By Daniel N. Ogum
A global personality, late Saro-Wiwa led many lives: a university teacher, a civil commissioner, a visionary, a social philosopher, a reputable publisher, a producer, an uncompromising environmentalist, an eminent orator, an activist-qua-activist, a fearless leader, a lover of his Ogoni ethnic nation and the entire humanity, a head of household and family-man, a businessman, a seasoned essayist and polemicist, a practical poet, an endowed playwright, a committed novelist and short story writer, to mention but a few.
How much of the work done by Saro-Wiwa do I have the competence to examine, except perhaps, the satire, wit, humour and the pleasantly surprising elegance and freshness of his literary works that collectively address basic issues about human conditions in this part of the world but with universal appeal?
I am required to commence the shooting of arrows of advancement possibilities into Nigeria’s centenary space from Saro-Wiwa’s bow of archery merit. I associated that idea with a more vivid sense impression of a Niger Delta subsistence farming reality. I elect to call it: the paradox of the yam seedling. Harsh soil conditions cause the year old seedling to decay after planting: the decayed seedling, as compost manure, rejuvenates the soil that supports the new life of a sprouted tendril which would naturally climb its stake in a winding peculiarity and in the process, spread dense green foliage skywards to the admiration of the farmer. The question is this: Does the farmer store a choice yam seedling in order to witness its decay during the planting season? Yes, that is what the farmer does unconsciously. The sight of a climbing tendril overwhelms the farmer with an anticipation of a rich harvest: the sorrow of decay is suppressed and hope drives the farmer to work tirelessly in the farm until the end of the season –although the harvest might be poor.
In human existence, the past is easily replaced with future hope: the effect is a cyclic mental motion which swings us repeatedly into the past. So much progress would have been made if the relevance of the past were brought to bear on the present gainfully. The wise sayings of past great thinkers are still relevant because of this cyclic human course. The zeal is always strong to replace the old with the new, yet the entire process nearly always becomes a journey to the past with little forward thrust. It is not surprising therefore that the entire human existence has recorded only three civilizations: Agricultural, Industrial and Cybernetic Revolutions. We shall return briefly to these civilisations later.
Ken Saro-Wiwa is regenerating like the precious yam seedling. It may be clearer if it is posed as a question. The question is: what is the worth of Saro-Wiwa’s life and work in the journey into Nigeria’s advancement space? I have used the word space in a sense that human activities are better appreciated from the perspective which is defined by an urge to cause expansion. Collectively and individually the struggle for space goes on academically, religiously, politically etc. This essay will, in part, address the worth of the space of Ken Saro-Wiwa in relation to enhancing Nigeria’s advancement. A discourse on Saro- Wiwa will raise more questions than answers. But be the reactions what they may, the different perspectives must offer a new launch pad of possibilities for Nigeria’s advancement.
Ken Saro-Wiwa: Biography, works
To the family of Chief Jim Beeson Wiwa in Bori, the present day headquarters of Bori Local Government Area in Ogoni ethnic nation which lies in the south-east of Rivers State, was born a male child in 1941. The child was Kenule Beeson Tsaro-Wiwa. Ken was a child of great intellectual promise. At thirteen, he had won a scholarship to study at the prestigious Government College, Umuahia –the same institution where Christopher Okigbo, I.N.C. Aniebo, ElechiAmadi and Chinua Achebe studied. Ken Saro-Wiwa is the subject of discussion today because he also earned for himself, amongst others, a respectable space as a remarkably good writer. As an undergraduate, he was the editor of The Horizon. Ken graduated in English from the University of Ibadan. He proceeded to teach at Government College Umuahia, Stella Maris College Port Harcourt and the University of Lagos.
Among others, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s works are: The Transistor Radio (1971),Tambari (1973), Tambari in Dukana (1973), Songs in a Time of War (1985), Sozaboy (1985), A Forest of Flowers: Short Stories (1986), Mr. B, (1987), Basiand Company: A Modern African Folktale (1987), Prisoners of Jebs (1988), Basi& Company: Four Television Plays (1988), Transistor Radio (1989), Letter to Ogoni Youth (1989), Four Farcical Plays (1989), Mr B. Again (1989), Adaku and Other stories (1989), A Shipload of Rice (1991), Segi Finds the Radio (1991), PitaDumbrok’s Prison (1991), Mr. B Is Dead (1991), Nigeria, The Brink of Disaster ((1991), The Singing Anthill: Ogoni Folks Tales (1991), Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy (1992), Mr. B’s Mattress (1992), Second Letter to Ogoni Youth (1993), Ogoni: Moment of Truth (1994), A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary (1991) and Lemona’s Tale (1996).
