Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa (7 page)

BOOK: Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa
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Just as there are places I love to visit, there have always been African cities it gives me great pleasure to leave, and Lagos under Abacha was at the top of the list. On this trip, the first of my tour, after I boarded an Air Afrique jet for Abidjan, and the pilot waited for permission to pull back from the gate, Nigeria reserved one final unpleasant surprise for me. A soldier climbed aboard with rifle in hand to demand a few bottles of champagne from a French-speaking crew member. With this kind of example being set by the military, I thought, how could this sort of lawlessness ever be stopped? The soldier got his champagne.

Visas to Nigeria had always been hard to come by during my stay in the region, and over the next year, they became even harder to obtain. The Abacha dictatorship was steadily tightening its grip, growing more isolated and more paranoid by the week, and the best proof that the dictatorship’s shock treatment was working was that usually dauntless Nigerians were becoming scared.

Habeas corpus was suspended. Union leaders were rounded up. Leading newspapers were closed. Even the army’s officer corps faced constant purges. Without producing the least evidence, in June 1995, Abacha arrested Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military leader and the only Nigerian general who had ever surrendered power to an elected government (in 1979). Obasanjo was charged with treason, for supposedly plotting to overthrow the Abacha government, and was tried in secret that year and sentenced to death.
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Almost simultaneously, Abacha’s agents jailed Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Obasanjo’s former vice president, and a leading delegate to the constitutional conference created by Abacha. Yar’Adua’s principal offense was introducing a motion at the conference demanding a quick return to democratic rule. He, too, was charged with treason and sentenced to death. Yar’Adua was murdered in jail not long afterward through lethal injection—some said it was battery acid—by Abacha’s security agents.

Most shocking of all, though, was the arrest and execution of Kenule Beeson “Ken” Saro-Wiwa, a playwright and environmental activist who had given prominence to his Ogoni ethnic group’s demands for a cleaner environment and a share of the wealth from their region’s rich oil production. His arrest had shone the harshest spotlight on Nigeria.

Abacha was not known for his taste in literature, but his handling of Saro-Wiwa played itself out like an ode to Kafka. A peaceable, pipe-smoking man who had made his reputation in the country as a writer of biting satirical fiction and of popular television comedies, Saro-Wiwa had gradually become an impassioned, and increasingly bold, activist on behalf of the 500,000 or so Ogoni people. Abacha and Saro-Wiwa had known each other for years, meeting in the aftermath of the Biafran War, in the 1970s, when they were friendly neighbors in Port Harcourt. Their children had even once played together in the same government flats. But amid the savage repression that followed Abacha’s seizure of power in November 1993, Saro-Wiwa became an ineluctable target.

From the very start of the regime’s crackdown on dissent, it is clear that the diminutive writer and his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, or MOSOP, were not considered to be just any rabble-rousing opposition group. Unlike Abacha’s hijacking of the country’s democracy, MOSOP’s campaign against the destruction of Ogoni fishing beds and Niger delta wetlands by international oil companies, in particular Shell, had won international attention, particularly among environmental and human rights groups, like Greenpeace and Amnesty International. Moreover, attacks against oil pipelines and demonstrations against oil workers had forced Shell to shut down its operations in the Ogoni areas, interfering with the stream of petroleum revenues that fed the dictatorship. “Some opposition groups were still able to get away with a lot of things, criticizing Abacha just about as harshly as they wanted,” the United States ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington, told me. “But MOSOP was hitting the Abacha people in the wallet, and that is the one place where they just don’t fool around.”

The biggest threat went well beyond the question of a few tens of thousands of barrels of oil, though. In his impassioned, literary way, Saro-Wiwa had begun to successfully articulate a challenge to the revenue-sharing formulas that kept the vast bulk of oil revenues in the hands of whoever was in charge of the central government. Under the traditional arrangements, the main oil-producing areas of the southeast—areas where powerless minorities like the Ogoni were legion—had remained as poor and despoiled as ever. Groups like MOSOP did not stop at questioning the military dictatorship’s right to salt away billions of dollars worth of oil receipts in Citibank accounts, in Switzerland and elsewhere. They were attacking the very rationale behind the resource-poor north’s determination to cling to power: wealth redistribution, at gunpoint if necessary.

