The Guardian (UK): Fight to the death: As the 10th anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa approaches, William Boyd remembers a courageous friend and fellow writer who took on Shell and the Nigerian government: “He became a David who challenged two redoubtable Goliaths: a multinational oil company and a corrupt military regime”: “He built a case against Shell and the Nigerian government that was impossible to refute” (ShellNews.net) 23 March 05
Wednesday March 23, 2005
In the late 1980s, Ken Saro-Wiwa and I used to meet occasionally for lunch whenever he found himself in London. Our favourite place was the Chelsea Arts Club. Saro-Wiwa enjoyed its unique atmosphere - its shabby-genteel decor, its huge bar and billiard table, its picture-crammed restaurant, its big unkempt garden - the club is like a small country house full of interesting people. I always think of Saro-Wiwa when I go back there: it's where I can most effortlessly will him back to life in my mind's eye. I can see him clearly: his stocky, smiling presence, his dry laugh, his famous pipe with its curved stem.
We would talk about the writing life and invariably Nigeria. I had been born in Ghana, but Nigeria had been my home throughout my teens and early 20s. I hadn't been back there since 1975. Saro-Wiwa urged me to return: he was always very pro-Nigeria.
One lunchtime, he started talking about his tribe, the Ogoni, and its homeland in the Niger river delta. He told me how the landscape had been ravaged by massive and ecologically disastrous oil exploration. He talked about starting a political movement, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop). To be honest, I wasn't really paying much attention. This just seemed another of Saro-Wiwa's multifarious interests: he was a novelist, a famous journalist, a successful entrepreneur, a TV producer, a publisher. Of course Saro-Wiwa could start a popular movement - he seemed capable of anything.
I had no idea that Mosop was effectively going to take over his life and be the catalyst that brought his life to its brutal end. For the next five years, my relationship with Saro-Wiwa ceased to be one of bibulous lunchtime conversation and became one of steadily increasing political engagement with the Nigerian military government, the oil giant Shell and the cause of the Ogoni. I was able to witness, first-hand, the difference one man can make.
This is the fundamental reason why it is important to remember Saro-Wiwa. He is an example of a man who, when confronted by a grievous wrong, decides he has to do something, that he cannot stand by and watch. But what he decided to do would daunt almost anyone. He became a David who challenged two redoubtable Goliaths: a multinational oil company and a corrupt military regime. He didn't need to do this: he had a good life, a happy family, a solid literary reputation, but his absolute conviction that his people were victims of what he called a "slow genocide" made him act.
He didn't act alone, of course, but because of his status and his eloquence in print and speech he became the figurehead of a non-violent movement of political protest that - in a relatively short while - achieved worldwide recognition. He built a case against Shell and the Nigerian government that was impossible to refute. Both in the Niger river delta and on the international scene, Saro-Wiwa and Mosop began to make things happen. Worse still for Saro-Wiwa, he began to make some powerful foes very worried.
He was imprisoned in 1993 for a month, but after international media pressure was released. I saw him on what I think was his last trip to London, at our usual venue. He looked tired and troubled and was not in the best of health, but he seemed indifferent to the risks he was running in returning to Nigeria. There was now a new desperation and crazed lack of logic in Nigerian politics. As we said goodbye outside the arts club I shook his hand: "Be careful, Ken, OK?" He laughed at my concern. "Oh, I'll be very careful, don't worry," he said. But I knew he wouldn't. He was arrested in May 1994 on trumped-up charges, tried before a kangaroo court, sentenced to death and executed by hanging - along with eight others - on November 10 1994.
It's perhaps too early to evaluate the true impact of Saro-Wiwa's legacy. Great quantities of oil are still being extracted from the Niger river delta, the Ogoni people still suffer and have received no compensation. Political unrest and sporadic sabotage dog the oil industry in Nigeria.
From my own point of view, Saro-Wiwa's bravery is both humbling and inspiring. I can think of very few writers who would have dared to do what he did. It was a kind of martyrdom - but he would resent any attempt to mythologise him. In his book, A Month and a Day, there is a passage where he looked ahead and tried to weigh up what he and Mosop had achieved. "What we have done for the Ogoni," he wrote, "can be done for other groups in Nigeria, in Africa. Its importance lies in the fact that a small ethnic group has not only been prepared to confront its history and take its fortune into its hands, but is prepared to take on its oppressors in the form of the nation-state and a multinational oil giant.
"Non-violent struggle offers weak people the strength which they otherwise would not have. The spirit becomes important and no gun can silence that. Whether the Ogoni people will be able to withstand the rigours of the struggle is yet to be seen. Again, their ability to do so will point the way of peaceful struggle to other peoples on the African continent. It is therefore not to be underrated."
Not to be underrated. This is why we must remember Ken Saro-Wiwa.
· William Boyd is the author of Brazzaville Beach, A Good Man in Africa and Any Human Heart. The Remember Saro-Wiwa Coalition includes Platform, African Writers Abroad, Amnesty International, Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch and the mayor of London. Details: www.platformlondon.org
£#183; Letters on any issue covered on the environment pages can be sent to Society Guardian, 119 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3ER or fax 020-7713 4154 or email email@example.com
Click here for ShellNews.net HOME PAGE