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The perils of activism: Ken Saro-Wiwa
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The last time I visited the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa in Port Harcourt, two years before he was hanged in the city’s prison, the naked corpse of a man lay on the sidewalk of the Aggrey Road, about a hundred yards from his office. Broiling in the noonday sun, the body was so inflated by the gases of decomposition that it looked as if it might ascend to heaven of its own accord, in a halo of black flies.
Meanwhile, the radio appealed for the “owner” of the corpse, which had so far remained unclaimed for three days, to take it away as it was causing a public nuisance. All things considered, however, life seemed to be proceeding around it normally enough, as if a naked corpse in the street were nothing very remarkable. Which in Nigeria, perhaps, it isn’t.
I mentioned the corpse to Saro-Wiwa, who was only too aware of its presence nearby, and of the unavailing radio appeals to the public spirit of its owner. Though he was only small in stature, Saro-Wiwa’s basso profundo laugh shook the whole room. Whenever he laughed, it was with every fiber of his body: as if he had somehow understood the absurdity not just of Nigeria, but of existence itself. For above all, life was funny.
We discussed how the hallucinatory nature of everyday reality in Nigeria provided Nigerian writers with inexhaustible subject matter for their work, but Saro-Wiwa said that there were few writers nowadays to take advantage of it. The extraordinary flowering of Nigerian literature just before and after independence was over: not only had economic conditions rendered the printing or importation of books difficult and restricted the size of the market, but the degeneration of the educational system also meant that few people in the country were now equipped to write or even to read.
Saro-Wiwa was a member of a fortunate generation of Nigerians who received a classical British education at the famous school of Umuahia, among whose alumni are Chinua Achebe and several other eminent writers. Saro-Wiwa’s career since then had been varied. He started out as a university teacher of English, but then became a high-ranking civil servant, on the federal side, during the Nigerian civil war. After the war he went into business as a grocer in order to achieve financial independence. (Unlike many intellectuals, he was unembittered by the need to support himself other than by the pen, and spoke with genuine pleasure of his time as a shopkeeper, for in Nigeria, as he once remarked, a freelance writer is one who writes for free.)
Having secured his independence, he started to write, self-publishing his novels, essays, short stories, plays, and poems. He also financed, wrote, directed, and produced the most popular television series in Nigeria, “Basi and Company,” which ran for five years and was watched with intense enjoyment by some 30 million of his countrymen.
But now, he told me, the time for writing was over: the situation demanded action, not words. In the last few years he had become a political activist at the expense of all literary work except for polemics and propaganda. He regretted this, for there had recently come to light a local scandal which would have served as the perfect vehicle for the literary exposure of Nigeria’s get-rich-quick mentality. A pyramid savings scheme in Port Harcourt, in which fantastically high monthly rates of interest were paid with new depositors’ money, had just collapsed, as was inevitable, and it transpired that almost everyone had fallen for the fraud, from market trading women to the military governor, from peasant farmers to university professors and church pastors. But his novel about it would now have to wait until he had secured justice for his people, a more urgent task than mere imaginative writing could ever be.
I felt uneasy as Saro-Wiwa told me this, but as a visitor to his country, no doubt ill-informed, I was not in a strong position to argue with him, though I tried my best. I had a presentiment for a number of reasons that his political activism would lead to disaster, though I did not guess that it would lead to his death.
Saro-Wiwa’s tribe, the Ogoni, numbers about half-a-million people living in an area of four-hundred square miles in the delta of the River Niger. Unfortunately for them, their land of forests and creeks was discovered in the 1950s to be oil-bearing. According to Saro-Wiwa, the oil companies —principally Shell—have extracted $30 billion worth of oil from Ogoniland in the last thirty years, in the process degrading the soil, polluting the water, and causing the Ogonis to live under the eternal light of gas flares. And the Nigerian federal government to which Shell paid enormous royalties has spent none of them on Ogoniland, which remains without proper roads, schools, clinics, or facilities of any kind. Instead, the royalties have lined private pockets and built an extravagantly luxurious new capital at Abuja.
