Ken Saro-Wiwa

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Graham Hough (review date 3 July 1986)

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SOURCE: "Afro-Fictions," in London Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 12, July 3, 1986, pp. 22-3.

[Hough is an English author and educator. In the following review, he praises Saro-Wiwa's ability to capture the peculiarities of Nigerian life in A Forest of Flowers.]

Ken Saro-Wiwa's extremely accomplished collection of short stories [A Forest of Flowers] stands to Nigeria in something of the same relation as Joyce's Dubliners to Ireland. They are brief epiphanies, each crystallising a moment, a way of living, the whole course of a life. When as a youngster I first read Dubliners I remember being baffled by the way eerie characters and their bizarre motivations were calmly accepted as part of the ordinary nature of things. Saro-Wiwa's tales bring back something of this feeling. There is great variety in these glimpses. The book is divided into two parts—innocence and experience, you might call them. The first part deals with Dukana, a village community, the second with the more sophisticated life of the towns. Not that there is anything idyllic about the village; it is sunk in dirt, apathy and superstition. An educated girl comes back there, thinking of it as home, and eager to see an old friend from school-days. But she finds the friend has disappeared, been driven out, no one knows where. She has committed the misdemeanour of having twins. A solitary man who talks to nobody but gets on with his farming by himself is suspected of witchcraft, simply because he is a loner, and is burnt alive in his hut. Yet all the families are close and affectionate; and an element of placid bargain-keeping does something to mitigate the harshest arrangements. A beautiful girl is married, and married well, since it is to a lorry-driver: but she turns out to be barren and so is repudiated—with the agreement of all, including the girl herself. She simply pays back her bride-price, goes back to her mother, and resumes her life as before, without resentment or disgrace. Less sombre are the vagaries of the Holy Spiritual Church of Mount Zion in Israel, and the complex arrangements to defeat the Sanitary Inspector—involving, of course, the defeat of all attempts at sanitation.

This brings us on to Part Two, where the towns, repositories of government and business, are exposed in all the depths of their squalor, incompetence, chicanery and corruption. Some of this is the stuff of comedy: in the negotiations about the Acapulco Motel muddle and cheating seem to be tolerantly expected on all sides. But in the two stories 'The Stars Below' and 'Night Ride' we get a steady look at the heartbreaking hopelessness of this society. In each case an idealistic young official surveys the ruin of his life, the wreck of the world around him in the aftermath of a ghastly civil war, and the doubt whether the old apathetic stagnation or the new conscienceless greed is worse.

But I have made these stories seem more sombre than they are. An unlovely world, but much of it is rendered with affection; and there is immense satisfaction for the reader in the adroitness and variety of the presentation. A few of the tales are in pidgin, which I can hardly judge. Others use interior monologue and make a wonderfully happy accommodation between the idiosyncrasy of the characters and the decorum of the English language; while the parts where the narrator speaks in his own person have a straightforward elegance that is extremely attractive.

Though the colonial past of Nigeria is not very far away, it plays little or no part...

(This entire section contains 659 words.)

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in the awareness of Saro-Wiwa's characters. The new regime is self-determined, and the new official class has so successfully appropriated the privileges of its colonial predecessors that there is no room forcidevant resentments. Whatever the social results of this, the literary effects are benign. It means that the writer can get on with his own job without taking on the burdens of others …

Ken Goodwin (review date Autumn 1987)

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SOURCE: Review of Songs in a Time of War by Ken Saro-Wiwa, in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 27, No. 2, Autumn 1987, pp. 232-33.

[Goodwin is an Australian author and educator. In the following review, he praises Saro-Wiwa's evocation of war-time Nigeria in Songs in a Time of War.]

In this modest contribution to Nigerian poetry in English [Songs in a Time of War], Ken Saro-Wiwa writes chiefly about the political manipulation and human waste of warfare. The war references are to the Biafran war, during which Saro-Wiwa served as a Federal administrator. Though these poems lack the immediacy and vivid particularity of J. P. Clark's war poems, they do convey a constant longing for silence and for the soft-breathing life of peaceful nighttime, as well as a sense of open landscape with a slightly menacing quality.

"The Escape" is a poem detailing the author's flight from the Delta region to Lagos as the Biafran troops advanced westward in September 1967. Among its images of fear and apprehension are one of the day hung out in front like a curtain, "A drawn-out horizon taut with uncertainty." During the river voyage he comes upon a scene in which

     White birds stood on stumps in mid-stream      Silent and watchful …

In the same poem, the slightly archaic (Edwardian or First-World-War) diction that Saro-Wiwa uses can be sensed in "Naval guns boom as of yore." His point here is that, though his repetition of colonial experience might encourage a sense of déjà vu, in a civil war within an independent country "the issues are far greater."

Despite Saro-Wiwa's abhorrence of war and his concentration on the sorrow and pity of it all, he cannot resist some condemnation of Biafra's leaders, particularly in "Epitaph for Biafra":

     Didn't they test the hardness of the egg      On the skin of their teeth      Before dashing it against the rocks?

It is in such images that he manages to rise above the prosaic and declaratory quality of much of the verse. His best poems have a sensory quality that vivifies them, whether it is the "white balls of fire" that "Ascend the sky at dusk" in a war poem or the witty image of the "Tired and breathless spaceman" who. remembering an encounter with a courtesan, is able to "Toil on for the pleasures / Of the final splashdown."

The last poem in this small volume is a long satire in pidgin. In it the words "Nigeria" and "confusion" appear as a refrain, as Saro-Wiwa expresses both lament for and condemnation of Nigeria's openness to exploitation, corruption, and the temptation to borrow (both fiscally and culturally). Addressing the country, he says

     Nigeria, you too like borrow borrow      You borrow money, cloth you dey borrow      You borrow motor, you borrow aeroplane      You dey borrow chop, you borrow drink      Sotey you borrow anoder man language….

It is a poem written in sorrow, not in resignation or hopelessness, for he has faith in the natural resources of the country and he does not despair of all the people, for

     Oh yes, som Nigerian pickin get sense      And better go follow dem all.

Adewale Maja-Pearce (review date 22 July 1988)

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SOURCE: "Nigeria Laughs at Itself," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. I, No. 7, July 22, 1988, pp. 44.

[Maja-Pearce is a Nigerian-born author, editor, and educator. In the following review, she finds that while its subject matter is worthy of satire, Prisoners of Jebs is not entirely successful.]

Prisoners of Jebs is a collection of 53 sketches, first published as a weekly column between January 1986 and January 1987 in the Nigerian Vanguard newspaper. In the "Author's Note", Ken Saro-Wiwa tells us that he wanted his column to "examine weekly events in Nigeria", and to the extent that a knowledge of Nigerian politics of this period is helpful for an appreciation of many of the references, it is unlikely that the book will have much appeal to non-Nigerians.

The scene is set in the first sketch, "The Building of the Prison", in which we are told that the Organisation of African Unity, celebrating its 25th anniversary, decide that "prisoners drawn from member-nations, locked up in a pollution-free environment and forced to think day and night about the problems of the continent … would certainly usher in progress". Nigeria is unanimously chosen as the site, and an off-shore prison, courtesy of the Dutch and the Bulgarians, is duly constructed.

This leaves the way for the kind of satire of Nigerian life that has now become the stock-in-trade of a number of inventive Nigerian journalists. Nigerians have never been slow to criticise their society; on the other hand, Nigerian society affords plenty of material: "The Nigerians had voted millions for the running of Jebs. The Nigerians always vote millions for the running of their institutions. And as is usual in Nigeria, Jebs' millions disappeared in no time. It was quite astounding, the ability of Nigeria's millions to perform the disappearing trick."

Or again: "In keeping with its reputation as Africa's most populous state, Nigeria had the most prisoners. And they were the loudest inmates. They showed off, broke all queues, played loud music, shouted at the top of their voices, refused to do manual labour, and ate and drank most."

Almost every Nigerian newspaper, of which there are an estimated 23 dailies and 29 weeklies, delights in this kind of social comment. This probably represents the nation's greatest hope: nobody can accuse Nigerians of being unable to laugh at themselves, a pre-requisite for fundamental social change.

Social satire of this kind also serves a useful function if you happen to be stuck in a car in Lagos during one of the legendary "go-slows"—the experience of anybody who has to go to work every day. Unfortunately, journalism rarely survives longer than the date on the newspaper. After the first half-dozen sketches in Prisoners of Jebs I found myself growing just a little weary, partly because the joke had worn a little thin, partly because the form itself precludes any development of character.

Ken Saro-Wiwa (essay date Spring 1992)

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SOURCE: "The Language of African Literature: A Writer's Testimony," in Research in African Studies, Vol. 23, No. I, Spring 1992, pp. 153-57.

[In the following essay, Saro-Wiwa justifies his choice of writing in English rather than any of the various Nigerian languages.]

I was born to Ogoni parents at Bori on the northern fringes of the delta of the Niger during the Second World War. I grew up speaking one of the three Ogoni languages—Khana, my mother-tongue—and listening to and telling folk tales in that language.

When I went to primary school in 1947, I was taught in my mother-tongue during the first two years. During the other six years of the primary school course, the teaching was done in English, which soon imprinted itself on my mind as the language of learning. Khana was the language of play, and it appeared on the class time-table once or twice a week as "vernacular"—wonderful, story-telling sessions in Khana. We spoke Khana at home, and we read the Bible at church in Khana. It was enough to make me literate in Khana to this day.

The Ogoni lived a simple, circumscribed life at that time; farming and fishing were their sole occupations. There were a number of primary schools in the area, but no secondary school. All those who wished or were able to go to secondary school had to move to other parts of the country.

Accordingly, in 1954, at about 13, I proceeded to Government College, Omaha, which was the best school in the area. I was the only Ogoni boy in the entire school. Others were mostly Igbo, Ibibio, Ijaw, and representatives of other ethnic groups in what was then Eastern Nigeria. A few came from the Cameroons, which was at that time administered as a part of Nigeria. The English language was a unifying factor at the school; in fact, there was a regulation forbidding the use of any of our mother-tongues at work or during recreation. This rule ensured that boys like myself did not feel lost in the school because we could not communicate with any other boy in our mother-tongues. There were no books in any other language, apart from English, in the school's excellent library. We worked and played in English. One result of this regime was that in a single generation, the school produced Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara, the late Christopher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi Vincent Ike, and I. N. C. Aniebo, who was my contemporary.

There, at Government College, I began to write poems, short stories, and plays in English, the language which, as I have said, bound us all together. There was no question of my writing in Khana because no one else would have understood it.

From Government College, I proceeded in 1962 to the University of Ibadan, where I met young men and women from different parts of a vast country. By then, Nigeria had become independent. The language of instruction at Ibadan was English of course. There was no restriction as to what language we could use outside the lecture halls. So, those who were there in sufficient numbers invariably spoke their mother-tongues among themselves. However, English was what enabled students from different ethnic backgrounds to communicate with each other. English was also the official language of the country, by necessity. I wrote poems, short stories, and plays in English. Once again, there was no question of my using my Khana mother-tongue, which no one else at the university would have understood. I was studying English and, at that time, had come across the argument of Obi Wali (whom I was later to meet and know intimately). According to him, English was the dead-end of African literature.

In those days, African literature was a fashionable course of study, although I did not find it so. I had read most of the novels published by Africans in English and did not feel that they added up to much as a course of study. I was also preparing to be a writer, and I was not impressed by Dr Wali's arguments for the simple reason that I did not consider myself as a writer of African literature. I wanted to be a good storyteller, no more, no less. Putting me in a category would be the business of the critics. In any case, I was yet to publish anything. That was 1963 or thereabouts.

Nigeria had become independent three years earlier, and the country was gradually gravitating towards war. As a boy, I knew that I was an Ogoni. Of that, there was never any doubt. I also knew that Khana was my mother-tongue. Most Ogonis spoke Khana. It was a secure world.

Growing up at Government College in Omaha, I interacted with boys my age from different parts of the Eastern Region of Nigeria. And because the school taught us to be good citizens, I had learned the necessity of being a good Nigerian. By independence in 1960, I had taken the fact for granted. I had travelled to different parts of the country and knew something of the great mixture of peoples that is Nigeria. Somehow, as long as I could speak and read English, it was easy to relate to the rest of the country—away from my Ogoni home. So, English was important. Not only as the language which opened new areas to me, but as a link to the other peoples with whom I came into contact during my day-to-day life.

I had barely graduated from the University of Ibadan when I was contented with the true nature of Nigerian society as an agglomeration of peoples and cultures, much like the rest of Africa. By the way, school taught me about Africa. As a boy in my Ogoni home, the idea of Africa never arose. It is not an Ogoni concept. Nor was Nigeria. But to get back to 1965. The great argument that later tore Nigeria apart and led us to a murderous civil war was already raging. By 1967, the war had broken out. I was then a Graduate Assistant at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

During that war, I played a role which I had not bargained for. Forced to choose between Nigeria and Biafra, I clung to the former because the arguments for Biafra were the same as the arguments for Nigeria. Simply put, Biafra was a mishmash of peoples and cultures, where the Igbo predominated oppressively just as Nigeria was a mish-mash of peoples and cultures where the Hausa-Fulani, the Igbo, and the Yoruba predominated oppressively.

Yes, colonialism is not a matter only of British, French, or European dominance over Africans. In African society, there is and has always been colonial oppression. In my case, the Ogoni had never been conquered by their Igbo neighbors. But the fact of British colonialism brought both peoples together under a single administration for the first time. And when the British colonialists left, the numerically inferior Ogoni were consigned to the rule of the more numerous Igbos, who always won elections in the Region since ethnic loyalties and cultural habits were and continue to be strong throughout Nigeria. Biafran propaganda invariably claimed that the Biafrans were one. But this was a lie, a hoax. I saw it as my responsibility to fight that lie. I did.

Since the end of that war in 1970, I have been engaged, as a writer and as a man of public affairs, in fighting the oppression and bad faith of the majority ethnic groups—the Igbo, the Hausa-Fulani, and the Yoruba—in Nigeria. The end of that struggle is not in sight. The facts of it are so sordid that even well-known Nigerian writers would gladly keep them away from the rest of the world. For that reason, not much has been heard about it outside Nigeria.

All the foregoing might seem irrelevant to the question of the language of African literature. Yet what I have tried to show is that, using Nigeria as an example, different languages and cultures exist in Africa. The fact that we share a common color or certain common beliefs or a common history of slavery and exploitation are not enough to just lump all Africa into a single pigeon-hole.

If Europeans speak of French literature, Spanish literature, and English literature, why do we insist on having an "African literature" and debating what language it should be written in? Africa is the second largest continent in the world. It has a multiplicity of languages and each language has its own literature. So, there is an Ogoni literature, a Yoruba literature, a Wolof literature. Most of this literature is oral because these societies are, in most cases, preliterate. That is a fact.

However, the need to communicate with one another and the rest of the world, and the fact of colonialism (which is also real) have forced us to write in the languages of our erstwhile colonial masters. I, for one, do not feel guilty about this. Were I writing in Khana, I would be speaking to about 200,000 people, most of whom do not read and write. Writing in English as I do, I can reach, hypothetically speaking, 400 million people. That cannot be bad. So, for me, English is a worthy tool, much like the biro pen or the banking system or the computer, which were not invented by the Ogoni people but which I can master and use for my own purposes. Writing in English has not prevented me from writing in my Khana mother-tongue. I am, indeed, working on a Khana novel at the moment, but that is not because I want to prove a point. I am writing this novel so I can offer it to my seventy-year old mother. She is always reading the Bible—the only book which exists in the Khana language—and I would like to give her some other literature to read.

