Pipe-Dreams

Rob Nixon

  • A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary by Ken Saro-Wiwa
    Penguin, 256 pp, £6.99, December 1995, ISBN 0 14 025868 X

Ken Saro-Wiwa squints at us from the cover of his detention diary, the posthumous A Month and a Day. His moustache looks precise and trim; his eyes are alight; the distinctive gash scrawls across his temple. But the picture is governed by his pipe. It’s an intellectual’s accessory, a good pipe to suck and clench, to spew from and lecture with. He had hoped tobacco would kill him: ‘I know that I am a mortuary candidate, but I intend to head for the mortuary with my pipe smoking.’ In the end, it was another kind of pipe that got him, spilling toxins indiscriminately into the land, rivers and lungs of his Ogoni people.

Saro-Wiwa believed that his writing would return to haunt his tormentors. Shortly before his execution in the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt last year on trumped up charges of murder, he declared: ‘The men who ordained and supervised this show of shame, this tragic charade, are frightened by the word, the power of ideas, the power of the pen ... They are so scared of the word that they do not read. And that will be their funeral.’ Saro-Wiwa’s conviction that the pen is mightier than the goon squad may sound, to European and North American ears, like an echo from another age. In the era of the World Wide Web, books and newspapers are often dismissed as waning powers. But across much of Africa the certainty persists that writing can make things happen.

Saro-Wiwa was a voluminous, protean writer who pitched his ambitions high. In one of his final letters from detention, he assured his friend, the novelist William Boyd:

There’s no doubt that my idea will succeed in time, but I’ll have to bear the pain of the moment ... the most important thing for me is that I’ve used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni people to confront their tormentors. I was not able to do it as a politician or a businessman. My writing did it ... I think I have the moral victory.

Elsewhere, he prayed that his work would have as visceral an impact as André Gide’s 1927 journal, Voyage au Congo, which prompted an outcry against Belgian atrocities. Saro-Wiwa saw himself as part of that testimonial tradition, a witness to what he called the ‘recolonisation’ of Ogoniland by the joint forces of the oil companies and the Abacha regime, which together have turned the Niger delta into a Bermuda triangle for human rights.

Shell has ducked behind the Nigerian military regime and ignored appeals by the Ogonis and neighbouring minorities for a share of oil revenues, some measure of environmental self-determination, and economic redress for their oil-drenched environment. By the time Saro-Wiwa was executed, the Nigerian military and the Mobile Police Force had killed two thousand Ogonis – either they straightforwardly murdered them or they burnt their villages. Ogoni air had been fouled by the flaring of natural gas, croplands scarred by oil spills, drinking and fishing water poisoned. Although Shell was driven out of Ogoniland in 1993, it has since moved to other parts of Nigeria’s once lush ‘delta of death’ and its legacy continues to seep into Ogoni waterways, Ogoni earth, and the bodies of the local farming community which, unlike the corporation, has nowhere else to go. The Ogonis, roughly half a million of them, retain nominal ownership of most of their densely populated territory. What they have suffered in the four decades since oil extraction began is subterranean dispossession. Shell, Chevron and successive Nigerian regimes have siphoned thirty billion dollars of oil from beneath Ogoni earth. Yet the locals still find themselves lacking a hospital, electricity, piped water and basic roads, housing and schools. The community has found itself, in the fullest sense of the word, utterly undermined.

Faced with the neo-colonial politics of mineral rights in the Niger delta, Saro-Wiwa was confident that written testimony, backed by activism, could make a difference. Like many African authors before him, he recognised that, in a society with frail democratic institutions and a small intellectual élite, interventionist writing required versatility and cunning. His life as a public intellectual was distinguished by a profound strategic intelligence and a keen sensitivity to local and international changes in audience and occasion. He produced over twenty books including novels, plays, stories, histories, political tracts and children’s tales. But across Anglophone West Africa Saro-Wiwa achieved his greatest renown as the creator of the popular TV comedy Basi and Company: 150 prime-time episodes were watched on Wednesdays by thirty million Nigerians. Saro-Wiwa was, by turns, a humorist, a moralist and a robust satirist. After the death of his son in 1992, however, he devoted himself single-mindedly to the Ogoni cause, becoming the chronicler of his people’s persecution and, finally, a death-row diarist.

