THE POLITICS OF BONES: DR. OWENS WIWA AND THE STRUGGLE FOR NIGERIAS OIL
J. Timothy Hunt
McClelland & Stewart, 389 pp.
The word "martyr" is bandied about a lot these days, but certainly Ken Saro-Wiwa is fully deserving of the title. The Nigerian writer, activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee spent most of his brief but dynamic life fighting against the environmental rape of his Ogoni homeland by Shell Oil, and the corrupt governments that aided and abetted it. He paid for his outspokenness in November 1995, when he and eight fellow activists were hanged for murder a patently false charge engineered by General Sani Abacha, Nigerias ruthless military dictator at the time, and tacitly countenanced by Shell, which didnt lift a finger to try to save them.
In the 10 years since this outrage, Saro-Wiwas story has been told piecemeal, by the man himself in his prison writings and by his son, journalist Ken Wiwa, among others. But now J. Timothy Hunt has produced the first comprehensive popular account of Saro-Wiwas struggle and death, and its aftermath, told through the eyes of the man perhaps closest to Saro-Wiwa and his cause, his younger brother Dr. Owens Wiwa.
Owens, who grew up under Saro-Wiwas wing, was also a first-hand witness to Shells devastation of Ogoniland in southeastern Nigeria and the oil-inspired atrocities that occurred there in the 1990s. He fought to have Saro-Wiwa released from prison and, after the execution, waged a public campaign to publicize its injustice and a personal one to retrieve his brothers body and give it a proper burial. The Politics of Bones takes its title from the long, frustrating process that Owens went through in his attempt to reclaim the corpse a tale that reads like the Greek tragedy Antigone mixed with modern forensics and the maddening bureaucracy of a dysfunctional African nation. According to Hunt, Saro-Wiwa has become an almost Christ-like figure to the Ogoni people since his death and remains a controversial one to the Nigerian state, which was loath to relinquish his skeleton and still refuses to officially admit that he was wrongly hanged.
In the western world, however, Saro-Wiwa and his cause are still less well known than they should be as proved by the ongoing, unchecked environmental fallout of Shells operations in the Niger Delta. When Hunt, a former business writer for The National Post, first met Owens in Toronto, the latters adopted home, in the late 90s, he was one of the many Canadians who didnt have a clue about what had transpired in Nigeria.
"Id never heard of him or his brother, or the Ogoni people," he admits. "Like most of North America, I had not paid attention to what had gone on. Although (Saro-Wiwas execution) was worldwide news and Nigeria was kicked out of the Commonwealth because of it, most people didnt hear about it because at the time the Rwandan genocide was going on, and that seemed to have sucked up most of our limited attention span for Africa. Which is a tragedy, because this is a really important story."
And a story that, by rights, Owens should tell. But, unlike his brother and nephew, writing isnt his forte. "Owens had been approached to write a book, but Owens isnt a writer, hes a doctor," says Hunt. "When Owens and I teamed up, he saw I was someone he could trust, who didnt have his own political agenda. Im not an activist, Im just a storyteller, an impartial bystander who simply wanted to tell the story as honestly and completely as I could."
To write the book, Hunt spent more than 100 hours interviewing Owens, resulting in a sedulously detailed, at times day-by-day account of events, complete with recollected conversations the most revealing one being Owenss talk with Shell Nigerias managing director, Brian Anderson, in a failed effort to have Shell intervene on behalf of the imprisoned Saro-Wiwa. In the process of trying to help his brother, Owens, who had been up till then a successful middle-class physician with a wife and infant son, suddenly found himself a wanted man, forced into hiding and then, after Saro-Wiwas death, fleeing the country with his family and eventually emigrating to Canada.
Not a born crusader like his brother, Owenss experiences are those of a man who had another mans greatness thrust upon him. But they are also a moving testament to his love for his brother (and Saro-Wiwa, as Hunts warts-and-all portrait reveals, was not always easy to love), and his unshakable determination to see that his death and message are not forgotten.
"To this day, Owens is kind of obsessed with Ken," says Hunt. "He worked so hard to get Kens body back and have him interred with respect, and now hes fighting to get Kens name clear. Hes totally dedicated to his brothers memory, and theres nothing in it for him. I know him really well and he doesnt seek any glory for himself. He just wants to honour Ken."
And Hunt, as he says, just wanted to tell Owenss story, and the book benefits from this apolitical conceit. It makes clear that Nigeria is a complicated country, rife with instability, venality and tribal tensions, whose problems cant be laid entirely on the doorstep of one multinational. Still, in the end, Shell comes off smelling like something less than roses more like one of its burning wells, in fact.
"I honestly wasnt out to crucify Shell and I really tried to leave editorial comment out of the book," says Hunt. "All the stuff thats in the book about Shell is just a reciting of the facts, and Shells response to events that happened. I leave it up to the reader to make up his own mind as to how much responsibility Shell bears for the events that unfolded."
Has Hunt received any reaction from the company to his book (which was published late last year)? No, he says, and thats perfectly understandable. "If I were Shell, I would just pretend that it doesnt exist. As soon as they respond, it simply sells more copies. And theyre embroiled in a court case in New York right now. The Wiwa family is suing them for crimes against humanity."
If Hunt went into The Politics of Bones with no professed opinion, his feelings, after several trips to Nigeria, have clearly changed. He opens a copy of the book and points to a photo he took there in 2001 of an oil pipeline blowout, which caused a fire that, at the time he shot the picture, had been burning for seven months.
"This was a quarter of a kilometre from a small village and the wind was blowing that way, so the entire village was blanketed in thick, noxious smoke," he says. "I was there for about 10 minutes and I couldnt talk, my throat was so raw. Can you imagine living there, raising kids? Shell stopped producing oil in Ogoniland in 1993, but this stuff is still happening today, this legacy of badly laid pipelines and oil wells. Theyre corroding, theyre bursting, and nobodys cleaning them up. If theres an oil spill, nobody stops the oil from flowing. The peoples drinking water is all polluted, they cant even use rainwater, because it comes down as acid rain or runs off their roofs, which are black with soot. So what are these people to do? They cant farm, they cant fish, they cant drink the water."
Its something Shell would never get away with in the west. "Look at Fort McMurray," he says. "People are rolling in money there because of the oil. Contrast that with Nigeria. In Ogoniland, there were billions of dollars being pumped out of these peoples land and they got nothing in return. And why? Because it was happening to black people on a different continent, not to white people on this continent. Its environmental racism. And dont think the Ogoni dont know that."