But I am also writing this novel because I can self-publish it. I am lucky to be in a position to do so; none of the established publishers in Nigeria or anywhere else in the world would have accepted to publish it for the simple reason that it would not be profitable to do so. I have also self-published most of the twenty books I have written in English because publishers of fiction by African writers are few and far between. But that is another story.

I am aware of Ngugi Thiongo's argument about decolonizing the mind and his determination to write in his native Gikuyu. He is of course welcome to do so. In Nigeria, many writers have been writing in their mother-tongues for a long time. There are newspapers in Hausa and in Yoruba. There is no need to blow this matter out of proportion. Besides, I detect some posturing in Ngugi's stance. Because he had already made his mark as a writer in English, his works have become instant subjects of translation into English, enabling him to live by his writing. If this were not the case, he might not be so sure of his decision. I also wonder if he has thought or cares about the implications of his decision for the minority ethnic groups in Kenya and for the future of Kenya as a multiethnic nation or, indeed, as a nation at all.

Furthermore, I have examined myself very closely to see how writing or reading in English has colonized my mind. I am, I find, as Ogoni as ever. I am enmeshed in Ogoni culture. I eat Ogoni food. I sing Ogoni songs. I dance to Ogoni music. And I find the best in the Ogoni world-view as engaging as anything else. I am anxious to see the Ogoni establish themselves in Nigeria and make their contribution to world civilization. I myself am contributing to Ogoni life as fully, and possibly even more effectively than those Ogoni who do not speak and write English. The fact that I appreciate Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Hemingway, et al., the fact that I know something of European civilization, its history and philosophy, the fact that I enjoy Mozart and Beethoven—this a colonization of my mind? I cannot exactly complain about it.

I am also aware of the proposition that Africa should adopt one language—a continental language. Wole Soyinka once suggested the adoption of Swahili. Quite apart from the fact that the idea is totally impracticable, it seems to me to lack intellectual or political merit. Once a language is not one's mother-tongue, it is an alien language. Its being an African language is a moot point. As I said earlier, Africans have practiced colonialism as much as Europeans. In most cases, this colonialism has been harsh and crude; it is as detestable as European colonialism. The position in today's Nigeria is a case in point. The Sausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo have inflicted on three hundred other ethnic groups a rule that is most onerous. Were I, as an Ogoni, forced to speak or write any of these languages (as is presently proposed), I would rebel against the idea and encourage everyone else to do the same. Moreover, people of the same tongue are not always of the same mind.

African literature is written in several languages, including the extra-African languages of English, French, and Portuguese. As more and more writers emerge, as criticism responds to their works, as African languages increasingly acquire written form, and as communities become more politically aware of the need to develop their languages and cultures, African literature will break down into its natural components, and we will speak of Ogoni literature, Igbo literature, Fanti literature, Swahili literature, etc. But there will continue to be an African literature written in English and French and Portuguese. The fact that these languages have been on the continent for over a hundred years and are spoken by many African peoples entitles them to a proper place among the languages that are native to the continent.

With regard to English, I have heard it said that those who write in it should adopt a domesticated "African" variety of it. I myself have experimented with the three varieties of English spoken and written in Nigeria: pidgin, "rotten," and standard. I have used them in poetry, short stories, essays, drama, and the novel. I have tried them out in print, on stage, on the radio, and with television comedy. That which carries best and which is most popular is standard English, expressed simply and lucidly. It communicates and expresses thoughts and ideas perfectly.

And so I remain a convinced practitioner and consumer of African literature in English. I am content that this language has made me a better African in the sense that it enables me to know more about Somalia, Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa than I would otherwise have known.

William Boyd (essay date 27 November 1995)

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SOURCE: "Death of a Writer," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, No. 38, November 27, 1995, pp. 51-5.

[Boyd is an acclaimed English novelist. In the following essay, he eulogizes his friend Saro-Wiwa and describes events that led up to his execution.]

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a friend of mine. At eleven-thirty in the morning on November 10th, he was hanged in a prison in Port Harcourt, in eastern Nigeria, on the orders of General Sani Abacha, the military leader of Nigeria. Ken Saro-Wiwa was fifty-four years old, and an innocent man.

I first met Ken in the summer of 1986 at a British Council seminar at Cambridge University. He had come to England from Nigeria in his capacity as a publisher and had asked the British Council to arrange a meeting with me. He had read my first novel, A Good Man in Africa, and had recognized, despite fictional names and thin disguises, that it was set in Nigeria, the country that had been my home when I was in my teens and early twenties.

Ken had been a student at the University of Ibadan, in western Nigeria, in the mid-sixties. My late father, Dr. Alexander Boyd, had run the university health services there, and had treated Ken and come to know him. Ken recognized that the Dr. Murray in my novel was a portrait of Dr. Boyd and was curious to meet his son.

I remember that it was a sunny summer day, one of those days that are really too hot for England. In shirtsleeves, we strolled about the immaculate quadrangle of a Cambridge college, talking about Nigeria. Ken was a small man, probably no more than five feet two or three. He was stocky and energetic—in fact, brimful of energy—and had a big, wide smile. He smoked a pipe with a curved stem. I learned later that the pipe was virtually a logo: in Nigeria, people recognized him by it. In newsreel pictures that the Nigerian military released of the final days of Ken's show trial, there's a shot of him walking toward the courthouse, leaning on a stick, thinner and aged as a result of eighteen months' incarceration, the familiar pipe still clenched between his teeth.

Ken was not only a publisher but a businessman (in the grocery trade); a celebrated political journalist, with a particularly trenchant and swingeing style; and, I discovered, a prolific writer of novels, plays, poems, and children's books (mostly published by him). He was, in addition, the highly successful writer and producer of Nigeria's most popular TV soap opera, Basi & Co. Basi & Co., which ran for a hundred and fifty-odd episodes in the mid-eighties, was reputedly Africa's most watched soap opera, with an audience of up to thirty million. Basi and his cronies were a bunch of feckless Lagos wide boys who, indigent and lazy, did nothing but hatch inept schemes for becoming rich. Although funny and wincingly accurate, the show was also unashamedly pedagogic. What was wrong with Basi and his chums was wrong with Nigeria: none of them wanted to work, and they all acted as though the world owed them a living; if that couldn't be acquired by fair means foul ones would do just as well. This was soap opera as a form of civic education.

Whenever Ken passed through London, we'd meet for lunch, usually in the Chelsea Arts Club. His wife and four children lived in England—the children attended school there—so he was a regular visitor. And, though I wrote a profile of him for the London Times (Ken was trying to get his books distributed in Britain), our encounters were mainly those of two writers with something in common, hanging out for a highly agreeable, bibulous hour or three.

Ken's writing was remarkably various, covering almost all genres. Sozaboy, in my opinion his greatest work, is subtitled "A Novel in Rotten English" and is written in a unique combination of pidgin English, the lingua franca of the former West African British colonies, and an English that is, in its phrases and sentences, altogether more classical and lyrical. The language is a form of literary demotic, a benign hijacking of English, and a perfect vehicle for the story it tells, of a simple village boy recruited into the Biafran Army during the Nigerian civil war. The boy has dreamed of being a soldier (a "soza"), but the harsh realities of this brutal conflict send him into a dizzying spiral of cruel disillusion. Sozaboy is not simply a great African novel but also a great antiwar novel—among the very best of the twentieth century.

Sozaboy was born of Ken's personal experience of the conflict—the Biafran War, as it came to be known—and, indeed, so were many of his other writings. Biafra was the name given to a loose ethnic grouping in eastern Nigeria dominated by the Ibo tribe. The Ibo leader, Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, decided to secede from Nigeria, taking most of the country's oil reserves with him. In the war that was then waged against the secessionist state, perhaps a million people died, mainly of starvation in the shrinking heartland.

Not all the ethnic groups caught up in Ojukwu's secessionist dream were willing participants. Ken's tribe, the Ogoni, for one. When the war broke out, in 1967, Ken was on vacation and found himself trapped within the new borders of Biafra. He saw at once the absurdity of being forced to fight in another man's war, and he escaped through the front lines to the federal side. He was appointed civilian administrator of the crucial oil port of Bonny on the Niger River delta, and he served there until the final collapse of the Biafran forces in 1970. Ken wrote about his experiences of the civil war in his fine memoir, On a Darkling Plain.

Ken's later fight against the Nigerian military, as it turned out, was oddly pre-figured in those years of the Biafran War: the helplessness of an ethnic minority in the face of an overpowering military dictatorship; oil and oil wealth as a destructive and corrupting catalyst in society; the need to be true to one's conscience.

This moral rigor was especially apparent in Ken's satirical political journalism (he was, over the years, a columnist on the Lagos daily newspapers Punch, Vanguard, and Daily Times), much of which was charged with a Swiftian saeva indignatio at what he saw as the persistent ills of Nigerian life: tribalism, ignorance of the rights of minorities, rampant materialism, inefficiency, and general graft. Apart from Basi & Co., his journalism was what brought him his greatest renown among the population at large.

In the late eighties, I remember, Ken's conversations turned more and more frequently to the topic of his tribal homeland. The Ogoni are a small tribe (there are two hundred and fifty tribes in Nigeria) of about half a million people living in a small area of the fertile Niger River delta. The Ogoni's great misfortune is that their homeland happens to lie above a significant portion of Nigeria's oil reserves. Since the mid-nineteen-fifties, Ogoniland has been devastated by the industrial pollution caused by the extraction of oil. What was once a placid rural community of prosperous farmers and fishermen is now an ecological wasteland reeking of sulfur, its creeks and water holes poisoned by indiscriminate oil spillage and ghoulishly lit at night by the orange flames of gas flares.

As Ken's concern for his homeland grew, he effectively abandoned his vocation and devoted himself to lobbying for the Ogoni cause at home and abroad. He was instrumental in setting up the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and soon became its figurehead. That struggle for survival was an ecological more than a political one: Ken protested the despoliation of his homeland and demanded compensation from the Nigerian government and from the international oil companies—Shell in particular. (He resented Shell profoundly and, with good reason, held the company responsible for the ecological calamity in Ogoniland.) His people, he said, were being subjected to a "slow genocide." But from the outset Ken made sure that the movement's protest was peaceful and nonviolent. Nigeria today is a corrupt and dangerously violent nation: it was enormously to the credit of the Ogoni movement that it stayed true to its principles. Mass demonstrations were organized and passed off without incident. Abroad, Greenpeace and other environmental groups allied themselves with the Ogoni cause, but, ironically, the real measure of the success of Ken's agitation came when, in 1992, he was arrested by the Nigerian military and held in prison for some months without a trial. The next year, Shell Oil ceased its operations in the Ogoni region.

At that time, the Nigerian military was led by General Ibrahim Babangida. Ken was eventually released (after a campaign in the British media), and Babangida voluntarily yielded power to General Abacha, a crony, who was meant to supervise the transition of power to a civilian government after a general election, which was duly held in 1993. The nation went to the polls and democratically elected Chief Moshood Abiola as President. General Abacha then declared the election null and void and later imprisoned the victor. Nigeria entered a new era of near-anarchy and despotism. Things looked bad for Nigeria, but they looked worse for the Ogoni and their leaders.

Over these years, Ken and I continued to meet for our Chelsea Arts Club lunches whenever he was in London. In 1992, he suffered a personal tragedy, when his youngest son, aged fourteen, who was at Eton, died suddenly of heart failure during a rugby game. Strangely, Ken's awful grief gave a new force to his fight for his people's rights.

We met just before he returned to Nigeria. From my own experience of Nigeria, I knew of the uncompromising ruthlessness of political life there. Ken was not young, nor was he in the best of health (he, too, had a heart condition). As we said goodbye, I shook his hand and said, "Be careful, Ken, O.K.?" And he laughed—his dry, delighted laugh—and replied, "Oh, I'll be very careful, don't worry." But I knew he wouldn't.

A succession of Nigerian military governments have survived as a result of the huge revenues generated by oil, and the military leaders themselves have routinely benefitted from the oil revenues, making millions and millions of dollars. Any movement that threatened this flow of money was bound to be silenced—extinguished. With the ascendance of Abacha and his brazenly greedy junta, Ken was now squarely in harm's way. Even so, he returned to Nigeria to continue his protests. These protests were now conducted in a more sinister country than the one I had known—a country where rapes, murders, and the burning of villages were being carried out as a deliberate policy of state terrorism. There have been two thousand Ogoni deaths thus far.

In May of last year, Ken was on his way to address a rally in an Ogoni town but was turned back at a military roadblock and headed, reluctantly, for home. The rally took place, a riot ensued, and in the general mayhem four Ogoni elders—believed to be sympathetic to the military—were killed.

Ken was arrested and, with several others, was accused of incitement to murder. The fact that he was in a car some miles away and going in the opposite direction made no difference. He was imprisoned for more than a year and then was tried before a specially convened tribunal. There was no right of appeal. This "judicial process" has been internationally condemned as a sham. It was a show trial in a kangaroo court designed to procure the verdict required by the government.

On Thursday, November 2nd, Ken and his co-defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death. Suddenly the world acknowledged the nature of Nigeria's degeneracy.

Things did not augur well. But, instinctively wanting to make the best of a bad situation, I hoped that the publicity surrounding Ken's case, along with the timely coincidence of the Commonwealth conference in New Zealand (a biennial gathering of the former members of the British Empire), would prevent the very worst from happening. Surely, I reasoned, the heads of state congregating in Auckland would not allow one of their members to flout their own human-rights principles so callously and blatantly? General Abacha, however, did not dare leave his benighted country, which was represented by his Foreign Minister instead.

The presence of Nelson Mandela at the conference was especially encouraging, not only for me but also for all the people who had spent the last months fighting to free Ken. (We were a loose-knit organization, including International PEN, the Ogoni Foundation, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and others.) We felt that if anything could persuade the Nigerians to think again it would be Mandela's moral authority. We were baffled and confused, though, when Mandela did little more than persistently advocate that we should all be patient, that the problem would be resolved through an easy, low-key diplomacy.

Despite Mandela's advice, there was a clamorous condemnation in the media of the Nigerian military. In response, Abacha's junta released newsreel pictures of Ken's trial to establish the legality of the "judicial process." One saw a row of prisoners, still, faces drawn, heads bowed, confronting three stout officers, swagged with gold braid, ostentatiously passing pieces of paper to each other. In the background, a soldier strolled back and forth. Then Ken addressed the court. His voice was strong: he was redoubtably defiant; he seemed without fear, utterly convinced.

These images both defied belief and profoundly disturbed. If Abacha thought that this would make his tribunals look acceptable, then the level of naïveté, or blind ignorance, implied was astonishing. But a keening note of worry was also sounded: someone who could do something this damaging, I thought, was beyond the reach of reason. World opinion, international outrage, appeals for clemency seemed to me now to be nugatory. Abacha had painted himself into a corner. For him it had become a question of saving face, of loud bluster, of maintaining some sort of martial pride. I slept very badly that night.

The next day, November 10th, just after lunch, I received a call from the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN. I was told that a source in Port Harcourt had seen the prisoners arrive at the jail at dawn that day, in leg irons. Then the executioners had presented themselves, only to be turned away, because—it was a moment of grimmest, darkest farce—their papers were not in order. This source, however, was "a hundred and ten per cent certain" that the executions had eventually occurred. Some hours later, this certainty was confirmed by the Nigerian military.

