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Between Gambari and Saro-Wiwa

By Bisi Olawunmi

Since the announcement of the appointment of Prof. Ibrahim Agboola Gambari as the new Chief of Staff to the president and his assumption of office on Wednesday, May 13, the media space has been awash with reactions. There were accolades, there were knocks. They portray Prof. Gambari as a multi-dimensional man who attracts strong emotions, either for or against.  But one consensus that runs through them all is the acknowledgement that he is a brilliant mind.

One criticism of Gambari that is of interest to me and which has gone viral was his position on the execution of the death sentence on Kenule Beeson Tsaro-Wiwa, widely known as Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni environmental rights activist who brought the oil spill devastation of Ogoniland to global attention.  Gambari has been criticized for defending the hanging at the United Nations as Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the world body and for being credited in a newspaper front page report of the era as describing Saro-Wiwa as a common criminal. Maybe he is not your regular, rough-neck criminal, but a high-profile criminal murder accomplice – that is, before the guilty verdict.  Ken Saro-Wiwa was controversial in life and has remained controversial in death, his canonization being fuelled by a coterie of propagandists who have succeeded in selling a manufactured, deodorized, populist persona of the power-hungry activist to a gullible public, while obscuring his fault lines.

To continue to celebrate Ken Saro-Wiwa, as an unblemished hero, demonstrates the callous insensitivity of the do-gooder human rights community to the lives of others. Perhaps, we need to refresh our minds about the facts of the 25-year old case that brought Ken Saro-Wiwa to a tragic end.

Four prominent Ogoni leaders were murdered, in cold blood, in broad day light, during a public reception in their honour by elements identified as Ken Saro-Wiwa’s foot soldiers. The murdered Ogoni leaders, who included the secretary to the state government and a commissioner, were  Badey, the Kobani brothers, including Chief  Edward Kobani, the pioneer vice president of MOSOP and Chief Orage who were being celebrated at a public reception on May 21, 1994 when a maniacal mob descended on them.   The murder was the culmination of power struggle in Ogoniland. Ken Saro-Wiwa, then president of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) considered the Ogoni Four, as they came to be known, as sell-outs  for being pro-government and opposed to violent agitation in the Ogoni struggle for environmental remediation of their ecosystem devastated by oil pollution by Shell oil company. Ken Saro-Wiwa, who joined MOSOP and was appointed publicity secretary, created a youth wing whose violent militancy eventually led Dr. Garrick Barile Leton, the first president of MOSOP in 1990 to flee the region, giving room for Ken Saro-Wiwa to assume the movement’s leadership in 1993 and consequent upsurge in violent confrontations with security agents leading to the death of over 50 Ogonis. He was a power demagogue.

On the day of the incident, it was reported that there was tension in the community because of the honour being bestowed on the Ogoni Four and Ken Saro-Wiwa had to be barred from the area by security agents. It was stated that he told his militant youth supporters to deal with the ‘Vultures’, a tag tantamount to death sentence.  Thereafter, the youths swarmed the venue of the ceremony and agitated appeals to a commissioner, Dr. Barinem Kiobel, a Saro-Wiwa disciple, to restrain the irate youths failed. That commissioner was among those hanged with Ken Saro-Wiwa. The youths eventually stormed into the hall, dragged the four Ogoni leaders being honoured from the high table and butchered them.  Such brazenness, such bestiality and yet some so-called human rights activists insist on impunity for the perpetrators of such hideous crime, discounting the lives so brutally terminated. The charge against Ken Saro-Wiwa was incitement to murder.

I was the most senior editorial staff on duty at the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that day of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s hanging on November 10, 1995 when the story came in from our Port Harcourt correspondent. I called the Editor-in-Chief, Mr. Dave Igiewe, at home, read the story to him and sought his authorization for publication. He gave the go-ahead and we broke the story with all media, local and international, quoting NAN. NAN is federal government-owned, but we did not engage in self-censorship, even though the story was very sensitive. I have since written articles on the Ogoni tragedy which were published in newspapers titled: The Unsung Ogoni Four and The Ogoni 13 in which I argued that if there hadn’t been  the murder of the Ogoni Four, there would not have been the hanging of the Ogoni Nine.

The point being made is that being an activist is not a licence to murder. Ken Saro-Wiwa made a fatal miscalculation by apparently relying on the so-called ‘International Community’ to spring him from the murder charge. According to reports, he was in disbelief when the hangmen came. The human rights community, and the media, have even been discriminatory against the others hanged with Ken Saro-Wiwa, as all references to the tragic incident had always been Ken Saro-Wiwa and Eight others!!!  Such hypocrisy!  The names of the Ogoni Four are also blacked out.

Given the above scenario, vilifying Gambari for saying it as it is, is a contrived labelling to demonise.  Sadly, the media has lost the spirit of due diligence, investigation and perspective in reporting and have become captive to human rights agitators, civil society groups and other sundry characters who feed sop to journalists. Professor Daniel Boorstin had noted that journalists are the ‘’most potent allies’’ of demagogues and some activist civil society organizations who manufacture personalities and events, provide press releases and readily grant interviews adding that they ‘’had a diabolical fascination and an almost hypnotic power over news-hungry reporters’’.

I believe the Nigerian media, especially the mainstream media, should be more cautious in giving cheap publicity to opinions of people and organisations not anchored on facts but on emotion, as in the Ken Saro-Wiwa saga.  Ken Saro-Wiwa, having gained international recognition and fame as an Ogoni environmental rights crusader became a victim of his success by assuming delusional power invincibility. He chose the path of deadly activism that ended in disaster. A defence of his hanging for incitement to multiple murders, arising from the tragic consequence of his choice of strategy cannot, therefore, be regarded as meanness, as being projected by critics of Prof. Gambari.

  • Dr. Olawunmi is former Washington Correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).

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