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.

Ken Wiwa’s ignorance of the wider political context that dictated his father’s execution makes him an unreliable witness, but his book is also marred by its failure to live up to the promise implicit in the subtitle. For instance, he glosses over the fact that as late as 1988, the year before he founded MOSOP, his father worked for Babangida, Abacha’s predecessor, as Executive Director of the Directorate of Mass Mobilisation for Self-Reliance, Social Justice and Economic Recovery. MAMSER, as it was known, was supposed to awaken ‘the consciousness of all categories of Nigerians to their rights and obligations as citizens’ and ‘to fight against internal and external domination of our resources’, but it took Saro-Wiwa an entire year to discover that this impressive-sounding quango with laudable aims was not ‘a call to revolutionary change in Nigeria’ – some hope! – but just another cover for stealing money, and lots of it.

Ken Wiwa is also coy about how his father made enough money, in an increasingly depressed economy, to send four children to top-notch public schools in England – as though there were no decent schools in Nigeria, some of them even staffed by teachers from the UK, if that’s what you wanted. He says that his father dabbled in the foreign exchange markets in the mid-1980s with the assistance of Gilbert Chagouri, a Lebanese businessman who, according to Saro-Wiwa himself, ‘knew his onions around Nigeria and Nigerian leaders’. But this is a less than complete revelation. In the first place, it was illegal at the time to speculate with the national currency; in the second, Chagouri has since become notorious as one of the foreign ‘businessmen’ who helped Babangida and his cronies steal roughly US$55 billion (the figure given by Jubilee 2000, the British-based pressure group) by acting as their frontman for dubious companies involved in the large-scale transfer of money abroad. Ken Saro-Wiwa was hardly a saint.

In This House Has Fallen, Karl Maier, an American journalist who has spent many years reporting from all over Africa, gives Saro-Wiwa an entire chapter. Unlike Ken Wiwa, he delves deeply into the activities of Shell, and gives an instance in 1990 when the company called in the dreaded Mobile Police to break up a peaceful demonstration in the town of Umuechem, which left 80 people dead and damaged or destroyed 495 houses. Shell’s role in the whole sordid story of the Niger Delta is now the subject of a lawsuit in the US. According to the allegations, Shell not only ‘instigated, orchestrated, planned and facilitated’ attacks on villagers that left more than a thousand people dead and twenty thousand homeless, but also participated in the fabrication of murder charges against Saro-Wiwa and his fellow activists, bribing witnesses to give false testimony against them.

Shell itself has consistently argued, with some justification, that the responsibility for the injustices lies with the Government and not with a multinational oil company, and that the failure of successive Nigerian administrations to govern with even a minimum regard for the welfare of the nation’s 120 million people has resulted in what Maier calls ‘perhaps the largest failed state in the Third World’. However, all is not lost, even at this late hour. For the country to realise its potential ‘and unleash the unquestioned energy and talent that pulsates through the rich ethnic mosaic’, Maier believes that two things are needed: first, a sovereign national conference in which the various ethnic groups ‘sit down and negotiate how they want to govern themselves and how they want to share their resources’; and, second, for ‘Nigeria’s leaders . . . to convince the majority of their people that the Government exists to serve rather than to prey upon them.’

It is a salutary fact that Nigerians have never fashioned a constitution of their own choice. All three constitutions since independence in 1960 have been handed down from above, the first by the departing colonial power, the other two by a military intent on legitimising theft by the country’s leaders. Maier calls for reform of the leadership, but to understand how unlikely this is, one has only to consider the Land Use Decree first enacted in 1978 by the military government of General Obasanjo. This decree vests all land in the Federal Government and states that individuals possess only the right of occupancy – which can be revoked at any time in the ‘overriding public interest’, notably ‘for mining purposes or oil pipelines or any other purpose connected therewith’. When the military stepped aside after 13 years in power, the decree was incorporated into the 1979 Constitution as one of four enactments that couldn’t be invalidated by any of the provisions of the Constitution itself. This, together with another constitutional provision vesting ‘the entire property in and control of all minerals, mineral oil and natural gas in, under or upon any land in Nigeria . . . in the Government of the Federation’, deprived the communities in the Niger Delta of any rights to a commodity that was shortly to finance a brand-new capital city even as it polluted their farms and rivers, destroying the traditional bases of their economy.