Saro-Wiwa’s versatility, his belief in an instrumental aesthetics, and his obsession with land rights place him in an established tradition of African writing. But in East and Southern Africa, such tendencies have been routinely associated with writers whose anti-colonialism or anti-neo-colonialism – has been inseparable from their socialism. One thinks, for instance, of Ngugi wa Thiong’ o’s Barrel of the Pen and Mafika Gwala’s essay, ‘Writing as a Cultural Weapon’ (the credo for a generation of South African writers). Saro-Wiwa was unusual in cultivating an international sensibility and stood aside from the lineages of African socialism.

He was the first African writer to articulate the literature of commitment in environmental terms. And as a successful small businessman – successful enough to send a son to Eton – he was never anti-capitalist as such. But he did find himself perfectly (and painfully) placed to chronicle one of the most notable developments of the Nineties: the resurgent power and mobility of transnational corporations – five hundred of which control 70 per cent of global trade – in the face of weakening nation-states, above all in the underdeveloped South.

It is a testament to Saro-Wiwa’s strategic imagination that his political prose documents far more than the devastation of Ogoniland. While his work is passionately devoted to that cause, he came increasingly to situate it in a global framework. He began to discern certain patterns: most important, he understood how in countries weakened by structural adjustment, transnational firms and the national soldiery consider themselves at liberty to vandalise minority communities. He also saw that the justice of a cause – an African cause especially – was insufficient reason for it to attract international attention. So he strove to analogise, to turn what he called the ‘deadly ecological war against the Ogoni’ into a struggle emblematic of our times. His writing thus lays the ground for a broader estimation of the human cost of the romance between unanswerable corporations and unspeakable regimes.

Saro-Wiwa’s political realism was tempered by a determined optimism, however. Writing in the Preface to his Genocide in Nigeria (1992), he took heart from three developments in the Nineties: ‘the end of the Cold War, the increasing attention being paid to the global environment, and the insistence of the European Community that minority rights be respected, albeit in the successor states to the Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia’. But, he worried, ‘it remains to be seen whether Europe and America will apply to Nigeria the same standards which they have applied to Eastern Europe.’ His doubts have proved well-founded.

A Month and a Day includes a record of his efforts to capitalise on these new forms of international concern. Initially, human-rights and ecological groups proved equally unreceptive to the Ogoni cause. An African intellectual claiming ethnocide by environmental means? Saro-Wiwa seemed, at first, eccentric and unplaceable. At Boyd’s prompting, he decided to contact Greenpeace. They replied that they did not work in Africa. Amnesty International said they could only take up the Ogoni cause if the military was killing people or detaining them without trial, a process that had yet to begin. Saro-Wiwa responded with frustration: ‘The Ogoni people were being killed all right, but in an unconventional way.’ Later he elaborated:

The Ogoni country has been completely destroyed by the search for oil ... Oil blow-outs, spillages, oil slicks and general pollution accompany the search for oil ... Oil companies have flared gas in Nigeria for the past 33 years causing acid rain ... What used to be the bread basket of the delta has now become totally infertile. All one sees and feels around is death. Environmental degradation has been a lethal weapon in the war against the indigenous Ogoni people.

Despite the unresponsiveness of Greenpeace, Amnesty, Friends of the Earth and Survival International, Saro-Wiwa persisted in arguing that the Ogoni were victims of an ‘unconventional war’, prosecuted by ecological means. Undeterred, he sought to educate himself further through travel. An odyssey through the rupturing Soviet Union confirmed his sense of a growing international context for the articulation of minority claims. A visit to Colorado gave him access to an environmental group that had successfully salvaged a wilderness from corporate and governmental assaults. Through Michael van Walt van der Praag, a Dutch lawyer long active in the Tibetan cause, he made contact with the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation. This gave him access to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which he addressed in Geneva in 1992. (That same year, another Ogoni leader addressed the Earth Summit in Rio on behalf of the delta peoples.) Saro-Wiwa discovered that ‘in virtually every nation-state there are several “Ogonis” – despairing and disappearing peoples suffering the yoke of political marginalisation, economic strangulation or environmental degradation, or a combination of these.’

