by AYODEJI ROTINWA
On September 8th 2015, a sculpture created in memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other members of the Ogoni 9, a group of environmental activists executed by the Nigerian military government, was seized by the Nigerian Customs Service and has since been in their possession.
The sculpture was created by Nigerian-British artist Sokari Douglas-Camp, CBE, who won a design competition commissioned by a London-based arts and environmental group, Platform, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Ogoni 9 execution. The group’s intent was to bring attention to the ongoing struggles that led to the death of the Ogoni 9 and as such the sculpture toured the United Kingdom and was displayed at public sites, schools.
The Ogoni 9 while alive had campaigned against the environmental degradation of their native land due to the oil exploration activities by a number of global oil conglomerates, most notably Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), the subsidiary that leads Royal Dutch Shell’s operations in Nigeria.
They were sentenced to death on murder charges by a special military tribunal. Until his death, Ken Saro-Wiwa maintained they were being framed for criticizing the international oil companies and the military government in power at the time, led by Gen. Sani Abacha.
Col. Hammed Ali, the current Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service detaining the sculpture was a member of the tribunal in the 90s.
He was hired to his current position by President Muhammadu Buhari, two days before the sculpture was due to arrive in Lagos.
Shell has been previously accused by families of the nine men as being complicit in their imprisonment, violation of their rights and eventual execution by exercising influence over the government. In 2009, after a thirteen-year long case, Shell made a $15.5 million payout to settle a lawsuit brought by the Saro-Wiwa family.
The company insists it is guiltless and the payout was ‘a humanitarian gesture’ to compensate the families for their loss.
Another case is currently in court and to be tried in the Netherlands where Shell is registered and headquartered. The case is being brought by Esther Kiobel, widow of Dr. Barinem Kiobel, one of the Ogoni 9 activists. She is joined in the suit by Mrs Victoria Bera, Mrs Blessing Ken Nordu, Mrs Charity Vureka Levula, all widows of the executed activists. Ms. Kiobel accuses Shell of complicity in the unlawful arrest and detention of her husband; the violation of his personal integrity; the violation of his right to a fair trial and his right to life, and her own right to a family life.
Civic organizations involved with the Ogoni struggle are now alleging that Shell may have more charges to answer, that the conglomerate is behind the detention of the sculpture.
“There is no top government official that is not connected to Shell,” said Celestine Akpobari, a Niger Delta activist and leader of the Ogoni Advancement Forum. Akpobari was part of the receiving group of organizations that went to clear the bus from Customs to no avail.
“Shell is government, Government is Shell. They are two sides of the same coin. They do business together.”
Sarah Shoraka, a campaign officer with Platform, the organization that commissioned the sculpture echoed same in an email interview.
“Our friends in the Niger Delta tell us that the Living Memorial is very embarrassing to Shell and that it is their influence that is behind this.”
Inscribed on the sculpture is a statement made by Saro-Wiwa while alive: “I accuse the oil companies of practicing genocide against the Ogoni people.” It had been planned that the bus would be set up for public display, in Saro-Wiwa’s hometown, Bori, in Rivers State.
A spokesperson for SPDC, Precious Okolobo maintains Shell’s response to the allegation is to not be drawn on the matter.
“SPDC has nothing to do with the reported activity,” He said in an email interview replying whether knew anything about the detention of the sculpture.
When asked if SPDC was aware of the sculpture?
“This has nothing to do with SPDC.”
When asked if SPDC had any reason to feel threatened today by the statement inscribed on the bus Ken Saro-Wiwa made decades ago?
“This has nothing to do with SPDC.”
When asked if the SPDC will support the release of the bus, as a show of good faith to the Ogoni people (whose lands have been polluted by its oil spills) and since it has in the past extended ‘a humanitarian gesture’ to the Ogoni 9 by paying the Saro-Wiwa family a compensation of $15.5m and since the bus was meant for a public good, to preserve history?
“This has nothing to do with SPDC.”
The sculpture is a non-motorised bus, made of steel and affixed with nine drums to represent each of the executed Ogoni 9 activists: Ken Saro-Wiwa, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine. It also bears their names.
