Blood spilled in a struggle for oil

Ken Saro-Wiwa
July 6, 2001

On November 10 1995, amid frantic international appeals for clemency, General Sani Abacha, Nigeria's head of state, defiantly executed the writer Kenule Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. Saro-Wiwa became a martyr - a rallying point for international opposition to the regime and Shell's activities in the Niger delta region. It brought together an unusual alliance, among which were Greenpeace, the Body Shop, International Pen, parents of Etonians and Nigerian groups of diverse political hue. The editors of this biography, Craig McLuckie and Aubrey McPhail, aim to delve behind the events of that grim day and offer a comprehensive, authoritative view of Saro-Wiwa. This has largely been achieved - the book has a well-researched biographical outline and chronology of the Nigerian civil war as well as a long bibliography attesting to the collection's value as a reference text.

Charles Lock's essay explains how Saro-Wiwa developed his position into an international campaign that embraced a number of prominent causes of the 1990s. He points out that, as a successful businessman and politician, Saro-Wiwa was part of the very corrupt system that is the target of his criticism. That does not diminish his standing, however, it humanises him.

Rob Nixon notes that he was perhaps the first African writer to define political resistance in terms of environmentalism and to do so from a perspective that unashamedly embraced capitalism. Linking the Nigerian state's treatment of the Ogoni to that of other international minorities gave him access to an invaluable United Nations platform. Taking further Saro-Wiwa's analogy between Ogoniland and the Congo of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and André Gide's Voyage au Congo , Nixon contends that what we have is a return to the concessionary economics of the "scramble for Africa", in which valuable mineral and other resources were expropriated at ridiculously low prices without a fair return or due regard to conventional law of contract. In this sense, Saro-Wiwa's description of the Nigerian state and Shell's occupation of Ogoniland as "internal colonisation" and "recolonisation" is accurate.

Joseph McLaren describes the rhetorical devices the writer employs to represent the plight of the Ogoni as an aspect of environmental and ethnic genocide. These include asserting Ogoni autochthony, showing that they have a long history that stretches from origins and settlement in the distant past to the present, having survived British colonial occupation and the civil war when the territory was the battlefront between the federal and Biafran forces.

Saro-Wiwa saw the war as having been motivated by the major ethnic groups' competition over the control of the delta oil, making the fate of the Ogoni inevitable whether in an integrated federal structure or a secessionist one. Thus the despoliation of Ogoniland is largely a function of inter-ethnic rivalry translated into economic production, power and management. Furthermore, the international human rights system is not an effective agency of redress for groups such as the Ogoni because it is not above being manipulated by powerful countries such as the United States, which imports about 50 per cent of Nigeria's oil.

Misty Bastian identifies the discourses at work in the responses to Saro-Wiwa's death, starting with the metaphor of blood, in which the deceased is seen as having contaminated the oil coming out of the land. On a more general level, all oil is regarded as impure because it is implicated in a profound barbarism. There is also the view that the spilled blood will assume a malevolent agency of vengeance against the villains. Given the manner of Abacha's death (he is rumoured to have died of a Viagra overdose) there might be some as-yet discernible validity to these prophecies.

The collection also has substantial studies of Saro-Wiwa's literary work, for instance, McLuckie argues that his memoirs fall between Wole Soyinka's accomplished style and coherent political vision and Elechi Amadi's dry and detached matter-of-fact accounts. Although the essay commendably exhibits a willingness to subject the writer to serious scrutiny, its use of criteria that includes such ill-defined terms as "communal praxis" makes its criticism indefensible and even a little harsh. Maureen Eke reveals parallels between Saro-Wiwa's political development and that of the protagonist of his novel Sozaboy . His decision to write in "rotten English" is seen as an attempt to subvert the correct language of officialdom that serves as the discursive legitimation of war and violence.

The book could have done with a contribution from a major Nigerian writer other than Tanure Ojaide. That said, Ken Saro-Wiwa should prove a useful study of a writer who is becoming an important focus for cultural interdisciplinary work. It is a fitting tribute to a writer of great versatility and a political activist of exceptional courage.

Mpalive-Hangson Msiska is lecturer in English and humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Ken Saro-Wiwa: Writer and Political Activist

Editor - Craig W. McLuckie and Aubrey McPhail
ISBN - 0 89410 883 2
Publisher - Lynne Rienner
Price - £45.50
Pages - 289

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