Saturday, August 5, 2006
Book Review: Quill & Quire
The Politics of Bones
reviewed by Matthew Behrens
Quill & Quire Magazine
G-8 leaders and rock stars quick to deliver facile platitudes about the plight of Africa's poor would do well to read Toronto journalist J. Timothy Hunt's account of Dr. Owens Wiwa's struggle for justice in Nigeria. Dr. Wiwa, though not as well known as his late brother, Ken Saro-Wiwa, nonetheless played a key role in the struggle of the minority Ogoni people against the environmental and human rights violations of Shell Oil and the Nigerian government in their homeland.
Hunt's book reads like a fast-paced thriller as he dissects the Nigerian political environment of the past 40 years and the nonviolent struggle by the Wiwa family to expose and rectify numerous corporate and military abuses. The Wiwas rallied hundreds of thousands of people into political activism, and by doing so became public-enemy number one.
The book is also an intensely personal story, one of a family growing up in the public spotlight, sharing the incessant threat of harassment, false arrest, and execution, and of Owens's Sisyphean attempt to recover the remains of Ken Saro-Wiwa after the government ordered that his body disappear into an unmarked grave.
The Politics of Bones is worth the price alone for the chapters that follow Owens's odyssey in the world of foreign diplomats and corporate titans, all of whom pass the buck when it comes to exposing the frame-up of his brother and eight co-defendants who were eventually executed by the Nigerian government. Equally compelling are the Wiwa family's subsequent nail-biting close calls as they flee Nigeria in search of refuge, which they eventually found in Toronto.
Whether examining the years of Owens's seemingly fruitless struggle with government bureaucracy to reclaim Ken's remains for proper burial or wading through the babble of self-serving corporate press releases, Hunt admirably straddles the thin line between polemics and journalism. He does so by simply pointing out the inconsistencies of governments that say one thing but do another, and corporations that put out glossy brochures about their environmental commitments while their constant oil spills pollute drinking water and farmland.
At a time when post-rock-concert Africa seems in danger of slipping off the radar screens for another decade, Hunt has provided a significant exploration of the root causes that sparked one of the most popular grassroots movements on the continent. It is also a reminder about the rare currency of true courage, exemplified by the Wiwa brothers, who, despite knowing their lives were in government gunsights, refused to back down.
Matthew Behrens is a Toronto writer and editor.