I Almost Commit Suicide when Saro-Wiwa and Others were Killed – Ledum Mitee
Twenty-one years ago, precisely November 10, 1995, playwright, environmentalist and President, Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was executed after he had been declared guilty of incitement and murder. On May 21, 1994, four Ogoni chiefs who were in disagreement with the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People were brutally murdered at a pro-government meeting. Saro-Wiwa, who had been denied entry into Ogoni land on the day of the murder was however arrested and accused of incitement against them.
He denied the charges but was imprisoned for over a year before he was sentenced to death by a specially convened tribunal. The same thing happened to other MOSOP leaders, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine. They were famously referred to as the Ogoni 9.
The executions provoked international condemnation and contributed to Nigeria being treated as a pariah state until General Sani Abacha’s mysterious death in 1998.
At least two witnesses who testified that Saro-Wiwa was involved in the murder of the Ogoni elders later recanted, stating that they had been bribed with money and offered of jobs with Shell to give false testimony – in the presence of Shell’s lawyer.
How much of Ken Saro-Wiwa did you know?
He was somebody I grew up to know and respect. While we were in secondary school, he was the Commissioner for Education and he took some revolutionary steps, which many of us today look up to without which many of us would not have been able to be in school. He gave scholarships to most of the brilliant students then. When the idea of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People came up, he came to my house. I was not really feeling too fine then and he said; ‘Look, my friend, how can you be sleeping when Ogoni is dying?’ For me, I felt so much flattered that someone of Ken’s stature should come looking for me and I just jumped into the vehicle with him. That was how the movement came to be and we moved from there, mobilising the people and forming the organisation. I also shared the detention cell with him. Those were very dark days because spending 24 hours there (in detention) was quite tedious. There, we talked about personal lives, family issues and other issues. I know quite a lot about him.
It is believed that Ken-Saro-Wiwa led a non-violent struggle. How come he was accused of murder?
These are the contradictions in the system. The non-violent struggle in a violent system can lead to contradiction because the system itself is violent. If you decide to embark on a demonstration, the next thing you will see are armed people. Before you know it, there will be teargas and before you know it, there might even be live bullets. So, the system has not exorcised itself of that response of violence. So, you will always get those contradictions in a country like Nigeria.
You said you shared a detention cell with him. Did he feel crestfallen at any point in time because of his situation and did he ever consider abandoning the struggle?
No, it did not get up to that, but there were times that we woke up at about 2am and at some time that we could not even sleep. We would begin to imagine the bestiality of the system. You see people who have done nothing and because they have a view which the system does not like, they subject them to a whole lot of pains. Saro-Wiwa was more or less crestfallen for a country which he thought he had suffered for and a country he loved and the way the country treats its citizens. The first detention we were put; for the first two weeks, we had only a space to squat. It was a place where for the first two days, we were sharing space with disused guns. If you wanted to lie down, someone would have to stand astride. So, when you are put in that sort of condition, the first thing that comes to your mind is, why should I go through all these because I have a view?’ In this kind of a situation, what you would have expected was some kind of dialogue.
There were efforts on our part within the time we were in detention to provoke some kind of dialogue. We had a delegation sent to the Oba of Benin and some traditional rulers in other parts of the country for them to intervene. What we wanted was to talk, but each time you wanted to talk, what you saw was repression as a means to silence us. Those were the contradictions that we went through at that time.
Did you at any point have the premonition that the military wanted to kill Ken Saro-Wiwa?
Ken had always said so. But to be honest, I did not believe that the guys would go to that extent. I will tell you clearly that maybe I was quite more simplistic while Ken was saying that these people wanted to kill us. The country at that time brought the same treatment on Zango Kataf and General Lekwot had also been detained; they said they also found him guilty of murder and that he should be sentenced to death. But his death sentence was commuted to life and all that. So, based on that, I had felt that perhaps, that would be exactly the same thing that those people wanted to subject us to. On my own, I thought I would just brace myself for several years of incarceration and not to the extent that they would kill us.
When exactly did your paths cross each other?
I was working in the chambers of B.M. Wafer and our chamber was lawyers to Ken. So, I had the first major time of being close to him. When the idea of the movement came up, he did his investigations and the late Chief Kobani, who incidentally was my maternal uncle, told him that he needed to grab someone like me to get most of the youths in Gokana on board. So, he (Ken Saro-Wiwa) came looking for me. From then, we had that conversation. Again, about 65 per cent of oil in Ogoni comes from my village and Ken came from a village where there was no oil. Then I said how come this man could think of us who are subjected to this hazard and he was selfless about it? I said then that I did not have any justification to stay behind because I was a direct victim of what the man (Saro-Wiwa) was talking about. So, I followed him just like several others of my generation and others.
Why was MOSOP formed in the first place?
