Who deserves pardon: Saro-Wiwa or Buhari?, By Festus Adedayo

At No 9, Rumuibekwe Road in Port Harcourt on November 10, 1995, the devil sat in a corner, relishing an enactment of saturnalia. No one could see him. He wore dark goggles, donning the uniform of a five-star Army General, wrapped up in a huge celebratory mood. His arch-enemy, Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists had just been hung at the Port Harcourt Prison. Inside No 9, Rumuibekwe Road, family members sat on the hood of parked disused cars, weeping profusely; others holding their heads in anguish. In that instant, the most recently widowed woman in the world, Hauwa Saro-Wiwa, was inconsolable. Reporters at the Ogoni Special Civil Disturbances Tribunal reported that, since her husband was charged before the tribunal, which leapt on its two hind legs like a kangaroo that it was, perhaps sensing a ghoulish foreboding, Hauwa came in to the Rivers House of Assembly Complex venue of the tribunal to observe the proceedings, looking gaunt, pale and lean.

On that morning, when the devil’s infernal reign was announced, Hauwa, in the company of wives of the then about to be executed Ogoni activists, had taken breakfast to Ken and his convicted compatriots at the Bori Camp Army Settlement, where they were detained. The events that transpired must have given Hauwa an inkling that the day might be the last for her husband. Not only did the heavily armed security personnel deny the Ogoni wives the opportunity of seeing their husbands, they returned the food after taking them to Ken and the others because, according to them, Ken refused it since he couldn’t confirm where it came from. In a soliloquy, Harry Saro-Wiwa, Ken’s younger brother who was also at Rumuibekwe Road that afternoon, told journalists, amid wailings, that “the devil has triumphed.”

As prophetic as Harry’s statement was on the afternoon of that November 10, 1995, he should have known that this was just the devil’s dress rehearsal and its eventual triumph would come years later. If Harry ever thought the execution of the Ogoni activists, just ordered by military despot, Sani Abacha, marked the triumph of the devil over the Ogoni people’s advocacy, he should have waited for what would happen 26 years later. For the devil, its final triumph came like a thief in the night. Just a few hours to the 26th anniversary of the horrendous hanging of Saro-Wiwa and eight others, the triumph came with pomp and ceremony.

When it came, the hanged activists shook restlessly in their graves. President Muhammadu Buhari recently played host to some Ogoni leaders who had come to pay him a courtesy call at the Aso Rock Villa. Receiving them, Buhari in his address, said that, “In spite of the grievous circumstances, the federal government will consider the request for the grant of pardon to finally close the Ogoni saga.” By that statement, Buhari erected the gallows preparatory to the second and final hanging of Saro-Wiwa. So, the question is: Who deserves pardon between this man and that man judicially murdered 26 years ago? Then, the devil threw an orgy like one who had won at a tombola. It was almost the same way the devil danced in triumph when he vanquished the biblical couple of the early Christian Church, Ananias and Sapphira. Pardon for who and by who?

The trajectory of what led to the hanging of Saro-Wiwa by Abacha is in the public domain and should not detain us here. Suffice to say that, since 1958 when Shell Oil Company began drilling on Ogoni land in what was to translate Nigeria into a petro-state economy, the sorrows and tears of this oil-rich people has been on the rise. Dissatisfied by the effluents, combustible gas flares and the degradation of their land as a result of the exploration, which rendered farmlands covered by oil spillage blow-out unsuitable for farming, in 1970 the first petition against the operations of Shell, which was then operating a joint venture with the British Petroleum, was made by Ogoni chiefs who took their petition to the Military governor, lamenting that the oil company was “seriously threatening the well-being, and even the very lives” of the people. As if confirming the content of their petition, in that same 1970, a huge blowout that spanned three weeks occurred on the Bomu oilfield in Ogoni land, which caused untoward hardship, outrage and widespread pollution.

The Iko people, neighbours to the Ogoni, were to feel the brunt two years after. In defiance, they protested at the head office of Shell, which promptly invited the notorious mobile Police nicknamed Kill and Go, resulting in the destruction of 40 houses, with 350 people becoming homeless. That year, Ken and his brothers formed a non-violent action group named the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), and Ken was made president and Ledun Mitee, his vice. On August 4, 1990, Ogoni elders signed what they called the Ogoni Bill of Rights that sought “political control of Ogoni affairs by Ogoni people, control and use of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development, adequate and direct representation as of right for Ogoni people in all Nigerian national institutions and the right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradation.”