Following the deaths of General Abacha and Chief Abiola in June and July 1998, ‘civil society’ organisations and prominent individuals renewed the call for a sovereign national conference as the only way of ensuring a smooth transition to a genuinely representative government – the approach that Maier advocates here – but this was rejected by the country’s eighth military head of state on the grounds that ‘such an arrangement is full of pitfalls and dangers which this administration cannot accept.’ Instead, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the former number three in Abacha’s Provisional Ruling Council, proceeded to oversee a hasty transition programme whose sole purpose was to pass the baton to Obasanjo, who simply handed the country a revamped 1979 Constitution.

Obasanjo refused point blank to expunge the Land Use Act, then unleashed the Army on Odi, a town in oil-producing Bayelsa State, in response to the murders of a soldier and seven policemen by an armed gang. Several dozen people were killed (accurate figures are rare in Nigeria) and over fifteen thousand made homeless in Operation Hakuri II. ‘The operation was so brutal,’ Maier writes, ‘that had an Army leader, rather than the new civilian president, been responsible, it would have provoked worldwide outrage.’

We have a good idea what transpired in both the National Assembly and Presidential elections in February 1999 because a coalition of civil society groups fielded over ten thousand independent observers to monitor them. Typical comments from the National Assembly elections were that ‘Some men . . . invaded the centre and went away with the voting materials’; ‘At Odi town . . . people invaded Ward[s] 3 and 1 [and packed] all the ballot paper[s] and boxes, also threatening the lives of police officers with gun[s],’ and so on. Out of 68 polling stations monitored, 33 showed no results, including all 16 in Odi town itself. By the time of the Presidential election the following week, few voters bothered to turn up: ‘No election and accreditation. Ballot box got filled in 30 minutes when nobody was accredited’; ‘There was no election owing to the fact that there [was] conflict.’

‘An election is a remarkable event in Nigeria,’ Maier believes, and so it is, but how is he able to write in the opening chapter that this latest effort ‘was largely peaceful, though it was tainted by reports of widespread vote rigging’, even as he concedes in a later chapter that the parties hired ‘young hoodlums’, a move which led directly to the tragedy of Odi? The problem is that he doesn’t really know what he thinks of ‘the most confounding, frustrating, and at the same time engaging place I have ever visited’ – itself a meaningless evaluation, since ‘Third World’ countries generally are all those things. This accounts for the opportunities wasted when he comes to interview the people he believes will shed light on Nigeria’s enigmas.

First among them is the evil genius himself. The question every journalist asks the former President Babangida, and the one he has studiously ducked, was why he annulled the 1993 elections and paved the way for Abacha’s ascendancy. After giving us an exhaustive chronicle of Babangida’s military career, Maier finally pops the question, but the answer is insulting: that Abiola, the Presidential winner, and the people around him didn’t help matters; that he would have flooded Aso Rock, the seat of power, with his Yoruba ethnic group; that he would have made a ‘lousy President’ and would, in any case, have been overthrown by Abacha within six months. But if Babangida believed this last to be true, why did he fail to retire his deputy and long-time fellow coup-plotter along with the rest of the high command? Because he was ‘being loyal to a friend’, and because junior officers might have stepped into the breach – and ‘I knew that this country could not afford the luxury of having lieutenant colonels and below as leaders.’

Having got this out of the way, Maier finally asks the man who ‘bears a major . . . responsibility for the crisis Nigeria finds itself in’ whether he is optimistic about the country’s future: ‘I believe in what Obasanjo used to say, “God is a Nigerian,”’ he replies. ‘Sometimes you think the whole world is going to end. But no matter the turbulence, no matter the bumps, you realise there’s always a way out.’ Maier, for his part, believes that the country ‘stands at a crossroads with three probable scenarios in front of it’: that the present Administration ‘will throttle corruption and mismanagement, strengthen the judiciary and parliament, and revive the economy’; that the status quo will continue, with the Government ‘lurching from crisis to crisis, the economy remaining gripped by stagnation, and the legitimacy of the state in constant question’; or, finally, that ‘the civilian administration will fail to deal with Nigeria’s myriad social and economic problems, opening the door to a return of military dictatorship’ which ‘could spark an outbreak of ethnic and regional violence not seen since the Biafran civil war and possibly leading to the break-up of the country’.