Its journey to Nigeria started in 2014, a year before its seizure.
Akpobari’s organisation and a number of others affiliated with the Ogoni struggle had asked Platform to send the sculpture to Nigeria. It was to be held in trust by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, an organization co-founded by Ken Saro-Wiwa.
The sculpture was to be used to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Ogoni 9 executions and “to build pressure on Shell to clean up its oil pollution in Ogoniland,” according to Shoraka, of Platform.
When the sculpture arrived Lagos docks, Ken Henshaw, Programmes Manager, Social Action, a civic organisation and Akpobari made to secure its release in company of a clearing agent. They were taken to the office of Customs Valuation Officer, Assistant Controller Aina Moyo who informed them the bus would not be released.
According to Akpobari, Moyo said: “‘the shadow of Ken Saro-Wiwa can kill somebody. I don’t want to get myself involved in the release of this one, especially now that Buhari is on seat,”
“If it were before I can just release this bus now. You will have to go to Abuja. You know that the shadow of Ken Saro-Wiwa can even sack somebody from work. My work is important to me.’”
A coalition of the civic organisations have since petitioned the Nigerian Customs Service to release the bus through the National Assembly Committee on Public Petitions.
Appearing before the Committee, Moyo said the importation of the sculpture was not covered by the list of goods under his scope. He claimed the bus was a caricature of a Black Maria, a police van usually painted black for transporting prisoners. He also said the sculpture was “unique” and would require the approval of the Customs Comptroller General, Col. Hameed Ali.
According to The Nigerian Customs website, Moyo’s claim that the sculpture is not expressly covered under the Customs scope may be accurate. There is no express mention of artworks (or public art) on the website.
Arguably, however, omission is not grounds for prohibition of the artwork’s passage to the Ogoni people. In reality, the fact the sculpture or anything of its kind does not appear of the import prohibition list should guarantee its release.
The Customs website however makes provision for the prohibition of the import of “materials of any description with a design which, considering the purpose for which any such material is intended to be used, is likely in – the opinion of the president to create a breach of the peace or to offend the religious views of any class of persons in Nigeria.”
The Nigerian Customs itself did not make a defence of its detention of the bus with this somewhat blanket provision. President Muhammadu Buhari has not made any public statements affirming that the bus falls within it.
Mr. Moyo’s assertion that the bus is a caricature of the infamous “Black Maria” as one of the reasons why the sculpture has been detained has no basis in law.
That the sculpture is a caricature appears to be a personal opinion and not one shared by the artist who created the sculpture and said in an interview with Al Jazeera that it was a conceptual and versatile work,, a bus “supposed to be an emblem for the clean-up of the Niger Delta. It was meant to stir up debate and encourage action.”
In any case, according to the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, a caricature is not a crime.
Akpobari revealed to me that the civic organizations have been working over the past two years to secure the release of the sculpture with no results.
After hearing their case, the National Committee on Public Petitions ruled in their favour and ordered the immediate release of the sculpture. The Nigerian Customs ignored the verdict.
The civic organizations have also sued Customs on the same matter. Over two court appearances, the body did not show up or send a legal representative.
A Lagos court recently awarded N20, 000 in damages where the civic bodies sued in a separate charge over the waste of their resources and time.
A court date to hear the case on the release of the bus has been set for February.
Akpobari also revealed, he has been propositioned with an ‘alternative’ to secure the bus’s release by a ‘top government functionary’ he met with over the matter.
“I was approached to rework the bus, to remove the Saro-Wiwa inscription. He asked me: “Will you agree to remove the inscription accusing Shell on the body of the bus?”
Shell is not mentioned by name on the sculpture.
“I told them I am not the owner of the bus, I cannot tamper with it. Perhaps if I had agreed, maybe the bus will be released.”
“For security reasons I can’t mention the name of the government functionary.”
A cross country tour had been planned for the sculpture.
