Thursday, February 15, 2007

Ken Saro Wiwa on my mind

When CNN reporter Jeff Koinanga got near the place where he was supposed to meet with his interviewee Jomo Gbomo, spokesman of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), his boat was surrounded by boatloads of armed men. Men in black, wearing bonnets, brandishing big firearms and shooting into the air, prancing, dancing. This was enough to sow terror in the heart of even the most hardened of journalists.

I couldn’t help recalling my own foray into the wilderness of Samar with a bunch of journalists. Using a motorized banca, we went through a heavily canopied river from the banks of which emerged heavily armed rebels who would lead us further into the wilderness and into the heart of a guerrilla movement. Into Tarzan territory, I called it. But we weren’t supposed to be frightened. Our hosts made sure of that.

When I saw the CNN footage I thought I had been there before. Except that this was the Niger Delta.

Were these armed men the ones supposed to meet with the journalist? Where was Jomo Gbomo? He was the one who supposedly did the inviting. Will he show his face? Would he emerge? Was this the right group? Jomo never got to present himself but the armed men had a surprise for the journalist: 24 Filipino hostages, all looking forlorn, frightened and forsaken.

(Jomo would later call the journalist to say MEND was not the one holding the hostages.)

The Filipinos had been held captive since January in the Niger Delta. The oil-rich river delta is a hotbed of dissent. Various ethnic groups have been waging a struggle against Western multinationals and their own government for many years. Who are the legit freedom fighters, who are the bandits? Who are the true leaders, who are the mini-despots in the making?

Last week CNN showed the 24 hostaged Filipino workers in Nigeria with their captors. Thanks to CNN reporter Koinanga, it was, I think, the closest any outsider got to them. It was a terrifying scene and I felt something in the pit of my stomach. The reporter was himself not sure how safe it was to get in and out of the place ruled by fragmented armed groups. Coming face to face with the hostages was a surprise. Being able to talk to them and get them to speak was a bonus.

Two days ago the Filipino hostages were set free. Two still remain in the hands of their captors. No ransom paid, the news report said.

Watching and reading about all these, I couldn’t help but remember Ken Saro-Wiwa, writer, hero, martyr, who was hanged, along with eight others, on Nov. 10, 1995 in Nigeria. He had led the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) so that the government would heed their demands. He was hanged.

When Saro-Wiwa and the eight others—all members of the Ogoni tribe—were hanged, Greenpeace issued a statement saying that they were hanged for speaking out against the environmental damage to the Niger Delta caused by Shell Oil through its 37 years of drilling in the region. Saro-Wiwa was campaigning for the basic right to clean air, land and water and his only crime was his success in bringing his cause to international attention.

Greenpeace said that Shell’s call for “quiet diplomacy” at the 11th hour was not of any use. For Shell had ample opportunity to demonstrate concern when Saro-Wiwa was in detention and on trial. Instead, Shell chose to remain cozy with the Nigerian military dictatorship at that time.

The execution of Saro-Wiwa created ripples all over the world and today, many environmental and literary groups hail him as a hero.

Here was what Saro-Wiwa said to the tribunal: “I repeat that we all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial…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 war against the Ogoni people will also be punished.”

Several times in 1993, Saro-Wiwa was arrested but he was adopted by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience. The supposed reason for his arrest was that he had incited the youth to murder.

Since the change in government in 1998, both the government and the oil companies have acknowledged the problem of underdevelopment in the Niger Delta but the environmental damage caused by oil exploration has not been fully addressed. MOSOP continues to demand that Shell conduct and environmental assessment and do a clean up.

As a writer, Saro-Wiwa had produced 27 books and had been honored for excellence in creative writing. He was a member of the Ogoni tribe composed of some 500,000 people. The Ogoni live in the densely populated Ogoniland in south-eastern Nigeria.

Ogoniland has produced more than US30 billion worth of oil for Nigeria through the government’s joint partnership with Shell. But the oil endeavor has resulted in severe pollution of Ogoniland.
Now the Niger Delta is described as “anarchic”, meaning that varied groups have exploited the situation and the ones who suffer the most are the people.

The hostage situation pushed back Saro-Wiwa to my consciousness and I couldn’t help imagining the cross-continental repercussions of the trouble in the Niger Delta. I thought, it could spawn a movie like “Babel”, with the Filipino hostages taking center stage, their families in the Philippines sustaining the progression of the plot. And the oil companies…

It is sad, an eye opener of a movie that is sad.