Ken was prolific. Every life challenge refilled his inkpot for the production of an engaging work that has impacted on socio-economic dynamics of the society. Saro-Wiwa believed that the writer could not be a mere storyteller but one who must be actively involved in shaping the present and the future of the society.
Saro-Wiwa had become popular in 1972, having won an award with his radio play, The Transistor Radio. He published numerous essays in Vanguard and other newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s. Soza Boy was Saro-Wiwa’s first novel. The story is narrated experimentally via an eye-dialect of the Nigerian pidgin to which he referred as “Rotten English”. Soza Boy is a story of disordered human existence caused by war. Stylistically, the language of Mene, the I-Narrator captures the traumatizing chaos and lawlessness in the civil war ravaged society depicted in the novel. Adaku and Other Stories and Lemona’s Tale emphasise the role of women in modernizing societies. Saro-Wiwa’s Basi& Company is a humorous television series of over 150 episodes. Basi& Company was outlawed in 1992 by the Nigerian military government.
In 1990, Saro-Wiwa (along with other Ogoni leaders of thought) founded Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and his writings became increasingly committed to issues of human conditions aboutcorruption and social injustice in Nigeria, and the ecological degradation ofOgoni and the Niger Delta by Shell and other trans-national corporate citizens of Nigeria. Hear Saro-Wiwa:
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. And it sure makes me feel good! I am mentally prepared for the worst, but hopeful for the best. Ithink I have the moral victory.(Ken Saro-Wiwa 1941- 1995.http://www.kirjastro.sci.fi./saro. htm)
Saro-Wiwa could also suffuse a very serious matter –for instance, the mid 1980s debate on IMF conditionalities and the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of the Babangida administration– with humour, even at a personal expense. In his polemic essay, “The World Bank and Us”, Saro-Wiwa writes:
Almost twenty years ago, touring the United States of America, Icame to know several variations of my name. In New York, I was called Sora-Wawo, in Los AngelesSira-Wawa. But the limit was in Atlanta, in the presence of Mrs. Coretta King, where I was introduced as Saro-Wee-Wee. Uncomfortably close to the toilet, you might say…. Thus I was only half-surprised when an invitation arrived at my Surulere office the other day, addressed to, you guessed it, Ken Sarohiwa. And it came from the Indian High Commission…. Since I have never been to a diplomat’s party, and I do not mind a new experience, I took my courage in my hands and wended my way to Eleke Crescent on Victoria Island…. The only diplomat I met was… an official of the World Bank…. I never have met any representative of the International Montook my courage in my hands and wended my way to etary Fund anywhere and this was an opportunity for me to send a message to the Fund through one of its representatives in Nigeria.
Saro-Wiwa continues and sends his message in these words:
… methinks the World Bank has to accept that its instrument of torture is its … economic theorizing at the expense of human welfare. In Nigeria, as elsewhere, its potent instrument is the exchange rate. The fixing of the rate is, as far as I can see it, a con: it is dubious and no one can convince me otherwise. And the sooner the debtor nations realised the political nature of the World Bank, the sooner they will be able to face the bogus economic theories of the Bank with an equivalent weapon – people’s power. At no matter what cost… Must we see all our children die of kwashiorkor? Must we see all those who survive the ravages of disease and famine grow up as zombies because they have no books to read, cannot afford good education, decent housing, transportation and water?…. Forty years of the World Bank experiment in turning the economies of debtor nations round has not resulted in success in a single country.(Saro-Wiwa on World Bank/IMF.[email protected] acns.nwu.edu)
Saro-Wiwa was always forthright in his assertions. He was always simple and smart in his “adire” shirts. A smoking pipe always hung securely between his lips. He was always in search of justice. Saro-Wiwa was an iconic personality. His courageous voice and positive vision have opened advancement vistas for humanity.
