Author’s note: This writing was one of two submissions in August 2003 by keith harmon snow that were both published in the Spring of 2005 in the huge Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature: http://www.religionandnature.com/encyclopedia/index.htm . See also the entry on Bruno Manser and the indigenous Penan of Sarawak, Malaysia. keith harmon snow, May 23, 2005.
Born in the southern village of Bori, Ken Saro-Wiwa was one of Nigeria’s most recognized and accomplished citizens. An Ogoni leader from Ogoni, Ken Saro-Wiwa was tried and hanged for challenging what he considered to be genocide perpetrated against the indigenous minorities of the Niger River Delta by the petroleum industry and their political allies.
Saro-Wiwa’s life was punctuated by careers as teacher, civil servant, publisher, television producer and dramatist. He is the author of over forty major works, including novels, volumes of poetry, essays, plays, journalism, short stories and children’s books. From 1985 to 1990, Saro-Wiwa created, wrote, produced, financed and marketed Nigeria’s most popular situation comedy, Basi & Co., watched weekly by 30 million Nigerians. Winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize and the Right Livelihood Award in 1995, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize prior to his execution.
Always environmentally conscious, Saro-Wiwa adopted the plank of environmentalism as a strategic tool to promote the Ogoni cause. “The visit to the United States (1993) sharpened my awareness of the need to organize the Ogoni people to struggle for their environment,” Saro-Wiwa wrote, “A bit of research and thinking of my childhood days showed me how conscious of their environment the Ogoni have always been and how far they went in an effort to protect it. I had shown this consciousness all along” (1995: 79).
Jailed under the Treason and Treasonable Offenses Decree promulgated in 1993 by President Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Saro-Wiwa wrote (from prison) poetry that widely echoed the sentiments of the minority delta peoples:
Ogoni is the land
The people, Ogoni
The agony of trees dying
In ancestral farmlands
Streams polluted weeping
Filth into murky rivers
It is the poisoned air
Coursing the luckless lungs
Of dying children
Ogoni is the dream
Breaking the looping chain
Around the drooping neck
of a shell-shocked land (widely circulated prison poem).
“The land and the people are one and are expressed as such in our local languages,” according to Dr. Owens Wiwa, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s brother.
The Ogoni have always respected nature, and this informed the struggle for the environment. There are lots of names for the spiritual trees, sacred rivers and lakes, and the traditions are very important. When people are ill, they revert back to indigenous beliefs and folklore (Personal communication, Dr. Owens Wiwa, 2003).
The Ogoni number some 500,000 people today, a minority amongst some 300 minority, and three majority (Yoruba, Igbo/Ibo and Hausa-Fulani), ethnic and religious groups in Nigeria. They live on the coastal plain of the vast mangrove estuary of the Niger River. The floodplain is home to some seven million people, grouped by nation, ethnicity and clan, including: the Ijo, Urhobo, Itsekiri, Isoko, Efik, Etche, Ibibio, Andoni, Ikwere, Ogoni, Isoko, Edo, and Kwale-Igbo. These tribes’ relationships to religion and nature are complex and difficult for outsiders to understand.
Like other affiliated linguistic groups in the delta, the Ogoni connection to the environment is defined in spiritual and ritualistic terms, where earth, soil, water, trees, plants and animals are sacred. (Despite the catastrophic spiritual, ecological and cultural devastation in the delta, this section is written in the present tense to reflect the prevailing attitudes, practices and beliefs.) Certain sacred groves and forests are revered: burial grounds for good and evil people; sacred boundaries between neighboring communities; family heritage forests. Ancient and enormous African oak, Iroko and cotton trees, animals and plants are worshipped. Customary laws have always existed; formal legislation to protect nature proliferated after 1850, and historical accounts of willful or accidental injury to wildlife document punishment by death. Sacrifice and ritual cleansing are daily events used to placate and honor nature spirits and deities. Priests and priestesses hold sway over the delineations and durations of sacred spaces.
Rights of habitation and ownership of communal spaces are intermittently transferred to animals: where the sacred Odumu (royal python) finds a home, it is the legal owner and community law recognizes its rights (until it vacates).
The concept of animal libertarianism has been practiced among the communities of the Niger Delta since antiquity . . . The people do not hunt animals for sport; rather, they are categorized in accordance with value – religious, ecological, social and economic . . . Infraction could result in fines, expensive ablution and atonement rites, and ostracism from the age group or the community as a whole . . . Shell’s right to explore and produce hydrocarbon (a right now seriously challenged by all communities of the Niger River Delta) does not preclude the rights recognized to be enjoyed by persons, animals, and other living and nonliving things (Okonto and Douglas 2001: 215-25).
During his final activist years (1989-1995), Ken Saro-Wiwa championed the cause of the Ogoni people in international arenas; towards the end he expressed his indigenous consciousness by addressing Ogoni audiences only in his native Gokana language. In 1991, Saro-Wiwa organized the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), and was elected President in abstentia in 1993; MOSOP sought to reclaim economic rights and protect the environment against the petroleum ecocide that had already claimed the Ogoni mainstays of fishing, farming, hunting and gathering. In 1992, Saro-Wiwa delivered the Ogoni Bill of Rights in person, with his book, Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy (1993) during a speech to the U.N. Unrepresented Nation’s and People’s Organization (UNPO) in Geneva, Switzerland. Saro-Wiwa called for an end to the petroleum corporation’s occupation of Ogoni, for political autonomy and international attention to the devastation of the delta’s ecology.
