10 November 1995 was – to mix lingos – a dies horribilis par excellence for me! (A horrible day to beat all horrible days).
It was my wife’s birthday, and I had planned a nice little outing for just the two of us.
But no sooner had I woken up than the telephone rang to usher me into unknown territory.
The caller was someone from BBC World Service Television. Would I be available for a live discussion about the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, later that morning? he asked.
“Yes”, I said.
“Okay, we shall send a car for you at 10 a.m. The programme will be telecast from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club at Pall Mall. It shouldn’t take you more than 30 minutes to get there.”
I began my preparations. I would go in a nice Nigerian outfit I had bought in Lagos, I decided. Nigerian outfits are good everywhere – the three-piece agbada can stand the cold of winter, and in the summer, one could make do with just the up-and-down (trousers and long shirt) without the big gown. Getting the cap into the correct shape to make it look stylish takes skill. But there are so many variations in the way of doing it that even a botched attempt can appear like a “new style.” So, when I strode out in full gear, I was confident that I would get the usual compliments, which went something like this: “agbada was made for tall people like you!”
But had I known it, fate itself was what was dictating my attire. Nigeria was indeed to invade and ruin my world for the rest of the day. However, when the car came and I sat in the back, going over my notes of the CHOGM agenda, I was thinking of economic co-operation within the Commonwealth, human rights issues, the Commonwealth Games and how they enable members of the Commonwealth to get to know one another – that sort of thing.
I got to the venue in time and the programme began. With me was an Indian diplomat from the Commonwealth Secretariat. We didn’t contradict each other too much, and I was enjoying myself, recounting, in an engaging manner, how, at international conferences, Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians as well as the Afro-Asian members of the Commonwealth, managed to get on better than any other group, apart from, probably, the delegates from Francophone Africa.
Suddenly, the presenter’s eyes widened. He put his hands to his ears and planted the ear-piece he wore more firmly on, whilst he nodded now and then. Obviously, he wasn’t listening to what we were saying any longer.
In fact, he cut us off in mid-sentence to say: “I have just been told that the Nigerian environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight other activists from Ogoniland in Nigeria, have been hanged by the Nigerian Government of General Sani Abacha!”
WHAAAAAT? We both shouted. To say that we were astonished would be an under-statement. We were shocked clean out of our minds. The cameras focused on us and conveyed our stricken appearance to the watching world.
The presenter asked me to comment on the terrible news. I gave the background to the Ogoni struggle – how Shell Petroleum was digging oil out of the place – in the Niger Delta – and had carelessly polluted its rivers, streams and lagoons by spilling crude oil into them. Human rights groups like Greenpeace had documented the proliferation of broken pipelines in Ogoni and other localities in the oil-rich Delta. Many pipelines were old and not fit for purpose. In addition, poverty amongst the people impelled some of them to dig up some of the pipelines deliberately, in order to harvest crude oil to sell. Such practices caused fires, and the ash from the fires, added to poisonous debris from flared gas, had brought many diseases, such as cancer, to Ogoniland, I explained.
I added that after many years of appealing to an unresponsive Shell and its partner, the Nigerian Federal Government, to cease the oil spills and compensate the people for ruined farm and fishing grounds, the Ogoni, under Ken Saro-Wiwa’s leadership, had formed the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) with which they had mounted a campaign for self-rule in Ogoniland. But instead of trying to come to an accommodation with them, Shell had incited the Nigerian Government to send its fearsome “Mobile Police” – known locally as the “Kill-and-go” mob, to Ogoni to brutalise the people. It was in the course of campaigns protesting against this brutality that Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested and charged with causing the death of some Ogonis who didn’t agree with the MOSOP campaign .
“But Ken Saro-Wiwa was not even at the rally at which the people lost their lives,” I emphasized. “Nor was there any direct, conclusive evidence that the eight others executed with him had a hand in the killings. This is the sort of inhuman “common purpose law” with which the apartheid operators in South Africa got so many people sentenced to death or sentenced to long imprisonment: if you were deemed to have a mentality that would have made you approve of a violent deed, then you were guilty of a crime even if you took no direct part in causing violence. It’s absolutely unjust; totally illegal, in terms of Nigerian law and international jurisprudence!”