It was formed for the survival of the Ogoni people. We felt that looking at where we come from, we had one of the highest population density for rural area in Nigeria and we were sharing that space with oil wells and gas flares and nothing was getting to our people. And because of that, it was feared that we would be extinct if nothing was done. No one knew the extent that our people were suffering as a result of this. So, it was a clarion call for our own very survival. We thought that we were going to be extinct and therefore, we thought that the only way to do it was to come together and then try to raise these issues with a view that we might attract sympathetic ears of both the government in Nigeria and the international community. That was basically the reason for forming MOSOP.
Would you say it was true that Ken Saro-Wiwa was guilty of incitement?
No, I do not think that there was any rational basis for that. I would say that this was a matter of giving a dog a bad name to hang it. The whole case that they presented was that by introducing MOSOP, it had raised the temperature of the area. So, it was like they were holding us vicariously responsible for what happened in the area. It is like saying because you guys raised this issue; that is why these boys are shooting. But that cannot stand the test of any criminal liability. I am saying this as a lawyer. In this country, every issue that is threatening the stability of the country started with a shrill voice for justice, but it is ignored and allowed to develop. If you like, the Biafran call, the IPOB. If you look through what they are saying, they feel marginalised; they feel that they are not getting enough space under the Nigerian canopy. So, instead of engaging them, what you see is ‘let’s kill them, let’s arrest them. And it now leads to a different level. If you look at Boko Haram, you would find out that from its initial stage, people wanted to be heard; they wanted to say something. But when you don’t listen, it now takes a life of its own.
I was chairman of the Niger Delta Technical Committee, which was set up by former President Umaru Yar’Adua to recommend what would lead to sustainable peace in the Niger Delta. During that period, I had encounters with those you call the militants, who were carrying arms. I went to them and said, ‘please, let us not use arms and all that.’ And the people looked at me and said ‘Are you mad? You and Ken did not carry guns, they killed Ken and others; should I wait to be killed like Ken and others?’ This government has not learnt its lessons. In this country today, if there is a problem, all they do is send armed people. Now, America has the capacity to blow up anybody or place, but they don’t do that. They will even send a phone to the person and they have trained negotiators that talk to the person or people. They isolate the issue and address it. That is what you see in decent climes. But here, it is different. Your child says he is hungry and you beat him up. At a stage, the child will say next time, I will not shout; I will start throwing stones at the television. That is what we are passing through, which is a shame.
What efforts did MOSOP make to defend Saro-Wiwa during his trial?
As you know, we had our lawyers. Chief Gani Fawehinmi led a team of lawyers. We had people like Olisa Agbakoba, Femi Falana; all those people came. We had one of the best team of lawyers that Nigeria could present. We also had a team of international observers from the Law Society in England who came to witness the proceedings. So, it was not about a lack of good representation and all that. There were also outcries by Nigerians and the whole world. So, it was not a question of defence or no defence. For me, there was a mindset, which is that, let us deal with these people, let us leave them with a bloodied nose. What happened to us was why others took to arms. It shows that your (government) response to a particular problem will determine how others will react next time. Look at today, once a group carries arms, it is the time they get attention. The unwritten law is that to get attention is to be violent.
But personally, do you believe in violence?
That is why I live a life on this other side. We do not believe in the violent approach and that is why the Ogoni are not taken seriously. I am sorry to say this; we have been committed to the non-violence approach and as a result of that, they can take us for granted and they cannot take those who are carrying guns for granted because you have created unwittingly a culture that the only way to get attention is to carry arms.
You were close to Ken Saro-Wiwa; how were you able to escape the hangman’s noose?
My take is that in the face of local and international pressure, we were already accusing the government of genocide against our people and the government must have thought that, let us not kill everybody and I think that in their weird wisdom, maybe few others and I became beneficiary of that sort of justice. But if you look at the way the execution went, I think what the government tried to do was to eliminate the first layer of leadership because MOSOP had the youth wing, the women wing and others. Then we had the overall MOSOP and Ken was Number One there and I was Number Two. So, they wanted to take the first layer and allow the second layer to learn a sort of lesson from it and become afraid.
Were you hopeful at any point that Ken and others sentenced to death would be saved when the international community rose up against the death sentence?
I always felt that they would not be able to do what they said they were going to do. Till the last moment, I was one of those who did not in my heart believe. Perhaps, I had a more gratuitous impression about the Nigerian system than what it was. I thought that how would they kill people just like that? Even the international community said the trial was flawed. But it shocked me that this was a very brutal system that did not care about lives and did not care about their reputation as they were standing within the comity of nations.
When they were eventually executed, how did Niger Delta people react to it?
It was a very chilling situation all over, not only in the Niger Delta, even in many parts of the world, people didn’t believe it. The Commonwealth meeting in Oakland felt; how could this happen? So, everywhere felt; no! this can’t be true yet it was a brutal truth. And as I said after that shock, if you look back at what happened, the Niger Delta was a sea surge. First, it brought the Ogoni and our situation to the international community than any other thing. It made people now to see us, we are more visible; it made the injustice of our people far more profound in the eyes of everybody, even before God. So, clearly, it was one of the worst any government could have done.