The first outcome would seem to be excluded by the very nature of the Administration, which refuses point blank to investigate Babangida’s enormous wealth, even as it claims to ‘throttle corruption’, and this despite Maier’s feeling, which he believes he shares with most Nigerians, that ‘Obasanjo’s Administration represents the last chance to establish enough economic and political stability to avoid the break-up of the country.’ The other two possibilities are indistinguishable from one another (a Government ‘lurching from crisis to crisis’ is clearly failing to deal with the ‘myriad social and economic problems’ that will result in military intervention and civil war). However, given the scale of the current ‘ethnic and regional violence’ that Maier describes, not only in the Niger Delta but elsewhere in the country, it’s arguable that the break-up of the country is not merely probable but desirable. Nigeria as presently constituted has been a disaster for the vast majority of Nigerians who are poorer, less educated and more likely to die from more diseases than at the time of Independence forty years ago, when there were no power cuts and it was safe to drink water from the tap.

Maier cannot countenance the idea that Nigeria might cease to be Nigeria, if only on the grounds that it would ‘shake the rest of West Africa’ and lead to a civil war that would make Liberia’s own war, which ‘cost tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in US taxpayers’ money’, look like a tea party. This is a common view in international circles, and explains why the Commonwealth was so keen to endorse ‘the integrity and nature of the transition programme’ three years ago even before the first vote was cast. But is it true? It would be difficult to imagine any future for Nigeria that could be worse than what has happened in Liberia (and looks set to happen all over again). For evidence of this, one could do worse than consult The Mask of Anarchy, Stephen Ellis’s meticulously detailed attempt to understand how it was that young men dressed in wigs and bathrobes could eat the heart of a fellow human being in the belief that it would protect them from their enemies.

Cannibalism was a persistent feature of the Liberian civil war, which lasted from December 1989 until the election of Charles Taylor as President in July 1997:

Some people assert that fighters were encouraged to carry out such practices by their ritual specialists, while others may have simply improvised behaviour on the basis of a received belief that this would make them powerful. They often referred to the human heart using mechanical images, calling it ‘the engine’ or ‘the main machine’. During the third battle of Monrovia on 6 April 1996, one Liberian newspaper wrote: ‘Our reporters on both sides saw fighters engaging in cannibalism and sorcery. In some instances, the fighters would kill and butcher the chest and extract the heart and later eat it.’

According to Taylor’s former defence minister, Tom Woewiyu, there was a good deal of this going on: ‘“We saw a lot,” said Woewiyu, describing his time as Taylor’s right-hand man, “including the formation of a group of cannibals called Top 20.”’ The proximity of all this to Taylor is a sensitive matter, inasmuch as he is a member of the so-called Americo-Liberian or ‘Congo’ elite, descendants of the freed American slaves who settled at various locations along the Malagueta or Grain Coast from 1822 onwards, and declared the Republic of Liberia independent in 1847. They dominated the country’s politics until they were overthrown in a military coup in 1980 which resulted in the emergence of Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe, whose ten-year rule began with the public executions of the ousted cabinet members in full view of the international press, thus confirming the Americo-Liberians’ prejudices against the tribal populations they had treated with the contempt characteristic of all colonisers.

The suspicion that Doe himself practised ritual cannibalism in the Executive Mansion was apparently confirmed during the abortive coup of 1985, when his troops publicly dismembered the body of Thomas Quiwonkpa, the former Army chief, in downtown Monrovia. Doe himself was later to be devoured in the early months of the civil war after his capture by one of Taylor’s breakaway commanders. There exists a videotape of the event with the title ‘The capture of Samuel K. Doe by Field Marshal Prince Yeduo Johnson and his gallant men and women of the Independent Patroitic [sic] Front of Liberia on Sunday 9 September 1990’.

