Friday, August 11, 2006

UC Berkeley Panel Discussion

The Center for African Studies presents:

The Politics of Bones: Dr. Owens Wiwa and the Struggle for Nigeria's Oil
by J. Timothy Hunt

The gripping story of a people's battle against a corrupt government and a powerful oil company, as well as the current situation of oil in Nigeria, will be discussed by a PANEL OF EXPERTS including the book's author, J. Timothy Hunt (biographer and journalist, recipient of multiple National Magazine awards and the Canada Council Creative Writing Grant), Professor Michael Watts (UC Berkeley, Geography), Anna Zalik (Ciriacy Wanthrup Postdoctoral Fellow, UC Berkeley, Geography) and others. The newly released paperback version, published by McClelland & Stewart, will be available for purchase at the event.

Tuesday, September 5th, 2006
4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
150 University Hall, UC Berkeley Campus.
Tel: 510-642-8338

Co-sponsored by UC Berkeley's Center for Human Rights

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.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Book Review: Vue Weekly

By Minister Faust
VUE WEEKLY, Edmonton, Alberta

Canadian journalist J. Timothy Hunt recounts the story of Nigerian martyr Ken Saro-Wiwa’s 1995 oil-fueled execution through his brother Owens Wiwa in The Politics of Bones

On November 10, 1995, Nigerian dictator and Shell Oil ally General Sani Abacha shocked the world by putting Ken Saro-Wiwa to death.

Saro-Wiwa’s real crime—along with that of eight co-defendants also killed—was defending the rights of the Ogoni people to live free from their own government’s repression and Shell’s destruction and poisoning of their tiny commonwealth inside Africa’s most populous nation. The best known of the Ogoni martyrs, Saro-Wiwa had made a name for himself as a playwright, television personality and rights activist. But had history slipped down an alternate stream, Saro-Wiwa might have been joined in the death cell by a ninth co-defendant: his own brother, Dr. Owens Wiwa.

Owens was born on the same day as his brother, 13 years apart; the difference in years corresponded to a difference in temperament—the young Wiwa shy, retiring, devoted to medicine, and, according to J. Timothy Hunt, author of The Politics of Bones: Dr. Owens Wiwa and the Struggle for Nigeria’s Oil, also “less uptight” than his elder brother. He opened what was the only medical clinic in all Ogoniland, an area of half a million people, while his brother launched what would become the international struggle for justice. Owens, according to Hunt, preferred his work as a simple country doctor who paid little attention to politics—until the day that politics began turning up inside the afflictions of his patients.

“He started seeing firsthand in his own practice the problems that were going on,” explains Hunt over the phone from his Toronto home, a few days before he leaves for Edmonton to give a reading at Audrey’s Books on November 7. “People were coming in at first with respiratory diseases and all sorts of horrible things based on pollution and oil spills and burns. And then the human rights abuses started happening. He started treating people for rapes, people who’d been [attacked] with machetes, people who’d been shot with guns, who’d had limbs hacked off.”

Bearing witness to such crimes against his people meant Owens Wiwa could remain splendidly isolated no longer, so he joined his brother in the struggle. When Ken was arrested on phony murder charges, Owens flew 1600 kilometres to Lagos, the economic capital, in search of a lawyer to get his brother out of jail. “When he got off the plane,” says Hunt, “the morning papers said Ken had been arrested, and they listed a number of other people [authorities were hunting], and Owens realized he was the number-one wanted criminal. And so he had to go underground and live [as a fugitive] for a year and a half. All this time he was running from the law, he was also meeting with [foreign] ambassadors and the press and human rights advocates and anybody he could contact to try to get his brother freed from jail. And then when it failed and Ken was executed, Owens and his wife and baby had to find a way to escape Nigeria, because if discovered he would be imprisoned and executed as well for daring to protest Shell Oil.”

Stepping off that plane in Lagos ultimately meant that Owens Wiwa’s old life was over. He was about to assume his brother’s mantle as an international ambassador of the Ogoni struggle from his home in Canada, where he remains in a type of exile. Nevertheless, elder Ken remains more famous than his younger brother. So why has J. Timothy Hunt chosen to tell the story of the Dr. Owens Wiwa?

“I am a storyteller. I don’t consider myself some sort of ‘activist journalist,’” laughs Hunt. “My strengths as a journalist lie in profiles and biographies; I love a good story and I love telling a good story. And when I met Owens Wiwa, I would sit with this man and he would tell me the things that have happened in his life, and I was riveted, white-knuckled, just waiting to see what he was going to tell me next. His life story was the most exciting, scary, uplifting, horrifying thing I’d ever heard. The Africa part of it was important, but it wasn’t the overwhelming reason why I wanted to do the book.”