In 1994, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Okuntimo, the local security task force commander in Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State, responded with a plan that called for “wasting operations,” or what amounted to murderous raids on Ogoni villages. In May of that year, Saro-Wiwa himself was caught in the dragnet and arrested, but not formally charged, for ordering the murder of more conservative rivals among the Ogoni leadership.

The following March, I flew into the Ogoni area, at the invitation of Shell. By then, Okuntimo had completely sealed off the region and a corporate invitation was the only sure way in or out. It is difficult to say with precision what responsibility for the welfare of the local people a company like Shell should bear when it interlopes and extracts billions of dollars worth of oil, fully aware that virtually none of the money is being locally reinvested by the government. But if Western countries have slowly become sensitized to the need to help recover the wealth stolen by dictators like Mobutu and Abacha, in countries like Nigeria and Congo-Brazzaville and Angola, they must also acknowledge the fact that extraction without local development equally amounts to theft.

The Shell helicopter that ferried us around that day flew in low over the glistening Niger delta. It was such an extraordinary maze of wetlands and wending waterways that for a long time after their arrival in these parts, Europeans who came in search of gold and slaves had no idea that this vast area was the mouth of a single huge river.

The crew pointed out Oloibiri, the village where oil was first discovered in Nigeria in 1958. Back then, the villagers had demanded sacrifices from the Dutch oil explorers—chickens and the like—to bless the site. It is reported, too, that libations were poured, to celebrate. Now, search as one might, it was impossible to find anything amid the thick foliage and swamplands below that looked substantially different from how it must have looked thirty-seven years earlier, except, that is, for the huge flares that burn off the natural gas emanating from the wells all around the area. Millions of barrels and more than $300 billion in national oil revenue later, Oloibiri remained a little village in the mangrove swamp, lost in time.

Tracts of dead swampland surrounded many of the other sites we were allowed to approach. The heat from gas flares had burned off all of the aboveground vegetation, and the oozing of oil, slow and steady over many years, had killed most of the aquatic life.

At the little village of Aminigboko, where we landed, the Shell folks proudly pointed to a village school they had built for 1,250 students, one of forty or so they claimed to have built in the district. “These are some of the things we have done,” said Lawson Jack, a Nigerian Shell spokesman, with a hint of weariness. “We tried agriculture first, but the people said that it was of no help to them. So we began building schools, and turning them over to the government. The government was neglecting them, though, so we took over their maintenance, too.”

Small children observed us shyly but playfully from a safe distance, their torsos nude and their feet bare. The only adults around seemed to have been urged to turn out by Shell, perhaps for promises of drinks or small cash handouts. In any event, we had been told that a busy schedule lay ahead, and that we could spend only a few minutes on the ground, so there was no way to interact.

When the tour ended I returned to Port Harcourt and went to see Claude Ake, a respected Nigerian intellectual and an expert on the local political and environmental situation, to hear what he had to say about Shell’s public relations effort. “When the soldiers were running rampage through Ogoni-land shooting people, and we were asking for aid for the wounded, where was Shell? They didn’t contribute anything. Their callousness is breathtaking. The building of those classrooms is just a trivial matter. They have polluted the entire water table underground; they have left oil scum everywhere. There are flares burning, polluting the air everywhere you look, and they talk to you about classrooms. How much money do they spend on advertising by comparison? Let them keep their classrooms. They are rubbish.”

In November 1994, a special Civil Disturbances Tribunal was created to try Ken Saro-Wiwa and fifteen others, and in January 1995, the dissidents were finally charged. The special tribunal’s powers included the right to use the death penalty, and its judgment was beyond appeal. Okuntimo’s permission was required for Saro-Wiwa to even meet with his lawyers.

