Silence Would Be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa
10th of November was the 18th anniversary of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution. The National University of Ireland, Maynooth, launched the book, Silence Would Be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa, edited by Helen Fallon, Íde Corley and Laurence Cox, published jointly by CODESRIA and Daraja Press.
The book contains 28 letters and 27 poems by Ken Saro-Wiwa, sent to Sr. Majella McCarron, Irish nun and activist during Saro-Wiwa’s 18 months of military detention and eventual execution. Without her this book would not have been realized. For the time that Saro-Wiwa’s family and friends weren’t allowed to visit, Sr. Majella was one of the few people he could communicate with. Reading letter after letter, I couldn’t help but wonder what took this book so long to come out. Perhaps because of the medium–personal letters to Sr. Majella–yet still, given their scope: the political content and indomitable spirit, the environmental issues in Ogoniland, the international campaign for the Ogoni Nine, and the prospects for democracy in Nigeria and elsewhere, one would have hoped that it was clear they belonged in the public domain. Considering the delay therefore, 18 years of silence have been committed. Thank goodness the book is now available and what a story! The kind that would not forgive silence if it had remained untold.
The book is a triumph of the human fight against evil in all its ugly faces; social injustice, environmental devastation, greed, selfishness, human rights abuse and denigration of the people. After MOSOP–Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People’s massive campaign against Shell’s degradation of Ogoniland, Saro-Wiwa reports that Shell has declared in the Ogoni Issue: “that they will not return to Ogoni until & when the local community is in harmony with them. I hope that that gives the requisite signal to the Government–that they will have to accede to the demands of the oil-bearing areas and not visit them with violence in order to silence them…” Saro-Wiwa’s vision was beyond Ogoniland in his hope that other oil-bearing areas paying attention would emulate Ogoni’s example and non-violent ways in demanding good ethics and environmental protection. He’s informed about other nations’ approach to oil and gas, the “curse of oil” since it rarely benefits the local population, and lists Norway the only exception that listened to popular movements’ desire “that oil and gas wealth would be used for the benefit of society as a whole.” The Norwegian government controls over 60% of Norway’s oil and gas production. The Norwegian model has now “shaped Ireland’s response to oil and gas.” Saro-Wiwa knew what this model could achieve in the early 90’s. This model in fact may not be limited to oil and gas but could apply to all natural resources, for instance, Zambia, Africa’s largest producer of copper, controls and earns a pittance. “Under Zambian law…mining investors pay a paltry 0,6% royalty tax — the world average is about 3% — and they are exempt from customs duties on machinery and equipment. There is also no restriction on the amount of profits, dividends or royalties that can be repatriated…” The same applies to Congo, Namibia, Liberia, Angola and many other countries especially in Africa. We cannot say that Saro-Wiwa’s message isn’t applicable outside Nigeria. In November 2007, citing unethical Environmental and Human Rights damages, the Norwegian government disinvested all its shares in Vedanta Resources plc, a UK company, following the advice and comprehensive report conducted by the Norwegian Council on Ethics. It’s interesting to note that Vendata Resources plc. owns 79.4% of the share capital of Zambia’s copper. Such a win-win situation, right? Saro-Wiwa foresaw this.
Additionally, what comes out of the letters and poems is a celebration of connected solidarity, how in mysterious ways we are all interconnected and can contribute tremendously to any network of goodwill and intentions even if early on we may not have been aware of any interdependency. Such is the deep connection between Sr. Majella and Saro-Wiwa. Their bond, mutual trust and support for the Ogoni cause develop steadfastly, and their exchanges sustain Saro-Wiwa to the very end. Letter dated 30/7/94 begins:
Dear Sr. Majella,
I got your papers this morning & was I excited! You probably have not got the letter I sent through Barika [member of MOSOP]. Should be waiting for you in Lagos. I will miss you in the year you are going to be away! Your letter was the first really good intimation I had of the goings on in Ogoni…
Typical of what happens with this kind of correspondence where one is jailed and the other outside, we get the sense that some letters do not arrive or arrive late. Still, their communication grows. From Saro-Wiwa we understand that Sr. Majella’s diaries continue to bring him news of what’s happening in his family, government, Ogoniland, and the International scene. What started in a formal address ( Dear Sr. Majella,) begins to take on more informality, ease, familiarity; Letter dated 15/8/94:
A million thanks for your letters. They are so entertaining, so encouraging, & they give me those intimate details of my family which no one gives. God bless you & keep you for us!…
And bold requests, personal and logistical in nature. One dated 29/10/94:
Thanks a lot for the corrections to the Speech [Saro-Wiwa’s Acceptance Speech for the Right Livelihood Award ceremony in Stockholm on 9 December 1994, which he wasn’t permitted to attend]. I’m also sending the 5-minute address. The third one–the 30-minute paper should be ready by the end of today. I must appeal to you to wait and take them all with you. Please!