So now Ken was dead, along with eight co-defendants: hanged in a mass execution just as the Commonwealth Conference got under way.

I am bitter and I am dreadfully sad. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the bravest man I have known, is no more. From time to time, Ken managed to smuggle a letter out of prison. One of the last letters I received ended this way: "I'm in good spirits … There's no doubt that my idea will succeed in time, but I'll have to bear the pain of the moment … The most important thing for me is that I've used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni people to confront their tormentors. I was not able to do it as a politician or a businessman. My writing did it. And it sure makes me feel good! I'm mentally prepared for the worst, but hopeful for the best. I think I have the moral victory." You have, Ken. Rest in peace.

Rob Nixon (review date 4 April 1996)

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SOURCE: "Pipe Dreams," in London Review of Books, Vol. 18, No. 7, April 4, 1996, pp. 18-19.

[Nixon is an English author and educator. In the following review of Saro-Wiwa's detention diary, A Month and a Day, he describes conditions in Nigeria after the encroachment of transnational companies—such as Shell Oil—into developing countries.]

Ken Saro-Wiwa squints at us from the cover of his detention diary, the posthumous A Month and a Day. His moustache looks precise and trim; his eyes are alight; the distinctive gash scrawls across his temple. But the picture is governed by his pipe. It's an intellectual's accessory, a good pipe to suck and clench, to spew from and lecture with. He had hoped tobacco would kill him: 'I know that I am a mortuary candidate, but I intend to head for the mortuary with my pipe smoking.' In the end, it was another kind of pipe that got him, spilling toxins indiscriminately into the land, rivers and lungs of his Ogoni people.

Saro-Wiwa believed that his writing would return to haunt his tormentors. Shortly before his execution in the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt last year on trumped up charges of murder, he declared: 'The men who ordained and supervised this show of shame, this tragic charade, are frightened by the word, the power of ideas, the power of the pen … They are so scared of the word that they do not read. And that will be their funeral.' Saro-Wiwa's conviction that the pen is mightier than the goon squad may sound, to European and North American ears, like an echo from another age. In the era of the World Wide Web, books and newspapers are often dismissed as waning powers. But across much of Africa the certainty persists that writing can make things happen.

Saro-Wiwa was a voluminous, protean writer who pitched his ambitions high. In one of his final letters from detention, he assured his friend, the novelist William Boyd:

There's no doubt that my idea will succeed in time, but I'll have to bear the pain of the moment … the most important thing for me is that I've used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni people to confront their tormentors. I was not able to do it as a politician or a businessman. My writing did it … I think I have the moral victory.

Elsewhere, he prayed that his work would have as visceral an impact as André Gide's 1927 journal, Voyage au Congo, which prompted an outcry against Belgian atrocities. Saro-Wiwa saw himself as part of that testimonial tradition, a witness to what he called the 'recolonisation' of Ogoniland by the joint forces of the oil companies and the Abacha regime, which together have turned the Niger delta into a Bermuda triangle for human rights.

Shell has ducked behind the Nigerian military regime and ignored appeals by the Ogonis and neighbouring minorities for a share of oil revenues, some measure of environmental self-determination, and economic redress for their oil-drenched environment. By the time Saro-Wiwa was executed, the Nigerian military and the Mobile Police Force had killed two thousand Ogonis—either they straightforwardly murdered them or they burnt their villages. Ogoni air had been fouled by the flaring of natural gas, croplands scarred by oil spills, drinking and fishing water poisoned. Although Shell was driven out of Ogoniland in 1993, it has since moved to other parts of Nigeria's once lush 'delta of death', and its legacy continues to seep into Ogoni waterways, Ogoni earth, and the bodies of the local farming community which, unlike the corporation, has nowhere else to go. The Ogonis, roughly half a million of them, retain nominal ownership of most of their densely populated territory. What they have suffered in the four decades since oil extraction began is subterranean dispossession. Shell, Chevron and successive Nigerian regimes have siphoned thirty billion dollars of oil from beneath Ogoni earth. Yet the locals still find themselves lacking a hospital, electricity, piped water and basic roads, housing and schools. The community has found itself, in the fullest sense of the word, utterly undermined.

Faced with the neo-colonial politics of mineral rights in the Niger delta, Saro-Wiwa was confident that written testimony, backed by activism, could make a difference. Like many African authors before him, he recognised that, in a society with frail democratic institutions and a small intellectual élite, interventionist writing required versatility and cunning. His life as a public intellectual was distinguished by a profound strategic intelligence and a keen sensitivity to local and international changes in audience and occasion. He produced over twenty books including novels, plays, stories, histories, political tracts and children's tales. But across Anglophone West Africa Saro-Wiwa achieved his greatest renown as the creator of the popular TV comedy Basi and Company: 150 primetime episodes were watched on Wednesdays by thirty million Nigerians. Saro-Wiwa was, by turns, a humorist, a moralist and a robust satirist. After the death of his son in 1992, however, he devoted himself single-mindedly to the Ogoni cause, becoming the chronicler of his people's persecution and, finally, a death-row diarist.

Saro-Wiwa's versatility, his belief in an instrumental aesthetics, and his obsession with land rights place him in an established tradition of African writing. But in East and Southern Africa, such tendencies have been routinely associated with writers whose anti-colonialism—or anti-neo-colonialism—has been inseparable from their socialism. One thinks, for instance, of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Barrel of the Pen and Mafika Gwala's essay, 'Writing as a Cultural Weapon' (the credo for a generation of South African writers). Saro-Wiwa was unusual in cultivating an international sensibility and stood aside from the lineages of African socialism.

He was the first African writer to articulate the literature of commitment in environmental terms. And as a successful small businessman—successful enough to send a son to Eton—he was never anti-capitalist as such. But he did find himself perfectly (and painfully) placed to chronicle one of the most notable developments of the Nineties: the resurgent power and mobility of transnational corporations—five hundred of which control 70 per cent of global trade—in the face of weakening nation-states, above all in the underdeveloped South.

It is a testament to Saro-Wiwa's strategic imagination that his political prose documents far more than the devastation of Ogoniland. While his work is passionately devoted to that cause, he came increasingly to situate it in a global framework. He began to discern certain patterns: most important, he understood how in countries weakened by structural adjustment, transnational firms and the national soldiery consider themselves at liberty to vandalise minority communities. He also saw that the justice of a cause—an African cause especially—was insufficient reason for it to attract international attention. So he strove to analogise, to turn what he called the 'deadly ecological war against the Ogoni' into a struggle emblematic of our times. His writing thus lays the ground for a broader estimation of the human cost of the romance between unanswerable corporations and unspeakable regimes.

Saro-Wiwa's political realism was tempered by a determined optimism, however. Writing in the Preface to his Genocide in Nigeria (1992), he took heart from three developments in the Nineties: 'the end of the Cold War, the increasing attention being paid to the global environment, and the insistence of the European Community that minority rights be respected, albeit in the successor states to the Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia'. But, he worried, 'it remains to be seen whether Europe and America will apply to Nigeria the same standards which they have applied to Eastern Europe.' His doubts have proved well-founded.

A Month and a Day includes a record of his efforts to capitalise on these new forms of international concern. Initially, human-rights and ecological groups proved equally unreceptive to the Ogoni cause. An African intellectual claiming ethnocide by environmental means? Saro-Wiwa seemed, at first, eccentric and unplaceable. At Boyd's prompting, he decided to contact Greenpeace. They replied that they did not work in Africa. Amnesty International said they could only take up the Ogoni cause if the military was killing people or detaining them without trial, a process that had yet to begin. Saro-Wiwa responded with frustration: 'The Ogoni people were being killed all right, but in an unconventional way.' Later he elaborated:

The Ogoni country has been completely destroyed by the search for oil … Oil blow-outs, spillages, oil slicks and general pollution accompany the search for oil … Oil companies have flared gas in Nigeria for the past 33 years causing acid rain … What used to be the bread basket of the delta has now become totally infertile. All one sees and feels around is death. Environmental degradation has been a lethal weapon in the war against the indigenous Ogoni people.

Despite the unresponsiveness of Greenpeace, Amnesty, Friends of the Earth and Survival International, Saro-Wiwa persisted in arguing that the Ogoni were victims of an 'unconventional war', prosecuted by ecological means. Undeterred, he sought to educate himself further through travel. An odyssey through the rupturing Soviet Union confirmed his sense of a growing international context for the articulation of minority claims. A visit to Colorado gave him access to an environmental group that had successfully salvaged a wilderness from corporate and governmental assaults. Through Michael van Walt van der Praag, a Dutch lawyer long active in the Tibetan cause, he made contact with the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation. This gave him access to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which he addressed in Geneva in 1992. (That same year, another Ogoni leader addressed the Earth Summit in Rio on behalf of the delta peoples.) Saro-Wiwa discovered that 'in virtually every nation-state there are several "Ogonis"—despairing and disappearing peoples suffering the yoke of political marginalisation, economic strangulation or environmental degradation, or a combination of these.'

From 1992 onwards, the combined invocation of minority and environmental rights became fundamental to the campaign waged by his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop). The human-rights and ecological organisations that had earlier found the Ogoni issue enigmatic now became its staunchest international supporters, and other groups, like Abroad, Friends of the Earth and the Body Shop, also rallied to the Ogoni cause.

These developments gave Saro-Wiwa's campaign a resonance it had previously lacked, and challenged stereotypes about environmental activists: that they are inevitably white, young, middle-class Europeans or Americans who can afford to hug trees. Saro-Wiwa's campaign for environmental self-determination will prove critical to the development of a broader image of ecological activism. We have seen how the concerns of privileged white feminists in the Seventies gave way to a more internationally diverse array of feminisms, locally led and locally defined. So, too, we are now seeing indigenous environmentalisms proliferate under the pressure of local necessity. As ideas of what qualifies as environmental activism expand, it becomes harder to dismiss it as a sentimental or imperialist discourse tied to European or North American interests. Nor does the case for this diversification any longer rest solely on Amazonian experience.

Saro-Wiwa understood that environmentalism needs to be re-imagined through the lives of the minorities who are barely visible on the global economic periphery, where transnationals in the extraction business—whether oil, minerals or timber—operate with maximum impunity. Environmental justice became for him an invaluable concept through which to focus the battle between subnational macro-ethnicities and transnational macro-economic powers. As an Ogoni, suffering what he called Nigeria's 'monstrous domestic colonialism', Saro-Wiwa had no reason to trust the nation-state as the unit of collective economic good. Instead, he advocated a measure of ethnic federalism in which environmental self-determination would be acknowledged as indispensable to cultural survival.

After the execution of Saro-Wiwa and his eight co-accused, public outrage divided between those who primarily condemned the Abacha regime and those who went for Shell. For Saro-Wiwa, however, the blame was indivisible: the Ogonis were the casualties of joint occupying powers. Shell has sought to put a positive gloss on this relationship, with PR primers like 'Nigeria and Shell: Partners in Progress'. But the real character of the relationship is more accurately portrayed by a leaked Nigerian government memo addressing protests in Ogoniland. Dated 5 December 1994, it reads: 'Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence.'

In Africa Shell waives on shore drilling standards that it routinely upholds elsewhere. Indeed, 40 percent of all Shell oil-spills world wide have occurred in Nigeria. When operating in the Northern hemisphere—in the Shetlands, for instance—Shell pays lucrative rents to local councils; in the Niger delta, village authorities receive little compensation.

The company's double standard would, however, be inoperable without backing from a Nigerian regime whose record on minority rights is appalling. Saro-Wiwa has likened the fate of the Ogoni during the oil-rush to their fate in the Biafran War, when the conflict among Nigeria's three dominant ethnicities left them flattened 'like grass in the fight of the elephants'. In a military kleptocracy with two hundred minority groups, all constitutionally unprotected, the Ogonis suffered the extra misfortune of living over oil.

The fact that the Ogonis have been casualties of both racism and ethnic hatred may help explain the low-key American response to the executions. The outcry in Britain, South Africa and France was far more vocal and sustained. In the British case, this is understandable: Shell is an Anglo-Dutch company and thanks to colonial links with Africa the British media always cover Africa more carefully than the Americans do. (The reverse is true in the case of Latin America.) But there is more to the American media's indifference than that. In US political discourse, racial oppression and minority discrimination typically function as identical terms, which makes it difficult for liberal Americans to condemn in a single breath a European corporation for racism against Africans and an African regime for oppressing its minorities. Saro-Wiwa never hesitated to make such controversial connections. As he wrote in his prison diary,

skin colour is not strong enough to stop the oppression of one group by another. Sometimes it reinforces oppression because it makes it less obvious. White people oppressing blacks in South Africa draws instant condemnation because it is seen to be racism. But black upon black oppression merely makes people shrug and say: 'Well, it's their business, isn't it?'

Some years back, the Philippine Government placed an ad in Fortune magazine that read: 'To attract companies like yours, we have felled mountains, razed jungles, filled swamps, moved rivers, relocated towns … all to make it easier for you and your business to do business here.' The Philippines is just one of a succession of poor nations to have wooed transnationals in a manner indissociably catastrophic for the environment and local minorities. This process has been most acutely damaging in the world's equatorial belt, from Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil, to Surinam and Guyana, on through Nigeria, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Gabon and Zaire, to the Philippines, Sarawak and New Guinea. Rich equatorial ecosystems could sustain a higher concentration of discrete language groups than was possible in less fertile regions. Today most of these minorities find themselves in undemocratic, destitute nation-states that register in the global economy principally as sites for the unregulated extraction of oil, minerals and timber. It is thus no coincidence that indigenous environmentalism has burgeoned most dramatically in this zone, as minorities battle for the survival of their land-dependent subsistence cultures.

West Papua has an even higher concentration of minorities than the Niger delta. And, like the delta peoples, West Papuans have the curse of wealth—some of the world's richest deposits of copper and gold—seaming beneath their land. They face a similar alliance between an occupying military power and a transnational corporation. The same Indonesian regime that was responsible for the second-worst genocide of our century, in East Timor, has colonised West Papua with a brutality that has seen 43,000 indigenous people killed. Their accomplice in this endeavour is the Louisiana-based mining transnational Freeport McMoran. Since the arrival of Freeport in 1967, the indigenous people have had inflicted on them detention without trial, torture, forced resettlement, disappearances, the plunder of their mineral wealth and the uncompensated degradation of their environment. Freeport's private security officers and the Indonesian military have, on occasion, combined to shoot and kill unarmed local protesters. In an alliance even more devastating than that between the Abacha règime and Shell, the Indonesians and Freeport have pursued ethnocide as a condition of mandatory development. In this deadly battle, the locals have fought back in a language that combines new modes of environmental defiance with a more traditional reverence for the land. As one Amungme leader put it, 'Freeport is digging out our mother's brain. That is why we are resisting.'

Some of these indigenous actions have begun to take effect—in the oil-rich Oriente region of Ecuador, for example, where Texaco had devastated Indian territory in a manner similar to Shell's despoliation of Ogoniland. Drinking water, fishing grounds, soil and crops have all been polluted. According to the Rainforest Action Network, Texaco spilled 17 million gallons of crude oil in the Oriente, leaving the residents with a legacy of chronic health problems. Here again, the seepage of oil-contaminated waste was the result of a general jettisoning of procedures for onshore drilling that are standard in the Northern hemisphere.

Ecuador's Acción Ecológica has led a successful national boycott of Texaco and has helped drive the corporation from the region. In addition, a coalition of indigenous federations, mestizos, grass-roots environmentalists and human-rights groups has pursued an innovative avenue of redress, filing a $1.5 billion class action suit in New York against Texaco. The suit has earned the support of Ecuador's Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, the country's largest Indian organisation. Following the Ecuadorian example, Ogoni villagers are suing Shell for $4 million for spillages that have robbed them of their livelihood.