A year after the Ogoni Bill of Rights was signed, it was amended in August 1991, authorising and empowering MOSOP to seek international assistance for the plight of the Ogoni people and make an appeal to the international community. Saro-Wiwa thus began engagements with multilateral organisations, the United Nations, the United States, Europe and other groups all over the world, to sensitise them about the evil being perpetrated by Shell, in cahoots with the Nigerian military government.

Saro-Wiwa, renowned author and playwright, with books like On a darkling plane, Soza Boy and Four Farcical Plays, which he adapted to the highly successful television series called Basil and Company, then abandoned all these to concentrate on his people’s advocacy. In July 1992, at Geneva, he addressed the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, where he said: “I speak on behalf of the Ogoni people. You will forgive me if I am somewhat emotional about this matter. I am Ogoni … Petroleum was discovered in Ogoni in 1958 and since then an estimated 100 billion dollars worth of oil and gas has been carted away from Ogoniland. In return for this the Ogoni people have received nothing.”

The Nigerian military elite was riled at Saro-Wiwa’s diffidence. Reputed to be one of them, being friends with many of the big-epaulette soldiers like Abacha himself, it was obvious that Saro-Wiwa was intent on liquidating them and upturning their pots of soup, perhaps committing an intra-elite hara kiri. The denouement came on January 4, 1993, when Saro-Wiwa got the Ogoni to celebrate the Year of Indigenous Peoples. This he did by getting 300,000 Ogoni people to peacefully protest against the environmental destruction of Ogoniland by Shell. It frightened Shell departments in London, got the Nigerian government scampering hither thither and was said to remain, till date, the largest demonstration against any oil company. Excited at the turn-out, as if predicting his own death, Saro-Wiwa said if he died then, he was an accomplished man.

Upon seizing the reins of power, Abacha did two things that was to be the pall of Saro-Wiwa. One was the appointment of Lt. Col. Dauda Musa Komo as Military Administrator of Rivers State and, Major Paul Okuntimo, an Okun-Yoruba from Kogi State, as Commander, Internal Security, in Rivers State. Okuntimo later became an Army Brigadier-General, rising to become adviser to Kogi State governor, Yahaya Bello. Both superintended over torture, arson and killing of the Ogoni and the liquidation of Saro-Wiwa in 1995. Okuntimo died recently in Ibadan of cancer. In all these, there was coordinated evidence that showed that Shell was sponsoring Kill and Go policemen, through the evidence of Willbros, a contractor working for it, which owned up to calling government troops to violently fire back in response to demonstrations by the Ogoni, and paying Major Okuntimo and ‘his boys “field allowances”.

It would seem that the assignment was to deliver Saro-Wiwa’s head on a platter. Then came the Abacha Constitutional Conference, which the Ogoni agreed that Ken should attend as their representative, to voice out their plight. Ken, however, did not submit the relevant form until this expired. At a rally in Gokana Local Government, which he called to address the people, he was forcefully prevented from mounting the podium and escorted back to his car by Mobile Policemen. While entering his car, he was alleged to have told the surging crowd that he had heard that “the vultures” who stopped him from going to the Confab were meeting somewhere and that all should be done to fish them out and deal with them.

Before then, Okuntimo was reported to have sent a “restricted” memo to Komo, the Military Administrator, stating that the Ogoni were making “Shell operations…impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence.” In the memo, Okuntimo recommended “Wasting operations during MOSOP and other gatherings making constant military presence justifiable.” On May 21, 1994, exactly nine days after this memo, in Gokana, a mob seized Ogoni elders suspected to be anvils of Shell and the Nigerian government, who were taking mercantilist interest in Shell’s continuous exploration and who antagonised MOSOP. In the process, Chief Edward Kobani, Mr Albert Badey, Chief Samuel Orage and Mr Samuel Orage were cruelly murdered, thus opening the way for an excuse by government to justify a military operation.

The second day, Saro-Wiwa, Ledum Mitee and many other Ogoni leaders were arrested in connection with the killings. General Abacha then constituted a tribunal, which had Justice Ibrahim Auta as chairman. Apart from Wiwa and Mitee, other Ogoni leaders brought before the tribunal were a former commissioner for Commerce and Tourism, Dr Barinen Kiobel; Mr John Kpuinen and Baribian Bere. While Gani Fawehinmi acted as defence counsel, Joseph Dauda (SAN) stood for the prosecution. Fawehinmi had to withdraw at some point when he found out that the state’s hands were heavily visible in the prosecution. For instance, a major evidence in his firm hold, a tape of a press conference held by Dauda Komo and one Alhaji Kobani, was pronounced unrecyclable by the tribunal. From then, Saro-Wiwa refused to cooperate with the tribunal and his imposed counsel, Michael Kamebigba. Mittee equally defended self.

