Saro-Wiwa & Niger Oil

November 10: The writer-activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian government on this day in 1995. Officially, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were convicted of being responsible for the murder of four Ogoni tribal chiefs, but most regard the hangings as a political rather than a judicial act. Saro-Wiwa and the others had been too outspoken in their criticism of those who were developing and polluting the oil-rich Niger Delta, and had accused too many—federal politicians, tribal chiefs, Shell Oil—of having their fingers in the "lootocracy" pie. When the protestors could not be bribed, blackmailed, or beaten into stopping their campaign to obtain a measure of self-determination and prosperity for their Ogoni people, they were hung, their bodies buried in a secret, common grave.

 

Shell recently settled out-of-court with the families of those executed, the $15.5 million offered as a "gesture of reconciliation" rather than an admission of culpability. But in the fifteen years since Saro-wiwa's death, the combined oil, ethnic, and environmental conflicts in the Niger Delta have spun almost out of control, turning the region into Africa's Wild West. In the opening pages of A Swamp Full of Dollars: Pipelines and Paramilitaries at Nigeria's Frontier (2009), investigative journalist Michael Peel describes his rendezvous with Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, one of the most visible contemporary activist-rebels camped out in the Delta, as if "Nigeria's Robin Hood, the creeks and mangroves his Sherwood Forest":

…After a few minutes, the branches fell away like a curtain to reveal the theatre of Asari's camp. I could see smoke and hear drums and chanting. A long white drape fluttered from a stick 20 feet high, like a pennant at a medieval English jousting tournament. The flag had been raised in honor of Egbesu, a spirit revered by members of Asari's Ijaw ethnic group. Nearby a man in a red hat was holding what looked from a distance like a black chicken. I heard a sound like a flute, as if serenading the visitors to this sacred grove.

Saro-Wiwa's campaign on behalf of the Ogoni was non-violent and grass-roots; Peel notes that all of Asari's men carry AK-47s, and that their leader owns a handful of vehicles, most of them Mercedes.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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