Writing this book has been one of the most painful experiences of my life. Ordinarily, writing a book is torture, a chore. But when, on every page, following upon every word, every letter, a tragedy leaps up before the eyes of a writer, he or she cannot derive that pleasure, that fulfillment in which the creative process often terminates.
Ken Saro-Wiwa, champion of the Ogoni people’s fight for autonomy, demands attention from the international community in his book Genocide in Nigeria. He claims that ‘Shell/BP’ and ‘Chevron’ have committed crimes on the lands of the Ogoni, which he bases on racism. Likewise, he claims that the (former) Federal Military Government of Nigeria committed atrocities on the Ogoni, which he bases on ethnocentrism. Reprinted letters back and forth between the Ogoni, the oil companies, local governments and the Federal Military Government are provided as evidence to help argue about the negligence of the Ogoni’s suffering.
What is lacking is a comprehensive introduction to the context of the situation. The presentation of these documents is not in itself sufficient evidence especially when Saro-Wiwa generalizes his arguments by providing an over-arching summary of why he is right, with little specific reference to the necessary points in the documents.
For example, he provides us with a document letter (Petition of Complaint on Shell/BP) from the Ogoni Divisional Committee to the Governor of the State, and he provides us with a response from Shell/BP, in which their response is well defended (and they explain their actions relatively well), but this is not adequately looked into by Saro-Wiwa. Shell/BP’s response is presented almost only to prove that he is making a transparent argument showing both angles. However, this is irrational when one angle is favored and analyzed extensively while the other is simply provided for the reader to derive his own interpretations. It is here, in providing the necessary background for the reader and in the lack of specificity of his arguments that Saro-Wiwa fails to convince me.
Saro-Wiwa quotes the United Nations definition of genocide as “the commission of acts with intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” and attempts to use the provided documents and personal accounts recorded as cases of attempted genocide by the oil companies and the government. While there are many atrocities committed (if the account of the Ogoni are in fact accurate), the case for genocide on the grounds of ethnic destruction by the government and on the ground of racial destruction by the oil companies is not fully nor exhaustively developed, and I therefore considered it as a fragile argument.
I am supposed to accept the term genocide and its association as given from Saro-Wiwa’s personal and emotionally charged summaries. It is here that I felt the book to be more a plea for help, a shout-out if you will, to draw attention to the situation and the negligence of the international community. Having said this, it is only natural, human and, dare I say, a moral obligation for a person from the mistreated ethnic group whose lands have been plundered, desecrated and ecologically wiped out, to be driven by anger and to wave the hammer of justice. One cannot blame Saro-Wiwa’s lack of impartial tact to make his case. Or perhaps being of the Ogoni people himself and president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), he was simply too involved, too passionate and too moved to do anything but give a shout-out and wave his arms for our attention. On that basis, he definitely succeeded because later, and although not specifically concerning this text, he was arrested and hanged, more on that here
under the heading ‘A Silenced Talent’.
Having grown up in Nigeria and lived there until I was 19, it should not come as a surprise that this is a country whose history, culture and literature both fascinates and captivates me. In some ways, it is more of a home to me than any other place because, fundamentally, home is where your deepest memories are formed, at least, for a borderless citizen of the world like myself, this is the closest definition of a home that I can think of.
So despite my apprehensions about Genocide in Nigeria, it is still an important piece of work of the author’s oeuvre and worth reading if you are interested in Nigerian history, politics involving oil companies or their desecration of the environment, or simply an admirer of the writing of Ken Saro-Wiwa.