Certainly, Ogoni patriots would remember Ken Saro-Wiwa as one their most visionary and selfless leaders, especially as the charismatic figure who led MOSOP to articulate the Ogoni Bill of Rights in 1990.The peoples of the Niger Delta will not forget that wise town-crier in a comely little frame whose message has drawn the attention of the international community to the ecological throes and economic sufferings in the region that a home atop a sea of rich hydrocarbon and natural gas which revenue runs the Nigerian economy. The Nigerian State and Shell will not forget that by their acts of commission or omission Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged in 1995 and other bold voices of the Niger Delta including Professor Claude Ake and Dele Giwa have suffered similar martyrdom. The trans-national oil companies in the Niger Delta can learn, if they so decide, from the Saro-Wiwa tragedy. At least, the international community is aware of the numerous complaints of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people. Perhaps, the awareness will be useful in dealing with matters affecting minority ethnic nations in the future.
Saro-Wiwa came with a message which lives on in his absence. Severally he was detained and kept in prison custody, even in conditions of failing health, because he uttered basic truths about the conditions of theOgoni people and other minorities in Nigeria. Ken Saro-Wiwa is the farmer’s precious yam seedling. Ken Saro-Wiwa was buried in the mound of the Niger Delta liberation farm. I think that Ken Saro-Wiwa is the compost manure that has supported the growth of emancipation tendrils and nascent literary voices committed to equity across the length and breadth of the Niger Delta after 1995. How could the life and the work done by Saro-Wiwa guarantee a high yield in Nigeria’s yam farm?
In 2001, The Rivers State Chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors hosted the ANA national convention in Port Harcourt. On that occasion, I presented a paper which title was “The Niger Delta and the Writer”. The thrust of the paper was that the Niger Delta offered great experiences that writers have explored rewardingly in their literary craft: rich fauna and flora, farmlands and primordial creeks, excited waves laughing along the Atlantic coast; rich cultures and nice peoples, and so on. I argued also in that paper that the environment was unfavourable to the writer, even though it had so much appeal. This is another paradox. It is the paradox of the male spider. During reproduction, the male spider mates with the female spider so passionately to a point of extreme exhaustion. In that state of energy loss by the male spider, the female spider kills and eats the male spider immediately. This is the reproductive agony of the male spider. Rejuvenated, the female spider proceeds to spin a cocoon in which she lays her eggs. The young spiders that are hatched in the warmth of the cocoon do not know their father. What lies does the female spider tell the young ones about their father who would never have the opportunity to tell his love story of agony? The Niger Delta world is increasingly busy with new wordsmiths that say what Saro-Wiwa said in the territory of the Nigerian female spider. The writer who is committed to the cause of the Niger Delta is a male spider. I think that Nigeria’s structures should preserve, not destroy, courageous positive voices.
Leaders must have a clear vision of the art of governance. At 100, how much concern have all tiers of government in Nigeria (especially the local government councils and states) shown for the survival of our local tappers and trappers, our weavers and carvers, our traditional singers and dancers, our native wrestlers and drummers, and our subsistence farmers and fishermen? The truth is that people face acute non-sustainability on the same land where their ancestors had plied the trades rewardingly. Most youths are unemployed or unemployable. Many have acquired chains of no vacancy degrees. These are degrees that have alienated them from their cultures. It is necessary to comment on the three revolutions at this juncture with due regard to the Niger Delta. Since the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution in about 10,000 BC, the revolution that saved human species from wandering as vagabonds; even since the Industrial Revolution of the mid 18th century, which made it possible for machines to take over the duties of man; and even this day in the Cybernetic Revolution of the 20th and the 21st centuries, which has equipped mankind wonderfully to inquire into space and time with astonishingly successful results; hardly anything has changed in the native way of life in the Niger Delta.
Natives still dig shallow wells with crude tools to fetch water. No native of the Niger Delta has probed the soil deep enough to prospect for oil and gas with local technologies. No native of the Niger Deltanor Nigerian has climbed higher than the height of a palm tree or a hill, unaided with foreign technologies. So a majority of the natives live on top of the liquid and gaseous wealth they know little about. Those who know little must keep quiet and be co-operative or they are lured to court the female spider.
Many Niger Delta and indeed Nigerian children roam the streets. Some children have been abandoned overseas, without funds, to face extreme suffering and hunger in the euphemism of government overseas scholarships while persons in government spoil for political wars at home. In the north-east, Boko Haram insurgents have atrociously questioned our nationhood. There are many problems: there are many questions arising from bygone decades of bad governance. The present mayhem appears to be a blast of a keg of the gunpowder of past misdeeds and negligence. These are challenges. Well, other nations have their peculiar challenges too. I think there is no one for whom it is well. But we must strive to make things better.