One result—one more result—of the growing power and freedom of the transnationals and of the willingness of Third World governments to collude with them has been a reversion to concessionary economics in which forested or mineral-rich areas are sold for a song. It is in this context that Saro-Wiwa's talk of recolonisation and his invocation of André Gide sounds eerily apposite. When Shell can pump out 30 billion dollars' worth of oil and the trade-off for the locals is a crumbling infrastructure, absent services, violence, disease, military occupation and an end to self-sustaining agriculture, the process seems more redolent of turn-of-the-century colonial buccaneering than it does of fin-de-millennium international trade.

At the national level, the kleptocrats and the soldiery demand their palm-greasing; at the local level, the chiefs request their cruder versions of the same. Late last year, for example, near the delta village of Sangama, a group of foreign explorers arrived by ship at the head of a marshy river. They sought to establish a station there. After lengthy bartering with a local chief, they settled on a local cut: £1000, 12 bottles of cognac and 12 of gin. But as the foreigners pushed deeper into the hinterland, they found villagers blocking their river-route with a barricade of palm fronds and canoes. The explorers' leader felt bewildered and betrayed. He reported that 'there were about a hundred people ahead of us. If we'd pressed ahead we would have risked killing them. So we took a boat and went back to get Chief Jumbo.' More bargaining, more demands. Another £300 changed hands, an extra bottle of gin, an agreement to repair a building. The chief sacrificed a goat to the water gods; the barricade was lifted; the foreigners passed through. If they hadn't had an oil rig in tow, this could have been an entry from Gide's journal or the opening scene of a lost Conrad novel.

Joshua Hammer (essay date June 1996)

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SOURCE: "Nigeria Crude: A Hanged Man and an Oil-Fouled Landscape," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 292, No. 1753, pp. 58-68.

[Hammer is a journalist working in Africa. In the following essay, he covers the trial and execution of Saro-Wiwa and examines conditions in the Nigerian government and Shell Oil.]

The Commissioner went away, taking three or four of the soldiers with him. In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learned a number of things. One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting a hanged man from the tree. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him. In the book which he planned to write he would stress that point…. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

                  —Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

To fly into the Niger Delta is to fall from grace. From the air, the silvery waters seem peaceful. Dubbed "The Venice of West Africa" in 1867 by British explorer Winwood Reade, the Delta stretches 290 miles along the Atlantic coast from the Benin River in the west to the Cross River in the east. In between, the powerful Niger feeds an intricate network of tributaries and creeks that partition sandbars and mangrove islands into cookie-cutter shapes as they meander toward the Gulf of Guinea.

Yet far beneath the belly of the airplane, oil fields mottle the landscape, their rigs ceaselessly pumping crude and natural gas from deep underground. The gas burns incessantly in giant geysers of flame and smoke, and at night the flares that ring the city of Port Harcourt and fishing villages deep within the mangrove swamps cast a hellish glow. As the smoke from the flares rises above the palm trees, methane and carbon dioxide separate from the greasy soot. The gases rise but the grime descends, coating the trees, the laundry hanging on lines, the mud-daubed huts, and the people within. There is nothing pure left in Nigeria.

In May of 1995, I traveled to Nigeria to scout the front lines of the struggle for the country's soul that pits the indigenous peoples of the Delta against Royal Dutch/Shell, other petroleum producers, and the military government. It is a conflict that threatens the fabric of Nigerian society, and by that I don't mean the political fabric—which, like most African nations, was never much more than a crazy quilt of hundreds of tribal groups haphazardly stitched together by colonial governments—but the character of the people. Easy oil money has created a culture of corruption that, even for Third World military dictatorships, is breathtakingly epic. It wasn't just that on a short drive out of Port Harcourt my taxi driver was stopped twelve times by police demanding bribes, or that the military was exporting its methods of intimidation, graft, and outright thievery to Liberia as part of its U.N. "peacekeeping" duties there, or that foreign businesses have to anticipate extra expenditures to cover kickbacks and payoffs. It was that in Nigeria, even the innocent are sullied, their expectations lowered, their complicity expected, perhaps even inevitable. Crude oil, once viewed as the means of Nigeria's ascent to greatness, had instead greased the skids into chaos.

The latest manifestation of Nigeria's descent was the trial of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a member of a Delta tribe called the Ogoni, who six years ago began organizing his people against the petroleum producers and the military regime. His efforts earned him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination and landed him—along with fourteen other members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, or MOSOP—in prison on trumped-up charges that he ordered the murder of four Ogoni chiefs who had disagreed with his increasingly militant actions. I was to attend the trial later in my visit, and although the government had preordained his guilt, the question was larger than whether Saro-Wiwa would be executed or merely imprisoned indefinitely. The question was whether one man, dead or alive, had started an indigenous revolt against the tenth-largest, and the most profitable, corporation in the world, or, in the long view, had failed to prevent that company from poisoning his country.

I hired a small skiff at the Port Harcourt waterfront. Five minutes down the Bonny River the sounds of the city were lost to the whine of the outboard and the syncopated percussion of a tropical downpour. For three hours, as I crouched beneath a thick tarpaulin, the boat threaded through a network of creeks, overtaking fishermen in canoes—their paddles rhythmically dipping into the coffee-colored water—river taxis, oil barges, and ghost ships scuttled among the mangroves. Herons and egrets flapped by, and occasionally telltale plumes of smoke from gas flares wafted above the trees. At last I arrived in Okoroba: a cluster of weather-beaten, rain-sodden wooden huts and dugout canoes huddled around a splintered pier. Six years ago, Shell had dredged a canal through Okoroba to reach a new well. Since then, the company had yet to produce oil—but it had tapped deep reserves of frustration and rage.

Paramount chief Steven Joel Engobila, a near-toothless man in a black bowler hat, sat on a battered cushioned sofa in his dim hut. Its walls were bare except for a faded 1991 Shell Oil calendar. He led me outside for a tour of Okoroba. Heavy rain had turned the dirt alleys into quagmires; filthy, naked children ran out of huts, excitedly screaming "Oibo!" (white man). The village had no electricity, no paved roads, no shops, and a primary school with broken wooden chairs and a leaking roof. A trip to the nearest doctor took four hours by canoe. As we walked across a swamped soccer field, sinking to our ankles in the muck, Engobila ran through a list of Shell's misdeeds. The canal builders had knocked down the village health center, he said, flattened most of the village's coconut palms, and damaged the local fishing industry by flooding freshwater creeks with salt water.

"We tried to grow new coconuts, but they died. We don't know why," he said. Shell had paid a few dollars' compensation for the destroyed trees, built a water tank, and contracted with a local firm to construct a new health center, but the workers had abandoned the structure after a few months. "This is empty public relations," Engobila said, waving his hand at the roofless concrete-block building. "Shell brought us nothing but anguish." The chief felt powerless. "We are ignorant people. What can we do?" Most people in the region were so destitute, Engobila admitted, that they lived in constant hope that an oil spill would bring them even a small settlement from the company.

It is nearly impossible to overstate Shell's role in Nigeria. Today, under the terms of its OPEC quota, Nigeria produces about 2 million barrels of crude a day, bringing about $10 billion a year to the military junta and accounting for about 97 percent of export revenues. Half of that total is pumped by Shell, making the company by far the dominant economic force in Nigeria. The relationship between the company and the country is not exactly colonial. Colonialism is unwieldy, expensive, and risky. Shell, like the multinationals in Mexico and Indonesia, merely recognizes a good business climate when it sees one, and that is all it chooses to see. That much, Nnaemeka Achebe, Shell's polished and articulate general manager and the highest-ranking Nigerian in the company, cheerfully admitted when I visited him in his plush Lagos office with sweeping views of the Gulf of Guinea. "For a commercial company trying to make investments, you need a stable environment," Achebe said. "Dictatorships can give you that. Right now in Nigeria there is acceptance, peace, and continuity."

In truth, Nigeria has never really known peace. This country of 100 million people, whose boundaries were established by the British in 1914, is a pastiche of more than 250 ethnic groups, and between many of them are ancient, even violent divisions of language, religion, and culture. Violence escalated with the arrival of the Dutch and British, who used the Delta waterways to build the largest slave trade in West Africa. But these revenues paled in comparison with what followed. In 1937, the British government gave Shell D'Arcy, as the Anglo-Dutch company was then called, the exclusive right to prospect for oil. For more than two decades, exploration parties traveled by raft, canoe, barge, and on foot through the malarial swamps of the Delta, conducting seismographic surveys and core drilling. Wild-catters struck their first commercial deposits in 1956. During the following decade, as Nigeria gained independence from Great Britain, Shell laid pipelines through the Delta and opened the Bonny Island oil terminal downriver from Port Harcourt.

At that time, Nigeria was poised to become the undisputed leader of Africa. In addition to huge deposits of crude, the country had rich farmland, an educated population, and a democratic government. Its three dominant tribes—the Hausa-Fulanis in the Muslim north, the Yorubas in the west, and the Ibos in the east—were proud, artistic people with histories dating back a thousand years. Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe stood at the vanguard of an African literary renaissance.

Over the past generation, however, the promises of Nigeria have given way to disappointment and failure. In 1966, a military dictatorship from the northern Hausa-Fulani tribe seized power, and northern-dominated juntas have ruled the country for twenty-six of the thirty years since. They have profited enormously from the country's vast oil resources while deepening the misery of just about everyone else.

Immediately after the Hausa-Fulanis seized power, the Ibos led the Biafran region—which included the Delta, home of the Ogoni, Ogbia, Ijaw, and Andoni minority tribes—into a bloody revolt that lasted three years. After the Ibos were routed in 1970, Shell and the government were free to enter into a joint venture known as the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, or SPDC. Shell put up the bulk of exploration and equipment costs, and in return it got to export 30 percent of the crude oil pumped, with 55 percent going to the government and the rest to two European companies, Elf and Agip. (American oil companies also have operations in Nigeria.) Collective gross oil revenues mushroomed from $600 million in 1973 to $26 billion in 1981.

While Shell and the other companies did all the work, the government sat back and collected its share of the profit. Between 1970 and 1974, the portion of government revenue derived from oil production jumped from 26 percent to 82 percent, about where it remains today. This surge in oil profits transformed Nigerian politics. Controlling the country now meant access to an ever-filling jackpot, and the "Kaduna Mafia," the Muslim-dominated military-industrial cabal named after a city in Nigeria's north, rose to unchallenged power. Officials awarded themselves billions of dollars' worth of inflated government construction contracts, lined their pockets with lucrative kickbacks, and transformed the British system of indirect rule through local chiefs into ethnic rivalry, nepotism, and institutionalized graft. Today the country is far better known for its heroin traffickers and financial scam artists than for its novelists.

The new wealth also created new poverty. While the average Nigerian scrapes by on less than $300 a year—down from about $1,200 in 1978—the country's oil elite dwell in lavish compounds with fleets of Mercedes, imported food and wine, and fat overseas bank accounts. According to Western diplomats, when oil prices soared during the Gulf War, former leader General Ibrahim Babangida reported no corresponding rise in the federal income; the equally kleptocratic current dictator, General Sani Abacha, has also siphoned off billions of dollars in oil profits. Meanwhile, the junta dropped any pretense of accountability to the people. In June 1993, Babangida annulled Nigeria's democratic presidential election. Five months later, Abacha, a participant in three previous coups who is known by his ritual scars and fondness for epaulets, seized power, abolished all democratic institutions and regional governments, shut down newspapers, and jailed most of the opposition, including the winner of the 1993 presidential election, Moshood Abiola. Such corruption, and the resultant neglect of infrastructure and development, has only furthered Nigeria's dependence on petroleum. Agriculture, which once accounted for 90 percent of export income, is in ruins. Nigeria's cities, swollen by the mass migration from rural areas during the 1970s oil boom, are smog-choked zones of anarchy.

Such as Port Harcourt. The city, home of Shell's Eastern Division headquarters, has swelled in population in the last twenty-five years from 80,000 to over a million. Lured by the promise of money, nearby tribespeople walked away from their fields and fisheries only to find themselves living here in concrete hovels in the shadow of glass office buildings and billboards advertising cellular phones and direct TV. A miasma of pollution hangs over potholed streets teeming with oil tankers, fertilizer trucks, overcrowded buses, and secondhand foreign imports known as tokumbos. Barefoot teenage vendors weave through the seemingly endless traffic jams, known as "go slows," hawking welcome mats, cap guns, hangers, Q-tips. They compete with polio victims who thrust their twisted limbs through car windows, pleading, "Mastah. Please, Mastah, just give me five naira only."

Known in imperial times as the Garden City, Port Harcourt today is dirty and denuded; virtually the only oasis is Shell Camp, a heavily guarded compound where 180 expatriate (and some high-ranking Nigerian) Shell executives live in air-conditioned luxury amidst manicured lawns, tennis courts, and a golf course, as if in some far-flung fragment of Sacramento. Contact with ordinary Nigerians is intentionally limited: on workdays, executives travel by company car to the division headquarters, and from there by helicopter to oil facilities throughout the Delta.

Except for the gates, visitor badges, and security checks, Shell Camp could have been a location for a 1950s family sitcom, but outside the compound's fences was a very different story. By May of 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was in prison, the government had closed Ogoniland to outsiders, and troops had beaten foreign reporters attempting to get in. MOSOP members who were not already in jail were living semi-clandestinely in a kind of anxious limbo; no one was eager to act as my guide into their homeland.

Eventually Batom Mitee, a bearded, bespectacled man in his late thirties whose brother Ledum was on trial with Saro-Wiwa, agreed to escort me the next morning to the epicenter of the resistance, though he dared not cross the border in my company. I set out in a truck conspicuously marked "Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine," sitting next to bona fide medical personnel and clutching a set of fake credentials; Mitee followed in another vehicle. At 8:00 A.M. it was already pushing 90 degrees; the air was thick with swamp decay and diesel exhaust.

When we reached the border an hour later, the soldiers demanded a small payoff and waved us through. In Ogoniland's Gokana district, I met up with Mitee in his home village of Kegbara Dere. Here was a place and a people utterly subservient to the production of oil. High-pressure oil pipes snaked amid plots of yam and cassavas, past mud-brick huts, even through people's yards; I watched as one woman climbed over a tangle of pipes to get to her front door.

Ogoniland has a population of 500,000 crammed into 400 square miles. It contains ninety-six oil wells, four oil fields, one petrochemical plant, one fertilizer plant, and two refineries. By some estimates, the region has produced about 600 million barrels of crude during the past forty years. But despite the billions of dollars it has provided to Shell and various military regimes, Ogoniland has no hospitals, few jobs, one of the highest infant-mortality rates in Nigeria, and a 20 percent literacy rate. Moreover, frequent blowouts and leaking pipes have damaged crops and streams, sometimes irreparably; Ogoniland suffered 111 oil spills between 1985 and 1994. (Shell claims that 77 of those spills were the result of sabotage.)

"In the old days in Gokana you could fish, farm, and survive without money," said Mitee. We were sitting beside an abandoned natural-gas flare; until increasingly violent protests caused Shell to cease operations in Ogoniland in 1993, it had spewed a toxic cloud of smoke and flame 100 feet into the air above Kegbara Dere twenty-four hours a day. "But oil exploration spoiled the creeks and the seas, and you can't fish like you did before. We used to have a lot of land, but Shell made much of that unusable. Also, there's never been any family planning here, so there's growing pressure for land. My father has five sons—we can't all have his land. So we have to look for jobs. But there aren't any jobs. Everybody is suffering."

