In search of Ken Saro-Wiwa—Read an excerpt from Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow, a new book by Sanya Osha

The JRB presents an excerpt from Sanya Oshas new book, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow: Politics, Nationalism and the Ogoni Protest Movement.

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow (Expanded Edition): Politics, Nationalism and the Ogoni Protest Movement
Sanya Osha

Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021

In Search of Ken Saro-Wiwa

Ken Saro-Wiwa, writer and environmental rights activist, was hanged in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, with eight other Ogoni activists in 1995. His death became a cause célèbre globally and threw a negative light on his country.

After the Ogoni Nine were executed by the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, Sanya Osha conducted field work in Ogoni territory to find out the circumstances that led to the incident. During his trip, he interviewed pro-Saro-Wiwa supporters as well as opposing factions known as ‘vultures’. Vultures were reactionary elements working for the nefarious regime. It was a dangerous undertaking that could have ended badly. With a bit of luck, Osha was able to navigate the treacherous Ogoni terrain and live to tell the tale. His new book, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow (the Expanded Edition) is largely an account of the Ogoni tragedy and his travels around the country seeking answers in its wake. 

The following account narrates some of the events that transpired over the course of the days and nights Osha spent in warm and humid Ogoni territory. He met courageous and fascinating individuals who took him through their homeland, patiently explaining the unimaginable hardships they had to endure daily to survive. In spite of their generally bleak environmental circumstances, they told him their stories with flair, unfailing dignity and often with good humour. He admits those experiences remain some of the most inspiring of his life, memories that he shares in this excerpt from his book.

Read the excerpt:

When Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight Ogoni compatriots were hanged in November 1995, it both polarised and unified the fragile as well as volatile geographical entity known as Nigeria. However, this time, it wasn’t the ethnic and religious fissures that were most noticeable. Instead it was the naked fist of raw power versus the vociferous protestations of a disenfranchised minority writhing beneath the weight of a seemingly implacable military dictatorship. 

Ken Saro-Wiwa became the voice, face and symbol of this aggrieved minority straining for denied civic and democratic rights. He became a hero in patently unheroic times and this is what makes his life and the loss of it so potently poignant. Indeed a martyr was able to rise from the ashes of the interrupted birth of what could have been a great nation, and because his life of searing activity and activism was such a sharp contrast to a vastness of moral turpitude, it was able to combine poesis with powerful intimations of revolution. This conjures images of blood and tears running wild in streets and overpowering the fully armed goons bent on keeping the multitude away from power. 

Indeed there were several successful attempts by power to keep Saro-Wiwa placated and as one of its own. And for a while, he was seduced by the comforts of power, but the plight of his Ogoni compatriots and similar ethnic minorities became his Damascus. He just couldn’t look the other way and eventually turned his back on the enticements of power. Some have attempted to brand him a saint because of his tremendous courage. But perhaps it is more accurate to perceive his appeal as coming from a blend of poesis, passion and courage in an era when such an admixture had been direly lacking. 

Saro-Wiwa is a hero of his times and of so many others. In an age when political and ideological co-optation has become the norm, he stood up to the crude and dominant structures of power perhaps knowing full well that his personal safety was at risk. This stance couldn’t be more different from one enabled by the extreme narcissism of the culture of celebrity. The irony of it all is that Saro-Wiwa was able to rise above the cheap iconography of the culture while retaining most of its power. Saro-Wiwa stood and fought for the real while the contemporary cult of celebrity entails the light-hearted replication of inane imagery. Nothingness becomes valued because all is bedecked by endless glitter. Saro-Wiwa’s life and experience give the middle finger to all of that while still being able to charm the multitude.

