Originally posted on Ventures Africa.
I read my first poem by the Nigerian activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa Sr when I was 12 years old. At the time, he was just another poet to me. I didn’t know that interaction would birth a life long journey through his writing in an attempt at having a greater understanding of the complex situations in the Niger Delta.
On Tuesday Oct 18 2016, the same day Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr died, I was reading an article on Foreign Investments & Human Rights by Professor Debora Spar in which she stated that “the global reach of multinational firms robs developing nations of their economic sovereignty–that it skews the allocation of resources in the international economy and bolsters the position of repressive regimes.” This was one of the main arguments presented by Ken Saro-Wiwa Sr in his quest to bring more autonomy to Nigeria’s Niger Delta region.
Although an important literary figure, Saro-Wiwa’s life is defined by his activism and unwavering dedication to his Ogoni people and his ultimate sacrifice on their behalf. He fought for their economic empowerment and against their neglect by the Nigerian government. Unfortunately, an unholy alliance between the Abacha regime and the multinational oil companies operating in the delta region led to his death by hanging on this day (November 10th) 21 years ago.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated that much of the violence in Nigeria today is the “results of complex interactions between climate change and land use”. This is an apt description of the situation in the Niger Delta. After a half century of consistent disenfranchisement and isolation from the profits of the oil drawn from their native lands, the people of the Niger Delta have embraced militancy as a force for change. In the early 2000’s, we learned of MEND and the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force; today we hear of the Niger Delta Avengers, the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force, the Niger Delta Justice Greenland Mandate and various other factions.
An unfortunate reality of the Niger Delta crisis is that we are all complicit in making the region a shadow of the biodiversity hotspot it used to be. Being the hub of the Nigerian crude oil, the Niger Delta accounts for all the oil exported from the country. Various [powerful] nations in different parts of the world import oil from the region. It’s quite surprising that none of these hegemonies actively intervened against the Niger Delta degradation. Perhaps this could be an indication that some of the larger economies of today are benefiting from the dire state of the Niger Delta?
In addition to representing an ideal illustration of Achille Mbembe’s statement that “regions at the epicentre of oil production are torn apart by repeated conflicts,” the Niger Delta also depicts an extreme case of negative externalities. Externalities are consequences of economic activities that are experienced by unrelated third parties. In model societies, governments minimise such externalities like the Niger Delta pollution/degradation by imposing regulations and taxations. However, the prolonged, unaddressed catastrophe that is the Niger Delta of today, and the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in his day, is evidence of how our government has systematically chosen money over her people. Saro-Wiwa’s life was in the spotlight because of his activism so the world knew his story but, there are millions of others who are dying slowly from the degradation of the Niger Delta without their stories being told.
Turning on the news and seeing the displays of violence by the militants in the region, we must restrain ourselves from first condemning their intentions. Two decades after [Senior] Ken Saro-Wiwa’s demise, Ken Jr wrote in an article for the Guardian that the Niger Delta “still looks like the devastated region that spurred” his father to action. In that article, he subtly implied that his community was “gathering impatience.” The Niger Delta cleanup was not hastened. The economy was not diversified to replenish the agricultural jobs that were lost due to the environmental pollution and degradation. Is it then justified to berate the Niger Delta groups that are taking matters into their own hands? Upon succumbing to our natural tendency to empathise with those paying the price of militants’ actions today, let us also attempt to evaluate things through the lens of the Niger Delta inhabitants.
Imagine breathing in a concentration of a mixture of carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from gas flaring day in, day out. Now, visualise young men who, being uneducated because the right infrastructures are not in place, turn to armed robbery, drugs or worse. Can you possibly fathom a life in which young girls/women internalise the realities of their mothers’ daily abuse–physical, sexual and emotional–because the patriarchal men are frustrated by their job losses, and heavy military presence assumed “to protect” these communities prey on their vulnerabilities? Then say amidst all the Niger Delta issues, one finds love and decides to have children; imagine being too scared to get pregnant for risk of miscarrying yet again because the doctor has confirmed that exposure to the toxins in the region has damaged somebody cells essential to childbirth. These were some of the realities of those we label “militants” today. The Nigerian government- and the multinational oil companies– abdicated their duties to the Niger Delta people, and the rest of the world stood by. Now, these militants have had enough of the injustice and they’re “avenging” the wrongs done to them. Yes, they’re further destroying their environment and the country’s economy, but isn’t the more fundamental question, Is this the most ‘effective’ medium through which the voice of the Niger Delta grievances be heard?
With the growing talks of foreign investment in Africa, we must be wary of repeating the same mistakes that crippled our potentially rich communities. Moving forward, our governments cannot continue to neglect the people as they run the international rat race. We must collectively reject structures that were put in place to solidify social and economic disenfranchisement. We must move ahead together because in isolation we all go under. We should consciously be just in our dealings with each other. The conversation of the continent’s progress should no longer revolve around international aid but should be heavily weighted towards the capable members of our societies investing in, supporting and uniting with the positively driven members.
Ken Saro-Wiwa advocated for the people. He spoke up against injustice and was murdered for it. Ken Jr was determined to ensure that his father did not die in vain, so he carved his own path out of the cards life dealt him, and in the process, he positively impacted the lives of many. Now Ken Jr, too, is gone.
There is mourning in the land and the clouds are currently dark, but our future is bright. It just has to be. We owe it to ourselves to build a bridge between the marred past that Ken Saro-Wiwa died for and our inevitably brighter future. As younger generations are confronted with tough choices that will determine the trajectory our future takes, I trust that we’ll learn from the mistakes of those who came before us.