It was in this landscape that I began to apprehend what had compelled Ken Saro-Wiwa to confront the perversion of Nigeria. Born in the Khana district of Ogoniland in 1941 to a tribal chief, Saro-Wiwa attended mission schools, eventually winning a scholarship to the University of Ibadan, near Lagos. He served as administrator of the Bonny Island oil depot during the Biafran war, and between 1968 and 1973 he was a regional commissioner for education. When his militant views on Ogoni rights got him sacked, he launched successful real estate and grocery businesses, a publishing company, and a writing career that made him famous throughout Nigeria. His first novel, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, was an antiwar tale about a village youth recruited into the rebel army during the Biafran conflict. Later came On a Darkling Plain, an autobiographical account of the Biafran war, and Basi and Company, a TV sitcom watched by 30 million Nigerians that lampooned the country's get-rich-quick attitude. But a political role beckoned. "Ken had this idea from the time he was fifteen," says Batom Mitee. "He wanted to create a campaign modeled after the American civil-rights movement, with mass protests, sit-ins, boycotts, vigils. He started mobilizing in 1990."

For decades, Shell had pumped oil in the Delta virtually free of burdensome environmental regulations. There were few or no requirements to conduct environmental impact studies, recycle oil waste, or lay subterranean oil pipes instead of cheap aboveground pipes. According to Greenpeace, between 1982 and 1992, 37 percent of Shell's spills world-wide—amounting to 1.6 million gallons—took place in the Delta. And according to data compiled for Shell by the World Wide Fund for Nature and leaked to the British newspaper the Independent, 76 percent of the natural gas pumped up with crude in Nigeria is burned off—compared with 20 percent in Libya, Saudi Arabia, or Iran; 4.3 percent in the United Kingdom; and 0.6 percent in the United States. Each year, gas flares in Nigeria emit 34 million tons of carbon dioxide and 12 million tons of methane, making petroleum operations in Nigeria the biggest single cause of global warming, according to the Independent.

The Ogonis claim that the gas flares cause acid rain that kills crops and fouls drinking water. But they have no legal recourse to fight the destruction of their environment. In 1978, the military declared all land in Nigeria the property of the federal government, freeing the petroleum companies from troublesome negotiations with locals sitting on top of oil. Four years later, the government agreed to allocate 1.5 percent of federal revenues to the 12 million people living in oil-producing areas. In 1990, after the paramilitary police—known as the Kill and Go Mob—massacred more than fifty residents of Umuechem who were demanding that Shell provide them with potable water and scholarships, the figure was raised to 3 percent. But most of the money has been siphoned off by corrupt officials, and Shell has shown little initiative to make reparations itself. In the nearly forty years that it has pumped oil in Ogoniland, Shell has by its own calculation put in only $2 million worth of improvements, including a smattering of schools and some medical equipment.

About the same time as the Umuechem massacre, Saro-Wiwa launched the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People with a handful of other members of Ogoniland's educated elite. They drafted an Ogoni Bill of Rights and demanded $10 billion in reparations from Shell and a measure of political autonomy for Ogoniland. Matching incendiary rhetoric with organizational skill, Saro-Wiwa became MOSOP's spokesperson. He was by all accounts a magnetic speaker, calling Shell's operations "genocide" and "systematic extermination," and urging the Ogonis to fight for their rights. On January 4, 1993, Saro-Wiwa drew international attention to their cause by leading a peaceful protest march of 300,000 people through Ogoniland.

Yet like so much in Nigeria, how dedicated Saro-Wiwa was to pacifism is a matter of great dispute. Against the wishes of other MOSOP leaders, Saro-Wiwa formed a more radical youth wing of the movement. Sabotage and threats to Shell workers increased; in January 1993, Shell ceased manned operations in Ogoniland, a move that cost the company and the government 28,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Although that amount was just 3 percent of oil production in Nigeria, MOSOP's actions signified unprecedented defiance of the junta, which feared that another secessionist movement was brewing in the Delta. The general manager of SPDC asked the government to protect Shell's installations across the Delta. During the summer of 1993, the government began replacing Ogoni police officers with officers from different ethnic groups, who prompted neighboring tribes into a series of attacks that left thousands of Ogonis dead or homeless.

In response, Saro-Wiwa called for the Ogonis to boycott the upcoming democratic presidential election, a tactic that widened schisms between the elite and the younger, poorer activists. Four MOSOP officers resigned, leaving Saro-Wiwa in charge of the organization. Ogoniland was quickly polarized, with many Ogoni activists becoming increasingly angry at the region's "traditional chiefs," hereditary leaders who oversaw the local distribution of government jobs and oil-cleanup, road, and construction contracts. When the chiefs warned Ogoni youths to desist from violence, posters appeared throughout the region branding the chiefs "vultures" and calling for their punishment. "MOSOP was changing the traditional structure," said Dr. David Owens Wiwa, Ken's younger brother. "Those who benefited from the old establishment, from government contracts, were seen as depriving the people of their due."

Revenge against the "vultures" could be harsh. Priscilla Vikue, the director-general of the Ministry of Education in Port Harcourt, was one of those branded a collaborator by Ogoni militants. "The youths requested that I resign my government appointment," she told me. "I refused. That's when they burned my house to the ground, along with those of six traditional chiefs."

Saro-Wiwa always publicly maintained that he sought to restrain the troublemakers, even asking the Nigerian military to arrest certain "hoodlums," but Vikue and other members of the elite who testified against him maintain that his anti-establishment rhetoric fueled the youths' actions. "I complained to Saro-Wiwa," said Vikue. "I said, 'Have you heard what they did to me? To my house?' He said, 'Look, Priscilla, there is a revolution in Ogoniland. You'd better go with it because heads will roll.' I was shocked," Vikue said. "He told the people they were qualified to live like kings and queens, that they would all be millionaires. And the people were unemployed. They believed him. I told him, 'You're misleading them. Not everyone can drive a Mercedes.'"

By 1994, the government had decided to escalate its efforts against MOSOP. A May 5 internal memo authored by Major Paul Okuntimo, head of the regional arm of the military, the Rivers State Internal Security Force, warned of what was to come: "Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence…. Recommendations: Wasting operations during MOSOP and other gatherings making constant military presence justifiable. Wasting targets cutting across communities and leadership cadres especially vocal individuals of various groups." Four hundred more troops were sent to Ogoniland, and the memo notes that the government was pressuring the oil companies to underwrite the operation. "This is it," Saro-Wiwa told Greenpeace after the memo was leaked to MOSOP. "They are going to arrest us all and execute us. All for Shell."

Saro-Wiwa's prediction may have been melodramatic, but it was also prescient. Shortly before noon on May 21, 1994, the traditional chief of the village of Giokoo hosted at his palace a meeting of about 100 other Ogoni chiefs and supporters. The event had been well publicized, and many young Ogonis were suspicious that the chiefs were planning to collaborate with the military to quell MOSOP. Suddenly, recalled eyewitness Al-Haji Kobani, "there was the sound of a loud motorcycle outside. A guy came in and said, 'Ken has been arrested on the way to a political rally.' Three minutes later the place was surrounded by over 2,000 people. There was no escape route. They removed our wristwatches, shoes, belts, and everything that was in our pockets. They escorted about 50 people to safety. Then the rest were left in the hall for killing. They attacked us with bottles, stones, iron bars, and machetes. I tried to talk sense to them. But they said, 'Ken Saro-Wiwa is going to bring us a kingdom.'"

Al-Haji's brother Edward Kobani, a Gokana chief, former Rivers State government official, and one of MOSOP's founders, was killed on the spot by a rake driven into his skull. The other victims, all erstwhile friends of Saro-Wiwa's who broke with him in 1993, were Albert Badey, a former secretary to the Rivers State government; Chief Samuel Orage, a former Rivers State commissioner, an Ogoni chief, and the brother-in-law of Saro-Wiwa's wife, Maria; and his brother, Chief Theophilous Orage, also a traditional leader. All three were chased down and murdered at a nearby market. According to witnesses, the killers stuffed the corpses inside a Volkswagen, doused them with gasoline, and set them on fire.

The chief's palace in Giokoo remains a monument to the violence unleashed by MOSOP. All of its louvered windows were smashed, and shards of glass covered the veranda. I could still make out faint bloodstains on the eggshell-blue walls of the large living room—the spot where Edward Kobani died. Overturned easy chairs, broken glass, cooking pots, leaves, and empty bottles of schnapps—a traditional gift to village chiefs—littered the bare cement floor. A narrow hallway led to the juju shrine behind the house to which Al-Haji Kobani crawled during the mayhem, managing to save himself. Inside the shrine, chameleons scurried over sacks of cement, more empty schnapps bottles, and a pile of rodent skulls. As I looked over the palace, the intoxicating mixture of euphoria and rage that drove the killers seemed almost palpable. Rousing the Ogoni masses from passivity and despair, Saro-Wiwa had filled them with a sense of entitlement and rancor toward the old order. He may have been miles from the scene of the killings in Giokoo, but he was, in some way, responsible.

One day after the killings at Giokoo, a brigade from the Rivers State Internal Security Force stormed into Ogoniland, arrested MOSOP activists, and allegedly murdered and raped hundreds of civilians. Major Paul Okuntimo, the author of the secret "wasting" memo, led the troops. He was later implicated by one of his own soldiers in the rape of at least two women.

After I left Giokoo, I went to visit Okuntimo at his family's bungalow at the Bori military camp in Port Harcourt. He had a disarmingly charismatic presence—muscular, handsome, and well-spoken. Wearing a white jogging suit and smiling, he invited me into his house. Faded Christmas ornaments, wedding photos, and a plaque proclaiming MY FAMILY IS COVERED WITH THE BLOOD OF JESUS decorated the dusty, dark living room. Promoted to lieutenant colonel as a reward for his achievements in Ogoniland, Okuntimo is said to be planning a career in the evangelical Christian ministry when he retires from the army.

He disappeared into a back room and emerged five minutes later dressed in crisp fatigues. Then we climbed into his Toyota Land Cruiser and roared down a rutted dirt road to the headquarters of the military's Second Amphibious Brigade. Soldiers snapped to attention as he strode into his office, which was dominated by portraits of General Abacha and the army chief of staff. Okuntimo sat down behind an empty desk and leaned forward. "Look," he began, assuming a tone of restraint. "The Ogoni organization was established in good faith. But their nonviolent campaign metamorphosed. These young vigilantes took over the leadership, they set up roadblocks, they seized weapons from police stations, they began executing anyone they viewed as the enemy. At a certain point, Saro-Wiwa simply lost control.

"There was no relationship between the army and Shell. There were no discussions before the operation," he insisted. I asked Okuntimo about the admissions of some of his troops, cited in a Human Rights Watch/Africa report, that they had gunned down dozens of civilians on his orders. He laughed dismissively, and if he was lying—and I believe that he was—then it was accomplished with ease. "Where did I throw the corpses? In the creeks? They would float. Did I bury them? They could dig them up. These are all lies spread by Ogoni sympathists."

On May 17, 1995, I took a seat in the upstairs gallery of a small, high-ceilinged courtroom in a secure government compound in downtown Port Harcourt where Saro-Wiwa and fourteen other Ogoni activists, including top officials and members of the youth wing, were facing capital murder charges for having incited the killings at Giokoo. Frayed red carpets, peeling plaster walls, and forty whirring ceiling fans gave the courtroom a sad, neglected feeling. Two dozen soldiers armed with automatic weapons lined the walls, guarded the entrance, and peered in the windows from the garden outside. On the dais sat the three judges—two civilians in gray suits and a uniformed lieutenant colonel with a doctorate in criminology. Their verdict was unappealable, pending confirmation by General Abacha.

At one o'clock, the shuttered prison van carrying Saro-Wiwa and his codefendants arrived from the military barracks where they'd been detained for one year. Saro-Wiwa's appearance hushed the murmur of journalists and the families of the defendants and victims. He was a tiny, compactly built man, no more than five foot three, and wore goldrimmed glasses, a brightly dyed green, blue, and white caftan, and leather sandals. Obviously in deteriorating physical condition, he leaned on a carved wooden cane as he slowly wobbled toward the dock. The day's first prosecution witness, a former MOSOP official, recounted a meeting in late 1993 during which Saro-Wiwa had allegedly ordered the murder of the four chiefs at Giokoo. The story sounded rehearsed and implausible. Saro-Wiwa pointedly ignored him, keeping his face buried in a United Nations report on military abuses in Ogoniland. One by one, prosecution witnesses took the stand. None would make eye contact with the defendants; each intoned the same rote account.

Midway through the proceedings the judges called a brief recess, and two of Saro-Wiwa's defense attorneys ushered me out of the courtroom. In a dimly lit lounge down the corridor, Saro-Wiwa sat on a couch smoking a pipe, surrounded by a dozen soldiers and policemen. He looked at the policemen nervously, then stood up, balanced himself on his cane, and shook my hand. "Did you get my letter?" he whispered. I nodded. The day before, he had had a ten-page handwritten reply to a dozen questions of mine smuggled out of jail. In it, he denied instigating the murders, claimed his movement was entirely nonviolent, and accused the government of framing him. "These people are criminals," he told me with a dismissive wave. "They're going to find me guilty. So I don't even bother to listen to the testimony. I'm not going to let these goons have any advantage over me." Moments later, the soldiers cut him off and escorted me from the lounge. I returned to the courtroom, but my hope that the proceedings would clarify Saro-Wiwa's complicity in the escalating violence in Ogoniland had evaporated. Whatever transgressions he had committed—and I don't believe that ordering the murder of the four chiefs was among them—Saro-Wiwa would get no fair hearing in this court. Of the nineteen prosecution witnesses called, two of the most damaging would later admit to having been bribed by the junta. In June, the defense team, led by pro-democracy activist Gani Fawehinmi, resigned en masse, claiming that the trial was rigged. Fawehinmi was almost immediately arrested and was held for two weeks.

Six months later, on November 10, Saro-Wiwa and the eight other prisoners who had been duly found guilty were awakened at dawn, chained at their ankles, and driven from Bori military camp to the central prison of Port Harcourt. There they were herded into a bare cell. A few minutes later, Saro-Wiwa was called into the records room. As a sobbing priest performed last rites, he was made to sign a register and surrender his remaining property: a purse in which he kept his pipe and tobacco. Wearing a loose-fitting gown and bathroom slippers, he was handcuffed and shuffled off to the gallows. A few minutes before noon, a black cloth sack was placed over his head and he mounted the gallows. The pit into which Saro-Wiwa fell was only thirteen feet deep, and the fall failed to break his neck. It took him twenty minutes to die. The execution was videotaped, the cassette sent by courier to General Abacha, as proof that the Ogoni leader was really dead.

When the BBC broadcast the news of Saro-Wiwa's hanging, thousands of Ogonis wandered into the streets, disoriented and distraught. Within hours, the Nigerian military deployed 4,000 troops throughout Ogoniland, beating anyone caught mourning in public. In the week following the executions, the United States, Canada, South Africa, and several European countries withdrew their ambassadors. At the behest of British prime minister John Major and South African president Nelson Mandela, the Commonwealth of former British colonies suspended Nigeria. Even the Organization of African Unity, which once had greeted Idi Amin with standing ovations, expressed dismay.