“The extermination of the Ogoni appears to be policy,” Saro-Wiwa stated.
National ideas of national independence, the fact of Africans ruling Africans in nations conceived by and for European economic interests have intensified, not destroyed, the propensity of man to subject weak peoples by force, violence and legal quibbling to slavery and extinction (1995: 98).
After 1992, Saro-Wiwa was relentlessly harassed and prevented from speaking abroad. On 4 January 1993, the first annual Ogoni Day, Saro-Wiwa organized some 300,000 Ogoni in a non-violent celebration, with music, dance and a rally at each of the seven Ogoni kingdoms. Elaborate masks worn by revelers attested to the indigenous cosmology; “people are supposed to believe what the masks represent” (Personal communication, Dr. Owens Wiwa, June 2003). Masks (masquerade) are used as expressions of mysticism and power, and to validate the people’s beliefs. “To Shell and the Nigerian government, my brother was a dangerous and irresponsible terrorist” (Personal communication, Dr. Owens Wiwa, June 2003).
Saro-Wiwa’s detention diary, A Month and a Day (1995), expresses his evolution as an Ogoni nationalist: “My worry about the Ogoni has been an article of faith, conceived of in primary school, nurtured through secondary school, actualized in the Nigerian civil war in 1967-1970 and during my tenure as member of the Rivers State Executive council, 1968-1973” (1995: 49). Saro-Wiwa first wrote on the Ogoni as an exploited minority in The Ogoni Nationality Today and Tomorrow (1968). In 1970, Ogoni leaders petitioned the Nigerian military government protesting the expropriation of delta life by multinational petroleum corporations. The result at every stage, Ogoni supporters claim, was corruption, deceit, propaganda and violence, against the backdrop of the theft of natural resources (Okonto and Douglas 2001).
Competition between Islam (north) and Christianity (south) fueled by the military government has led to widespread pogroms and communal violence in Nigeria. The persecution of Christians and their churches in the delta provoked an international Christian solidarity movement (1990s). An equally frequent phenomenon is the dogmatic use of religion (Christianity and Islam) to justify punitive and repressive military operations. This phenomenon has been prevalent amongst delta oil communities.
As an example: “Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ,” begins a memo (21 December 1995) from the commander of the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, charged with “wasting operations” in Ogoni (read: raping, torturing, killing), to Ogoni clergy. “Let us pray for Ogoniland and the Ogonis, even with the following passages in our mind: Luke 18:1; 1 John 5:14, 15; 1 John 8:21, 22.”
Raised a protestant, Saro-Wiwa attended church infrequently; but he read the bible constantly while imprisoned (Personal communication, Dr. Owens Wiwa, June 2003). His writings are infused with the symbolism of Islam and Christianity, though he admonished or lampooned these major faiths (and the blind or confused faith of followers) as often as he praised them for attributes in them that he admired. Biblical references were also common, often in the context of biting satire. His writings were equally contradictory about traditional village life, tribal beliefs, indigenous cosmology and paganism; in contradistinction were his confusions about modernity and the “comforts” and “benefits” of western civilization.
He wrote: “The Christian church, as I have said, has a powerful hold in Ogoni, and the arrival of the Pentecostal churches at a time of serious economic difficulties had led to even more people seeking solace in religion . . . it was making the people not seek answers to their problems . . . [t]he Pentecostal churches tend to be one-man outfits out to exploit the people. They lack the strength of the organized Churches, which I definitely admire (1995: 152).
On 22 May 1994, Saro-Wiwa was arrested and imprisoned on charges of murder stemming from what was widely regarded as a military frame-up. In an irregular trial convened by a special military tribunal, Royal/Dutch Shell bribed two prosecution witnesses, Ogonis who recanted in exile. Lawyers for Royal Dutch/Shell attended and presented briefs at the hearing. Saro-Wiwa’s defense team of high profile lawyers resigned in refusal to add legitimacy to the proceedings. A posthumous United Nation’s fact-finding mission documented the extensive irregularities. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the trial.
By the time of his death, Saro-Wiwa was a living manifestation of the Ghandian philosophy of Satyagraha. Given the opportunity to escape Nigeria, even by the jailers of the cell that held him, Saro-Wiwa refused to abandon his people. “I have devoted my intellectual and material resources, my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief, and from which I cannot be blackmailed or intimidated,” he read, from his final defense statement. His last words to the tribunal cited the Quran (Sura 42, verse 41): “All those that fight when oppressed incur no guilt, but Allah shall punish the oppressor.” On 10 November 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni men were hanged in a shallow pit at Port Harcourt, Nigeria. His last words were “Lord, take my soul, but the struggle continues.”
Protests and repression continued into the twenty-first century, often taking unique spiritual forms. The Ijo Youth Council (1999) initiated “Operation Climate Change” as a vehicle to raise environmental awareness through non-violent protest.
Tapping the veins of Ijo culture, it sought to bring the pains and travails of the people to national attention through the “Ogele,” a traditional Ijo dance where stories, song and mime are deployed to chastise the erring, heal the wounds of the injured, and invoke the spirit of the ancestors to cleanse the land in a festive atmosphere of drink and merriment (Okonto and Douglas 2001: 146).
Keith Harmon Snow, journalist (Williamsburg, Massachusetts)
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