Finding Saro-Wiwa and the others guilty, Auta, in a three-hour judgement, said the murder of the Ogoni Four had the accused Ogoni leaders’ hands in it. He sad their offence, which contravened the Civil Disturbances Decree of 1987, was punishable by S 316 of the Criminal Code. He thus found the accused guilty and to be hanged by their necks. One Victoria Vokwe had given evidence that Saro-Wiwa told her that there would be a revolution in Ogoni land and heads would roll. As Auta rose, Hauwa wept uncontrollably, her shoulder on Political Scientist, Claude Ake’s shoulders. Ake, who was also inside the Rivers State House of Assembly Complex venue of the tribunal, wore a visage of crimson.

The world initially believed that Abacha had a modicum of humanity left in him and would not kill Saro-Wiwa. Professor Wole Soyinka and Ken-Wiwa (Junior), son of the elder Saro-Wiwa, however went to Auckland, New Zealand, to convince the gathering Heads of State of the Commonwealth to persuade Abacha to commute the sentences. On November 5, 1995, Bola Ige, in his Uncle Bola’s Column, wrote defending the Ogoni convicts, which he entitled, “Saro-Wiwa will live”.

n Thursday, November 8, 1995, the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) confirmed Auta’s sentence. Announced by the GOC, 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, Major General Victor Malu, the PRC said there was no room for clemency. On Saturday, November 10, barely 48 hours after the PRC confirmation, Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni elders, among whom were Saturday Dordee, Nordu Eawo, Felix Nuate, Paul Levula, David Gbokoo, Baribor Bera, Barinen Kobel were hung at exactly 11.30 a.m. About two hours before then, the prison and other adjoining roads were cordoned off by heavy MOPOL presence as the hanging was going on. By 2 p.m., their bodies, taken in a Port Harcourt City truck, were driven out of the prison premises to the cemetery, and by 3.15pm, their burial was concluded. There was unconfirmed rumour that their bodies were spattered with acid to speed up the process of decomposition.

Other reactions followed, like the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth and harsh reactions by leaders of the world. The UN General Assembly condemned it and President Clinton responded by recalling U.S. Ambassador Walter Carrington for consultations, while banning the sale and repair of military goods and services to Nigeria. For British Prime Minister, John Major, it was a “judicial murder.”

Several declassified information pointed at the fact that Saro-Wiwa was murdered by the Nigerian state. He was a sore in the throats of the military and if he and his MOSOP continued, they would have put “sand-sand” in the “gari” of the Nigerian military elite, who profited from the environmental sorrows of the Ogoni people. With his education, international connections and reach, Saro-Wiwa was fast penetrating the sacred groove of international attention. He had to die.

Apparently anticipating Nigeria’s wickedness, The Guardian, in 1992, had asked him what epitaph he would want written on his grave. The man whom Nigeria was so unfair to, that it denied him the usual six feet of the earth, he told the reporter. In death, Abacha reportedly even ordered that acid be poured on Saro-Wiwa, so as to shrink the space of the earth he occupied.

At the time Saro-Wiwa was hung, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd.), as he then was, was the de-facto Prime Minister of Nigeria as he served as the Chariman of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF). He controlled the levers of the economy and of the operations of government. Throughout the period, there was no word from Buhari for the Ogoni leader, nor in favour of his life, alongside those of his cohort, being spared. Indeed, Saro-Wiwa had to die for the interest of the military elite, which Buhari protected, to be sustained. One can thus logically agree that, ipso facto, Buhari was part of the hangmen who finished off the rights activists and his compatriots.

Having said this, it will be safe to conclude that Buhari’s recent claim of considering the offer of clemency to Saro-Wiwa “as part of this administration’s bid to lay the foundation for genuine reconciliation and bring closure to the issues of Ogoni land” as a post-humus re-conviction and re-murdering of Saro Wiwa and his men by the Nigerian state that he represents.

“What type of country is this?” was Saro-Wiwa’s last word on record, a hypothetical question that he sought answer to without success, until the hangman wrenched life out of him. Twenty six years after, the echo of that morbid question still thunders across Nigeria. We all still ask ourselves what type of country this is.

Festus Adedayo is an Ibadan-based journalist.

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