That same week Shell announced it would put up the bulk of $3.8 billion to build a natural-gas plant on Bonny Island. The announcement suggested that, in ordering the executions, Abacha had taken a calculated gamble. Even from the seclusion of his presidential mansion at Aso Rock, the dictator surely knew the killings would disgust the world and possibly provoke sanctions. Yet, for Abacha, international opprobrium was a fair exchange for internal stability. Abacha probably could have predicted too that despite calls for an oil embargo from civil-rights leaders around the world, neither the United States, which imports almost half of the oil produced by Nigeria, nor any other country found the resolve to do it.

One month after the executions, I returned to Shell's Nigerian headquarters on Lagos Island. Shell was running full-page ads in the New York Times saying: "Some campaigning groups say we should intervene in the political process in Nigeria. But even if we could, we must never do so. Politics is the business of governments and politicians. The world where companies use their economic influence to prop up or bring down governments would be a frightening and bleak one indeed. Shell. We'll keep you in touch with the truth." But despite this bit of corporate agitprop, the company was under siege; the public relations desk was blanketed with faxes from around the world deploring the company's environmental record in the Niger Delta and its failure to prevent Saro-Wiwa's hanging.

General manager Nnaemeka Achebe again welcomed me into his office, though his demeanor was far less chipper than when we had met the previous spring. He pointed out that after the death sentences were announced on October 31, Shell's chairman, Cor Herkstroter, had sent a personal letter to Abacha requesting mercy. Going further than that, Achebe explained, would have compromised Shell's "business principles." "Obviously we have significant economic power in the country," Achebe said. "Yet we must be mindful not to interfere with local politics and be a government of some sort…. We're helping the cake grow bigger, and how that the cake is divided is up to the people to decide."

Achebe ticked off a list of development projects Shell was undertaking in the Delta. (In 1995, the company spent $9 million on improvements to the region, three times what it spent in 1990.) At the top of Achebe's list was the new gas plant, which would liquefy the natural gas, thus reducing pollution. "It's in the best interest of Nigeria for the project not to collapse," Achebe said. "The whole local economy around Bonny will benefit—small contractors, welders, electricians."

Shell's newfound interest in the environment and economy of the Delta is not surprising. During the past three years MOSOP has spawned at least half a dozen imitators, including the Ijaw National Congress and the Movement for Reparation to the Ogbia, and protests have paralyzed Shell's and other oil companies' operations in dozens of Delta locations. In one recent month alone, 5,000 people in Izere besieged Shell oil wells to protest the state of the roads and to demand a water project; hundreds of protesters in neighboring Olomoro seized a Shell flow station and hijacked eighteen vehicles belonging to Seismograph Services Ltd., a Shell contractor; and a convoy of villagers in canoes from Opuama took control of a Chevron drilling platform, demanding compensation for pollution. Protests were costing Shell and the other oil producers millions of lost barrels a year. "Shell is the victim in this," insisted Achebe. "We are caught in a situation where the communities can't get at the real target—the government—to express their grievances, so they attack us."

And so Shell was making amends to these little villages because, for now, it was in its best interest to do so. It was a payoff, a way of buying a measure of peace, of silencing the fax machines and the college kids camping out in front of the company's London headquarters. A few clinics and some asphalt was a small price to pay for continuing to operate without accountability.

In Port Harcourt and Ogoniland, meanwhile, the regime was trying to mute the local press and obliterate any trace of Saro-Wiwa's influence. In the absence of reliable information, rumors flourished. The executioners were said to have poured acid on the corpses of the Ogoni nine to speed their decomposition and discourage Ogoni activists from attempting to take possession of the bodies. When I tried to visit Saro-Wiwa's grave in a weed-chocked cemetery in central Port Harcourt, I was escorted away by a phalanx of soldiers and brought before Colonel Dauda Musa Komo, who had supervised the executions.

Komo denied me permission to see the grave but said that the military should be commended for having treated the bodies with respect. "We buried each one in a coffin in his own grave. We could have just thrown them all in a pit," he said. "We have no regrets. We don't owe anybody an explanation."

To counter reports of military repression in Saro-Wiwa's home region, the regime had launched a propaganda campaign and insisted on providing me with a government escort, Fidelis Agbiki, the glib young press secretary to the Rivers State military administrator. "Everything is completely normal in Ogoniland," Agbiki cheerfully assured me as we passed one of the roadblocks set up at intersections throughout the region. "Most Ogonis stopped supporting Saro-Wiwa a long time ago."

But at a primary school in the Ogoni village of Bera, I met Principal M. A. Vite, a dapper, middle-aged man. He fidgeted behind a battered wooden desk in the stifling heat, nervously peering toward the front gate, where Agbiki waited in the government Peugeot. Around Vite sat a dozen Ogoni teachers: shabbily dressed men with solemn faces. "If you have a brother and your brother is killed—that's how we feel," Vite said, as his colleagues nodded and murmured in agreement. "But the moment we express anger they may say, 'Kill all of them.' It's futile to face machine guns with empty hands."

"If the military sees two or three people gathering, they may imprison you. If you wear black, they may beat you," said a science teacher who refused to give his name. "If you carry newspapers, they will seize them. Our headmaster was arrested last week as a warning to us not to discuss Ken in the classroom. Pastors were arrested because they prayed for Ken Saro-Wiwa. They take away people every day."

In the five months since I left Nigeria, the government has jailed hundreds of minority and pro-democracy activists, union and human-rights leaders, journalists, teachers, and lawyers. The State Department has warned that Nigeria's human-rights record is deteriorating, noting that "police and security services commonly engaged in extrajudicial killings and excessive use of force to quell antimilitary and prodemocracy protests." Shell set up a commission to investigate environmental destruction, but the head of the commission quickly resigned, citing his doubts about its impartiality. On March 12, the Clinton Administration announced that it had been trying to persuade U.S. businesses and foreign governments to stop all investment and freeze Nigerian assets. Resistance to this proposal was so strong that the harshest sanction that seemed possible was a ban on Nigerian participation in the Olympics. On that same day, incidentally, Shell announced that one of its joint ventures with the Nigerian government had made a major offshore oil discovery. The discovery was no coincidence. If "Bongo 1" and other deep-water reserves prove commercially viable, Shell and the government could abandon mainland production in turbulent areas. Lacking an effective venue for protest, the plight of the Nigerian people could easily be ignored. In the Delta, the hospitals would crumble, the ramshackle schools would rot and fall, and the half-built roads would slowly be swallowed up by the swamps.

David Rieff (review date 16 June 1997)

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SOURCE: "The Ruin of Nigeria, the Ruin of Africa. The Threat of Death," in The New Republic, Vol. 216, No. 24, June 16, 1997, pp. 33-41.

[Rieff is an American political writer. In the following review of A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary and Wole Soyinka's The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, he examines the current political, social, and economic state of Nigeria in particular and Africa overall.]


The hangmen who, on November 10, 1995, carried out the execution of the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues from MOSOP, or the Movement for the Salvation of the Ogoni People, the militant tribal advocacy group that he had helped to found five years earlier, were flown into the southeastern Nigerian city of Port Harcourt, where the doomed men were being held, from the far north of the country. Since hangmen are not in short supply in any region of Nigeria, it can be taken as read that the decision to use outsiders was based on the assumption that as northerners, and as Muslims, they could be relied upon to have not a flicker of sympathy for the Christian southerners whose judicial murder they were to carry out. And they passed this test of loyalty to the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, himself a northerner. It was only the killings themselves that they bungled.

Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues were arrested in May 1994 on charges of having murdered four Ogoni tribal chiefs who had opposed MOSOP's activities. They were tried by a special tribunal and condemned to death. It was generally assumed, abroad and in Nigeria, that the Abacha regime was divided about what to do with Saro-Wiwa even after the death sentence, and so it would move slowly. Since the Nigerian army again took control of the country at the end of 1983 (the only respite was a three-month-long return to civilian rule at the end of 1993), each of the generals ruling over Nigeria has been more brutal. Babangida turned out to be worse than Buhari, and Abacha has been the worst of all. Yet even Abacha does not rule on his own.

For the elite whose consent Abacha needs to govern, the execution of Saro-Wiwa posed risks. It was one thing to send forces into Ogoni territory, as the Nigerian state had done in 1993 and 1994; but it was quite another to kill a man who had many friends and supporters abroad. In other cases that had drawn criticism from abroad, the regime had compromised. The other miscarriage of justice that excited interest in the West, the life sentence handed down against General Olusegun Obasanjo, another military leader who had been Nigeria's president, was eventually commuted to a prison term of fifteen years.

To the end, there were rumors in Nigeria that Abacha was trying to cut a deal with Saro-Wiwa, as he had done with many other opponents from within the Nigerian elite. Others believed that the Shell Oil Company, whose despoliation of Ogoniland in the Nigerian southeast had been the focal point of MOSOP's protests, would persuade Abacha to spare Saro-Wiwa's life, if only to spare itself the certain prospect of the renewal of protests and the surprisingly effective boycott that Greenpeace had mounted in 1993. Shell had been coping with other public relations problems, and it did not need more bad publicity.

It turned out that these relatively sanguine assumptions did not take into account what Wole Soyinka rightly identifies in The Open Sore of a Continent, his remarkable book on the collapse of Nigeria, as the Abacha regime's determination "to make it impossible for the victims of oil exploration to present a united front in their demands for reparations for their polluted land, a fair share in the resources of their land, and a voice in the control of their own development." Having tried, and failed, to stifle the movement through terror, and having imposed direct military rule on Ogoniland, with a similar lack of success, the regime opted to kill its leader. It hoped that, with Saro-Wiwa dead, MOSOP would wither, and Shell, which had withdrawn under pressure from Ogoniland in 1993, would resume its operations.

For the Abacha regime, the stakes could not have been higher. Oil has always been the lifeblood of the Nigerian state. Nigeria is the world's ninth largest petroleum producer, and Shell is by far the most important petroleum company operating in the country. A typical leaflet issued by Shell, at the height of MOSOP's campaign, was titled Nigeria and Shell: Partners in Progress. In reality, as even Shell officials conceded, the tensions in Ogoniland had hardly been invented by MOSOP. As a Shell "Briefing Note" put it in 1993, people throughout the oil-producing areas believe that they "are not getting a fair share of the oil revenues." The company insisted, though, that this was none of its concern. Saro-Wiwa, it argued, was trying to "internationalize the problem." Shell was simply trying to do its work in what it referred to as "a difficult operating environment, much of it swamps." As for the Ogoni's complaints, they were "Nigerian problems."

Saro-Wiwa claimed repeatedly that the Anglo-Dutch multinational had behaved with particular callousness in the Niger River Delta. He was right. Unfortunately, and this excuses nothing, Shell's conduct was not very different from the conduct of other oil companies in places where they were free to operate more or less as they pleased. Oil companies have earned a particularly bad reputation in this regard, as the recent attempt of Unocal to expand its operations in Myanmar demonstrated once again. Indeed, almost all multinationals involved mainly in the extraction of natural resources in Third World countries exhibit abysmal standards on political and environmental issues. The reason is simple: their only need is for a secure environment in which to mine or to drill. They are not trying to create markets in the countries in which they are operating, and so they do not trouble themselves about the social requirements of a market. All they need is a crude political stability. A terrorist kleptocracy will do nicely.

The notion that these swamps were the Ogoni's homeland, and that Shell's operations were gradually making great areas of it uninhabitable, is never mentioned in the company's brochures and press releases. Saro-Wiwa, a Shell official once wrote, is either "a mild nuisance or a great threat." Although they have never admitted as much publicly, there seems to have been some division within Shell over whether Saro-Wiwa represented a threat or a nuisance. Shell officials monitored Saro-Wiwa's activities with increasing alarm and mounted a campaign in Europe and North America against MOSOP's claims; but how seriously they took MOSOP is unclear.

The Nigerian authorities seemed to have had no such doubts. Shell's drilling operations might have despoiled Ogoniland, but the revenues that the Nigerian federal authorities received from oil-related activities, one-half of which came from Shell's operations (they also generated 90 percent of the country's foreign exchange), were all that stood between the regime and economic collapse. At a time when, as the saying went in Lagos, "this country dey as if e no dey" (this country was as good as dead), the Abacha regime needed desperately to increase oil revenues. It could not tolerate the prospect of seeing the cash impeded by the civic activism of small delta tribes such as the Ogoni.

Even many opponents of the regime found the Ogoni question somewhat distant and mystifying. As Soyinka observes,

for the majority of Nigerians, Ogoni is only some localized problem, remote from the immediate, overall mission of rooting out the military from Nigerian politics, rescuing the nation's wealth from its incontinent hands, and terminating, once and for all, its routine murders of innocent citizens on the streets of Lagos and other visible centers of opposition. The massacres in Ogoni are hidden, ill-reported. Those that obtain the just publicity of horror, mostly in government-controlled media, are those that are attributed to the Ogoni leadership movements, such as MOSOP.

The news, in 1994, that Ogoniland had been declared a military zone under the direct rule of a federally appointed "Task Force on Internal Security" was greeted indifferently in most parts of Nigeria. And when reports began filtering back to Lagos that in Ogoniland whole villages were uprooted, there was little public outcry. Soyinka saw clearly that, as he puts it, "Ogoniland is the first Nigerian experimentation with 'ethnic cleansing'"; but ordinary Nigerians in Lagos often read about violent incidents whose perpetrators cannot be identified. In 1994, a number of apparently unprovoked attacks on Ogoni villages in which hundreds of people were slaughtered was described by the Nigerian government as the result of "disputes" with other villages. How the attackers got their hands on sophisticated weapons, and why the local Ogoni police were ordered out of the area before the attacks, was never discussed.

What happened in Ogoniland in the early 1990s, once the Nigerian authorities realized that local opposition to the despoliation of the region was growing stronger, was a massive campaign of state terror in which the state-run media would insist that nothing at all was happening, or, if reports of bloodshed could not be suppressed, that government forces were responding to "terrorist" attacks. The Russians tried the same tactic in Chechnya. In Ogoniland, unlike in the Caucasus, the tactic largely worked.

In all likelihood, the attackers were members of the Nigerian armed forces. Still, whatever the army's exactions, nothing that the authorities undertook in the Niger River Delta was effective in suppressing the campaign that Saro-Wiwa had initiated. MOSOP's tactic of singling out Shell and demanding reparations for the environmental damage that the company's operations had done to Ogoniland were gathering strength at the time that Saro-Wiwa was arrested. Shell had declared that its decision to stay out of Ogoniland would remain in force until the civil disturbances ceased. But the trouble showed no sign of diminishing.

The Abacha regime was furious about this development, and it was under no illusion about the threat that an expansion of this kind of tribal activism to other Niger delta tribes posed. MOSOP had to be isolated. Otherwise there loomed the danger that many of the peoples of the delta would revolt against the oil companies. In that sense, Shell's shiny patter about the partnership between the company and the federal state was all too accurate. To Abacha and his cronies, an assault on one was an assault on the other. Small wonder, then, that Lieutenant Colonel Dauda Komo, a protégé of Abacha who was then the military governor of Rivers State, the region that encompasses Ogoniland, reportedly had made up his mind that Saro-Wiwa had to die.

