“Few days before the judgment, he came to me at about four a.m.,” says Ledum Mittee of Ken Saro-Wiwa, in a documentary, The Case Against Shell.
“He had a dream. We were in the judgment hall; they had given judgment. He was sitting there alone. Then, he saw himself asking to be shown the way to his village. It seemed he was treading a lonely path, and he couldn’t understand the language. He thought the tribunal was out to do their worst. And so he had this sort of feeling, that we should damn them even if they want to kill us. None of us should show any sign of weakness.”
When the sentence is delivered, Ledum is discharged and acquitted. But Ken, alongside eight others, is sentenced to death. Ledum, after feeling momentary relief, doubles over, weeping. Ken holds him. “Remember what I told you,” he says to his acquitted comrade, “show no weakness in front of the tribunal.” But Ledum is inconsolable. In over one year of detention, all fifteen men—six released, nine to be noosed—have become brothers, only separable by death.
There is no innocence in dreams, only perhaps consolation, on a scale of varying degrees.
How is Ken Saro-Wiwa remembered?
The Nigerian military government who ordered his death, also, while burying him and his comrades, poured acid over their bodies, and shut the site to the public. Thus disembodied, his afterlife acquires a different significance: as if to turn attention to the less corporeal, an ambient presence.
Wrongdoings such as murder cannot be undone. Those who condemned Saro-Wiwa and eight others to death are no longer in power, but their actions will indict, in perpetuity, all those who take their place. A government inherits the sins and debts of its predecessor. This is one way to understand why the memory of Saro-Wiwa remains hallowed.
Enough time has passed to make him the lodestar of the Ogoni struggle for a clean and safe environment. In 2011, the United Nations Environmental Protection released a dismaying environmental assessment report, and suggested a thorough cleanup, noting several instances of widespread pollution in Ogoniland—including wells contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, at levels over 900 times above the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline. In June 2016, the Nigerian government, after years of hesitation, began acting on the report, which suggested swift, decisive actions to protect the lives of the Ogoni people. Is the government sincere? In Saro-Wiwa’s lifetime, as in the two decades following his death, the cleanup is a matter of life and death.
Saro-Wiwa made a revolutionary claim on Nigeria, far ahead of what could be imagined by the political scientists of his day as by those of today. He understood Nigeria as a federation of ethnic groups, and demanded political autonomy for each, especially the minorities. Only political autonomy would preserve their languages, art, and environment.
His revolutionary proposal is rarely uttered in the corridors of power. And why? Today’s Nigeria is a union of 36 federating states, divided mainly along the lines of the country’s major ethnic groups. If the federation were divided along the lines of ethnicity, there would be an administrative overload. Yet it is an overload—a tension—that results from colonial design. To face the problem squarely we would have to disentangle a century of administrative policy. It would mean tracing a trajectory whose arc bends towards the pre-colonial. Merely imagining that trajectory threatens the idea of Nigeria, for which the consequences are severe. I suspect that this is why Ken Saro-Wiwa remains convicted under the law, even if everyone seems to agree his trial was farcical.
He perceived that to be effective in his demand for a cleaner environment, he would have to redesign the system through which the Ogoni were governed. His misfortune was to match his idea of non-violent resistance with action—mobilizing three hundred thousand, three-fifth of the Ogoni population, to protest in one day—under a dictatorship. The military government and their conspirators, the oil company Shell, saw the crowd of Ogoni protesters, and realized that without reprisal action their alliance was doomed. The rest of the story, as you know it, is tragic.
All over the world, the pollution of the environment is facilitated by the triangular connivance of corporations, governments, and the military forces they sponsor. Saro-Wiwa’s fate, once he was arrested and detained, dangled within that triangle. He knew this, and sought to free himself from the anxiety of sure death. He put his faith in history; he saw his life as obliged to the future. In his closing statement to the military appointed tribunal, chaired by Justice Ibrahim Auta, he said, repeatedly, “We all stand before history.”
“I am a man of peace, of ideas. Appalled by the denigrating poverty of my people who live on a richly endowed land, distressed by their political marginalization and economic strangulation, angered by the devastation of their land, their ultimate heritage, anxious to preserve their right to life and to a decent living, and determined to usher to this country as a whole a fair and just democratic system which protects everyone and every ethnic group and gives all a valid claim to human civilization. I have devoted my intellectual and material resources, my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief, and from which I cannot be blackmailed or intimidated. I have no doubt at all about the ultimate success of my cause, no matter the trial and tribulations which I and those who believe with me may encounter on our journey. No imprisonment nor death can stop our ultimate victory.”
He was prevented from reading this statement.
I worry about the optimism that defined his struggle (his final words before he was hanged were, according to a prisoner in a nearby cell, “Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues.”) The character of his optimism is one ultimately dependent on the promise time makes to the undeterred. “Someday, soon, if you don’t give up…” But in twenty years, no mind that a democratic government has replaced a military one, the land remains devastated. How long, then, until the victory he foresaw?
There are those who struggle because they must give meaning to the experience of their lives, not merely because they hate what confronts them. It is a struggle without compromise, even under the threat of death; death itself is an experience as meaningful as life. For those on land despoiled by the actions of an oil company and the neglect of their government, there is no greater risk than that which they experience, day after day, drinking from polluted waters, ingesting killer chemicals. This is what makes their hope acknowledgeable and perpetual. They do not place their hope on their government; they draw their perspective from a fount of cumulative experience. They now hold within their memory the most severe consequence of their protest—a leader’s death. Their hope is energized by that experience.