Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa (Excerpts)


Nobody knows exactly what happened on that bloody Saturday, May 21, 1994 because no proper police investigation was conducted and no forensic evidence was offered at the subsequent Tribunal. According to the unremittingly antagonistic prosecution witnesses, it
seems that the chiefs were holding a meeting in the palace of His Royal Highness, Chief James Bagia, the Gbenemene of Gokana, when one of the commercial motorcycles popularly known as okadas pulled up sometime before noon and said that Saro-Wiwa had told his followers that
the people at the meeting ‘were sharing money given to them by Government and Shell’ and that ‘they [the youths] should come to the venue of the meeting to deal with you [the chiefs]’.  A few minutes later, the palace was invaded by a mob of up to two thousand youths, some on kadas, three or four to a machine, others on foot armed with clubs, machetes, bottles, iron rods, broken blocks, stones and a garden rake. The leader of the mob shouted ‘E-sho-be’ to applause and directed that they kill one Celestine Meabe, who was set upon and ‘the whole crowd impounded around me and beat me to a state of complete coma’. Meabe survived to become one of the chief prosecution witnesses.

A second witness, Alhaji Mohammed Kobani, younger brother of Chief Edward Kobani and the main source of the events that day, said that he was himself attacked but was rescued and taken into a room in the palace, where he was able to shield his brother. Someone outside then directed the mob to go and bring the chiefs. Four of them were marched out, including Chief Albert Badey and the Orage brothers. They were set upon. They managed to stagger back into the palace but were attacked again as they huddled in a corner. Chief Badey made a bid to escape and was pursued; Chief S. N. Orage was beaten to death ‘on the spot’. Chief Edward Kobani and Chief T. B. Orage, whose right eye had been pierced in the first attack
outside, were stripped nearly naked and the latter led out of the palace. Alhaji Kobani said that his brother, whom he tried to help, was sliced on his back and hands with a broken bottle by one of the assailants while another buried the teeth of the garden rake in his skull. A third shoved a pole up his anus. Later, somebody was heard to say, ‘Rise up now and go and contest the election with Ken Saro-Wiwa.’

Seeing that his brother was dead, Alhaji Kobani fled to the shrine behind the palace because, as he later told a British journalist, ‘I am an Ogoni man and I know churches are just window dressing.’ He said that if he had entered a church or a mosque ‘they would have killed me there’ but that their ‘fetish belief’ made them afraid that the repercussions ‘would be on their families for generations’. However, he was helped in no small part by the courage of the Gbenemene, who hurried from his sick daughter’s bedside when he heard ‘crying and wailing of people around me’ and refused the mob’s demand that he make a libation for attack. He made a libation for peace instead and then entered the shrine to await help. That was at about 2 p.m. Unknown to them, soldiers at a nearby checkpoint, as well as police in Bori, the main Ogoni town, refused to leave their posts when they were told what was going on because, they said, there was no senior officer around to order them to do so.

Chief Albert Badey, meanwhile, who had last been seen fleeing the palace, almost made it to a waiting taxi in the company of another intended victim, Chief Francis S. Kpai, but the mob proved too much for them. They then headed for the Methodist Church but found that way also
blocked. A woman offered them shelter and locked them in an inner room but gave them up after being threatened. A sympathiser then apparently helped Chief Badey to a bench but the
mob circled around him saying that they were going to kill him and then proceeded to beat him to death with ‘all types of things such as bottles, stones, sticks, blocks and any other things they can lay their hands on’. Chief Kpai fared better. According to his own testimony, he was
beaten, stripped and dragged back to the palace, where he was left for dead. When he came to, he saw Chief Edward Kobani being beaten as his brother tried to rescue him. He then followed Alhaji Kobani into the shrine and confirmed that the Gbemenene made a libation for peace but added that some members of the mob fetched fuel to torch the shrine until one of their number prevailed upon them to desist.

As some of the mob assailed the shrine, others commandeered a white VW Beetle. Two witnesses on their way back from a fishing expedition said that they saw a large group of people pushing the car and were made to kneel down and swear never to reveal what they had seen. One of the witnesses said that he saw the naked corpse of a fat man inside the car and the corpses of two others being carried on an ‘improvised stretcher’, one of which he
identified as that of Chief T. B. Orage, the only victim whose killing was not apparently witnessed by anybody. The car was then set alight. Meanwhile, Chief T. B. Orage’s daughter, who was staying in the family house two-and-a-half kilometres away, was informed by a breathless okada driver that ‘they have beaten your father [and] you need to rescue him’. She hurried over but was unable to gain access to the palace for the crowd. She noticed a car
burning in the distance. Someone in the crowd, recognising her, advised her to leave. She was
set upon but managed to reach the okada; as she sped off, she heard someone shout, ‘Slit her throat!’ The scanty police report the following day observed that the car was pushed into the thick bush and that portions of flesh suspected to be the remains of the murdered chiefs
were found at the scene. A relative of the Orage brothers later claimed that ‘some parts of their bodies were eaten’.