The trial was a farce from the start, with witnesses testifying and then recanting their testimony, and the judges doing everything they could to prevent MOSOP's lawyers from mounting a proper defense. The condemned men doubtless knew of the regime's desire to destroy them. In the aftermath of the tribunal, protests against the sentences began to gather in intensity. Before the trial, the Ogoni cause had interested mainly environmental activists, a few committed journalists, and the governments of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands; but now even allies of the Nigerian government such as John Major and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and notably unsentimental leaders such as the head of the European Union, the Secretary-General of the British Commonwealth, and President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, joined in the appeals to spare Saro-Wiwa's life. The condemned men had at least some reason to hope (though some prescient outsiders such as Soyinka had concluded that their fates were sealed). It seems that none of them realized, on that morning when they were taken from the military camp where they had been held for eighteen months to the Port Harcourt prison, that they were going to their deaths.

They had all faced death before. To be an antigovernment activist in Nigeria in the Abacha era has been an increasingly perilous business. But to stand up, as Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues had done, not only to the Abacha regime, but also to the interests of the Shell Oil Company, was to court extinction. And yet Saro-Wiwa had already had the experience of being jailed and released before. In 1993, he was imprisoned in the same prison in Port Harcourt. In his memoir of that time, A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary, he wrote of the "great number of people in Nigeria and abroad [who] had taken steps to save me." So there was at least some reason for Saro-Wiwa and his fellow prisoners to assume that the attention that their cases were receiving in Europe and North America would once again stay the regime's hand. Rumors persist in Lagos to this day that Saro-Wiwa could have made a deal and saved his life. But he laughed when Abacha tried to buy him off, and this slight cost him his life.

Saro-Wiwa was taken out first, and led into a room in which a makeshift scaffold had been erected. A black hood was pulled over his head; a noose was cinched around his neck. But when the chief hangman sprang the lever to drop the trapdoor beneath the prisoner's feet, nothing happened. For minutes, as the bound Saro-Wiwa stood there, the executioners tried to get the lever to operate properly. Then it was decided that Saro-Wiwa would not be killed first. One of the other prisoners would enable the hangmen to assure themselves that the scaffold was working properly.

Saro-Wiwa was led back to the holding cell where his eight comrades—John Kpunien, Barinem Kiobel, Baribo Bera, Saturday Dobue, Daniel Grakao, Monday Eawo, Felix Nwanie and Paul Levura—waited their turn to be murdered. Kpunien was chosen and led into the execution chamber. This time the trapdoor worked. Kpunien's body was removed, and Saro-Wiwa was brought in. But the trapdoor failed. Saro-Wiwa was led to one side, and waited as the henchmen tried to get the thing to do its job, as it had done a few minutes earlier when Kpunien died. At this point, Saro-Wiwa is reported to have screamed: "Why are you people doing this to me? What kind of a nation is this?"

On the fifth try, the Nigerian government's judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa was accomplished.


It is not inaccurate to describe Ken Saro-Wiwa as a Nigerian writer who became the leading advocate of the rights of his people; but he was more than that. From the beginning of his career, he wore many hats. As a writer, he was prolific. He wrote novels, polemics, memoirs, political journalism, plays, poems and children's books. He was born in Bori, on the southern coast of Nigeria, in 1941, the son of an Ogoni chief, J. B. Wiwa, and at different times in his life he did energetic service as a publisher, a businessman, a government official and a television producer. The fame that he enjoyed within Nigeria to the end of his life was due to his having conceived and written Basi & Co., Nigeria's most popular television soap opera. As the English writer William Boyd remarks in his affecting preface to A Month and a Day, the show "was unashamedly pedagogic. What was wrong with Basi and his chums was wrong with Nigeria: none of them wanted to work, and they all acted as though the world owed them a living…. This was soap opera as a form of civic education."

Compared to Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe, the major writers of contemporary Nigeria, Saro-Wiwa's writing falls short. He had great energy, and a fertile, impatient imagination, but his literary gifts were more appropriate to the writing of film and television scripts than novels and short stories. Boyd's claim that he was a major writer does his heart credit, but not his head. Saro-Wiwa had only a modest talent. For the most part, his non-fiction is far more powerful than his fiction. Readers with no great knowledge of Nigeria would be most likely to admire, and to profit from, and to be moved by, A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary, an account of a period of imprisonment in 1993. It is a cry from the heart of someone who is beginning to realize that he will not prevail. "I had been detained for a month and a day," Saro-Wiwa wrote in the book's conclusion, "during which I had witnessed the efficiency of evil…. The genocide of the Ogoni had taken on a new dimension. The manner of it I will narrate in my next book, if I live to tell the tale."

In his lifetime, Saro-Wiwa did write one important novel, Sozaboy, whose subtitle is A Novel in Rotten English. It appeared in 1985. Told in West African pidgin, Sozaboy, or "Soldier Boy," is the story of a young boy conscripted into the Biafran army during the civil war of 1967–70. It chronicles what Saro-Wiwa saw as the pointless horrors of that conflict with bitter verve and originality. At the end of the book, the young recruit simply flees. His message is clear and unflinching: "And I was thinking how I was prouding myself before to go to soza and call myself Sozaboy. But now if anybody say anything about war or even fight, I will just run and run and run. Believe me yours sincerely." It was advice that Saro-Wiwa was not to take himself.

The plaudits of ordinary Nigerians, especially for Basi & Co., were not the main reason that Saro-Wiwa was able to get away with his thinly disguised criticism of his society. His story is a complicated one. Despite his long history of activism on behalf of the Ogoni people—he was agitating for them since his school days—Saro-Wiwa was anything but an anti-establishment figure in Nigeria. Indeed, during the Biafran War of 1967–70, he won favor with an earlier generation of Nigerian military rulers by fiercely opposing the Ibo secessionists. He did so not out of a great belief in Nigerian federalism. As he would later explain in On a Darkling Plain (1989), his memoir of his role in the war, the Biafran conflict was not, in his view, about the right to self-determination of the Ibo people and the other southeastern tribes that sided with them, as the secessionists had claimed at the time. The war was, rather, "mostly about the control of the oil resources of the Ogoni and other ethnic groups in the Niger River Delta." Saro-Wiwa was utterly convinced that the choice was between "the Ogoni existing as one of 200 or so ethnic groups in Nigeria or as one of 30 or so ethnic groups in secessionist Biafra." And so "I identified with the federal government."

Most Ogonis had in fact sided with Biafran secession, and viewed the federal troops re-entering the Niger River Delta as occupiers, and so the value of Saro-Wiwa to the Nigerian authorities was substantial. And the rewards that he reaped personally for his anti-Ibo stance were immediate and considerable. Since his murder, this part of Saro-Wiwa's story has tended to be swept under the rug by his allies, as has the fact that, unlike Soyinka, he had not always been a steadfast critic of Nigeria's various despots. Yet to insist upon it does not in any way call into question the authenticity of his ever braver resistance to the authorities in the 1980s. By the early '90s, certainly, all his other activities had receded in importance for him, and he was devoting almost all of his energies to the cause of his own Ogoni people, inside Nigeria through the Movement for the Salvation of the Ogoni People, and in any foreign capital where he could get a hearing.

In the beginning, though, the swift rise of a 27-year-old academic, whose only published work was a pamphlet called The Ogoni Nationality Today and Tomorrow, owed more to preferments offered by the authorities during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the Biafran war than to anything else. Saro-Wiwa became a member of the government of the newly created Rivers State, which the Nigerian government had created as part of its decision, taken while the area was still controlled by Biafran forces, to transform southeastern Nigeria administratively, so that there would never again be an Ibo secession. As federal forces pushed their way into Ogoniland, Saro-Wiwa was appointed the civilian administrator of Bonny, an oil port on the Niger River Delta that adjoins Ogoniland. In 1968, after federal troops had regained control of all of Rivers State, he became a minister in the government there. He would remain in the post until 1973, three years after the final crushing of Biafra.

To the end of his life, Saro-Wiwa was unrepentant about his role in the Biafran conflict. The rebel Biafran government of Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, as he wrote in On a Darkling Plain, and repeated in A Month and a Day, was "hostile to the Ogoni … people." For this reason, while Saro-Wiwa is now a hero to almost every decent Nigerian in Lagos, Kano, or Abuja, as well as to his many supporters abroad, he was a controversial figure among non-Ogonis in his own region of southeastern Nigeria during his lifetime, and he has remained one after his death. Saro-Wiwa was, in truth, a paradoxical figure, a cosmopolitan ethnic, an ethnic cosmopolitan, a tireless campaigner for human rights who was also a tireless tribalist.

That he had wanted no part of Biafra did not mean that Saro-Wiwa had all that much faith in a unitary Nigeria. It was, in his opinion, simply the least bad alternative. He was, to be sure, a member in good standing of the Nigerian elite, who claimed senior Nigerian employees of Shell among his schoolmates, and who had sent his children to be educated in Britain. (His youngest son died in 1992 while at Eton.) But he always saw himself first and foremost as an Ogoni. The more dangerous he saw the situation of the tribe becoming, the more he threw in his lot with it. "My worry about the Ogoni," he wrote in A Month and a Day, "has been an article of faith, conceived of in primary school, nurtured through secondary school, actualized in the Nigerian civil war in 1967–70 and during my tenure as a member of the Rivers State Executive Council, 1968–73."

It is understandable, I guess, that his Ogoni identity impelled him to side with the federal authorities in 1968–71, though it must also be noted that many other Ogonis, probably the majority of them, opted for Biafra. The Biafran secession was itself fought largely over oil. The Ibos, who dominated the Nigerian southeast, felt that its oil should be theirs to control; and when the military coup in 1966 put an end to the first Nigerian republic, which had been a fairly equal federation of regions with three regional governments, and most of the power that the Ibos had exercised in the eastern region was assumed by the federal authorities (the southeast was to be divided into three states), the Ibos opted for independence. In a sense, Saro-Wiwa's view of the Ogoni relationship to the Ibos was the Ibo view of their own relationship to the rest of Nigeria.

Would Biafra have been better or worse for the Ogoni? It is impossible to know what a Biafran state would have looked like. Where Saro-Wiwa was almost certainly right, though, was in perceiving that Ojukwu was no friend of the Ogoni people. Under the circumstances, it was perfectly plausible that he would welcome the new three-state arrangement, since it offered the possibility that in the future the Ogonis rather than the Ibos would play a dominant role in what had become Rivers State.

Saro-Wiwa hoped that the constitutional arrangements that would be created after the war would "take strong cognizance of our desires with regard to the companies prospecting or operating on our soil." Still, long before his arrest in 1994, he was writing that "I realize how pious my hopes were [in the after-math of the Biafran war], and how much they failed." Having crushed the Biafran secession, the government of General Yakubu Gowon turned out to be no more interested in looking after the cultural or the material interests of numerically insignificant tribes such as the Ogoni than their predecessors had been. There are only half a million Ogonis in a country of more than 100 million. The central authorities, Saro-Wiwa observed bitterly, might pay lip service to the idea of Nigerian federalism, and to the protection of the rights of ethnic minorities, but their assurances were lies.

Unfortunately for the Ogoni, the aftermath of the Biafran war coincided with the oil boom of the 1970s, with the era of OPEC. The Nigerian authorities were obsessed with exploiting the resource. Within a few years of the end of the civil war, there had occurred a huge increase in exploration and extraction activities in Ogoniland, and it was becoming clear to Saro-Wiwa that the same officials who had found non-Ibo southeasterners such as himself useful during the conflict were now bent on developing the natural resources of Ogoniland, no matter what the human or environmental damage. The tribe's interests no longer mattered in a state besotted by fantasies of wealth and global importance. This was a time when there was much talk within the Nigerian elite of the country acquiring an "African" nuclear bomb and a seat on the Security Council, when the government believed that Nigeria was destined not only to lead Africa, but also to be a beacon for the African diaspora in Europe and North America.

Things looked very different in Ogoniland. As Saro-Wiwa put it in A Month and a Day, "the Rivers State itself did not prove to be any better than the Eastern Region in reconciling the interests of its component ethnic groups." All the peoples of the Niger delta had suffered tremendously during the Biafran war. Now the oil that lay beneath their soil was putting their physical survival at risk as surely as the fighting had done. And yet the determination of the federal authorities to exploit the delta was unshakable. As Saro-Wiwa pointed out, by the end of the 1970s oil had become "the be-all and end-all of Nigerian politics and the economy, as well as the central focus of all budgetary ambitions." The new federalist ethos provided a useful cover. Who were the Ogoni to stand in the way of Nigeria's progress? What this post-Biafran "unitarism" really meant, Saro-Wiwa wrote bitterly, was that "the resources of the Ogoni and other ethnic minorities in the Niger River Delta could be more easily purloined while paying lip service to Nigerian federalism and unity."

Oil revenues began to play an important role after the first large strikes were made in the mid-1950s by Shell Oil's corporate predecessor, Shell D'Arcy, which had been given exclusive rights to look for oil in 1937. It was in the 1960s, however, that the real profits began to materialize, once Shell finished a pipeline running from its fields in the Niger River Delta to the Bonny Island terminal near Port Harcourt. When Nigeria became independent, it was widely assumed that it would be one of the great success stories of the continent. Oil would provoke economic development, and the processes of modernization begun under colonialism would accelerate, this time to the benefit of Nigerians rather than foreign companies and Western consumers.

In the aftermath of the Biafran war, royalties from the oil companies became more and more critical to the country's survival. Nigeria was ruled by a succession of military regimes—beginning with General Gowon and including the regime led by General Obasanjo, who, since he has been imprisoned unjustly by General Abacha, is now wrongly regarded as having behaved a great deal better than other Nigerian military leaders—and these regimes had not the faintest idea of how to manage the Nigerian economy. It was a period in Africa when everyone was paying lip service to development. The reality was that neither the Gowon regime in the early 1970s, nor the Murtala-Obasanjo administration that succeeded it, was able to improve the real situation of the Nigerian economy. The only question is whether these rulers were venal or incompetent.

As a result of vastly increased revenues, Nigeria's rulers vastly increased state expenditures. The World Bank's Structural Adjustment Program in Africa is notoriously controversial—as Helmut Schmidt once said, "what is good for the World Bank must not necessarily be good for Africa"—but the Bank's report of 1994, Adjustment in Africa, is utterly convincing when it describes "Nigeria's missed opportunity" during the oil boom of 1973–83. As the report points out, the post-1973 increases in the price of oil meant that, for the subsequent decade, Nigeria and Indonesia received extra revenues amounting to about 20 percent of their Gross Domestic Products. The Indonesians used the windfalls ably. Nigeria's rulers squandered it. They directed spending to prestige projects in the cities (where government officials and their cronies lived), grotesquely increasing government consumption, and in many cases stealing outright.

When oil prices buckled in the mid-1980s, the Nigerian economy was totally unprepared. The country's rulers had come to view the oil monies as little more than what Tom Forest, an economic historian of modern Nigeria, has described as "the opportunity for the large-scale personal acquisition of wealth by those with access to state power." Put more starkly, long before the collapse of the Nigerian economy in the 1980s, the elite was already robbing the state blind. All the while, foreign governments kept insisting that all was well, and putting Nigeria forward as a force for stability in Africa—an ideal regional hegemon, to use the conception favored by the Nixon and Ford administrations. Chinua Achebe's intuition that "Nigeria will die if we keep pretending that she is only slightly indisposed" went unheeded. The corruption, the mismanagement, the repression, the clientelism, and the incompetence of the Nigerian state increased. And the bust was even more dangerous than the boom: the more the economic situation deteriorated, the more the desperation of the satraps to hold on the their power grew.

