Reflection: Genocide in Nigeria by Ken Saro-Wiwa

Writing this book has been one of the most painful experiences of my life. Ordinarily, writing a book is torture, a chore. But when, on every page, following upon every word, every letter, a tragedy leaps up before the eyes of a writer, he or she cannot derive that pleasure, that fulfillment in which the creative process often terminates.

Ken Saro-Wiwa

The Synopsis

Ken Saro-Wiwa, champion of the Ogoni people’s fight for autonomy, demands attention from the international community in his book Genocide in Nigeria. He claims that ‘Shell/BP’ and ‘Chevron’ have committed crimes on the lands of the Ogoni, which he bases on racism. Likewise, he claims that the (former) Federal Military Government of Nigeria committed atrocities on the Ogoni, which he bases on ethnocentrism. Reprinted letters back and forth between the Ogoni, the oil companies, local governments and the Federal Military Government are provided as evidence to help argue about the negligence of the Ogoni’s suffering.

My Interpretation

What is lacking is a comprehensive introduction to the context of the situation. The presentation of these documents is not in itself sufficient evidence especially when Saro-Wiwa generalizes his arguments by providing an over-arching summary of why he is right, with little specific reference to the necessary points in the documents.

For example, he provides us with a document letter (Petition of Complaint on Shell/BP) from the Ogoni Divisional Committee to the Governor of the State and he provides us with a response from Shell/BP, and the latter which is well defended by the company (and they explain their actions relatively well), is not adequately looked into by Saro-Wiwa. Shell/BP’s response is presented almost only to prove that he is making a transparent argument showing both angles. However, this is irrational when one angle is favored and analyzed extensively while the other is simply provided for the reader to derive his own interpretations. It is here, in providing the necessary background for the reader and in the lack of specificity of his arguments that Saro-Wiwa fails to convince me.

Emotional Plentitude

Saro-Wiwa quotes the United Nations definition of genocide as “the commission of acts with intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” and attempts to use the provided documents and personal accounts recorded as cases of attempted genocide by the oil companies and the government. While there are many atrocities committed (if the account of the Ogoni are in fact accurate), the case for genocide on the grounds of ethnic destruction by the government and on the ground of racial destruction by the oil companies is not fully nor exhaustively developed, and I therefore considered it as a fragile argument.

Courtesy of Wikipedia
I am supposed to accept the term genocide and its association as given from Saro-Wiwa’s personal and emotionally charged summaries. It is here that I felt the book to be more a plea for help, a shout-out if you will, to draw attention to the situation and the negligence of the international community.

Having said this, it is only natural, human and dare I say a moral obligation for a person from the mistreated ethnic group whose lands have been plundered, desecrated and ecologically wiped out, to be driven by anger and to wave the hammer of justice. One cannot blame Saro-Wiwa’s lack of impartial tact to make his case.Or perhaps being of the Ogoni people himself and president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) he was simply too involved, too passionate and too moved to do anything but give a shout out and wave his arms for our attention. On that basis, he definitely succeeded because later and although not specifically concerning this text, he was arrested and hanged, more on that here under the heading ‘A Silenced Talent’.

Final Thoughts

Having grown up in Nigeria and lived there until I was 19, it should not come as a surprise that this is a country whose history, culture and literature both fascinates and captivates me. In some ways, it is more of a home to me than any other place because fundamentally, home is where your deepest memories are formed, at least, for a borderless citizen of the world like myself, this is the closest definition of a home that I can think of.

So despite my apprehensions about Genocide in Nigeria, it is still an important piece of work of the author’s oeuvre and worth reading if you are interested in Nigerian history, politics involving oil companies and their desecration of the environment, or simply an admirer of the writing of Ken Saro-Wiwa.

And I would like to leave you with a question:

Have you ever read a work of non-fiction by a creative writer that failed to convince you of the writer’s argument (where do you think the failure lay)?



13 thoughts on “Reflection: Genocide in Nigeria by Ken Saro-Wiwa

  1. Many years ago, I read a book written by a prostitute who tried to make her line of work sound glamorous and desirable. But as I read through chapter after chapter, it became very apparent that she was in denial about how poorly she was being treated by others and how degrading her lifestyle actually was. I think it was an excellent study in seeing how an unreliable narrator can create an extensive web of rationalizations to explain his/her life and personal choices.

      1. I read the book sometime in the early 80s, so I can’t recall the title and don’t have it in my stacks .It was written by an American woman. And it was supposed to be a treatise on why prostitution is a positive alternative to other types of work. I just Googled the topic, and I’m wondering if it was The Happy Hooker” by Xavier Hollander? I looked at the book’s description on Wikipedia, but the description made it sound like the author succeeded in her argument, so I don’t know if that is the book or not. It might be worth a look. I’m getting ready to leave for a month-long trip, so I don’t have time to delve any further right now. Perhaps after I return. Let me know if you’re still looking in August, and I’ll do some more research. Good luck!

  2. I tend to put the failures out of my mind and move on. 1066: The Year of the Conquest by David Howarth is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read. Howarth’s analysis of the conquest is based on contemporary sources, and he backs it all with facts and figures. He explains how and why he comes to his conclusions, and yet he breathes life into ancient history, and helps us understand what led up the situation, including the characters of the people involved and why they might have acted as they did. He makes it read like a novel because he includes these very human aspects in the formula. So I can only say what makes a non-fiction convincing to me.

    1. It’s on my reading list even though it’ll be a long time before I get to it due to a long backlist and necessary reading for research purposes – both for educational purposes and for my novel. Thanks, Naomi for the tip.

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