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Out from the shadow of a martyr

Review by Corinna Lotz

It is difficult to do justice to Ken Wiwa's sparkling book, which is a highly personal story and a political history all at once. His story is a personal odyssey, the story of a boy growing up, and "a portrait of the artist as a young man" – to use James Joyce's words.

Wiwa's story is about the need to rebel and break in some way with one's parents to become an independent individual with the confidence to create a future. It is also the account of the life and death of a people's hero and political campaigner, who was murdered by the willing executioners of a global corporation.

Wiwa's restless movement is fired by the search for his own identity and this eventually becomes the story of Everyman. He constructs his book as a spiral through time, shifting effortlessly from Britain to post-colonial Africa, to Britain, Australia and even Burma. Sharply conflicting strands of existence are so tightly interwoven that it is hard to unravel them.

The "Saint" of the book's title is Ken Wiwa's father, Kenule Saro-Wiwa, one of Nigeria's best-loved writers. He was a tireless campaigner on behalf of his people, the Ogoni who live in the Niger Delta. On November 10, 1995 he and eight other Ogoni were executed by the Nigerian military.

Shell oil and its puppet regime headed by General Abacha in Nigeria thereby sought to decapitate MOSOP, the movement founded by Wiwa to lead a struggle against the genocide of his people, the Ogoni.

Throughout the 1980s, Saro-Wiwa denounced the oil companies and the ethnic majority oppressors in Nigeria. But by 1992 he reached the conclusion, his son writes, "that in a country with 60 per cent illiteracy, where books were a luxury item, writers and writing could not change or move society".

He decided to mobilise the Ogoni against the oil industry and the military dictators running his country. Thus he set himself on a collision course with powerful and ruthless opponents.

"Although", his son writes, "the oil industry in Nigeria was nationalised in 1977 – and Shell operates in a joint venture with the government …. – Shell wears the trousers in the relationship…. Shell Nigeria's holding company, Shell International Petroleum Company (SIPC) is one of the biggest companies in the world; its annual turnover of $100 billion dwarfs Nigeria's annual budget of some $14 billion."

These figures sum up how companies like Shell can dictate the politics of the densely-populated Niger River delta, wreak havoc with its eco-system and destroy those who oppose the genocide of their people. More than these stark facts, the book shows how a generation, shaped by the newly-won independence era of the 1960s, later saw the movement for national independence become transformed into a struggle directly against the global companies.

It is they who dictate the policies of national leaders in Africa today, from Nigeria to South Africa. Ken Wiwa writes: "Oil was discovered in Ogoni in 1958, but after 30 years of exploration, after an estimated 900 million barrels had been extracted from the land, the region had very little to show for it. There was little electricity or pipe-borne water in the community; schools and hospitals were chronically under-funded, poorly staffed and badly maintained. A community of subsistence farmers was threatened by the effects of the oil industry."

The decisive role

Sketching out his father's role in the Ogoni movement, Wiwa shows the decisive role of leadership. "My father had a love-hate relationship with Ogoni. Although he was proud of his roots, he despised the slavish mentality and our poor reputation. When he formed MOSOP [in 1990], he was determined to change all that, but even he was surprised at how quickly the organisation altered our people's psyche.

"In many respects, my father was MOSOP. He set up the organisation, and he wrote, published and persuaded the Ogoni people to sign the Ogoni bill of rights …he bullied, cajoled, persuaded and organised MOSOP into an effective movement. He read extensively about grass-roots organisations… organising MOSOP into an umbrella group within democratic sub-units that reflected different social classes within the community. There were MOSOP sub-units for traditional rulers, chiefs, students, youths, church groups, professionals and women. The goal was to involve everyone in the decision-making process. MOSOP was designed as a bottom-up organisation."

Three years after the foundation of MOSOP, a mass movement of Ogoni emerged. Almost two-thirds of the population marched peacefully on January 4, 1993. Within four months a savage reign of terror against the Ogoni was unleashed. In April, Saro-Wiwa was arrested and released twice.

By June, Nigeria had elections, which ended up in a military coup by Defence Minister General Abacha in November. After Abacha's seizure of power, the repression directed against MOSOP culminated in the final frame-up, arrest and detention of Ken Saro-Wiwa on May 21, 1994.

These events were certainly already inscribed on the hearts of the Ogoni before the writing of this book. But In the Shadow of a Saint goes further than outlining this terrible story. Ken Junior describes his quest for his father after he lost him, and at the same time for his own identity, which for a long time he felt his father had robbed him of. This book tells how eventually, and after travelling thousands of miles, he came to terms with not only his father but with himself, and by doing so discovers – and creates – his own identity.

By the age of 14 "I was already living a double life,", he writes, "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."

After his public school education in Britain and free from direct political responsibilities, Ken Junior was not enthusiastic about returning to Nigeria in 1992. His relationship with his father was full of tension, as he tried to resist being absorbed, as Ken Junior saw it, into the elder Saro-Wiwa's larger-than-life personality.

Painfully honest

He is painfully honest about how he often hated his father and how he resented being the son of a political leader. He does not shirk from grasping the nettle of this difficult relationship. And it is his frankness which makes the book real and often heart-rending.

"Guilt stalks the relatives of martyrs," he writes. And more: "… the troubled heart of the matter is this: to make the world safe for their children, martyrs must sacrifice their children. And unless you are an unquestioning and devoted supporter, the sacrifice may seem harsh, even cruel."

He describes how his father was battling to meet the intolerable demands on him, months before his final arrest, and his own unsympathetic reaction: "I just couldn't see how he could be leading a struggle that he said was for the future, for us, his children, while he neglected those children's immediate needs and well-being…. So I turned my back on him."

After his father's arrest, however, Ken Junior fought tenaciously to defend him and prevent his execution. He travelled to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in Auckland, just after Saro-Wiwa was sentenced to death. Ken tried in vain to get an audience with Nelson Mandela, to ask him to intercede with General Abacha. "I was left with no doubt that the president's men did not want me anywhere near him…. His insistence on 'quiet diplomacy' and 'constructive engagement' mystified human rights campaigners and infuriated Nigerian pro-democracy activists."

Mandela was by now in the same position as the conservatives in the Ogoni movement, whom Saro-Wiwa had called "gerontocrats". These pro-bourgeois elements in the national movement are always, in Saro-Wiwa's own words, "quite content to take the crumbs of today in preference for the riches of tomorrow. They collaborate with our enemies in return for personal advantages."

Ken was bitterly disappointed by Mandela's refusal to try to save his father and the other Ogoni martyrs, but suggests that South Africa's president was "badly advised". This surprising, but misplaced generosity, reveals a weakness in Wiwa's own political understanding. By 1995, five years after Mandela's release from prison, the ANC leader's priority was to maintain the status quo between the rule of the global companies in Africa and the black masses. This is why he was not prepared to tip the scales in Auckland on behalf of the jailed Ogoni leaders.

The final poignant chapter is set a year ago this April. It is the time of the funeral which was to inter the remains of the nine Ogoni executed in 1995. When Ken arrives at Port Harcourt airport, his father's final statement to the tribunal is read out before a crowd of a thousand Ogoni.

"My lord, we all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial… 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 individuals…."

In the Shadow of a Saint is a morality tale for the 21st century, a time in history when no country, people or individual can avoid the all-pervasive impact of global capitalism. In the end Ken Wiwa attains fulfilment doing what at first had appeared as an intolerable burden – an enlightening example of Hegel's maxim that freedom is the recognition of necessity.

In the Shadow of a Saint by Ken Wiwa. Doubleday £16.99

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