Saro-Wiwa saw all this clearly. As the crisis deepened, and the situation of the Ogoni became more and more embattled, he came to recognize that his hopes had been in vain. He saw that, from the Biafran War to Abacha's seizure of power, oil on their land had been a catastrophe for Ogoniland. In the immediate aftermath of Nigerian independence, things had been somewhat different. Until the civil war, the practice had been for the authorities to share the oil revenues that they received from foreign companies such as Shell with local administrations on oil-bearing areas. Usually, the federal-local split was fifty-fifty. By 1980, however, only 1.5 percent of the proceeds were going to the people in the areas from which the oil was being extracted. And exploration and drilling were proceeding at a breakneck pace, with not the slightest regard for environmental or safety standards.

Ogoniland was being turned into a disaster area. And Nigerians outside the southeast were not especially perturbed. The previous arrangement, after all, had not favored the majority of Nigerians living in non-oil-producing parts of the country. For them, the despoliation of the Niger River Delta was a matter of passing concern. Economic times were hard, and the oil revenues were almost all that Nigeria could count on. To go back to the old system, in which the small tribes who lived in the oil production areas got a disproportionate share of the revenues, was a very unpopular idea. It was inevitable that, when Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues in MOSOP began to expose what was taking place in Ogoniland, when they carried their case to the National Minorities Council of the United Nations, the Nigerian authorities would respond with fury; but neither Saro-Wiwa nor his foreign supporters seem to have foreseen that there would be little sympathy for the Ogoni there among other Nigerians.

There has been a tendency since Saro-Wiwa's death to overstate the support that he received in Nigeria during his lifetime, and also the commitment that existed outside the country to the Ogoni struggle. Until Saro-Wiwa's arrest, detention, and death, the Ogoni cause stirred little interest, except among a few environmental activists and Anita Roddick, the owner of the Body Shop stores. Saro-Wiwa's trial, the image of the plucky writer with his pipe in his mouth standing up to a corrupt regime bent on murdering him, changed all that. Suddenly there was international outrage. It was fortunate for the Ogoni that they had a leader with Saro-Wiwa's charisma. Many other small tribal peoples, from the Amazon basin to southern Sudan, are uprooted and massacred without ever striking a resonant chord in the small number of rich countries whose public opinion can alter their fate. The real surprise is that the Saro-Wiwa case managed to compel as much attention as it did in our tragedy-saturated world.


In The Open Sore of a Continent, Wole Soyinka observes that Nigeria has become a state without sense or purpose, except for the enrichment of the murderous kleptocracy that surrounds General Abacha. He ends his book with the suggestion that Saro-Wiwa's murder may have sounded the death-knell for Nigeria, that there is nothing left for decent Nigerians to defend any more, that, with the Abacha regime, "we may be witnessing, alas, the end of Nigerian history." It is hard to disagree. A nation that is now being underwritten largely by oil revenues that are put to no constructive purpose, and also now serves as the transit point for 50 percent of the heroin that arrives in the United States, may indeed be irredeemable. Indeed, the Nigerian disaster is so deep and so pervasive that it may well lead, in the very near future, to the breakup of Africa's most populous and (potentially) most rich and most important country.

What is most striking about Soyinka's book is that he no longer finds it possible to lament the end of Nigeria. He ends his book wrathfully. If Saro-Wiwa's death does lead to the end of the Nigerian nation, he writes, it "would be an act of divine justice richly deserved." It is by no means clear, however, that this collapse—Soyinka seems simultaneously to fear it and to look forward to it—will take place. Indeed, there is some evidence, despite intercommunal violence, continued unrest in some parts of the country, and a recent spate of mysterious bombings in Lagos, that in the past year the Abacha regime has solidified its grip on power and broadened its base of support.

Indeed, the most ominous sign that Soyinka may be wrong, that the rulers in Lagos may dodge their just deserts, may be the fate of Soyinka himself. In March 1997, he was condemned to death in absentia by another of General Abacha's tribunals on charges of "levying war" against Nigeria. Unlike Salman Rushdie, of course, Soyinka has all along insisted that the Abacha regime had to be toppled at all costs. Soyinka has not involved himself with antigovernment violence, but he has refused to condemn it. The death of Saro-Wiwa was, for Soyinka, the last straw; and, like Saro-Wiwa, Soyinka demands to know, in his book, "what sort of a nation is this?"

In Lagos, meanwhile, it is business as usual. And business as usual means, well, business. Businessmen who work in Nigeria say that they are finding it easier to conduct their affairs these days. And the political opposition is fragmented. Abacha continues to promise elections and a return to civilian rule, and many Nigerian politicians have chosen to participate in this charade, even though Moshood Abiola, the man who was legally elected president of Nigeria in 1993, continues to rot in jail. Anyway, the chances that a civilian government, of the sort that will stand up to the Nigerian military, might get elected are almost nil.

Nor can Nigeria rely upon what we complacently and inaccurately call "the international community." The aftermath of Saro-Wiwa's execution illustrated this perfectly. There was much talk of imposing serious sanctions against Nigeria, of expelling it from the British Commonwealth, of other steps against it. President Mandela was particularly outspoken. But the South African volte-face has been particularly startling. South African officials account for it privately by insisting that Mandela yielded to pressure from other African leaders who insisted that he tone down his criticisms of the Abacha regime. The administration in Pretoria has its hands full at home. Judging by its behavior during the crises in Liberia, Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi and Nigeria, and by its response to the American proposal to establish an African crisis intervention force, the Mandela government will not take the lead.

The important Western governments have been equally inconstant. As Aryeh Neier pointed out recently, we have a double standard about human rights. In countries of little or no economic or strategic importance, we stand on our principles. But Nigeria is not negligible. Its oil is important, as is the role that it plays in West African security, notably in the Nigerian-led ECOMOG peacekeeping force in Liberia. The Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights can issue all the reports on abuses in Nigeria that he likes, but when the American ambassador to Abuja has to negotiate a renewal of the Nigerian commitment to ECOMOG, he needs the co-operation of the same regime that his colleagues in Washington have so strenuously condemned.

The dissociation between the rhetoric and the reality of the Clinton administration's policy toward some of the very worst regimes in the world has distorted also its African diplomacy. It is true that American policymakers sometimes have the decency to be troubled by their own inconsistencies; they have not quite attained the cynicism of the Europeans. Still, these scruples did not prevent the United States from cultivating its ties to Mobutu Sese Seko's regime, when Zairean support for Savimbi's forces during the Angolan civil war was important, or, in the aftermath of the cold war, when Western governments needed Zaire to continue allowing the Hutu refugees from Rwanda to remain on Zairean soil. Washington withdrew its support for Mobutu at the last minute, to avoid the embarrassment of backing a loser. (It is not Washington that is to be blamed, though, for the discouraging fact that the alternative to Mobutu Sese Seko is Laurent Kabila.)

The United States could never deal firmly with Nigeria because of the Nigerian government's willingness to lead the African force trying to stabilize the situation in Liberia. Any pressure on the Abacha regime from Washington would have led to the withdrawal of Nigerian troops—a development that Washington, supremely unwilling to commit American troops, has been desperate to avoid. It is impossible to ask Abacha for favors one day and threaten him the next. There is no reason to think that the Clinton administration will behave any differently when the next group of dissidents are murdered by the Nigerian state. And that day may not be far off. Nineteen other MOSOP members are in jail in Port Harcourt. And now there is a government contract out on Soyinka.


For Wole Soyinka, the most important lesson of Ken Saro-Wiwa's life and death is the extent to which the last twenty years of Nigerian history has been simply the story of Ogoniland writ large. The really crucial question, though, is whether Nigeria is not Africa writ large. Are the pathologies that Soyinka lays bare in his own country not to be found also in almost all of sub-Saharan Africa? The Open Sore of a Continent is an important achievement not least because, without always making the case explicitly (although his brief remarks about the Rwandan genocide are very moving), the fate of Nigeria is, for Soyinka, the fate of Africa. The continent is itself beginning to seem like an open sore.

It must have cost Soyinka a great deal to come to this terrible conclusion. For a man with his anti-colonialist, nationalist, pan-Africanist sympathies to have witnessed the death of so many of his dreams, and to have admitted to his disenchantment so candidly, is remarkable. But if Soyinka is prepared to give up on so much, it is owing not only to his despair over the situation in Nigeria, but also to his commitment to the truth. All writers who turn their attention to politics say that they are committed to the truth. This writer really is. He does not seem to be worried that what he has to say will give aid and comfort to the "wrong" people.

If only the friends of Africa in the West could be as candid. Given the magnitude of the continent's crisis, treating Africa to the same unsentimental analysis that Soyinka has applied to his own country seems long overdue. At the political level, despite the efforts of Randall Robinson at the TransAfrica Institute to rouse support for protests against the Nigerian dictatorship, little of the fervor that accompanied anti-apartheid activism in the United States has proved transferable to abuses in Nigeria, or, for that matter, to what has taken place under Mobutu in Zaire or Arap Moi in Kenya.

Consider only the case of Carol Moseley-Braun. The only African American in the U.S. Senate, she has shown herself to be anything but an opponent of the Abacha regime. She has strenuously opposed the Nigeria Democracy Act, which would have imposed American sanctions, and she met in Abuja with General Abacha and his wife (whom she commended for her support and promotion of family values), and she even traveled to Ogoniland in 1996, where she praised Lieutenant Colonel Daud Komo, the regional governor and the Nigerian official most responsible for Saro-Wiwa's murder. Moseley-Braun made at least one of these trips, in the company of her erstwhile fiancé and former campaign manager, Kgosie Matthews, who was at one time a lobbyist for the Nigerian government. And so Abacha, Mobutu and Arap Moi all continue to have their defenders in Washington, including a number of important African American political leaders. (And the odd Reaganite, too, such as Steve Symms, the former senator from Idaho, whose firm lobbies for Nigeria, thereby losing one for the Gipper.)

Too many people in Washington wish to ignore the truth about Africa, for reasons of business, solidarity, or—this seems to be the case with the Clinton administration's pronouncements on African affairs—because they fear that thinking gloomy thoughts makes them true. But the truth about Africa is almost unrelievedly awful. As even the most cursory look at the economic indicators reveals, an African revival is not what lies ahead. The urgent task in Africa, all the rosy predictions of the World Bank notwithstanding, is not to engineer recovery, it is to mitigate catastrophe. Officials at the Bank sometimes argue that countries such as South Korea were just as badly off in the 1950s as many African states are today, but with good economic management they became prosperous. Such an argument elides the difference between the economic conditions that obtained half a century ago, when labor was in high demand and the technological skills required for average workers fairly primitive, and the economic conditions today, when there is worldwide overproduction of low-end goods, a vast surplus of labor, and the need for a much more technologically proficient workforce. As in the colonial period, commodities such as oil are almost the only thing Africa has to offer, and many of these are available more cheaply elsewhere.

Africa has almost nothing to offer advanced global capitalism. There are better educated and better disciplined workers willing to work for very low wages all over the world. A collapsing infrastructure makes investment in much of Africa more expensive than in many other regions, no matter how low wage-scales can be forced. Political corruption and political instability further raise the costs for most corporations. And the enormous population increase in Africa means that it is inconceivable that enough jobs can be created for all the people being born. The population of Rwanda was 1.5 million in 1940. Today, even after the genocide, it is over 7 million. The current estimate of the Nigerian population puts it at about 120 million (though census figures are notoriously unreliable). It will double in the next thirty years.

The end of the cold war, moreover, robbed the continent of its strategic urgency, and it is too far away from the borders of the rich countries to pose a threat of mass migration, as Mexico and the Caribbean do for the United States, and the Maghreb does for Western Europe. Africa, in sum, offers many reasons for indifference about Africa. From human rights to the environment, from demography to infrastructure, the news from Africa could hardly be worse. It is no longer a question of the independent African states not having lived up to the expectations of their citizens. (Thirty years ago, General Obasanjo could still insist with a straight face that he fully expected Nigeria to be "among the greatest nations in the world by the year 2000.") It is now a question of survival. Will large parts of sub-Saharan Africa ever exist at more than subsistence level? Will its people ever come to know anything better than Hobbesian horror?

In this dark setting, there is something especially exemplary about Soyinka's analysis. He does not harp upon the incontrovertible fact that the crippling legacy of imperialism, however much it has been used by African politicians and soldiers to cover up their crimes and blunders, remains pervasive. When people in the West consider, say, Zaire, bemoaning its savagery and its corruption, they link these failings to the fact that the Belgians all but cut off higher education to the Zaireans, and to the fact that, at the time of independence, that vast country could boast only a few thousand university graduates with advanced degrees. But Soyinka will brook no excuses for what has happened. He will not allow history to be made into an alibi.

"We have lost thirty years to the sergeants," President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, one of the few promising political leaders on the continent, has said. He is right. In an era in which the process of economic development by means of free (or freer) market activity is going well in most of the world, does anyone really care to do something for Africa? This is not a matter of aid. Sub-Saharan Africa has received more development aid per capita than any other region of the world over the past quarter of a century. Aid programs—most recently Boutros Boutros-Ghali's proposal for a $25 billion fund for African development—continue to be devised. Will the new assistance be more effective in fostering prosperity than the old assistance?

There will always be bankers and consultants willing to do one more survey, arrange one more loan, organize one more exercise in "capacity building"; but with no economic remedy and political reform in sight, the international response to the African crisis is likely to be damage control. To a large degree, the expansion of humanitarian aid is a concession to three notions: that Africa does not matter, and so development aid can be decreased; that Africa will be in a shambles, and so monies for disaster relief need to be increased; that Africans cannot look after themselves, and so foreign nongovernmental organizations need to take over certain basic services, whether these involve security, as the South African mercenary organization Executive Outcomes is providing in Sierra Leone, or medical care, as the American evangelical humanitarian group World Vision is providing in Mozambique.

But disaster relief is, by definition, an admission of defeat. It is in no sense a solution, as its best practitioners are the first to admit. But this, I fear, is the point: nobody has any realistic ideas about what to do. There is little in the present climate that the United Nations, which the late Anthony Parsons once described as a "decolonization machine," can do for Africa. The religion of development has not worked, as even most officials now reluctantly concede. Proposals still regularly issue from the United Nations, of course, ranging from U.N. trusteeships for failed states—a solution increasingly in vogue among international relief groups—to the massive payment of reparations by the European Union countries and the United States, an idea floated most recently by the historian Ali Mazrui. So here we are, reduced to the serious discussion of recolonization and reparation.

As Julius Nyerere has pointed out, without the anchors of the most important African states, above all Nigeria, Zaire, Kenya and South Africa, there can be no progress on the continent. It is all very well to linger over promising developments in the Ivory Coast, or Uganda, or Ghana, but those are small places. Even if they do better than expected economically, and are rewarded by international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the collapse of their huge neighbors will swamp them. If Zaire (or as it is now called, Congo) collapses, its neighbors will not be unscathed. The refugees alone will undo whatever progress they have made; and the skewing of resource allocation will see to the rest. And what holds true for Zaire holds true for Nigeria.

Similarly, if the most important countries on the continent remain dictatorships, any prospect of smaller, neighboring countries remaining or becoming democratic seems farfetched. This is one of the reasons why, to the extent that foreign governments care at all about the fate of Africa, the questions of democracy and human rights will be critical in the coming period. A few years ago Amartya Sen showed in these pages that there has never been a famine in a free society. It seems equally safe to say that without democracy there will never be any recovery in Africa, hard as a democratic Africa is to imagine in present circumstances.

The moral reason is the best reason for caring about the ruin of Africa, and it may be the only reason. If help comes to Africa, it will be offered on grounds of decency, not on grounds of strategy. This, of course, is tantamount to saying that help will not come. The world does not work that way.


Principal Works


Further Reading