“We can not order anyone around, but our power is in argument and persuasion.”
– Chinua Achebe, author & poet
There is an intrinsic, contagious power in writing about current affairs. I fell into its persuasion on a sad day 16 years ago when I first heard about Ken Saro-Wiwa. that was then, this is now features my impressions of courageous writers who helped to pen a movement, and an update on the impact of their work today. It’s a glimpse. Look for it bimonthly.
THEN. 1995. I was a fresh Concordia University graduate, volunteering my time as a book reviewer for a community newspaper in Montreal. The editor, my mentor, assigned me my first news story. I was to report on the state-sanctioned executions of nine dissidents in Nigeria carried out on November 10th. One of the people hanged was Ogoni activist and writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Publicly, Saro-Wiwa had been critical of the Nigerian government and multinational oil companies in his country.
What did I know about this man? Little. I soon learned Saro-Wiwa accused Royal Dutch Shell of exploiting natural resources of the oil-rich Niger Delta. He had sounded off on the alliance between Shell and his country’s military leader, Sani Abacha, denouncing how they worked for the purposes of extracting Nigerian oil, pocketing the profits and polluting water and land with impunity.
Saro-Wiwa talked of the devastation of Ogoniland, where his Ogoni people languished without financial compensation. (Years after the writer’s death, Remember Saro-Wiwa, a coalition of British organizations, would post his last interview in two parts.)
The editor told me to summarize the executions and world reaction from the mainstream reports. He was probably minding my inexperience, and of course, he worried I could miss my deadline. “Just don’t overthink it,” he warned. But I couldn’t help it.
I wondered about asking someone in Montreal to comment. Nigerians in the city of Montreal predate 1960, when the African country gained independence from the British Empire. The Nigerian Canadian Association formed in Montreal in the ’80s and more Nigerian groups took root and grew. I made a fews calls to associations and found people to talk to, including a former journalist who met Saro-Wiwa before moving to Canada. She went on record. I remember only that her first name was Choice and she said was outraged to tears about the killings. She wanted the world’s attention on the Ogoni plight.
The newsprint issue came out November 16, 1995. I still do now what I did back then: I read and re-read my piece. Then I would read and re-read it some more. I was imagining the impact of my words, hoping I used them effectively to relay why Saro-Wiwa and the other activists died.
Those moments of obsessive evaluation were defining. Soon after, I applied and was accepted into journalism school in Toronto.
NOW. 2011. In its report released on the anniversary of Saro-Wiwa’s death, Amnesty International called on Shell to commit $1 billion to clean up its catastrophic mess in Ogoniland. The human rights organization continues to throw blame squarely at oil companies in the Niger Delta, namely Shell. Three years ago, faults in a pipeline caused two back-to-back spills which encroached on the land and stream around Bodo, a town of nearly 70,000 in the Ogoni region. The crude was never properly cleaned up. On November 13th, Shell reported another spill.
“The situation in Bodo is symptomatic of the wider situation in the Niger Delta oil industry. The authorities simply do not control the oil companies. Shell and other oil companies have the freedom to act – or fail to act – without fear of sanction,” said Amnesty in a press statement.
The U.K.-based Shell Petroleum Development Co. has responded to the demands by saying its attempts to clean up the spills have been hampered by “the repeated impact of sabotage and bunkering spills.”
Amnesty International’s report was based on research conducted with the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development.
- Sweet Crude: A documentary film (2009), directed by Sandy Cioffi
- “Curse of the Black Gold: Hope and Betrayal in the Niger Delta” by Tom O’Neill, National Geographic Magazine, 2007
- Niger Delta, More Reports on the Region, Frontline/World, PBS, 2009
- Sozaboy by Ken Saro-Wiwa, Longman Publishing, 1995