The film opens with Prince Johnson sitting at a table across from Doe, who is trussed up on the bare concrete floor dressed only in his underpants and the tattered remains of a five-star general’s jacket. His arms are bound behind his back so that his elbows are almost touching and his outstretched legs are tied at the ankles. Rebel soldiers are milling about, laughing and joking; the Field Marshal, a string of grenades around his neck, carries out a fitful interrogation as he swigs Budweiser. ‘Gentlemen, we are all one,’ Doe implores with an attempted smile, whereupon, according to Ellis:

Johnson bangs on the desk and orders one of his men to cut off Doe’s ear. The camera jerks to show the President, being held down by several men while one of them takes a knife first to one ear, then the other, as Doe struggles and thrashes around. On one version of the video, Johnson appears to be eating part of Doe’s severed ear.

The filming of the torture of the President was perfectly in keeping with the tenor of a war that confirmed every prejudice about the dark continent. When I visited Monrovia in early 1995 I spoke with an 18-year-old whose best friend had been summarily beheaded by Prince Johnson’s troops because he belonged to the wrong ethnic group. ‘Did you know that a head does bounce like a football?’ the young man said to me, still astonished that he should have witnessed such an event and lived to recount it. Ellis quotes one British journalist who wrote about the ‘terrifying, bizarre experience’ of travelling in a convoy of fifty rebels ‘kitted out for battle in women’s wigs and dresses’; and an American journalist who wondered at the ‘glee’ with which the rebels destroyed ‘symbols of progress and prosperity’ – pumping stations, plantations – because, they said, they didn’t need factories. It was ‘better to come back to the bush’.

Ellis believes these journalists were ‘wide of the mark’, and castigates them for seeing the rebels’ extraordinary outfits ‘as signs of a lapse into some sort of obscurantism’, which in turn caused them ‘to misunderstand the combatants’ motives’. According to his reading, the rebels were ‘less intent on destroying symbols of development’ than ‘on acquiring . . . the consumer goods which they prized as marks of high status and which were so hard for the poor to come by, especially in rural areas’ – although this is hard to follow, since it’s not clear how ‘destroying symbols of development’, which we know they did, enabled them to get hold of consumer goods.

The point, as far as Ellis is concerned, is that the journalists overlook ‘the importance of religion in Liberian life’, without which one can only find ‘the behaviour of Liberians to be utterly baffling’. The religion he has in mind is not the imported Christianity of the Americo-Liberians, but the centuries-old indigenous religion of the secret societies that practised cannibalism in order to regulate the affairs of the community. Glossing the words of one informant, Ellis tells us:

The main purpose of eating human flesh was to ‘feed the charm’, thereby ‘bringing strength to the members or protection to the community’. This last remark is of particular interest as it suggests that despite their occasional lethal activities, leopard societies were regarded as socially valuable. Their elite character implied the possession both of great esoteric knowledge and of great power, including the power of life and death, which could be used for the greater good of the community in which they existed . . .

Apparently, then, the modern-day fighters who erupted out of the bush to destroy everything in their path were not as deranged as one might have supposed, but were actually participating in a religious ritual deeply rooted in Liberian society. Moreover, Americo-Liberians had themselves been indulging in this manifestation of ‘esoteric knowledge’ since at least the 1960s. In this sense, cross-dressing and ingesting human body parts are not really barbarous at all, but indications of illustrious and time-honoured indigenous traditions. But Ellis, who is otherwise anxious ‘to assert that the opinions of Liberians themselves . . . are of considerable importance in assessing the nature of the Liberian civil war’, fails more than once to believe the clearly expressed sentiments of individuals caught up in the conflict. I see little mystery in the murderous negativity of poor, ignorant, alienated young men (and not a few women) encouraged to destroy what they can’t possess by warlords with their own chilling agenda. Or that the men should have gone about in clothes that parodied their sense of emasculation, which would also explain why they liked to sever penises. As for cannibal banquets, education alone would have persuaded them that eating people is wrong.