Feed the Charm

Adewale Maja-Pearce

  • In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son’s Journey to Understand His Father’s Legacy by Ken Wiwa
    Black Swan, 320 pp, £7.99, January 2002, ISBN 0 552 99891 5
  • This House Has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis by Karl Maier
    Penguin, 327 pp, £9.99, February 2002, ISBN 0 14 029884 3
  • The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War by Stephen Ellis
    Hurst, 350 pp, £40.00, November 1999, ISBN 1 85065 417 4

Last December, Chief Bola Ige, the Nigerian Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, was assassinated. The political violence that has ensued will culminate in elections next year, when the ostensibly democratic Government of Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired general, hopes to return for a second term. Its chances of success are slim. There have been two previous attempts by civilian Governments in Nigeria to organise their own succession: both ended in military takeover, and with it levels of executive lawlessness that saw one general, Ibrahim Babangida, spirit away US$12 billion of crude oil revenue. The other, Sani Abacha, turned the country into a pariah state by hanging Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists on 10 November 1995 after a trial that everyone agreed was flawed. Saro-Wiwa had been charged with complicity in the murder of four Ogoni chiefs the previous year, although he was nowhere near the scene at the time. However, he had already been identified by the authorities as the person responsible for stirring up international opinion against the environmental degradation caused by the activities of Shell, and they were out to get him. Within days of his arrest, he was pronounced guilty by the psychopathic military administrator of Rivers State, Lt Col. Dauda Komo, who called him a ‘dictator who has no room for any dissenting view’, and described his organisation, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), as a ‘reckless and irresponsible terror group’.

Saro-Wiwa himself never doubted the outcome of his trial. ‘The intention is to destroy me,’ he wrote in a letter to Ken Wiwa, his eldest son, from the ‘filthy, rat and cockroach-infested’ cell where he awaited trial in solitary confinement. His son thinks he was prepared for his death, and this is borne out by the clips from the trial released by the military Government as proof of its respect for due process. At one point, the chair of the Tribunal, Justice Ibrahim Auta, asks Saro-Wiwa whether he wants a new set of lawyers, having forced his original team to withdraw by disallowing a piece of evidence that would have established his innocence. Saro-Wiwa simply shrugs. Auta, who has already stated that ‘I am directly answerable to the Commander-in-Chief, I am not answerable to any other person,’ insists that he respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’, so Saro-Wiwa says ‘yes or no’, causing one of the other defendants to giggle and the judge to lose his temper.

The executions themselves, on the eve of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland, were carried out within days of the sentence, the corpses doused with acid and buried in an unmarked grave. At the time, Ken Wiwa, who had dropped ‘Saro’ (son of) in order to distance himself from the ‘brooding, irascible and sometimes volatile presence’ that was his father, was in Auckland trying unsuccessfully to get the heads of government to understand that the Nigerian military was impervious to the language of quiet diplomacy, however firm. Mandela studiously avoided him; John Major agreed only to a preassigned question at a press conference, in response to which he would ask for clemency; and Jim Bolger, the New Zealand host, gave him an audience on condition that he didn’t tell the media, then asked him how his father’s health was bearing up. Jean Chrétien, the Canadian Prime Minister, was the only leader ‘to take a public stand against General Abacha, explicitly criticising him in his opening address . . . and specifically referring to my father’s predicament’, but as the Nigerian Minister for External Affairs, Chief Tom Ikimi, was shortly to put it, who the hell was Canada anyway?

In the Shadow of a Saint is Ken Wiwa’s attempt to come to terms with the events surrounding his father’s death, but he is handicapped by his uneasy relationship with a country that gave him the sense of a ‘barbaric system sitting on top of people, dehumanising them, turning them to the lowest of beasts’, as his father wrote from prison.

For a reason that is never properly explained, and which seems at odds with his political agenda, Ken Saro-Wiwa chose to educate his children at English public schools – Eton, Roedean, Tonbridge – even as he insisted that ‘we would all return to Nigeria at the end of our studies and apply our expensively educated minds to the resolution of the problems facing our people.’ Saro-Wiwa himself understood the risk he had taken, and ‘tried his best to ensure that our education did not alienate us from Africa’, but it could hardly have been otherwise: ‘at 14 I was already living a double life, negotiating between two identities: at school I saw myself as English, but at home I was African. My English friends rarely met or knew my African alter ego, and my parents barely knew about my other life as an English schoolboy.’

Ken Wiwa writes about Nigeria like a foreigner, with a foreigner’s generalisations and half-truths. He says of Abacha, for instance, that when he first seized power in November 1993:

he set about terminating all his rivals, real and imagined. He retired or eliminated all the officers who had underestimated and humiliated him during his silent ascent up the ranks. He drove a coach and horse [sic] through the law to eliminate his opponents; serving and retired generals were arrested, tried and sentenced to death for alleged coup plotting. He cast his net wide . . . Chief Abiola, an obvious threat . . . as the presumed winner of the 1993 election, was arrested.

It wasn’t as simple as that – and couldn’t have been in the wake of Babangida’s annulment of the Presidential election just five months previously. Abacha was forced to move cautiously at first, insisting that he was only a caretaker who would relinquish power as soon as possible, which was how he flattered prominent civilians into his first Cabinet and gave his regime an air of respectability. It was only gradually, as he began to feel more comfortable, that he tightened his grip. It took him over six months to arrest Abiola, the hapless chief having realised that he had been duped, and almost another year to charge two retired generals with coup-plotting, one of whom was Olusegun Obasanjo. No such calculations were necessary in the case of the Ogoni activists.

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