Hunt isn’t exaggerating about dramatic events in Nigeria—indeed, they’re of epic scale. Nigeria, an oil-rich nation of desperate poverty, has seen one military coup after another, although it is currently “enjoying” an elected government that seems hard-pressed to deliver basic necessities to most of its citizens. Rebellions over high gasoline prices in an oil oasis—an irony which cannot be missed by Albertans—are as common as ethnic clashes, and because the government collects no income tax, its coffers are mostly filled from oil revenues, which makes every administration or regime beholden to Big Oil. The country also employs almost none of its own people in the oil fields, instead remaining in self-enforced dependence on rapacious transnationals to harvest its most important resource; the acronym-emblazoned factions vying for control over their own lives, or over others’, are so widespread that the country’s recent history is something like alphabet soup in a blender. Two acronyms stand out in the case of the Wiwa brothers—MOSOP (Movement of the Survival of the Ogoni People) and NYCOP (National Youth Council of the Ogoni People).

“During a time of intense crisis when the Ogoni people were under attack by they didn’t know who—their government said these were [ethnic] clashes around 1993-94—suddenly Ogoni communities in the dead of night would be attacked out of nowhere with rocket launchers, grenades and machine guns, and people would be slaughtered in their sleep and whole communities would be wiped out,” explains Hunt. “The government said it was ‘intercommunal conflict.’ But people said, ‘No, these were Nigerian soldiers that were coming and wiping us out, and it was suspected that it was all for Shell Oil, to stop the people and punish them from protesting Shell.

“So when these atrocities would happen, the people would receive no help from the government [even though] their communities would be wiped out,” he continues. “So young people started pitching in and aiding people—getting people moved to safety, finding old people who had run into the forest. While most of this youth activism was beneficial, isolated thugs and extortionists among them gave the Nigerian dictatorship the pretext to crack down on NYCOP as a whole.”

According to Hunt, Owens Wiwa continues to bear two crosses: the weight of his people’s struggle, and guilt over his brother’s death. “Ken had several siblings, and Owens was his favourite,” says Hunt. The execution “was extremely devastating for Owens, because he felt responsible. He tried so hard to get his brother released from prison, to rally world support... and it didn’t come through for his brother, so he felt incredible guilt, and an inability to mourn.”

“And then, there was no funeral; no one was allowed to mourn Ken Saro-Wiwa,” says Hurt. “It was declared illegal... people were arrested and flogged by police and soldiers for wearing a black armband, for praying in public. Preachers were arrested in church for praying for Ken. It became a real mission for Owens to have a proper funeral for his brother. It took him five years to have a funeral, and it took him 10 years to retrieve an actual body, because his executors had hidden it. The location of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s body was one of the great mysteries of Africa for nearly a decade.”

So given all the heroism and the horror, why do the names Wiwa, Ogoni and even Nigeria draw empty stares from a majority of North Americans? Why, despite the execution, despite the plight of the Ogoni people against Shell’s criminality, despite Nigeria’s status as a loyal oil supplier of the U.S. during this time of oil wars?

“It has a shockingly simple answer,” laughs Hunt. “The news media, of which I’m a member, has this notion that we people here in the West have a very limited attention span for anything that goes on in Africa.

“During that period in history, when South Africa had just elected Nelson Mandela, the Zairian regime was disintegrating and the Nigerian dictatorship was colluding with Shell to crush the Ogoni, the Rwandan genocide was going on at the same time,” he continues. “And newspapers and television news devoted just a certain small amount of their resources, and most of them decided to go with the Rwandan stuff to the exclusion of everything else that was happening on the continent, because, basically, they thought that we didn’t really care.”

Exemplifying that on-going attitude from the offices of the powerful, Hunt’s had a devil of a time finding a U.S. publisher for The Politics of Bones. Despite their effusive praise for the book, publishers tell him, "We just don’t think people will buy it,” says Hunt. “People aren’t interested in Africa."

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Book Review: Now Magazine

Wiwa's courage

The Politics of Bones
by J. Timothy Hunt
NOW Magazine, Nov 10, 2005

Judicial murder leaves powerful memories in the lands where it is committed. The legal lynching of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists stains the history of Nigeria like an oil slick. Saro-Wiwa, the politician who became famous writing sitcoms for Nigerian television, was hanged in 1995 for daring to stand up to the military junta and to Shell Oil, who had turned his homeland into a polluted wasteland while hoarding the profits.

Beside Saro-Wiwa during much of the struggle was his quiet younger brother Owens Wiwa.
Timothy Hunt's superb The Politics Of Bones tells the terrible, heroic story of the Ogoni resistance and the dramatic lives of Saro-Wiwa and his brother. It also gives a charming account of the Wiwa family and the close relationship between Ken and Owens, whose final separation is heartbreaking.

Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni leaders were hanged on trumped-up charges that they were involved in the mob killing of four chiefs who collaborated with Shell and General Sani Abacha’s fascist junta.

This book works on many different levels. It shows an entire culture under assault by a grasping multinational corporation and its military protectors, but it also focuses on the brothers, one doomed to hang, the other chased into exile (eventually winding up in Canada). Yet through all their tribulations, neither gives up the struggle.

The Politics Of Bones can also be read as an adventure story. Owens Wiwa’s death-defying escape is the stuff of Hollywood cliffhangers. He and Hunt have ensured that the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa will survive long after the last drop of oil has been wrung out of Ogoniland.