From 1992 onwards, the combined invocation of minority and environmental rights became fundamental to the campaign waged by his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop). The human-rights and ecological organisations that had earlier found the Ogoni issue enigmatic now became its staunchest international supporters, and other groups, like Abroad, Friends of the Earth and the Body Shop, also rallied to the Ogoni cause.

These developments gave Saro-Wiwa’s campaign a resonance it had previously lacked, and challenged stereotypes about environmental activists: that they are inevitably white, young, middle-class Europeans or Americans who can afford to hug trees. Saro-Wiwa’s campaign for environmental self-determination will prove critical to the development of a broader image of ecological activism. We have seen how the concerns of privileged white feminists in the Seventies gave way to a more internationally diverse array of feminisms, locally led and locally defined. So, too, we are now seeing indigenous environmentalisms proliferate under the pressure of local necessity. As ideas of what qualifies as environmental activism expand, it becomes harder to dismiss it as a sentimental or imperialist discourse tied to European or North American interests. Nor does the case for this diversification any longer rest solely on Amazonian experience.

Saro-Wiwa understood that environmentalism needs to be re-imagined through the lives of the minorities who are barely visible on the global economic periphery, where transnationals in the extraction business – whether oil, minerals or timber – operate with maximum impunity. Environmental justice became for him an invaluable concept through which to focus the battle between subnational micro-ethnicities and transnational macro-economic powers. As an Ogoni, suffering what he called Nigeria’s ‘monstrous domestic colonialism’, Saro-Wiwa had no reason to trust the nation-state as the unit of collective economic good. Instead, he advocated a measure of ethnic federalism in which environmental self-determination would be acknowledged as indispensable to cultural survival.

After the execution of Saro-Wiwa and his eight co-accused, public outrage divided between those who primarily condemned the Abacha regime and those who went for Shell. For Saro-Wiwa, however, the blame was indivisible the Ogonis were the casualties of joint occupying powers. Shell has sought to put a positive gloss on this relationship, with PR primers like ‘Nigeria and Shell: Partners in Progross’. But the real character of the relationship is more accurately portrayed by a leaked Nigerian government memo addressing protests in Ogoniland. Dated 5 December 1994, it reads: ‘Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence.’

In Africa Shell waives on shore drilling standards that it routinely upholds elsewhere. Indeed, 40percent of all Shell oil-spills worldwide have occurred in Nigeria. When operating in the Northern hemisphere – in the Shetlands, for instance – Shell pays lucrative rents to local councils; in the Niger delta, village authorities receive little compensation.

The company’s double standard would, however, be inoperable without backing from a Nigerian regime whose record on minority rights is appalling. Saro-Wiwa has likened the fate of the Ogoni during the oil-rush to their fate in the Biafran War, when the conflict among Nigeria’s three dominant ethnicities left them flattened ‘like grass in the fight of the elephants’. In a military kleptocracy with two hundred minority groups, all constitutionally unprotected, the Ogonis suffered the extra misfortune of living over oil.

The fact that the Ogonis have been casualties of both racism and ethnic hatred may help explain the low-key American response to the executions. The outcry in Britain, South Africa and France was far more vocal and sustained. In the British case, this is understandable: Shell is an Anglo-Dutch company and thanks to colonial links with Africa the British media always cover Africa more carefully than the Americans do. (The reverse is true in the case of Latin America.) But there is more to the American media’s indifference than that. In US political discourse, racial oppression and minority discrimination typically function as identical terms, which makes it difficult for liberal Americans to condemn in a single breath a European corporation for racism against Africans and an African regime for oppressing its minorities. Saro-Wiwa never hesitated to make such controversial connections. As he wrote in his prison diary,

skin colour is not strong enough to stop the oppression of one group by another. Sometimes it reinforces oppression because it makes it less obvious. White people oppressing blacks in South Africa draws instant condemnation because it is seen to be racism. But black upon black oppression merely makes people shrug and say: ‘Well, it’s their business, isn’t it?’