“The rascals, the rascals!,” Saro-Wiwa exclaimed, and shook the room again with his laughter. Rascal is a word that is generally used with a degree of affection, so what Saro-Wiwa said next was all the more shocking. “They’ll kill me, you know. They’ll kill me.”
I didn’t believe him. Nigeria was a military dictatorship, of course, as it has been for most of the time since independence, but the country was simply too large, diverse, and administratively disorganized, and its population too irrepressible, for it to be a proper dictatorship, of the kind in which political conversations are conducted only in whispers in dark corners. “They’ll never do that,” I said. “They don’t kill writers in Nigeria.” I knew, of course, that the death penalty was applied, and applied frequently, in Nigeria. Indeed, on my very first day in the country, seven years before, arriving overland from Northern Cameroon, I discovered the city of Maiduguri entirely deserted for everyone was away at the public executions held on the municipal execution grounds outside the city. In the evening, I watched the three executed men give their last television interview as they were being tied to the stake. One proclaimed his innocence, another wished he could have spoken to his mother before he died. The firing squad took up its positions about two yards from the condemned men, and according to the television commentary the firing lasted two minutes: after which, it said, a doctor, who by then must surely have required few diagnostic skills, pronounced them dead.
But these were armed robbers, not members of the Nigerian intellectual elite who had many friends abroad. (Only later did I learn that the Nigerian police often rented out their weapons nightly to armed robbers, when they did not actually commit the armed robberies themselves.) So while I could envisage the imprisonment of Saro-Wiwa, I could not envisage his execution. I was wrong. Saro-Wiwa had founded an organization, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which challenged the Nigerian state at its two most tender, vulnerable, and explosive points: the distribution of the oil revenues—more than 90 percent of its foreign earnings—and the ethnic question. MOSOP, which spread like wildfire, was soon able to mount a demonstration attended by 60 percent of the population of Ogoniland. Saro-Wiwa demanded that each ethnic group in Nigeria be given a say qua ethnic group in the government, and that each such group gain control of the mineral resources of its own land. He was not an ethnic separatist, but objected to the permanent political and economic domination of Nigeria by the larger ethnic groups, especially the Muslim northerners, who consumed a great deal but produced little.
It wasn’t difficult to think of objections to Saro-Wiwa’s ideas. Sometimes he said there were 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria, sometimes 300. What, then, counted as a distinct ethnic group with its own political and financial rights? When so much depended on the answer, the mere question would in itself generate a lot of conflict. Moreover, the establishment of a rich but tiny ethnic enclave in the midst of poverty, such as Ogoniland would have become if Saro-Wiwa’s proposals were put into practice, seemed hardly a recipe for peace in Nigeria. The country’s oil resources, upon which its 100 million people have come disastrously to depend for their daily sustenance, were highly concentrated, geographically speaking. The question of who was to control them had already generated one civil war: might it not easily generate another?
Saro-Wiwa argued that the situation in Ogoniland was already so catastrophic that it could get no worse, that it amounted to slow genocide and therefore that something had to be done about it at once, before it was too late. But I was suspicious of the idea that things could get no worse. Human ingenuity in causing disaster is almost infinite, no matter how low the starting point, and in neighboring Liberia I had seen with my own eyes what could be achieved by the thirst for power disguised as the need to ameliorate conditions that allegedly could get no worse: scores of thousands killed, three-quarters of the population displaced, and the infrastructure totally destroyed. Was it not likely that, in Nigerian conditions, a mass movement such as MOSOP would end in violence and intimidation, however pacific its leaders’ intentions? Saro-Wiwa was confident on this score, but in the event it was the violence of some of his followers that gave the military government the pretext to execute him.
