Silence would be treason publishes for the first time an extraordinary series of letters and poems sent by Saro-Wiwa to Irish solidarity activist Sr Majella McCarron during his time in military detention. These letters and poems are the last expression of a voice the regime was determined to silence: a voice for indigenous rights, environmental survival and democracy, many of whose battles were won despite his death and whose voice comes alive today again in these letters.
Donated by Sr Majella to the National University of Ireland Maynooth after Maynooth students' involvement in the "Shell to Sea" campaign in NW Ireland, the letters have been transcribed and edited by Helen Fallon, Íde Corley and Laurence Cox with a foreword by Nigerian environmentalist and poet Nnimmo Bassey.
Biodun Jefiyo introduces us to the writer and to two extracts from these last writings:
One military dictator, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, defined the true Nigerian this way: Every Nigerian had a price and all you had to do was to find the right price; if however you found a Nigerian who had no price and could therefore not be bought, he or she was not a true Nigerian and had to be carefully watched. Another military dictator, Sani Abacha, had a far more sinister take on this matter: Every Nigerian had a price; any woman or man that had no price and could not be bought was not a Nigerian and had to be jailed or killed or both. I know of no literary testament from our unhappy country that goes more to the heart of this particular darkness than this volume containing the last writings of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni rights and environmental activist who was executed by Abacha. The letters and poems collected in this volume show with great eloquence that Saro-Wiwa confronted Abacha’s darkness with anger, sadness, wit and humour. Beyond Abacha and the savagery of the Nigerian military dictatorship, Saro-Wiwa also confronted the darkness of the international oil conglomerates, especially Shell. The unspeakable plunder of resources and despoliation of the environment that they perpetrate are given a searing indictment in this volume, taking this testament far beyond Ogoniland and Nigeria to the four corners of our planet.
Remarkably however, this is not a volume overwhelmed by the darkness that its writer confronted and fought in a struggle that ultimately consumed his life. In nearly every letter and poem in the volume there is suffusing light and uncommon grace. One reason for this is perhaps the simple fact that, like so many other great figures throughout history that finally confronted the worst and the best in themselves and in humanity in an oppressor’s dungeon, Saro-Wiwa transcended the particular travails of his fate, leaving a testimony, a legacy that will perhaps resonate far beyond the present.
But there is also the Irish nun to whom the letters and poems were addressed and sent and through whose agency they now come to us as if Saro-Wiwa speaks from the grave. Thus, this volume also tells the beautiful and deeply affecting story of a friendship that crossed the boundaries of race, nationality, gender, and age, a friendship that goes to the roots of the most noble and selfless of human sentiments. I confidently expect that in time, this slim volume will take its rightful place among the most important works of prison writing and environmental activism in the world.
Letter smuggled out of military detention to solidarity worker Majella McCarron, 1 October, 1994
“Dear Sr. Majella,
Thanks a lot for your letter starting from 3rd September & the only communication I’ve got from you since you left. I have, on my part, sent two letters and doubt now that you got any of them... I’ve got money to keep going for two months… Keeping MOSOP operational has been quite a problem. With all the Steering Committee members in jail or declared wanted by the police, we have been in trouble...
You probably know that one of my aims has been to take the Ogoni people on a journey. Even what is happening now is, and please don’t think me sadistic, helpful. For one, they are able to see me battling from prison—from the very jaws of the lion. A number of them have stuck it out in Ogoni and are still able to work in cells. And there are those who went off to Lagos and have done marvellous work with the Press. The activists write me, and from them, I have a sense that the Ogoni people are holding out bravely. They are not fighting—because I did not even prepare them for physical combat—but they are holding out psychologically. And that, in spite of massive government propaganda, aided by renegades like Birabi And Leton.
Destruction of Kaa market in Ogoni
However, we have won the propaganda war. I hope that you have seen the writings of Professor Ake and Wole Soyinka—the latter appearing in the New York Times. Locally, the support of the non-government press has been tremendous. And Yoruba leaders meeting on August 31 sent solidarity messages to the Ogoni and called for my release.
The Rivers State Government have put out films which I have not seen but they are recognized for what they are—propaganda—and in any case, it’s always difficult to sell a bad case. More so when the opponent has had a head-on start. Nor can they match us internationally.
I thank you for your thoughts on the Ogoni Review. I have been wanting to keep it going. Funds have been the problem. If you can raise money abroad for it, we can do all the work, including printing here. Barika has been to Switzerland, and then went off to the U.S. I have not heard of him since then. I have, all the same, had a new employee who’s working on copies. I’m sending back copies with this letter in the hope that it will help you raise funds. Three hundred pounds (£300.00) sterling a month should be enough to produce 1500-2000 copies monthly & mail them free to the right people and organizations. If such funding becomes available, all you need do is pay it into my a/c no. [number provided] at [name and London address of bank provided]. I’ll then arrange to repatriate the funds through the unofficial market which will make the naira equivalent even better.
I’m happy that Bodyshop were able to stop the bad publicity which I’m sure was engineered by Shell. They may be made to realize that what we are doing in Ogoni helps to expose Shell as well and they should lend us support. It’s a shame that MOSOP have not been able to get help except from the World Council of Churches (cash) and UNPO (kind).
You will have known that the strike in Lagos was called off after 2 months. It was a great effort, but the British Govt. helped with it. The oil companies too. These organizations find it easier to exploit Nigeria through the military dictatorships. Predictably, Abacha has gone on a spree, trying to prove that he can out Amin Idi Amin. But I expect that he will fail, ultimately.