While he was waging his war for ethnic and environmental rights during the early nineties, I had already been intrigued by his presence. And so when he was hanged, I embarked on a project to write about it in what became a journey that seemed unable to reach an end. The month after he was killed I travelled from Lagos to Ogoni territory, accompanied by Harrison, my Ogoni friend, searching for clues that led to his death. I found the territory bruised, battered and terrorised. People were scared to talk generally but many were prepared to damn the consequences even as their land had become a militarised zone. Beneath the lush delta vegetation, forlorn pockmarked buildings loomed, often bearing tell-tales signs of death and carnage. The general gloom made the air heavy. It was as if the land had sunk under the burden of its misery. A cloak of mourning had been cast over it and people seemed to go about their daily affairs in a grim and determined manner, further heightening the palpable tension. Vultures, as informants and government collaborators were known, were everywhere, putting me and those who agreed to speak with me in grave danger. 

The Ogoni tragedy created monsters and fascists willing to maim and kill to prove their allegiance to a depraved state. The crisis gave reason to be truly afraid, as sadistic torturers and psychopaths found plenty to do. Women were raped and children lost their parents. Private property was wantonly damaged without compensation. It appeared as if the Ogoni had been marked for extinction, as unidentified assailants armed with government-issued weapons wreaked random violence and mayhem in their territory. 

Nonetheless, in the midst of this orchestrated reign of terror, there were bright spots of humanity emerging from the cracked surface of gloom. Each dusk when I returned from my dangerous field trips on motorbikes over bumpy and narrow bush paths, I quaffed lukewarm beer on hot and humid nights with newfound friends. On pitch black nights peppered with the soft creaking of crickets, there was the feeling that some earth-shaking event was about to occur; a premonition of heavy death and dreadful ordeals. And perhaps that was why everyone seemed so subdued and expectant. This was not a state of defeat. Rather it was an expectation of happenings of enormous reverberations. It didn’t require a familiarity with gnosis or hermeticism to realise something great was afoot. It felt so in the heaviness of the night, the solemn deliberateness of the air and the huddled manner of the forests. The elements appeared wound up by loss, hurt and expectancy.

There never seemed to be any electricity, but life went on and laughter wasn’t uncommon. My friends, who were mostly younger than me, were street-smart and largely optimistic. Fortunately they hadn’t been broken down by the plight of the Ogoni and appeared perpetually on the lookout for opportunities. Even more encouragingly, they seemed to have found renewed reason to store up their dignity and humanity. This is what I found most impressive about them. Anyone who wanted to know what human dignity was only had to come live with them.

It is difficult to imagine that any outsider would have been able to gather all the information I received without the co-operation of a skilful insider. I would be eternally grateful to Young Ikpe, my friend and guide, who accommodated me in his family home and helped me navigate the minefield of eager vultures and ruthless soldiers Ogoni land had become. Every morning, fortified by cheap home-brewed gin (ogogoro), Young’s father would pray for us as we mounted commercial motorbikes (okada) to interview the next willing interlocutor. The most unbowed and invariably the most important were of course the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) activists, who understood the history of the crisis, the stakes involved in the struggle, and the strategies by which it had to be waged. These were bold and hardened men who even when demonstrating that they had nothing to lose were filled with dignity and single-mindedness. They were ready to stand steadfast in the face of unremitting terror. I remember those humble activists who held down jobs as small-scale agriculturists, fishermen and commercial transporters. I remember Johnson Nna in Port Harcourt for his captivating eloquence and logic. I remember a rather distracted Claude Ake, an internationally renowned social scientist at the time, only months away from the mysterious plane crash that killed him in 1996. I shall never forget the invaluable assistance rendered by Perkins who was my most significant link to credible MOSOP activists and sympathisers. An ethnic minority of about half a million people in a country of much bigger and powerful ethnicities had gained the attention of the world through its determination and political awareness, and this was due to the efforts and inventiveness of largely one person: Saro-Wiwa. 

