Human progress, according to Martin Luther King, Jr., is “neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
”The hope that the Nigerian national project throws up lies essentially in the fecundity of the issues raised—justice, gender, constitutionalism, education, governance, etc.; and the possibilities of redress found in the critical interrogation of “dedicated individuals”—those eminent personalities with selfless and passionate commitment to public interests and the huge potentialities of the Nigerian state. Chinua Achebe once remarked that “Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting.” And the excitement consists in the task of coaxing “this unruly child along the path of useful creative development.” And sometimes in doing this, it may appear that our abysmal frustration would put us at loggerhead with the state and engender a seemingly contrary vision. Yet, this is just a lovers’ quarrel between the Nigeria we see now and the one we desire to see not only for ourselves but also for our children.
One of these eminent Nigerians whose struggles could easily be misconstrued but whose intervention compels attention on the imperative of social justice as the locus for a focused interrogation of our vicissitudes as a nation is the late Kenule Saro-Wiwa—writer, environmental activist, businessman, politician and social crusader. The social activism of the Ogoni leader dilates for us the difficulties and contradictions which constitute the burden of national progress against which Nigeria’s leadership must strive if it would ever extricate itself from the strangulating grips of a comatose existence or perpetual transition.
As a writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa occupies the same spectrum of literary awareness as Soyinka, Achebe and other literary icons whose works interject the Nigerian predicament. However, in Saro-Wiwa we encounter a unique distillation of the meaning of literature in the life of a nation and its diverse but discontented people. Beyond the dynamics of aesthetics, style and forms, the essential objective of literature is to serve as a versatile but potent instrument of positive transformation and regeneration. Alice Childress, the American playwright, affirmed her literary commitment in this regard: “I continue to create because writing is a labor of love and also an act of defiance, a way to light a candle in a gale wind.” Lighting a candle in a gale wind speaks to the task of literature within the context of the horrid circumstances of many African societies, struggling with inherent social tensions and political predicaments. African writers are therefore conditioned as society watchdogs, who must ‘bark’ especially when the moral scale of the society is adversely tilted. Therefore, it isn’t enough for a writer to have a purpose; s/he must understand and pursue it.
Ken Saro-Wiwa had a deep and abiding understanding of what literature must do for the Nigerian national project. This purpose was found within the ambit of Ogoniland’s environment crusade for social justice. According to Saro-Wiwa, ‘The environment is man’s first right. Without a safe environment, man cannot exist to claim other rights, be they political, social, or economic.’ This concise and philosophical attestation encapsulates literature simply as man’s actions/inactions within his environment. This literary concern not only defines Saro-Wiwa’s social activism, it places him in the pantheon of other African writers—Nuruddin Farah, Es’kia Mphahlele, Denis Brutus, and so on—whose works lament the continual struggle with a challenging environment. And he expertly and doggedly wielded this weapon of writing until his time of arrest and death.
The year 1990 was a watershed for Saro-Wiwa, as it was the time he committed himself to ameliorating the problems of oil production and spillage in Nigeria’s Niger Delta regions. Focusing on his homeland, Ogoni, he launched a nonviolent movement for social and ecological justice: the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP). In a role similar to Gandhi’s satyagraha, Ken Saro-Wiwa challenged the oil companies and the Nigerian government of that era, reproving them for waging an ecological war against Ogoniland and occasioning an alleged genocide of the Ogoni people. The principal goal of MOSOP was simple: a fair share of the proceeds of oil extraction, increased autonomy for the Ogoni people and remediation of environmental damage to Ogoni lands by foreign oil corporations.
As much as Saro-Wiwa believed that crude oil extraction with extreme environmental damage and decades of indiscriminate petroleum waste dumping needed to be significantly mitigated, so did he insist on a corruption-free society where everyone, irrespective of their ethnic affiliations, had equal chances to articulate a decent existence.What he wanted for Ogoniland were items that ought to feature in every just and truly federal society. No other part of Nigeria ought to be derived of social justice, autonomy and an equal participation in the progress of Nigeria. And thus, with his Ogoni war cry, Ken Saro-Wiwa was again reiterating Martin Luther King, Jr. who noted that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In other words, by giving his lives in the defence of his people, Ken shows that our cheeks ought to be struck too by the blow that strikes any Nigerian anywhere. This togetherness and sense of national unity becomes a sine qua non for the rehabilitation of the Nigerian Project.
Unlike other national heroes we have celebrated, Ken Saro-Wiwa confronted the national project from the specific environmental groans and vicissitudes of the Ogoni people who constitute a bona fide part of the Nigerian diversity. His struggle was therefore ultimately against the forces of corruption in the military government of his time and their collaboration with the multinational oil companies that ripped apart the bowels of Ogoniland without commensurate “feed-back” and social responsibility to a people whose economic conditions were left in the morass of stupefied nihilism and pollution. In doing this, Saro-Wiwa insists that achieving the Nigerian dream implies, in most cases, decapitating the limbs of corruption, hypocrisy and sentiments in the political leadership of our country.
Thus, beyond the unprejudiced crusade against injustice and oil spillage and wreck in the Niger Delta, Ken was deeply, even if paradoxically, committed to the Nigerian agenda of development and national unity in many other several ways. For instance, knowing how the forces of tribalism and ethnocentrism could devastate the possibilities of growth and progress, Ken aptly positioned himself, in different publications—Songs in A Time of War (1985),Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English(1985), On a Darkling Plain: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War (1989), Letters to Ogoni Youth (1983), Ogoni: Moment of Truth (1994), A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary (1995)—to the espousal of brilliant theses as regards the contradictions of ethnocentric assumptions, thus proposing a united Nigerian anchored on principles of justice, equity and social tolerance. These vital ideals of modern societies will form the bastion for, to quote Saro-Wiwa himself, “a greater stability…the Nigerian nation will become stronger.”
Is Ken Saro-Wiwa a tragic hero? In a sense, the answer must be an affirmative. He paid the ultimate sacrifice within the context of political corruption, environmental injustice and multinational conspiracy mostly superintended by the military; yet his life and struggles humbly remind all of us that a right mix of selflessness, rule of law and good governance is highly needful to chart a path to the national greatness the country is due for. The real tragedy would happen if we fail to pursue the solid steps he took towards the realisation of that society.
–– Olaopa is Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Youth Development, Abuja.
This article was first published in ThisDay