Tensions rose inexorably throughout the year as international human rights groups beat their drums over the Saro-Wiwa case. The trial and prospect of executions even made leaders of neighboring countries, many of them dedicated authoritarians, jittery with apprehension, and delegation after delegation was sent from throughout the region to urge restraint and clemency.

Mindful of his unpopularity, particularly in the south, Abacha had long ago given up visiting Lagos, and remained cloistered instead at his heavily guarded presidential compound in Abuja. Many assumed that he was playing a strange new kind of poker, using the fate of the nation as the cards. Surely, many Nigerians thought, when the right time came, he would release the extraordinary pressure that had been building up, issue pardons and for once savor some favorable press. The alternative was just too terrible to contemplate.

As October 1, Independence Day in Nigeria, approached, the entire country anticipated a peaceful denouement. In a recent speech, Abacha had promised “important news” for the nation, and with Nigerian newspapers speculating feverishly over whether this would mean a series of pardons or the announcement of new elections, I managed to get a visa and flew to Lagos. Abacha was anything but easy to read, but the city had managed to convince itself that he was going to use the occasion to turn things around.

On the day of my arrival in Lagos, I headed to Chief Abiola’s house on a whim, together with Robert Grossman, the photographer who accompanied me on many of my travels, and Purnell Murdock, the Voice of America correspondent, to see Abiola’s senior wife, Kudirat, to ask if we could be with her to watch the Abacha speech at her house the next day, hoping to witness the celebrations that would take place if her husband’s release were announced.

Although he was Yoruba, Abiola was a Muslim, and therefore allowed to marry more than one wife. Certainly, as a reputed billionaire, there were no financial obstacles. Kudirat, a handsome, dark-skinned woman who appeared to be in her forties, had a powerful voice and exuded the authority that comes with her matrimonial rank. Indeed, during the long months of fear and frustration over her husband’s solitary confinement she had emerged as a force in opposition politics in her own right. “Abacha is moving the country at a very great speed,” she told me, pausing for dramatic effect before bellowing, “backwards! There is grief in every home in Nigeria, and the most graceful thing for Abacha to do at this point is to have the military step aside.”

Kudirat Abiola immediately accepted our request to visit her house for Abacha’s early-morning speech, and even offered to prepare breakfast. “By all means, you must come,” she said, exuberantly. “You are welcome.”

One after another, Nigeria’s dictators had deceived themselves into believing that they could muzzle Africa’s most determinedly free-spoken population. Abacha was the fiercest, but as Kudirat’s courage showed, not even he had come close. Like some child’s toy rigged with springs, a crackdown in one spot led only to opponents popping up somewhere else. In Lagos, when feisty magazines were shut down by the police one week, they merely opened in another neighborhood or under another name the next.

When we left Kudirat, we set out to look for a different sort of opposition leader, Nigeria’s most famous musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The first thing I had noticed when I arrived in Lagos was how the city had been plastered with posters announcing that Fela would be performing that night at his own club, the famous Shrine. I had never seen Jimi Hendrix perform, nor had I seen Miles Davis—two other musical heroes of my youth—and having been a fan of Fela’s since college, I was determined not to miss his show.

Fela came from Abeokuta, a remarkable city in the country’s southwest that is located a couple of hours’ drive from Lagos. The city was founded in the 1830s by refugees from the Yoruba civil wars, and since most of its 500,000 residents come from the same clan, the Egba, many claim that this makes Abeokuta the world’s largest village. In a badly divided country, though, the city’s main source of renown was the extraordinary gallery of national leaders it had produced. The famous sons and daughters included the once and future president Olusegun Obasanjo; the rightfully elected and now imprisoned president, Abiola; and Ernest Shonekan, an interim president installed as a puppet by the military in 1993, before Abacha seized power outright. Abeokuta had also produced Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize–winning author and political exile, and his aunt and Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a matriarch of a clan as impressive as any in Africa and a political firebrand who successfully led a two-year demonstration to repeal a “women’s tax” in 1948, twelve years before independence.

BOOK: Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa
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