It wasn’t by accident that I knew so much about the Ogoni people’s struggle.
I first met Saro-Wiwa himself in 1986, when I was working for a posh magazine called South, based in London.
He’d just published a novel called ‘Soza Boy’, which he described, with self-mocking aplomb, as “a novel in rotten English”.
Rotten English, as Saro-Wiwa rendered it in ‘Soza Boy’, was totally eccentric. It was based on what we in West Africa call “pidgin English”, but it was better. You could see that every sentence had been deliberately crafted to make you laugh. One sentence that sticks to my mind is “Ah, how government go catch government?”(This was the hero’s explanation of how so many government officials “ate” the people’s money with impunity in Nigeria. How could government officials arrest and imprison other government officials who did the same thing as they did?)
It was the fun in the book that made me take notice of it, for it had landed on my desk by way of a public relations outfit based in London, and I had snootily decided that any novelist who used a PR firm should not be taken seriously. It occurred to me, however, on better reflection, that if an “unknown” Nigerian published his own novel and sent it to the London media for review, it would be difficult to get it noticed if he just naively sent it to snobbish literary editors, and relied on their professed love for literature to induce them to pass it on to their regular reviewers.
So I decided to interview Saro-Wiwa. He came to see me at the offices of Index On Censorship in Islington, where I was to be found when I was not at South.
My first impression of him was not at all favourable. He smoked a pipe, and as I am allergic to tobacco, I put the worst possible construction upon this. “Pretentious” was the word that came readily to my mind.
But talking to Saro-Wiwa immediately put me at my ease. He declared himself an unashamed capitalist – he casually let drop the fact that he dealt in commodities and was making money from it!
“He knows about ‘derivatives’!” I told myself. Until I became a correspondent for the Financial Times in Accra, that area of knowledge was completely alien to me. But Ken was not only aware of it but an actual participant in that esoteric activity. Respect!
The guy was also full of wit. When I asked him why he had “betrayed” the Biafran cause during the Nigerian civil war (1967-70) and joined the federal side, he told me that his ethnic group, the Ogoni, is so puny in numbers that “everyone oppresses us”. He implied that the relationship between the Ogoni and the Igbos who formed the majority in the break-away state of Biafra, had not been any more harmonious than their relationship with the ethnic groups in the federal side – such as the Yorubas and the Hausas. The latter, in fact, put him in charge of the former Eastern Region after they defeated Biafra, and he seemed to have been relatively successful in resettling some of the former Biafrans.
Ken and I kept in touch after my favourable review of ‘Soza Boy’ appeared in South magazine. Then I noticed from pieces he was sporadically publishing in West Africa Magazine that he was becoming militantly anti-Federal Nigeria. Next thing I knew, he’d shown up in my house to persuade me to publicise a movement he was leading to achieve Ogoni “independence” for the Ogoni. He showed me an Ogoni national anthem he had written, and a potential flag!
I was immediately scared for him. “Hey man,” I warned him, “these military rulers of yours are going to charge you with treason if you’re not careful.”
He said, “Let them do their worst. We are tired. They have just been taking billions of dollars of oil money from our land but have neglected to give the people any of it. We have no schools, no health facilities, and no clean water. But people who do not know what crude oil looks like have become millionaires out of oil. We are left with diseases including cancer and respiratory ailments. How much longer can we take it?”
Alas, as I had warned, he was inevitably arrested. Fortunately, in those days, The Observer newspaper in London had people who were very interested in Africa. So, the Foreign Desk proposed that I should do a big profile of Saro-Wiwa. From then on, The Observer devoted many column inches to articles I wrote about the Ogoni people’s struggle against Shell and the Nigerian Federal Government. An investigative piece of mine, which appeared on the front page revealing that Shell purchased guns for the Nigerian police who guarded its installations in Ogoniland, caused a world sensation and was reprinted in many countries.
We were outraged when Ken and the eight other Ogonis were sentenced to death, and we made it clear to the world that the nature of the Abacha regime was such that there was a real possibility of his being executed.
One night during the days when we were campaigning for Ken’s freedom, I had a most vivid dream, in which I heard Saro-Wiwa’s voice asking me plaintively, “Cameron, why are you allowing them to kill us?”