On May 21, 1994, several Ogoni elders who were not entirely in agreement with Saro-Wiwa’s methods decided to meet in the town of Giokoo in Ogoniland. Saro-Wiwa was due to attend, but was turned away by soldiers before he could reach the meeting. Some of his young supporters, enraged by this, brutally killed four of the elders and burnt their bodies. Saro-Wiwa, along with fourteen others, was charged with their murder. By any reasonable standard, the charges against him were not proved, but the military government, by now in the hands of by far the most ruthless of all Nigeria’s military presidents, General Sani Abacha—who had been Saro-Wiwa’s friend during the civil war and who had unsuccessfully offered him the job of oil minister in his government to bribe him to desist from his campaign—was determined to rid itself of this troublesome writer and activist. Ten days after being found guilty, he was executed with eight of the other defendants. It has been alleged that Abacha had the execution recorded on video for his private satisfaction.
World outrage at the execution was intense but shallow—as usual. There were calls for sanctions against Nigeria, but it was far from certain whom these would harm if applied. The idea that sanctions should be applied to a country because it had executed a writer known to and friendly with intellectuals outside its borders, while for years the execution of large numbers of unknown men in the most dubious of circumstances had evoked not the slightest expression of concern, suggested that—their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding—intellectuals did not believe that all human lives were of equal worth, and really cared only about people like themselves.
Precisely as I had expected, the situation in Ogoniland deteriorated after the establishment of MOSOP. According to the organization’s own reports (perhaps exaggerated for propaganda purposes), several thousand Ogoni have now been killed in Ogoniland and many thousands more made homeless by Nigerian security forces. Worse still, similar movements have been started in other oil-producing parts of Nigeria, with similar results. What countervailing good has come of this harm?
Saro-Wiwa was the best of company: anecdotes poured from him without cease. In his presence, it was impossible to feel anything other than that life was infinitely interesting, varied, and enjoyable. But in turning to practical politics, it seemed to me that he betrayed his own insight: for the singlemindedness of his mass movement represented an impoverishment rather than an enrichment of life. It also contradicted the message of his own first book, Sozaboy (Addison-Wesley, 1995), which is one of the great antiwar novels of the century, by which he would have been remembered even had he not met so dramatic and gruesome a death. For Sozaboy is not just an antiwar novel, it is anti-rhetorical and mistrustful of all high-flown sentiment.
Sozaboy is subtitled A novel in rotten English. It is the first-person narrative of a young villager who goes to be a “sozaboy” (a soldier boy) during the Nigerian Civil War, written in the kind of English~dash\incorrect, but often highly expressive and even poetic—that semi-educated West Africans use with great gusto and pride.
Saro-Wiwa’s novel was not the first to be written in this kind of English. Nearly half a century ago, Amos Tutuola published The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) to critical acclaim, and no one who read it was likely to forget the impact of the first two paragraphs:
I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life. In those days we did not know other money, except COWRIES, so that everything was very cheap, and my father was the richest man in our town.
But whereas Tutuola probably could not write in any other style of English, and his story was a wild surrealist Pilgrim’s Progress (without, as far as I can tell, any moral content or meaning) of a drunkard through the spirit world of the Nigerian imagination, Saro-Wiwa used his rotten English self-consciously for literary and emotional effect, in a work of strict social realism. And he did it with a consummate mastery that he never quite attained elsewhere in his oeuvre.
In Sozaboy, Saro-Wiwa successfully reconciled his desire to write in authentic West African English with his desire to reach a wider English-speaking audience: for after a few conventions are grasped, and with the help of a short glossary (itself very entertaining), Sozaboy can be read by any English speaker with ease. Saro-Wiwa also managed to create a thoroughly credible protagonist, a village boy suddenly thrust into a new and alien world, who is naïve, but not stupid, and goodhearted while retaining the normal desires of flesh and blood. Having achieved these two considerable literary feats (writing in authentic but comprehensible West African English, and creating a credible village hero), Saro-Wiwa tells an affecting story through the eyes of his narrator: Mene, a young man from Dukana. Our sympathy for him is engaged at once:
I am free-born of Dukana and that is where I went to school. I am the only son of my mama and I have no father. It is my mama who sent me to St. Dominic’s school in Dukana where I passed my elementary six with distinction. In fact, I am very clever boy in school and I like to work hard always.
Unfortunately, his mother is unable to pay for his further education. “The thing pained me bad bad because I wanted to be big man like lawyer or doctor riding car and talking big big English.” His mother suggests that he become a mechanic and driver instead:
So my mama told me that I should learn to be driver. Because Dukana people have one lorry which they call “Progres.” But they have no driver and they have to go and get driver from another country to drive the lorry.
