Today is 22 years since the Nigerian state killed Ken Saro-Wiwa on the allegation of murder of Ogoni Chiefs. Ken Saro-Wiwa was tried alongside other Ogoni leaders and citizens, including Mr. Ledum Mittee for allegedly instigating and killing their brothers. The death of those Ogoni chiefs was an unfortunate and unexpected turn of event, occasioned by intolerable disagreement on the strategies for the emancipation of Ogoni people.
This could be a case of what behavioral scholars call ‘predictable surprise’. With ‘hindsight bias’, one could say that the level of venom and angst in this strategic contention would definitely lead to epic tragedy. But, in the thrills of self-determination, no one would have expected the gruesome killing of those who disagreed.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was tried by a special military tribunal headed by the immediate Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, who was then a junior judge of the Federal High Court, Lagos. Other members of the tribunal were Col Ali, former Military Governor and now Comptroller General of Customs, and a senior judge from Cross River State whose name I can’t easily recollect. The trial was my closest and most insightful encounter with the Nigerian state.
I was a young lawyer, barely two years from the Law School, when Ken’s lawyer and my principal, Gani Fawehinmi, drafted me as co-counsel in the trial. The trial became a ruse to put away a very costly irritation to the Nigerian state. As one of the tribunal members explained to us, it was a strategic mistake that the Nigerian state did not deal ruthlessly with the Ogoni ‘insolence and provocation’ long ago. In his view, Abacha should have exterminated this irritation. But, nevertheless, General Abacha got around doing what a ruthless state gets to do: brutally put off the agitation.
The ‘persecution’ of the Ogoni leaders was expected but the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other accused persons-minus Mittee- was a real surprise. Both Ken Saro-wiwa and Gani Fawehinmi knew the trial was a sham. As I explained to the Newsweek magazine, the Auta tribunal was a ‘hangman’s court’.
In fact, Ken Saro-wiwa, realizing that the trial was a predetermined extermination of the dangerous Ogoni agitation, counseled Gani Fawehinmi not to put up a defence on his behalf. In Ken’s view, the Nigerian state wanted to kill him after a sham trial whose only redemption would be that such high caliber lawyers represented him. Gani, understood that this Auta Tribunal was a ‘hangman’s court but countered that we needed to push the Tribunal to serial errors to discredit the trial. Thereafter, we would back down.
The defence strategy was delivered up to the hilt. We so exposed the tribunal’s bias and partiality that the envoy of the Law Society and the Bar Council in the UK wrote a damning report of the trail. The Report resulted in worldwide denunciation of the trial. But we missed an important point. Ken had asked me whether I thought Abacha would execute him after conviction and sentence (we knew that Auta and co would convict and sentence Ken and his comrades to death).
I painted scenarios and predicted that how Abacha would treat General Obasanjo and Yaradua, two eminent leaders he had convicted for coup plotting in another Kangaroo military tribunal, would determine his treatment of Ken & co. in my flawed thinking, I believed that if Abacha listened to international outcry and reduced the death sentence on Obasanjo and Yaradua to prison terms then we should be sure he would put Ken into prison and not to the gallows. Then, perhaps, Ken’s dream Nobel Prize could be on the way.
But we failed woefully. I did not reckon that the Ogoni struggle is a different kettle of fish. To the grand commanders of this unfair republic to challenge the unity of Nigeria (a euphemism for challenging the neo-feudal foundations of the Nigerian state) is the unpardonable sin. A coup plotter is pardonable. But the one who puts his hands against the Lugardian knots pays dearly. Ken Saro-wiwa paid the price for raising his voice in the manner in which Adaka Boro and the Biafran soldiers did. It is a legendary irony that Ken Saro-wiwa thoroughly deprecated Ojukwu and his comrades for foolishly rushing to self-determination instead of parleying with the Nigerian state that was already murdering Igbos.
He even called ‘Ojukwu ‘inglorious braggart’, and queried the wisdom of the Igbo struggle. He was not alone in this put-down of the Biafra insurrection. Prof Ali Mazrui seriously lampooned the poet, Chris Okigbo, for abandoning poetry and taking up arms to defend Biafra. I confronted Ken with this irony while he was in prison and he gave me a copy of his ‘On a Darkling Plain’ to debunk allegation of Igbo hatred. Obviously, he did not hate the Igbos. Like most of us he simply failed to see the body in the corpse until death hit home.
About 25 years after the Biafra revolt, Ken inspired a powerful Ogoni rebellion. About 22 years after the Ogoni rebellion was fiercely exterminated, the Nigerian army moved again to the east to quell another insurrection against the Nigerian state. The Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) hoisted another flag of a separatist enclave (don’t forget that MOSSOP had Ogoni flag and Anthem). A young man, Nnamdi Kanu, who, like Ken Saro-Wiwa, is privileged with good education and quality of life, swore that he wanted either Biafra or death. Nnamdi Kanu thinks that his Igbo people are being enslaved in Nigeria.
Ken thought Nigeria turned Ogonis into hewers of woods and fetchers of water. Kanu believes that the problem of his Igbo people is that they are enslaved by the Fulani caliphate. Ken believed that the Nigerian military-business complex was imprisoning Ogoni people. Both of them wanted some kind of out.
The pacification of Ogoni was brutal and unfair. In the guise of restoring peace to a troubled land and bringing murderers to justice the Nigerian state brutalized Ogoni and dismantled one of the most vehement and revolutionary political agitations in Nigeria. In his written address to the tribunal Ken Saro-wiwa warned that if Nigeria rebuffed his peaceful agitation for environmental justice and political self-determination, it would contend with violent challenge to its iniquitous order. But Nigeria was not in the mood for reason. And as predicted, the Ijaws took over from where the Ogoni left. Militants swarmed the Niger Delta and forever changed Nigerian politics.
After Ken’s execution, a Nigerian journalist, Adewale Adeoye, and myself decided to publish a book on the Ogoni trial and the political future of Nigeria. In chapter 6 of the proposed book I argued that the future of Nigeria after Ken Saro-wiwa requires a rethinking of the federal system of government. I argued that until we reconceive the Nigerian state on the line of democratic citizenship, without subjecting the state to ethnic and religious competition and dominance, we could lose the nation. In mimicry of the fabled but failed nation-building project in Nigeria, we abandoned the book project. That was over a decade before the present feverish clamor of restructuring and the thunderous chant-down of ‘Nigerian unity is non-negotiable’.
Presumably, we have neatly dispatched off Nnamdi Kanu and his noisome pestilence through the ‘Operation Python Dance’, just the way we extirpated the Ogoni struggle through the Rivers State Internal Security Committee of dreaded Col Okuntimo. The clamor of the Biafran agitators has been drowned in the cacophony of bullets and martial law. We have cured the disease but multiplied the virus. As we ruthlessly fall down those who stand up to question the political fundaments of the Nigerian state and refuse to deal with the issues they raise, we continue to weaken the foundations of Nigeria’s sustainability.
The union grows weaker and weaker after each successful expedition. The Nigerian unity is more threatened today than in 1995 when Ken Saro-wiwa and his colleagues were hanged for asking inconvenient questions. Yes, we dealt with them neatly but we did not answer their queries. 22 years after we are still dealing ruthlessly with, perhaps, a much more inconvenient and insolent query: the new Biafra self-determination movement. It is now time to stop bolstering and bluffing, sit down and ask really difficult question: why does the nation has to be severely threatened every other decade? We can’t we secure the nation on something stronger than individual and group aggrandizement? Can’t we form a less imperfect union?
Dr Sam Amadi, former chairman and chief executive of Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), was a defence counsel to Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders at the trial