Young’s father has a calm and unobtrusive paternal presence. He resides in a larger building at the entrance to the compound. Young’s shack isn’t really a shack because he has successfully managed to transform it into a home. Well-behaved friends visit for chats and warm beer. Discreet love trysts occur, again breaking out as salutary cracks over a thick blanket of gloom. It would have been most inhumane for soldiers made brutish by the drunkenness of power to invade this peaceful homestead. It would have been quite insensitive for them to rend the lush vegetation surrounding the compound with a murderous hail of bullets. Each morning as I went on those unpredictable field trips, Young’s small household would come out to the yard front to bid me farewell. It was as if they knew something I didn’t; they sensed that I might not return.

There was something ominous about how the dense plant life huddled together, just as the people seemed both wary and hopeful at the same time. They were wary because the soldiers who had occupied their territory appeared absolutely intent on proving just how inhumane they could be. And hopeful because the buoyant spirit of Saro-Wiwa signified an unbreakable core within their perceived understanding of justice and fair play.

This contrast extended to how the Ogoni—especially the youth—conducted themselves. During the crises, Ogoni territory was thoroughly militarised; all the youth could think of was getting out, as watercourses had become polluted and farmsteads had shrivelled due to neglect. Death, though, wasn’t able to extinguish that proud and enterprising Ogoni spirit, and this was evident in the gusto with which they sought to better themselves via education and the acquisition of marketable skills. During the civil war (1967–70) their oppressors had done everything possible to denigrate and vilify them. They were called Ogoni pio pio, meaning idiot. This insult merely seemed to embolden the desire to surmount their difficulties and deprivations. This was evident in many instances of dirt-poor Ogoni indigenes excelling in far-flung cities by dint of talent and sheer hard work. They were discriminated against within their territory, within the region and most unfortunately within the nation. They were viewed, under the military dictatorships, as unrepentant troublemakers who had to be viciously subdued, most especially within their homeland. There was no joy to be had in remaining behind. It was better to try one’s luck in Port Harcourt, Lagos or Abuja. Better still, the United States was amenable to receiving refugees fleeing the crises. So even when death relentlessly stalked Ogoni land, the youth were prepared to make it elsewhere.

Everywhere I went in Ogoni land, people referred to him as simply Ken. It was clear they spoke about him with deep respect and affection. More hauntingly, they spoke about him as if he was still alive. He seemed to be still very much around and MOSOP activists seemed to have their antennas at the ready to receive telepathic messages from their departed hero. At the time, no one had been able to figure out the gravity of the loss. Indeed it would have been very difficult to do so. Saro-Wiwa had single-handedly transformed the tempo of the Ogoni struggle in a way that it became impossible to forge ahead without him. The loss was both personal and collective at many levels and rather than confront it head on it was preferable to delay its estimation so as not to inflict further damage to the collective self. The death of Saro-Wiwa was akin to a nightmare that would someday disappear just as a bad dream. Ken dead? How was that possible? The Ogoni found themselves as stranded orphans upon the melancholy and dusky swamps of the delta. It was hoped that his powerful spirit would somehow manage to lead them to the promised land through some sort of messianic intervention. Anything short of that would only serve to worsen their enormous sense of bereavement.

Messianism has always been preoccupied by the notion of the ‘return’, or ‘the second coming’. This longing was evident after the death of Saro-Wiwa, and there was the feeling that the Ogoni struggle could only be consummated with his involvement, and what was the struggle’s most valuable asset eventually became its greatest impediment. MOSOP and its affiliated organs were evidently galvanised by one man’s vision, charisma and energy. When he died, it was as if the life was sucked out of MOSOP and it subsequently dwindled away. It is a shame that the very messianism that had given the wings for MOSOP’s flight plunged it to sordid earth once its charismatic leader was no more. Vultures and short-sighted political opportunists quickly assumed the position he once held, and then of course the Ogoni cause receded to the back burner.

The Ogoni Bill of Rights was handed to the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida in 1993 and has not been realised almost thirty years after it was first tendered.

  • Sanya Osha is the author of several books including Postethnophilosophy (2011) and Dust, Spittle and Wind (2011), An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012) and On a Weather-beaten Couch (2015), among other publications. He works at HUMA, the University of Cape Town.

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