A Nation of Collaborators

Adewale Maja-Pearce writes about the venality of Nigeria

No Nigerian Despot had ever flouted civilised standards with such impunity as Sani Abacha when he murdered Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow Ogoni activists on 10 November 1995. The rumours going the rounds over the following days only added to the widespread suspicion that we were about to enter a period of state-sanctioned brutality which would surpass the worst excesses of all previous military regimes. It was said that Saro-Wiwa was denied his last request to see his wife and his 91-year-old father; that the noose failed three times before his neck finally snapped; that the military governor of the state, the man who had declared Saro-Wiwa guilty even before the start of what passed for a trial, rushed down the steps of the scaffold in order to ensure that he was well and truly in possession of a corpse; that the corpses of the Ogoni Nine, as they came to be called, were thrown into a mass grave and then soaked in acid; and, finally, that the entire sordid event was videotaped and the result rushed to Abuja, the administrative capital.

It turned out, however, that the execution was just a wanton demonstration of power without any significance beyond the fact that Abacha, personally, wanted these men dead. There was going to be no dirty war, in other words, despite our initial fears that disaffected writers, journalists, lawyers and students were about to be rounded up and shot in batches in the nearest football stadium. How we flattered ourselves! Abacha was never worried about the repercussions within Nigeria itself, at least as far as the general population was concerned.

His overriding concern was international opinion, more accurately that of ‘the West’, which had the capacity to topple him within 48 hours if it so desired by the simple expedient of oil sanctions. The revenue from crude oil, currently estimated at $11 billion a year (90 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings), is entirely in the hands of the Western multinationals – Agip, BP, Chevron, Exxon, Shell, Texaco, Total – who between them operate the existing fields and prospect for new ones. Other resources – cashew nuts, coal, cocoa, cotton, livestock, palm oil, rubber, tin, wood – once the mainstay of the economy, have been allowed to decline year on year since the oil boom of the early Seventies. There are two reasons for this: first, Nigerians have no faith in their own ability to manage such a technologically sophisticated industry; and, second, Nigerian governments, which rule by patronage, know very well that foreign-owned multinationals are only interested in maximising their profits, and can be trusted to deal uncritically with ‘constituted’ authority, whatever its character. They pay their taxes promptly, in whatever way they are told to – and the revenue is administered solely by the Head of State.

The drawback for the oil companies is that it isn’t always possible to remain above the fray. Before his death, Saro-Wiwa had accused Shell not only of bringing about the environmental degradation of Ogoniland, which pauperised a predominantly fishing and farming community, but also of ‘paying protection money to the Nigerian security agencies to complete the genocide which it [Shell] began’. Shell, as we know, failed to use its influence with the Government to intervene on behalf of the Ogoni Nine, and has since admitted entering into discussions with the police to purchase weapons, including semi-automatic rifles, pump-action shotguns and tear gas. The company’s recent agreement to maintain a hospital and to renovate and re-equip three government health centres in Ogoniland – where, ironically, it had temporarily ceased operating in 1993 because of the disturbances – has been taken by some as a tacit admission of guilt. Yet why should a multinational assume what is not, strictly speaking, its responsibility? Hospitals and health centres ought surely to be built and maintained by the Government from the proceeds of the nation’s wealth. In fact, all the communities in the oil-rich Niger Delta, including the Ogoni, are worse off, in terms of money and public facilities, than they were before oil was discovered in the late Fifties.

The first and most immediate problem is political representation. Nigeria has been ruled since independence in 1960 by three main ethnic groups – the Hausa-Fulani in the North, the Yoruba in the South-West, and the Igbo in the South-East – who between them account for around three-quarters of the estimated population of 120 million (there has never been an accurate census). But all the nation’s oil is found in the minority areas. There are fewer than half a million Ogoni, for instance – one reason their representatives could be murdered with impunity. Not a single prominent figure from any of the big three groups was prepared to speak out against the executions. This had less to do with ‘tribal’ sentiment – although that exists – than with the related but much more serious problem that Nigerians are a nation of collaborators, and are always and everywhere prepared to sell their consciences (we don’t even talk about principles) for the sake of money. Saro-Wiwa understood this well enough. As he wrote in a statement he was prevented from reading in court, ‘on trial also is the Nigerian nation. The military do not act alone. They are supported by a gaggle of politicians, lawyers, judges, academics and businessmen, all of them hiding under the claim that they are only doing their duty.’

Consider the events that paved the way for Abacha’s emergence. His predecessor, General Babangida, after eight reckless years in power, was prevailed upon to organise elections in June 1993, having postponed them on two previous occasions. But before the counting was over, he annulled the election and appointed a puppet government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, a lacklustre businessman of limited political experience, to take over from him when he stepped down in August, as previously agreed. Last but not least, he retired all the generals with the exception of Abacha, his second-in-command, whom he appointed Minister of Defence, before withdrawing to his fifty-bedroom mansion – imported Italian marble throughout. All that remained was for Abacha to strike when the time was right.

He was helped in great measure by Chief Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of the elections, and a flamboyant millionaire businessman. No sooner had Babangida annulled the elections than Abiola fled abroad, where he gave long-winded interviews to the Western media as though the presidency of Nigeria was in the gift of the BBC and CNN; and then, just as ostentatiously, returned to Nigeria and sat quietly at home, having apparently repudiated his mandate without so much as a word to the public. So the country drifted until November, when Abacha struck, whereupon Abiola was to be seen all over the front pages of Nigerian newspapers sharing a joke with the country’s new military ruler. It later transpired that Abiola had even encouraged his former running mate, Baba Gana Kingibe, to accept the post of Minister of External Affairs in the new government.

The joke was on us for having imagined that a man who had amassed his fabulous wealth from government contracts he rarely fulfilled could lead us into the promised land. The biggest of these contracts came in the Seventies, when ITT, the American-owned telecommunications giant, of whose Nigerian operation he was then the chairman, was awarded $1 billion to overhaul the country’s shambolic telephone system. It is now even more difficult to use the telephone than it was before ITT won the contract – Fela Kuti, the musician, had the measure of Abiola when he dubbed him ‘International Thief Thief’. Abiola’s nemesis came in June 1994, the first anniversary of the annulled election, when he foolishly rediscovered his mandate and declared himself President at a rally in Lagos. Why he did so remains a mystery. The most obvious explanation was that he had allowed himself to be goaded by those with a personal grudge against Abacha for denying them their share of the spoils – of which more presently. It was a very bad move: Abiola was promptly arrested on a four-count charge of treason and thrown into detention, where he remains. It’s easy enough, in retrospect, to see that he had been manipulated all along by the military, who allowed him to go abroad in the first place and then to return home when he got tired, as they knew he would, of prattling on about democracy and the rule of law.

The military, in other words, had the measure of their man, just as they had the measure of his compatriots, the Yorubas in particular. The only reason Chief Shonekan was chosen to head the puppet government was that he was from the same town as Abiola and, like him, a Yoruba. According to the ethnic lexicon, this was supposed to make them brothers, a sentimental pretence that rendered it difficult to argue that the Presidency was in the power of the duplicitous Northerners. Abacha, in his turn, appointed yet another Yoruba, Lt Gen. Oladipo Diya, also from the same town as the other two, as his second-in-command. The fact that Diya’s post is largely ceremonial, that even a child can see that the half-dozen military officers who run the country have nothing to do with him, only increases one’s sense of shame at the readiness of Nigerians to do anything for a buck.

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