Yes, I do have a radio. Two have been seized from me, but I’ve got a third. If they seize that, I’ll get another. It’s the only way I can keep up with events. I get the newspapers too, but all the good ones—Guardian, Punch & Concord - are proscribed. But the radio has been most useful. Since I have time on my hands, I’m able to follow a wide variety of programmes. I get overseas magazines once in a while—through Prof. Ake—and I do have access to the novels in my library. I’ve written quite some—novels, Mr. B books & the collection of short stories. At least the first draft is finished and that’s some comfort. My time is well used. Getting all these things in has meant paying money out to my guards—quite a sum of money, Nigeria being Nigeria. But that’s okay. I can put it down to “business expense”. Freedom can be quite expensive or cheap depending on how you look at it. To those who have freedom, it’s cheap; those of us who lack it, pay a lot to get just a bit.
Hauwa was here for a fortnight or so but could not get to see me so I was not able to see my son, Kwame. That the authorities refused to allow it shows the depth of their wickedness. But in Ogoni custom, to refuse a child the favour of seeing his parent is godlessness and a crime. So I’m expecting the Ogoni God to punish the criminals. Once when Edward Kobani, now deceased, treated me in a dastardly fashion, my father predicted that he would not die well. That duly came to pass. My dad did see and bless the child along with my mother. He gave them a lot of happiness, I hear, and am satisfied. I’ve also had a guard here (a soldier) who saw my parents in good health.
Destruction of fishing canoes, January 1994
I’m pleased that you met Father Mashevran. I don’t think I’ve ever been “street-wise”. Bull-headed, yes. You have to be to take on Shell and the cabal that rules Nigeria.
The advice for Ogoni people not to co-operate with the military came from you, of course. Did you think I wasn’t hearing from you?
And now to yourself. I hope that your medicals prove you fit. And that you are well, and happy. I long to see you back in Nigeria, helping, among others, to guide the Ogoni people through the wilderness. You don’t know what help you have been to us, and to me personally, intellectually. God grant that you do return to us. I’m counting the days. I may still be in detention when you come back. But I’m not worried about that. Since the physical conditions are not bad, I’m keeping myself mentally busy and doing a lot of those things which I may not have done as a free man. Has it not been said that God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform? When I think how I came to be here, and to succeed in internationalizing the Ogoni issue on a slim budget, I cannot but see God’s fingers in it all. And evidence is now getting out to the effect that I might have been the one to be assassinated on 21st May but that what had been planned for me went askew, thanks to God. Not that death would have mattered to me. It would have carried more harm to those still alive. However, I do want to take the Ogoni people as far on the journey to re-vitalization as is possible—until other leaders are bred.
Destruction of Ogoni villages along the waterfront.
My brother, Owens, is lying low in Lagos. But he’s doing a tremendous job with the Press and the embassies. He’s very clear and conscientious, thank God…
Let me end by wishing you and yours the very best and God’s abundant blessings.
24 October 1994
“...The RLA prize [Right Livelihood Award] was most welcome. It encouraged the Ogoni people a great deal, legitimized MOSOP as a non-violent, and environmental and human rights organization, and the prize money will ease things a great deal for me. I don’t see Shell and the government allowing me to travel—they must dread what bombs my presence will drop in Europe as I’m supposed to address the Swedish Parliament, the European Parliament in Strasbourg and another meeting in London.There or not, my words will ring through all the places. If I can’t make it, I intend to ask my son to represent me. But somehow, I’m hopeful that I’ll be there. If I’m not, then it is in Ogoni interest that I should not be. God’s will.
As the days go by, I get the more convinced that the cause will win. I remember your encouraging me in the early days of our meeting, saying how because I had a certain independence of means, I might well be the only activist capable of giving Shell a run for their money. When I think how far we’ve gone on very thin resources, I have cause to be grateful to God. And no matter what Shell does or says, they’ve been in rough waters since July 1992 when I advised the [UN] Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Geneva. I am grateful to all those of you who have rallied round the Ogoni cause—UNPO, Greenpeace, International Pen, etc. And there must be better news on the way. I should mention the Bodyshop, of course. You probably know that they nominated me and MOSOP for the RLA Award. I have sent an appeal to President Carter asking him to intervene and resolve the conflict. Someone of his reputation would make quite a difference. My cousin in America has been quoted as saying the MOSOP (USA) would sue Shell. Exxon had to pay 5 billion USD for the oil spill from one tanker in Alaska. By the time we’ve created sufficient awareness internationally, it should be possible for us to find assistance should we wish to sue.
... As far as I am concerned, Shell should lose its mining lease in Ogoni. They may be pretending that they do not want to return to Ogoni. The fact is that they have 500 million barrels of oil on secondary drilling at K. Dere [a village in the Gokana district, Ogoniland]; they only last year awarded a 550 million USD contract to some organization to design the gas collection throughout Ogoni and the K. Dere field was to help in the natural gas plant at Bonny. No, Shell are merely hoping that the government will succeed in “pacifying” the Ogoni and then they will move in proudly and calmly to continue to steal. They are in for a fight they will never forget. Luckily, I’m no longer alone. Several Ogoni youth are now learning the ropes, and if only they could get further exposure, they would be able to continue the struggle even in my absence.”
This volume makes the letters available and accessible in a paperback edition for campaign and educational use and supporting the distribution of affordable copies in Africa. As the energy multinationals gear up for another assault on the planet, on indigenous populations and on democracy, the ideas in this book have never been more significant.
Silence would be treason: last writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Edited by Helen Fallon, Íde Corley and Laurence Cox with a foreword by Nnimmo Bassey.
Dakar / Bangalore: Daraja / CODESRIA / Action Aid, 2013.
Thanks go to the publishers for permission to publish these extracts.