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."

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