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Oil kills

Globe and Mail: Oil kills: “The crucible of Ogoni discontent, beyond the Lagos regime and its associated local agents, was the Royal Dutch/Shell oil company…”

Posted Monday 3 October 2005


Saturday, October 1, 2005 Page D15

The Politics of Bones: Dr. Owens Wiwa and the Struggle for Nigeria’s Oil
By J. Timothy Hunt
McClelland & Stewart,
389 pages, $ 36.99

In this skillfully written book, many — perhaps too many — strands jostle for the reader’s attention: the politics of development in an oil-rich nation; the local practices of large multinational companies; the colourful but often violent recent history of Africa’s most populous nation; and a story of personal tragedy, flight and survival.

When offered the opportunity to review a book largely set in Nigeria, I leaped at the chance. During my teens, just after Nigeria’s murderous civil war broke out in 1967, my parents moved to its often squalid but exciting capital, Lagos, and remained there for three years, long enough to see out the war. We loved the country, its people and its outsize personalities, its cultural preoccupations (in those days often riffs on British culture) and its monumental ego. Corruption then reigned on a more modest scale than it does today. Nigerians in their rich diversity — from the handsome, quiet, dignified, mostly Muslim populations of the North to the ethnically fragmented, dynamic, fun-loving, entrepreneurial Christian and animist peoples of the sub-Saharan South — challenge blithe judgments.

In the immediate post-colonial era, hopes were high for Nigeria. But deft paragraphs in this volume suck us into the downward spiral initiated by political instability and mass killings leading to the devastating Biafran civil war and resulting, two decades later, in one of the most corrupt and inept governments ever to afflict Africa, that of General Sani Abacha, during which much of the action detailed in the book takes place in the early 1990s. Military dictatorships, ethnic violence and the pauperization of a once-rich country amid the staggering wealth of the economic and political elite all marked this descent into a national hell. Today, Nigeria is known unenviably as Ground Central for financial Internet scams.

The book focuses on Owens Wiwa and his wife, Diana. Wiwa was the brother of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a charismatic leader of the Ogoni people, hanged by Abacha’s regime in 1995 on murky charges of political murder. In fact, Saro-Wiwa’s own execution remains today the most spectacular political crime in Nigeria’s annals.

Tens of thousands of Ogoni inhabit a relatively small region of Nigeria’s oil-rich southwest, deriving very little benefit and much environmental damage from the resource wealth pumped from beneath them. Saro-Wiwa, a brilliant speaker and advocate for his people, articulated a strong redistributive message that threatened not only Nigeria’s brutal and massively crooked regime, but must also have been unsettling to oil companies that had accommodated themselves to doing business with whomever was in power.

Saro-Wiwa’s ideals and ordeal are well known to Canadians through his son, Ken Wiwa Jr., who wrote a moving book of his own on these events, In the Shadow of a Saint, and who is also a columnist for the Comment pages of The Globe and Mail.

The crucible of Ogoni discontent, beyond the Lagos regime and its associated local agents, was the Royal Dutch/Shell oil company, which, ultimately, would learn a harsh lesson in the wake of Saro-Wiwa’s execution: that its purported belief in “quiet diplomacy” to address Saro-Wiwa’s prosecution was completely inadequate to the threat to his life, to the expectations of activists around the world and to the values of many of its shareholders. That Western governments also did too little to save Saro-Wiwa (having recently intervened to save the life of former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, today again Nigeria’s President, democratically elected this time around) does little to excuse Shell’s obtuseness in this particular instance.

While Saro-Wiwa, others of his family, his fractious political allies and many other figures (including that Canadian national icon, Flora MacDonald, in a fond cameo) teem throughout the pages, the narrative fastens onto Owens and Diana. Why? The author, Timothy Hunt, a Toronto journalist, tells us what terrific people they are, and this clearly is true. Further, they immigrated to Canada and live among us today, welcome additions to our country.

But does this work as a literary device? In this case, it does not. Hunt, tremendously skilled at pacing and depicting a complex flow of events, succeeds less well in portraying Owens, a very private man, I surmise, as an individual in full. This human-interest hook thus proves a weak anchor in the maelstrom of his fascinating narrative. The pithy title, incidentally, refers to Owens Wiwa’s brave and determined struggle to recover his brother’s remains for proper burial.

Under cover of war, the Ogoni people suffered considerably, initially at the hands of the dominant Igbo tribe pursuing secession of the country’s southwest, but eventually also at those of victorious federal troops and officials.

The violence and indignities to which his family and community were subjected awoke in Ken Saro-Wiwa a reasoned, literate and passionate militancy that animated him until his execution. It focused not only on abuses by officials, but also on the oil industry. While Shell, the principal foreign oil company active in Nigeria through the years covered by this book, increasingly engaged in community outreach and support activities, these were dwarfed by the profits extracted from the region and, in any event, as recognized by the company itself, mostly swallowed up by official corruption.

The Nigerian civil war and Saro-Wiwa’s advocacy attracted early attention to the risk that the presence of natural resources in Africa could undermine rather than promote development. Today, the study of “resource wars” in Africa is a growth industry. The role of oil and mining companies in the development (and war) dynamics in Africa remains highly controversial today.

Lloyd Axworthy was an early champion of greater government attention to oversight of such activity. Several Canadian companies have demonstrated real leadership under the banner of corporate social responsibility, but overall much remains to be done. The Kimberley Process, bringing together relevant governments, the international diamond industry and civil society to discourage the sale of “conflict diamonds,” points to the type of international regulation that could one day extend to financially more significant extractive industries. But the vast sums involved means that such efforts will be strongly resisted, as British Petroleum discovered when it undertook to publish all of its payments to the government of Angola some years ago, only to run into Angolan threats and an early lack of solidarity from other oil companies.

While the government of Nigeria is today in much better hands, particularly on foreign policy, the drama continues. On Sept. 22, more than 100 armed militants attacked a Chevron oil platform in the southern Niger delta, in apparent response to the arrest of an ethnic militant leader for treason.

J. Timothy Hunt’s labour of love and admiration for so many of this book’s protagonists provides for riveting reading. He leaves us wanting to know more. This is a fine tribute to his achievement.

David M. Malone is assistant deputy minister (global issues) with Foreign Affairs Canada, and the author of Boom and Bust: The UN Security Council and Iraq, 1980-2005, to be published in 2006. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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