from Isoko – an oil producing area. Such was the bad chemistry which ensued from the exchange between these two men from the Niger Delta that I had to intervene in this mini civil war. In the glare of the audience, I told Ken Saro-Wiwa about a certain Italian called Enrico Mattei.
Mattei was an Italian who, like Saro-Wiwa, decided to take on the oil companies. In view of the fact that his spirited efforts were beginning to destabilize the oil companies, the latter sued for a peace of sorts. Mattei was invited to a meeting with John F. Kennedy, the then American president. In the course of his flight, the plane crashed. Who did it? Sabotage? One will never know. But then, one writer commented that when Enrico Mattei died, there were no long faces in the headquarter-offices of the various multinational oil companies. Something tells me that on November 10, 1995 when Ken Saro-Wiwa was similarly done in by the then Federal Government, there were also no long faces in the corridors of Shell and other similar places. Sure, they did not gloat, still that forced exit of Ken could well have been viewed as good riddance.
But then, as history has repeatedly instructed us, you can kill a man but you cannot kill his ideas. Somehow, the seeds of creative rebellion which Ken Saro-Wiwa sowed have germinated and borne some fruits.
Even in the Abacha era, and of course after, the various governments have had to pay attention to the sensibilities and aspirations of the Niger Delta area. In part, this can be seen in the increased allocation to the states in the Niger Delta region. Apart from the normal statutory allocations to the Niger Delta, over and above these, there was also the 13 percent derivation which was given to these oil producing states. Yet, and as we write, the region is impoverished. This means that it is not enough to throw money at a problem. There are also inter-related issues of attitude and management.
Next week, we will go into details as regards how the governors in the Niger Delta have turned Saro-Wiwa’s dreams into a nightmare for the hapless inhabitants of the Niger Delta.