A seminar was to be held in Lagos on the life and times of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the struggles of the Niger Delta with the sculpture as the main attraction. It would then move to Benin in another one-week seminar. The final leg of the tour was in Port–Harcourt where Ogoni people from different communities would come to take the sculpture / bus home. They were going trek with the bus for seven days and seven nights with the sculpture spending one night in each of the six Ogoni kingdoms.
Its final resting place was Bori, Saro-Wiwa’s hometown where a permanent outpost had been built for it and it could be a repository of history.
“It would tell the story of the Ogoni people, you could sit inside the bus and watch a documentary of the Ogoni people. There would be books on the Ogoni struggle,” Akpobari said.
“The bus would signify our nonviolent struggles.”
The struggle is ongoing.
In 2006, the Nigerian federal government sent a formal request to the United Nations Environmental Programme for the “Supervision of Remediation of the Clean up of Oil Contamination in Ogoniland.”
The programme established in its survey that Ogoniland case was unique. There were multiple sites of contamination: poisoning the air, agriculture, fisheries and suffocating multiple sources of livelihood for, harming the health of the local community. The contamination had gone on for an extended time period. “Some major contamination from the 1967-70 Nigerian civil war period remains to this day. Much of the pollution has dispersed and there is substantial overgrowth,” the survey said.
UNEP’s report took four or five years to complete and was submitted to the administration of immediate past President, Goodluck Jonathan.
However, it was only in June 2016, that a clean-up based on the assessment was flagged off by current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Yet, one year after the announcement of the clean-up, it has not yet started.
Also, the Federal government has not yet acceded to the demands of the Ogoni people enshrined in a bill of rights presented in 1990, championed by Ken Saro-Wiwa and which is what Akpobari noted he and the rest of the Ogoni 9 died struggling for – and Ogoni people are demanding for till today.
The bill demands for the Ogoni people, “political autonomy to participate in the affairs of the (Nigerian) Republic as a distinct and separate unit (by whatever name called), provided that this autonomy guarantees political control of Ogoni affairs by Ogoni people; the right to control and use a fair proportion of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development; adequate representations, as of right, in all Nigerian national institutions, and the right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradation.”
The bill notes that, “Petroleum was discovered in Ogoni at Bomu (Dere) in 1958; since then an estimated US 100 billion dollars’ worth of oil has been carted away from Ogoniland. In return for this, the Ogoni have no pipe-borne water, no electricity, very few roads, ill-equipped schools and hospitals and no industry whatsoever.”
“Ogoni is being killed so Nigeria can live.”
Nigeria is not new to taking actions that seemingly censor artistic expressions that revisit uncomfortable periods in its history.
In 2014, the Nigeria’s National Film and Video Censors Board temporarily blocked the release of the film adaptation of the best-selling novel, ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
The movie, as in the book, explores love and loss during the three-year-long Nigerian Civil War where the oil-rich South-East region of the country tried to secede and be reincarnated as Biafra. Agitations for Biafra remain till this day.
The censors board claimed the movie undermined national security, might incite violence and directed the producers to “expunge / edit some clearly objectionable aspects” of the film. Arguably the request made of Akpobari to tamper with the sculpture is similar to this.
The film went on to be released. The public was never made to know exactly what parts were cut.
The director of the film, Biyi Bandele, said to the BBC at the time, “One of the reasons Nigeria is more divided today — 40 years after the end of the war — than it was before the war started, is because we have refused to talk about the elephant in the room.”
Nigerian authorities, then, as in now are still refusing to talk.
Through my position as a BudgIT Media Fellow, I reached out to the Nigeria Customs Service through the Ministry of Finance, under with it operates with a Freedom of Information request to explain why the Ogoni sculpture was being detained.
The request asked what circumstances goods could be detained under if it did not appear on the import prohibition list, as in the case of the sculpture. The request asked Customs to confirm if the sculpture was being detained for its ‘political value’, what this meant and if this term was synonymous with prohibition. The request asked if there were any specific rules set aside for art on the import registration list that was not public knowledge through the Customs website. The request asked if the Comptroller-General was provided unilateral powers to detain goods under the constitution or custom regulations.
There was no acknowledgment or response.