The Politics of Bones: Dr. Owens Wiwa and the Struggle for Nigeria's Oil

The Politics of Bones: Dr. Owens Wiwa and the Struggle for Nigeria's Oil

by J. Timothy Hunt

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On November 10, 1995, Nigeria’s military dictatorship executed nine environmental activists. Among them was Ken Saro-Wiwa, the charismatic spokesman of the Ogoni people, whose land in the fertile Niger River delta has been grotesquely polluted by the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation. During Ken’s incarceration, his brother, Dr. Owens Wiwa, fought valiantly


On November 10, 1995, Nigeria’s military dictatorship executed nine environmental activists. Among them was Ken Saro-Wiwa, the charismatic spokesman of the Ogoni people, whose land in the fertile Niger River delta has been grotesquely polluted by the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation. During Ken’s incarceration, his brother, Dr. Owens Wiwa, fought valiantly to save his life. When his quest failed, Owens narrowly escaped Nigeria with his life, first to London, and then to Toronto. His story is a heart-stopping saga of personal courage and official corruption, of individual selflessness and corporate greed.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Some books, they say, a reader cannot put down. This is one of them.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“A compelling and gritty story, of intrigue and betrayal, politics and murder, a page turner, made all the more gripping by its truth.”
Calgary Herald

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McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
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6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt


Dr. Owens Wiwa walked behind his brother’s coffin worrying like an old woman. On this sweltering Monday morning in April 2000, it seemed as if all of Ogoniland had come to witness the funeral of Ken Saro-­Wiwa — tens of thousands of people, an excitable, militant throng, jockeying for a glimpse of the casket. Ken had wanted a small, private funeral; this was definitely not what he’d had in mind.

The procession slowly parted the crowds in Bane as Ken’s daughter Zina, holding a large crucifix of hibiscus flowers, led the cortege. Behind the pallbearers, her twin sister, Noo, held aloft a large colour photograph of their father in a golden frame. Ken Junior followed, in his role of chief mourner, leading his uncle Owens and the rest of the immediate family toward the church.

The little cinder-­block chapel in Bane had been packed for more than an hour with members of the media and groggy villagers who had stayed up all night dancing, singing, and drumming. Tribesmen crowded around the open windows and doors and spilled into the adjacent fields, fanning themselves with copies of the hastily printed church bulletin that stated the ceremony would commence with the “Reception of the Corpse at the entrance of the West Door.”

But everyone knew there was no corpse. The coffin that was carried through the village and into the chapel was empty except for two books (On a Darkling Plain and Pita Dumbrok’s Prison) and the curved-­stem pipe Ken smoked before his hanging.

Since November 10, 1995, the bones of Ken Saro-­Wiwa, the celebrated author and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, had lain in a secret, unmarked grave, reportedly mingled with the remains of the eight other men who were hanged with him. Before being charged with murder, Ken had spent seventeen years leading non-­violent protests against the destructive exploitation of Ogoniland by multinational oil companies like Royal Dutch/Shell.

The paradox of multinational petroleum production is that it generates great wealth while generating even greater poverty. No place in the world illustrates this paradox more clearly than Nigeria. Despite being the wealthiest country on the African continent and despite wielding significant political, economic, and military influence over its neighbours, Nigeria’s economy has contracted rather than expanded over the past three decades. The country’s absolute poverty rate (the percentage of the population living on less than a dollar a day1) soared from 9 per cent in 1970 to 46 per cent in 1998. Yet while most Nigerians have been sliding into destitution, the political and economic elites of the country have grown ever richer — in most cases, obscenely so.2

Nearly every penny of Nigeria’s ill-­dispersed wealth comes from petroleum, and, at present, the oil industry is the only part of the Nigerian economy that ­hasn’t largely collapsed.3 Oil accounts for 90 per cent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange and 80 per cent of government revenue. Fully half of this oil revenue is generated by the Shell Petroleum Development Company (spdc), a joint venture of Royal Dutch/Shell and the government-­owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (nnpc).

Not surprisingly, the Ogoni people objected to wallowing in poverty while multinational corporations and government elites grew rich on resources drained from Ogoni lands. The Ogonis also publicly and vociferously accused Shell of permanently devastating their environment.4 Although Shell acknowledges environmental problems in the Niger delta and the oil industry’s contribution to them, the company dismisses as “distorted and inaccurate” all allegations of environmental devastation.5 Shell says that it is deeply concerned about the situation in Ogoniland. According to the company, the Ogonis’ real problems stem from ethnic conflicts between neighbouring communities and the infamous Nigerian federal government.

“It is totally unjustified to suggest that Shell, by virtue of endeavouring to carry out its legitimate business of oil exploration, is in some way responsible for such conflicts or the level of the Nigerian government’s response to them. . . . Private companies have neither the right nor the competence to become involved,” said David Williams, a Shell International spokesman, in a media interview.6

Yet the fact remains that for half a century, Shell has played a significant role in Nigeria’s economy and politics, and the repressive political climate of Nigeria has directly benefited the economic performance of spdc.

The execution of Ken Saro-­Wiwa and the rest of the “Ogoni Nine” sparked international outrage and led to Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth. Since his brother’s death, Owens Wiwa had lobbied hard with Nigeria’s new democratically elected regime to have Ken’s remains returned to the family for a proper burial. But his quest was as frustrating and futile as his efforts to save his brother’s life. “There still are some individuals who have very strong feelings against my brother,” said Owens in an interview for this book. “These are very powerful individuals. Some are in government, some are businessmen who deal with oil companies, and some are the traditional elites and rulers who ­don’t want to change. It’s been very taxing emotionally, the way people have behaved. And for what? For bones.”

“The politics of bones” is how Bill Haglund, a forensic anthropologist from Physicians for Human Rights, had wryly summed up the strange combination of silence, misdirection, myth, greed, and fear surrounding the death and secret burial of Ken Saro-­Wiwa. So far, all Owens’s fight had come to was a symbolic funeral with an empty coffin.

Owens took his seat near the front of the church and watched aghast as independent film crews making documentaries for the cbc and pbs clambered around the altar with boom mikes and video cameras. Vigilant members of mosop, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, patrolled the chapel, poking the many exhausted mourners who had nodded off. Reporters from the Nigerian press hurried up and down the aisles taking photographs and asking for interviews during prayers. With all the commotion going on, the long, loopy eulogy delivered by Archdeacon Ven. Dr. S.O. Amadi was frequently drowned out.

But Owens ­wasn’t listening to the sermon, or to the faint voices of Ogoni women in the distant fields singing folk songs about his brother’s heroic deeds. He was staring at his hands and thinking about the intensely private part of the ceremony to come. Could it even be private, in the circumstances? Honouring Ken’s wishes, the Wiwa family had prepared a concrete tomb in a sandy, one-­acre lot behind the village. At one end of the field was a lush mangrove swamp and, beyond that, the sea.

Just as Owens feared, the family found it impossible to keep the crowds from following the coffin to the tomb. Everyone wanted to see the last symbol of Ken as it was lowered into the ground. It seemed as if every Ogoni man, woman, and child wanted to go to the grave with him. The arch­deacon uttered, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as Ken Junior shovelled three spadefuls of dirt onto his father’s coffin.

Meet the Author

Toronto journalist J. Timothy Hunt is a regular contributor to many of Canada’s most prominent magazines. He is the recipient of three National Magazine awards and the prestigious Canada Council Creative Writing Grant.

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