Saro-Wiwa was delighted with the award, the support that came with it, and continued to direct MOSOP while in detention. He also wrote and revised novels, short stories and poems. He was very concerned about typos, the importance of having a good editor, and a need to find a better publisher abroad since he wasn’t pleased with Longman’s African Writers Series. He mentions how in the Acceptance Speech, “Wasting Storms” came off as “Washing Storms” an entirely different thing. It’s admirable how he continues to care for the wholesomeness of language in the face of a fragmenting hope.
His letters and poems also inform us of other people engaged with the struggle and the results they’re achieving:
“…And Professor Ake and Wole Soyinka have done excellent essays on Ogoni… The published essays by Ake, Soyinka & myself have led to an upsurge of confidence in Ogoni. I now receive a stream of encouraging letters from the activists, including those of them who are underground…
Saro-Wiwa celebrates the accomplishments and acknowledges introspectively that overall, he’s had a good life:
…When I undertook to confront Shell & the Nigerian establishment, I signed my death warrant, so to speak. At 52, I think I’ve served my time and, come to face it, I’ve lived a charmed life.A few more books, maybe, & the opportunity to assist others would have been welcome. But it’s okay…
His worries are for his family and MOSOP leadership. Will they be able to carry on after he’s put away? He wonders.
…This may not sound very nice, and most people around me do not want to hear it (so don’t tell Hauwa), [Saro-Wiwa’s partner at the time of his detention and mother of his youngest son, Kwame] but I have assumed for quite some time that death cannot be very far away from me. The period of confinement has helped me to “a close walk with God”…Yes, I have everything to be thankful for, and do not forget that I’ve been here only 23 weeks now. Mandela & Walter Sisulu were there for 26/27 years. How can I complain? I’m going to ask to be allowed to see you so we can pray together on Sunday, even if it’s for ten minutes or so. Keep smiling.
The letters become more tender and heart-felt, revealing a man at peace with himself, confined and isolated yet in touch with the universe, forgiving and grateful. He praises the Ogoni women, their resilience and morale (they’ve driven away the “vulture” from church when he showed up to read a lesson on Army Remembrance Day). There’s nothing they will not do to save Ogoniland. His 73-year-old mother, “continues to host, each week, meetings of Ogoni women from fourteen surrounding villages,” and later on forty villages. Like Ousmane Sembene in “God’s Bits of Wood”, Saro-Wiwa knows that the women’s vitality and commitment is a core part of the struggle. He also appreciates his family’s unfailing support, his 90 year old father who is present at his trial, Sr. Majella and others like her who are ringing Ogoni bells. Here’s a poem Saro-Wiwa wrote on 20/6/95.
FOR SR. MAJELLA MCCARRON
Sr.M, my sweet soul Sr.,
What is it, I often ask, unites
County Fermanagh and Ogoni?
Ah, well, it must be the agony,
The hunger for justice and peace
Which married our memories
To a journey of faith.
How many hours have we shared
And what oceans of ink poured
From fearful hearts beating together
For the voiceless of the earth!
Now, separated by the mighty ocean
And strange lands, we pour forth
Prayers, purpose and pride
Laud the integrity of ideals
Hopefully reach out to the grassroots
Of your Ogoni, my Fermanagh.
Abacha’s cruel regime, conniving with Shell do not listen. “…Predictably, Abacha has gone on a spree, trying to prove that he can out Amin Idi Amin… Such a walking insult to the Nigerian! I feel so ashamed to be Nigerian.” To make matters more complicated, Abacha owes Shell a lot of money which he refuses to pay. It’s incongruous that Saro-Wiwa has to personally feed the soldiers who guard him. They are hungry and earn a miserable 800 naira a month ($5). The thieving, thuggery and corruption are indescribable. Those who see the writing on the wall have this to say: “Nigeria is a primitive country” so innocent people can be charged before a kangaroo court and sentenced to death. We know the rest.
In the last letter to Sr. Majella, dated 14 September 1995, Saro-Wiwa feels death so close, appreciates everyone who has assisted, is bored with the Tribunal, and not blind to reality as he writes:
…I am in good spirits, expecting the worst as usual, but hopeful for the best. My parents are always in court, and my father believes that I will be free at the end of the case. I’ve tried very hard to dampen his optimism but the old man won’t budge. I just hope he does not get a rude shock…
What to say?
Saro-Wiwa maintains remarkable strength throughout, and shows us a lot that we have to learn from the Ogoni Nine, and the right decisions we can make in our present times to ensure that the worst of the past: Exxon spill, 1989, Deepwater Horizon 2010, and so on, is not repeated.