Some years back, the Philippine Government placed an ad in Fortune magazine that read: ‘To attract companies like yours, we have felled mountains, razed jungles, filled swamps, moved rivers, relocated towns ... all to make it easier for you and your business to do business here.’ The Philippines is just one of a succession of poor nations to have wooed transnationals in a manner indissociably catastrophic for the environment and local minorities. This process has been most acutely damaging in the world’s equatorial belt, from Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil, to Surinam and Guyana, on through Nigeria, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Gabon and Zaire, to the Philippines, Sarawak and New Guinea. Rich equatorial ecosystems could sustain a higher concentration of discrete language groups than was possible in less fertile regions. Today most of these minorities find themselves in undemocratic, destitute nation-states that register in the global economy principally as sites for the unregulated extraction of oil, minerals and timber. It is thus no co-incidence that indigenous environmentalism has burgeoned most dramatically in this zone, as minorities battle for the survival of then land-dependent subsistence cultures.

West Papua has an even higher concentration of minorities than the Niger delta. And, like the delta peoples, West Papuans have the curse of wealth – some of the world’s richest deposits of copper and gold – seaming beneath their land. They face a similar alliance between a occupying military power and a transnational corporation. The same Indonesian regime that was responsible for the second-worst genocide of our century, in East Timor, has colonised West Papua with a brutality that has seen 43,000 indigenous people killed. Their accomplice in this endeavour is the Louisiana based mining transnational Freeport McMoran. Since the arrival of Freeport in 1967, the indigenous people have had inflicted on them detention without trial, torture, forced resettlement, disappearances, the plunder of their mineral wealth and the uncompensated degradation of their environment. Freeport’s private security officers and the Indonesian military have, on occasion, combined to shoot and kill unarmed local protesters. In an alliance even more devastating than that between the Abacha regime and Shell, the Indonesians and Freeport have pursued ethnocide as a condition of mandatory development. In this deadly battle, the locals have fought back in a language that combines new modes of environmental defiance with a more traditional reverence for the land. As one Amungme leader put it, ‘Freeport is digging out our mother’s brain. That is why we are resisting.’

Some of these indigenous actions have begun to take effect – in the oil-rich Oriente region of Ecuador, for example, where Texaco had devastated Indian territory in a manner similar to Shell’s despoliation of Ogoniland. Drinking water, fishing grounds, soil and crops have all been polluted. According to the Rainforest Action Network, Texaco spilled 17 million gallons of crude oil in the Oriente, leaving the residents with a legacy of chronic health problems. Here again, the seepage of oil-contaminated waste was the result of a general jettisoning of procedures for onshore drilling that are standard in the Northern hemisphere.

Ecuador’s Acción Ecológica has led a successful national boycott of Texaco and has helped drive the corporation from the region. In addition, a coalition of indigenous federations, mestizos, grass-roots environmentalists and human-rights groups has pursued an innovative avenue of redress, filing a $ 1.5 billion class action suit in New York against Texaco. The suit has earned the support of Ecuador’s Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, the country’s largest Indian organisation. Following the Ecuadorian example, Ogoni villagers are suing Shell for $4 million for spillages that have robbed them of their livelihood.

One result – one more result – of the growing power and freedom of the transnationals and of the willingness of Third World governments to collude with them has been a reversion to concessionary economics in which forested or mineral-rich areas are sold for a song. It is in this context that Saro-Wiwa’s talk of recolonisation and his invocation of André Gide sounds eerily apposite. When Shell can pump out 30 billion dollars’ worth of oil and the trade-off for the locals is a crumbling infrastructure, absent services, violence, disease, military occupation and an end to self sustaining agriculture, the process seems more redolent of turn-of-the-century colonial buccaneering than it does of fin-de-millennium international trade.

At the national level, the kleptocrats and the soldiery demand their palm-greasing; at the local level, the chiefs request their cruder versions of the same. Late last year, for example, near the delta village of Sangama, a group of foreign explorers arrived by ship at the head of a marshy river. They sought to establish a station there. After lengthy bartering with a local chief, they settled on a local cut: £1000, 12 bottles of cognac and 12 of gin. But as the foreigners pushed deeper into the hinterland, they found villagers blocking their river-route with a baricade of palm fronds and canoes. The explorers’ leader felt bewildered and betrayed. He reported that ‘there were about a hundred people ahead of us. If we’d pressed ahead we would have risked killing them. So we look a boat and went back to get Chief Jumbo.’ More bargaining, more demands. Another £300 changed hands, an extra bottle of gin, an agreement to repair a building. The chief sacrificed a goat to the water gods; the barricade was lifted; the foreigners passed through. If they hadn’t had an oil rig in tow, this could have been an entry from Gide’s journal or the opening scene of a lost Conrad novel.