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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in