Absurd tales of oil, greed and death

A Month and a Day and Letters
December 23, 2005

On November 10, 1995, I was sitting in my office at the writers'

organisation International PEN when the phone rang. It was a friend with a report from a "reliable source" close to the prison in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, that the official executioner had been seen entering the premises.

Despite months of international action and pleading, it seemed that the Nigerian Government was going ahead with its plan, following a farcical trial by a military tribunal, to execute the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight fellow Ogonis on trumped-up charges of inciting murder. All through the day, we waited for confirmation of the execution and at last it came.

In defiance of world opinion and with no right of appeal, the nine men had been hanged. For Saro-Wiwa, it had reportedly taken more than one attempt.

And yet, as Wole Soyinka says in his foreword to this book, there had been a terrible inevitability about the outcome, despite official assurances that we should trust in international diplomacy. The Abacha regime in Nigeria was reliant on an oil industry whose injustice had been highlighted by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People and its spokesman, Saro-Wiwa; an injustice that saw Nigeria's oil wealth siphoned away from the areas where it was drilled - which were left to deal with the environmental fallout - and into the pockets of Nigeria's military and corporate elite.

Ten years later, although Nigeria has faded from the world headlines, this book shows that Saro-Wiwa's legacy is still important. His diary, previously published, tells of his detention for a month and a day in 1993, but there is additional material from the later detention that resulted in his death.

Several times Saro-Wiwa says that he would like to have been an academic, and this book is aimed partly at students on African studies courses.

For a man who crammed so much into his life - he was a businessman, politician (a commissioner of education, no less), a populist national leader and a prolific writer/journalist - it seems almost unsurprising that he managed to direct the campaign for his release while in prison.

In the diary, there are many scenes that highlight the absurdity of military regimes, such as when Saro-Wiwa goes to a restaurant with a guard.

"I thought you were in detention?" says a fellow diner. "So I am," says Saro-Wiwa, pointing out his guard. The man asks him why he is in detention.

"Election offences," says Saro-Wiwa. But the election has been nullified, the man responds.

The book, though, is more than the tale of Saro-Wiwa's detention. It is an outline of his political ideology, a potted history of Nigeria and especially the Ogoni, whose right to self-determination Saro-Wiwa championed, and a behind-the-scenes look at politics in Nigeria.

The new material highlights the prescience of some of the comments made by Saro-Wiwa while in detention in 1993 and also shows how he managed to ignite international attention for his cause.

Here too the tangled relationship between Saro-Wiwa and his son Ken Wiwa, who lives in the shadow of a daunting father and who, in campaigning for his father's release and propagating his legacy in books such as this, has shown that he is no mean operator himself.

Mandy Garner is features editor, The Times Higher .

A Month and a Day and Letters

Author - Ken Saro-Wiwa
Publisher - Ayebia Clarke Publishing www.ayebia.co.uk
Pages - 221
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 0 9547023 5 2

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