Mene describes how the people in Dukana react with joy to the news of a military coup that overthrows the corrupt civilian government:
Even one woman was talking that the sun will shine proper proper and people will not die again because there will be medicine in the hospital and the doctor will not charge money for operation.
Gradually, however, the deteriorating political situation impinges on Dukana. At first, it is good for business.
And plenty people were returning to their village. From far far places. We motor people begin to make plenty money. Plenty trouble, plenty money. And my master [the owner of the truck] was prouding. We were charging passengers as lawyer charge people who get case. We were charging them proper.
But soon “fear begin to catch everybody” because stories are heard “about how they are killing people in the train; cutting their hand or their leg or breaking their head with matchet.”
Pastor Barika of Church of Light of God, the most important church in Dukana, was saying the world will soon end. I no like that one at all. How will the world end and I never get my [driving] licence? Is that good thing?
The simplicity and narrowness of Mene’s concerns (and those of his fellow villagers) are charmingly conveyed. But the rest of the book is a painful African Bildungsroman. As the civil war approaches Dukana, Mene’s young wife Agnes and the older men in the village goad Mene into joining the army. It is the way for him to prove his manhood, and the uniform is very smart and attractive besides. So Mene joins up without any idea of what war might actually entail, or even why it is being fought (at no point in the book is the alleged purpose of the war mentioned).
Mene soon learns that there is more to war than parading in a smart uniform to the admiration of his wife. He is sent into action, where his officers behave with casual brutality and his friends are killed by planes “shitting bombs.” He suffers hunger, fear, and hardship; eventually he is badly injured and captured by the enemy, who restore him to health and make him join their army. Mene realizes that the two contending armies are in fact identical, offering their soldiers no reason to fight and kill other than hatred of the enemy. But why should they hate the enemy? No reason is given. He meets only skullduggery and treachery.
He manages to desert and returns clandestinely to Dukana, whose population is now either dead or in refugee camps. The village is in ruins. The book ends as Mene walks disconsolately from Dukana:
And as I was going, I was just thinking how the war have spoiled my town Dukana, uselessed many people, killed others, killed my mama and my wife, Agnes, my beautiful young wife. and now it have made me like porson wey [person who] get leprosy because I have no town again.
How ironical that a man who wrote these heartfelt words (surely the distillation of his own experience of the Nigerian Civil War) should have started a political movement that resulted in violence and mass displacement. But Saro-Wiwa was in any case thoroughly disillusioned by the inability of mere writing to change anything by itself. His television series, “Basi and Company,” had been watched by one Nigerian in three, after all, and yet nothing in Nigeria had changed. Through the character of Basi, a young ne’er-do-well who rents a room from a Lagos landlady called Madam the Madam, and who constantly dreams of dishonest schemes to make a fortune overnight, he had neatly satirized the national mentality. Every Nigerian had recognized himself in Basi, and laughed heartily, and yet had remained unchanged. It was time, Saro-Wiwa said, for more than mere words.
Throughout my last meeting with Saro-Wiwa, I thought of the letter Turgenev wrote on his deathbed to Tolstoy in 1883 —the last words, indeed, he ever wrote. At the time Tolstoy had forsaken writing novels for moralistic tracts.
My dear Lev Nikolayevich, I have not written to you for a long time for I was and still am at death’s door. I am writing especially to you to say how glad I was to have been a contemporary of yours and to express my final, sincere request. My friend, return to literature! This gift comes to you from where everything else comes. Ah, how happy I should be to think that this request would have some effect on you. My friend, great writer of the Russian land, heed my request! Let me know if this note reaches you, and allow me to embrace you tightly, tightly, for one last time, and your wife and all your family. I can write no more.
With Saro-Wiwa and I, however, it was the supplicant who survived and the person to whom the appeal was addressed who died. Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged in Port Harcourt prison—at the fifth attempt—on November 10, 1995
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 January 2000, on page 4
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