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His gift was to develop their self-esteem

‘His gift was to develop their self-esteem’

Fermanagh nun Sister Majella McCarron remembers Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian activist who was executed for his part in challenging oil companies and protecting his fellow Ogoni people

“Ken was always being detained. He was detained as often as he was out. I honestly believe he thought he was being brought from the detention centre to be put in prison when he was taken for execution. I don’t think he realised things were as bad as the way in which they turned out.”

Yesterday marked the end of a week-long series of events held throughout Ireland to mark the tenth anniversary of the murder of Nigerian human rights campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa.The strong ties between the Ogoni people who populate the Niger Delta region of Nigeria and the people of Ireland have come to the fore in the week that has passed. The relationship between both peoples is typified by an Irish nun who witnessed the awful events of November 1995 at first hand.Fermanagh native Sister Majella McCarron, who belongs to the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles, was in Nigeria when Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight colleagues were hanged by a Nigerian military dictatorship on false charges of murder.All nine activists had been involved in the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, a group set up to challenge the oil companies that were ravaging their region without regard for the local population. Chief among the culprits was Royal Dutch Shell. At the time of the executions, the company refused calls from global human-rights groups to use its influence to save the men’s lives.The recent jailing of five men from Rossport Co Mayo, forced to spend 94 days in jail without charge, for opposition to a pipeline running through their land has brought home the full extent of the plight faced by the Ogoni people.After spending 30 years working in Nigeria, Sister McCarron needs no introduction to the might of multinational oil companies backed by complicit state regimes.She first came to know Ken Saro-Wiwa through her work with the missionary lobby group Africa-Europe Faith and Justice Network, which monitored economic relationships between Africa and Europe.“I was one of those people asked to carry out monitoring work and it was by chance that I chose the oil relationship,” she said.“I began my work in the early 1990s and it was just at that time that Ken Saro-Wiwa was coming to full flower publicly and he was very well known in the print media. At that time, I knew him as a writer but not personally. His profile just grew and grew and he came into his own.“I was aware that these people knew exactly what was happening, and I decided I was going to look at what they were doing and maybe I would learn something,” she continued. “Of central importance was the economic relationship between the Nigerian dictatorship at the time and Royal Dutch Shell.“From what I could see, all the articles Ken was putting in the papers represented the voice of the Ogoni people. They highlighted the fact that the Ogoni people were getting no benefit from all the oil extraction work that was going on.She said: “There was no electricity in Ogoniland, no running water and just one petrol station in an area the same size as Co Louth.“All this was a result of the actions of the political dictatorship – their mismanagement combined with a relentless business practice.“All the time, Shell said it was not their business that ordinary people got a share of the benefit. A tactic of theirs is to go along with what a government says and play the good citizen regardless of how people in the area are treated.”After striking up a working relationship with Ken Saro-Wiwa and other activists in his Ogoni movement, Sister McCarron came to a detailed understanding of the dynamics of the Ogoni struggle – a struggle that would eventually cost the lives of hundreds, including that of the movement’s leading light, Ken Saro-Wiwa.After four pro-government Ogoni elders were brutally murdered, the Nigerian military dictatorship immediately set about trying to link Ken Saro-Wiwa with the killings. “Ken was continually being detained. He was detained as often as he was out. I don’t think I realised the situation was so critical and I’m not so sure Ken realised the situation was as critical,” said Sister McCarron. “I think he never thought he would be put to death for his part in this non-violent protest. I honestly believe he thought he was being brought from the detention centre to be put in prison when he was taken for execution. I really don’t think he realised things were as bad as they turned out.” The nun said Ken Saro-Wiwa’s legacy included instilling the Ogoni people with a sense of worth in a country where no value was placed on them.“He had a phrase – ‘if you want to be a millionaire, think like a millionaire.’ He did that with his own family, and he did it very well,” recalled Sister McCarron. “He was a tough taskmaster and he wanted to help develop his own people and the Ogoni. He didn’t stand for half measures.“A line from one of the poems he wrote says that there is a star in the sky for the Ogoni people. There are about nine or ten ethnic groups in the Niger Delta and they were always seen as the last of the last. He tried to challenge that.“His greatest gift to his people was to develop their self-esteem. Never again would they be unknown or unheard of,” explained the nun. “The Ogoni were seen as quiet and non-confrontational. He sought to build the self-esteem of his people. There are six regions in Ogoniland and he was trying to build a nation for them.“He tried to give the people a more comprehensive identity. His detractors said he was trying to secede from Nigeria.” Sister McCarron said the problems faced by the Ogoni in Nigeria, which is a former British colony, were common across the globe.“I come from a colonial situation and his was a post-colonial situation. There is a huge burden faced by people in the post-colonial situation,” she said. “Often, the colonisers realise there is more to be gained by granting independence. Most managing directors at Shell got their OBEs because they are seen as contributers to the profits of Britain. Generally, there remains a great deal of dependence on the former coloniser. Former British colonies tend to buy everything from Britain and that’s how the coloniser keeps a hold on the situation.“Ken would have made me aware of how the post-colonial nations come to be so dependent on their coloniser.” Since Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death, Shell has never returned to Ogoniland although human rights abuses continue to be carried out while multinational oil corporations look on. Sister McCarron and other activists have spent the past week reflecting on events that have had a dramatic impact on how far big business is allowed to go in pursuit of profit.

Posted Date: 
14 November 2005 - 2:37pm