There was this rumour that acid was poured on the bodies of the slain victims to aid decomposition, how true is that?
Well, I wouldn’t know such details because their murder was being controlled by the government of that period, the thing was being controlled by them. I wouldn’t know all the details of what they did. The government’s attitude then was that they just feared that Ogoni people might want to do anything. We used to laugh. Some time, I would sit down with Ken and some people would leak some of their security reports to us and we would just be laughing. They (military government) would say Ogoni people had dug trenches and that they were all armed. So, there were people out there who liked to create some larger than life situation and that means if any government wants to move forward in this country, they must be able to depend on real intelligence and not the rumour that passes as intelligence. Some people are making money from government’s rejection of dialogue.
The belief till date is that the bodies of the Ogoni 9 were not released after they were executed. How true is this?
After the Oputa panel, there were some moves that led to their bones being retrieved and proper burials have been made.
Some people have argued that Shell in particular saw to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s elimination in order to have unfettered access to Niger Delta. What is your take on this?
Clearly, Shell had far more interest in trying to prod the government to do what they did than meets the eye. During that trial, Shell hired their own lawyer in the criminal trial to hold a watching brief for them. In all the things that you see, there were clearly the fingers of Shell; they were a more sophisticated group than you can point out. If you want to subject it to the realm of legal evidence, you might not see it. But there were enough circumstantial evidence to show that clearly, they (Shell) had more than a passing interest in trying to ensure that our leadership was eliminated.
A lot of people have come out to criticise Justice Ibrahim Auta, saying he sheepishly ordered the death sentence of the Ogoni 9 as dictated by the Abacha regime. Do you agree?
I will not be the most objective commentator on this because clearly, I was a victim of what happened and therefore, I would go with those who feel that clearly, they did not serve justice. As judges, who swore to do justice to all manner of persons, they did not do what they were expected to do. I do not think that if Justice Auta were sitting in an ordinary court and he got the evidence that came before him, that he would have reached the conclusion he reached in that sort of situation. I think that it was clearly a hatchet job that was done. Justice Auta did not serve justice.
After Ken Saro-Wiwa and other were killed, how did you get MOSOP to survive?
That was the most challenging time in my life. Here I was; a young man, who was committed to the cause of our people. Even though I was a deputy to the late Ken, there was no transition as such. We were operating from Ken’s personal office. They had released me and on the 31st of October, 1995, I went to visit them in the detention to tell them (Ogoni 9) that we were filing the appeals. But when I saw them, they were already in manacles. So, I started crying and he (Saro-Wiwa) said; is that how you people do outside there? Don’t waste your time on the appeals. Go and find a way for us to be transferred from military detention to civil prison because we are not soldiers. Then he gave me some instructions on how the movement (MOSOP) should be run. Two days after, people started saying that they had moved hangmen to Port Harcourt. I was surprised. They were later transferred to civil prison and I believed that the efforts we were making were yielding fruits. When eventually, it was confirmed that they were executed, all their wives came to my house. They needed consolation from me; I needed consolation from nobody. All of them would cry before me, then I would run into my bedroom and cry. These were the circumstances I found myself at that time and at a time, I started contemplating suicide.
The question was what next do we do in this kind of circumstance? Mind you, the 4th of January should be the Ogoni Day. So, I sought the views of late Professor Claude Ake. So, if we had not held the Ogoni Day celebrations, they (government) would say the whole idea was about Ken. But I was determined, even if they killed me in the process, I said to myself it was better than committing suicide. By December, I invited all the MOSOP activists to my village home for Christmas and I told them that whether gun or no gun, we must celebrate Ogoni Day next year (January 4, 1996) and that I was personally going to lead them. I was acting president then. On that day, they (government forces) pounced on me and detained me. They even shot a young man in front of me. I was eventually released two days after. So, from that point, I said this thing (MOSOP) must go on. Government even published in the newspapers later that they regretted not killing me. At a point, they came to my house to pick me, I ran away and they picked my wife and detained her for about a week with my one-year-old daughter. It was at that point we arranged to go on exile.
With all these, would you say Ken Saro-Wiwa died in vain?
No, I wouldn’t say so because he was like the Jesus Christ of our own struggle. His death opened up people’s eyes, not only in Ogoni, but in the entire Niger Delta. Today, people can now know that the Niger Delta is facing a very difficult situation that needs to be addressed. His death became the tonic for the cry for justice to be louder and louder. It is a very high price that he had to pay and quite unnecessary. The government could have avoided it completely.
The head of the military government then was General Sani Abacha. When he died, what was the reaction of Ogoni people?
Clearly, you cannot expect the ordinary Ogoni person to feel any sense of pain that the person who was the symbol of their torture; the person who led to death of over 2,000 Ogoni persons had died. Thousands of Ogoni people were detained at one time or the other. As a result of that, every person in Ogoni felt it was some good riddance. I must be honest; I was in exile by that time. When I heard the news, I was like wow! So, he (Abacha) also can die.