General Abacha’s determination to find Saro-Wiwa guilty was demonstrated the day after the killings when the Military Administrator of Rivers State, Lieutenant-Colonel Dauda Komo, addressed a lengthy press conference in which he blamed the murders on the ‘reckless and
irresponsible terror group of the MOSOP element’ and called Saro-Wiwa a ‘dictator who has no accommodation and no room for any dissenting view’. Saro-Wiwa was immediately taken into custody and charged before the Ogoni Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal with procuring and counselling six of those eventually convicted to kill the chiefs but the case was a mess and the government knew it, which was why the Tribunal had to reinvent the law of murder in order to achieve its verdict. The proceedings of the trial itself were a farce. The Tribunal chair, Justice
Ibrahim Auta, who said that the case was one of ‘simple murder’ before any evidence had been given, openly admitted at the start that, ‘I am directly answerable to the Commander-in-Chief, I am not answerable to any other person’ and refused to record any evidence that favoured the accused on the grounds that the Tribunal ‘records only what it considers necessary’. The defence counsel, who were harassed, beaten and even detained by the soldiers guarding the premises, and who were continually hectored by Justice Auta as ‘a pack of noisemakers who impose themselves on clients’, ‘human rights abusers’ and ‘an irresponsible lot’, were eventually forced to withdraw when the Tribunal refused to admit a videotape in evidence on the grounds that it may have been tampered with.

The tape, which was in fact being used by Nigerian missions abroad as part of the government’s inept but vile propaganda campaign, would have proved that the chief
prosecution witness, Alhaji Mohammed Kobani, was not averse to changing his story to suit the occasion. In his original statement the day after the killings, he identified Paul Levura, described as tall, slim and black, as the person who entered the palace at the height of the
mayhem and offered to take Chief T. B. Orage to safety. Almost a year later, when he was giving evidence, he changed his mind and said that it wasn’t Levura after all but Nordu Eawo, who was described as short, stout and yellow. He did this in order to corroborate the testimony
of Celestine Meabe, who had miraculously survived the attack at the palace but had failed to mention Eawo in his earlier statement to the police. Both were convicted anyway, Levura because he couldn’t give a satisfactory account of himself on the day in question, Eawo
because he was ‘a liar’. A third, Felix Nuate, was identified by Alhaji Kobani at a petrol station a full six months after the killings and yet the man he had earlier named as the person who wielded the garden rake was in police custody throughout the trial but never charged. Whether he was eventually released depends on the vicissitudes of the Nigerian criminal justice system: during his first detention, Saro-Wiwa came across a young Ogoni boy who had spent over three years in prison because there was no one to sign a bail bond of N5 000 (US$60) on his behalf.

More absurdly still, three of the convicted men, including Saro-Wiwa himself, were not even at the scene of the killings. John Kpunien, vice-president of NYCOP, was acknowledged by the Tribunal itself to have been running errands elsewhere in Ogoni land but was convicted on the
grounds that ‘the individual affected need not be physically present or directly personally participated in the act of civil disturbances’ in order to be ‘credited with the consequences’ and be ‘answerable for them’. The case against both him and Saro-Wiwa rested on a meeting they
were alleged to have attended the previous year during which Saro-Wiwa was supposed to have directed the youths to deal with thirteen named ‘vultures’ – including three of the murdered chiefs – for conspiring with the Federal Military Government and Shell to destroy
MOSOP. Kpunien said that he couldn’t have been at the meeting because he was on leave at the time and had the documentation to prove it but this was brushed aside because, according to the Tribunal’s nightmare logic: ‘Being on leave does not exempt an individual from
attendance at meetings and failure to attend meetings does not exempt the absent member from being bound by a decision of a body organization of which he is a member.’
Saro-Wiwa, who was held to have ‘wrongfully’ organised an election campaign rally which ‘wrongfully’ congregated a large crowd of his ‘fanatical’ youths, thereby creating ‘a riotous situation’ which led directly to the murders, denied that any such meeting ever took place. The evidence is all on his side because the two witnesses who claimed to have attended the meeting, David Keenom and Celestine Meabe, proved unreliable. Keenon contradicted himself on several points, including his age, occupation and qualifications, and only believed under cross-examination that Saro-Wiwa had directed members of NYCOP to deal with the vultures, contrary to his earlier statement to the police. Saro-Wiwa himself, who could be ‘caustic and brusque’, according to Junior, counted them both among the ‘thugs, the dregs of Ogoni society’. These two, in particular, he wrote, ‘belong to the lunatic fringe of the Ogoni Movement’ which they had sought to use ‘for their selfish purposes’. He was pleased that NYCOP had ‘flushed them out early’ but regretted that the prosecution had ‘lionised these
vermin, giving them an opportunity to display their depravity before the world’. He rued the fact that Keenon, in particular, was able to ‘continue his life of infamy, extorting money from Ogoni villagers’ by threatening to incriminate them in the killings.

More damaging again to the prosecution case were the allegations by two of their own witnesses that they, along with Keenon and Meabe, were among eight witnesses altogether forced to give false testimony in order to secure the convictions. One of them, Charles Danwi, a musician, said that he had been detained at Alhaji Kobani’s house for some days, during which time he was told: ‘This is a military government that anything they want to do to me they can do it.’ He said that he finally capitulated and made a statement but they rejected it ‘and ask me to copy a statement already made by them’. In return, they promised him a house anywhere in the country, a contract from Shell and money to buy musical instruments with. He
said that there was a follow-up meeting, also in Alhaji Kobani’s house, where Shell, the Federal Military Government and members of the Kobani, Orage and Badey
families wanted to ensure that he ‘made a statement that will involve Ken and MOSOP officials so that they will kill them’, and that Alhaji Kobani himself never knew any of those he identified. He added, finally, that members of the Kobani family roped in a Catholic priest, but that when
he objected to using the Church as cover ‘they quarrel with me’.

Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays/ by Adewale Maja-Pearce. The New Gong, Lagos, Nigeria, 2005. 306 pages: 5.5 x 8.5 ins. ISBN 9783842102 (paperback).