I was extremely scared by the dream and took the matter most seriously. I realised that Ken had a very strong spirit, and had been able to contact me, through metaphysical communication of sorts, from his prison cell. The end-result was that I became a campaign journalist on his behalf – despite the fact that my school of journalism frowns upon too much personal involvement with stories. The publicity we generated on behalf of Ken was of such strength that we thought Sani Abacha would never dare to execute him and his companions in jail.
But Abacha had slaughtered them! It was unbelievable, especially because he had chosen the day the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting opened in Auckland, to do it. His Foreign Minister, Tom Ikimi, who was at the CHOGM conference, had been telling newsmen in diplomatic language that General Abacha was carefully considering appeals that had been made to him from Commonwealth leaders to spare Ken and his companions, and everyone had been hopeful that these appeals would be heard by the General. But instead, he had slapped the other Commonwealth heads of government in the face, by killing his captives before his fellow heads of government they could make a pronouncement, as a body, on the issue. How cynical!
The BBC kept me in its TV studios talking about the executions all day. By the time I got home, I was so tired and overcome with grief that my wife’s birthday celebration went by the board and had to be postponed.
In the aftermath of the executions, the London press generally tried to make President Nelson Mandela of South Africa a scapegoat for Abacha’s butchery. He had said, when asked, that he had been making contact with General Abacha on the issue of the Ogoni death sentences. But some journalists felt that he had not been vociferous enough about it. So they went to town about him after the executions. The London Independent, in particular, was very scathing: it described Mandela as “’the man who wasn’t there”. It did not, however, explain how Mandela, could at the same time as he was sending private messages to Abacha, pleading for mercy for the condemned men, also be excoriating Abacha in public and expect his mercy pleas to be effective!
I felt that the trap in which Mandela found himself was not appreciated by the journalists who were tearing his reputation to shreds. I was, in fact, privy to secret attempts Mr Mandela had been making to influence Abacha, not only on Saro-Wiwa’s behalf, but also on behalf of Chief Moshood Abiola, the winner of the Nigerian presidential election of June 12, 1993, whom Abacha had unjustly imprisoned. Mandela sent Archbishop Desmond Tutu to see Abacha; then Vice-President Thabo Mbeki. And finally, he went to Abuja himself. Abacha made sympathetic noises promising action at each of these meetings. But once his visitors had left, he brushed their pleas aside.
I thought Mr Mandela would like to explain his side of the matter to the world, so I faxed his office one Tuesday, asking for an interview. We’d met a few times before, but even so, I was surprised to receive an appointment for the Friday. I hastily flew down to Johannesburg from London.
Mr Mandela exploded on hearing Abacha’s name: he called Abacha all sorts of names; he was a man who “had no respect for facts”; Abacha’s action was “barbaric”; Abacha was “a brutal dictator who had used a ‘kangaroo court’ to try and execute human rights activists.” Looking calmly at me, and without raising his voice, Mr Mandela said: “Abacha is sitting on a time bomb, and I am going to explode it underneath him!” He then called on the Nigerian opposition to “learn “from the experience of the ANC in South Africa and intensify their struggle against Abacha’s dictatorship.” He added that he would urge the rich members of the Commonwealth to impose sanctions on Abacha’s government.
The interview was brimful of incendiary stuff. It marked the first time, to my knowledge, that a sitting African head of state had publicly gone against “trade union rules” and publicly insulted a fellow “card holder.” It was therefore a unique interview and I splashed it on the BBC (which made it a lead story), The Observer, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and De Volkskrant in Amsterdam.
Thus it is that on 10 November 2015, I shall have a double reason to down many beers – in memory of my dear wife, Beryl, who is no longer here to celebrate her birthday, and also of Ken Saro-Wiwa ad his fellow campaigners. I cannot get over the fact that a very fine writer (whose television soap operas had delighted many of his fellow citizens) had his life cruelly snuffed out, by the thievish, inhuman dictator called Sani Abacha, whose only claim to fame in Nigeria was that he salted away over $2 billion of its oil money: money which the Swiss Government has been tracing and sending back to the Nigerian government – in tranches.
* Cameron Duodu is a veteran Ghanaian journalist and writer.