May we not forget that Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged because he sought the good of the people. Those who loot our commonwealth live blissfully: they are not killed.I present below Ken Saro-Wiwa’s final statement to the military tribunal that condemned him on 13th November, 1995. Again, it is not aimed at serving as an appeal to mass emotion because I do not intend to commit a fallacy of argumentum ad populum. I am convinced that it is best guide to the man, his works, his worth and his entire life. Hear Saro-Wiwaon Monday, 13 November 1995;
We all stand before history. I am a man of peace, of ideas. Appalled by the denigrating poverty of my people who live on richly endowed land, distressed by their political marginalization and economic strangulation, angered by the devastation of their land, their ultimate heritage, anxious to preserve their right to life and to a decent living, and determined to usher to this country as a whole a fair and just democratic system which protects everyone and every ethnic group and gives us all a valid claim to human civilization, I have devoted my intellectual and material resources, my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief and from which I cannot be blackmailed or intimidated. I have no doubt at all about the ultimate success of my cause, no matter the trials and tribulations which I and those who believe with me may encounter on our journey. Nor imprisonment nor death can stop our ultimate victory.
I repeat that we all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial and it is as well that it is represented by counsel said to be holding a watching brief. The company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and the lessons learnt here may prove useful to it for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished. The crime of the company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will also be punished.
On trial also is the Nigerian nation, its present rulers and those who assist them. Any nation which can do to the weak and disadvantaged what the Nigerian state has done to the Ogoni, loses a claim to independence and to freedom from outside influence. I am not one of those who shy away from protesting injustice and oppression, arguing that they are expected in a military regime. 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, men and women too afraid to wash their pants of urine. We all stand on trial, my lord, for by our actions we have denigrated our country and jeopardized the future of our children. As we subscribe to the sub-normal and accept double standards, as we lie and cheat openly, as we protect injustice and oppression, we empty our classrooms, denigrate our hospitals, fill our stomachs with hunger and elect to make ourselves the slaves of those who ascribe to higher standards, pursue the truth, and honour justice, freedom, and hard work. I predict that the scene here will be played and replayed by generations yet unborn. Some have already cast themselves in the role of villains, some are tragic victims, some still have a chance to redeem themselves. The choice is for each individual.
I predict that the denouement of the riddle of the Niger delta will soon come. The agendum is being set at this trial. Whether the peaceful ways I have favoured will prevail depends on what the oppressor decides, what signal it sends out to the waiting public.
In my innocence of the false charges I face here, in my utter conviction, I call upon the Ogoni people, the peoples of Niger delta, and the oppressed ethnic minorities of Nigeria to stand up now and fight fearlessly and peacefully for their rights. History is on their side. God is on their side. For the Holy Quran says in Sura 42, verse 41: ‘All those that fight when oppressed incur no guilt, but Allah shall punish the oppressor.’Come the day.Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa(http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/34a/020.html)
That was the mental strength of a man who was aware that he was walking along the corridors of death with his fellow patriots. What happened to Ken Saro-Wiwa is analogous to the message delivered to the people of Angola by Mr Mussunda, a character in Jose Luandino Vieira’s novel which was published in African Writers Series by Heinemann in 1978. The title of the novel is The Real Life of Domingos Xavier. This is Mr Mussunda’s message:
My fellow Angolans. A brother has come to say that they have killed our comrade. He was called Domingos Xavier and he was a tractor driver. He never harmed anyone, only wanted the good of his people and of his land. I stopped this dance only to say this, not for it toend, for our joy is great: our brother carried himself like a man, he did not tell the secrets of his people, he did not sell himself. We are not going to weep anymore for his death because, Domingos Antonio Xavier, you begin today your real life in the hearts of the Angolan people…. (84)
Once more, I state that I have merely presented an outline. The discussion panellists will quarrel professionally over the issues and others. Finally, I re-iterate my hope that the outcome of this symposium will offer Nigeria an advancement quantum leap based on respect for writers’ visions. It is fair for the soil to turn a choice yam seedling into a prize tuber at harvest time.
Professor Daniel Ogum teaches at the University of Port Harcourt