A Journey with Ken Saro-Wiwa

A888DD39-245D-45E2-A1AE-E6059F92360FConversation with Ken Saro-Wiwa took place at the offices of We The People in Port Harcourt on Thursday 25 April 2019. The room was packed out and yet more seats had to be brought in. One seat only had a book on it. That book was Silence Would by Treason – the last writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa. The book is made up of principally of letters and poems he exchanged with Sr Majella McCarron while in his last detention.

Although the gathering was for a Conversation with Ken Saro-Wiwa., he was not physically in the room because he was murdered by the Nigerian State on 10 November 1995. This event confirmed the truth that killing the messenger does not kill the message.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a man of many parts. He was a minority rights and environmental activist. He was an acclaimed writer with works of poetry, prose, drama and other genres. He was an astute businessman and a politician.

Opening comments by yours truly were drawn mostly from Silence Would be Treason and included a reading of three poems from the book. The poems were “Fire”, “Ogoni! Ogoni!” and “Keep Out of Prison” where the title of the collection was taken. That poem reads:

Keep Out of Prison

“Keep out of prison,’ he wrote
‘Don’t get arrested anymore.’
But while the land is ravaged
And our pure air poisoned
When streams choke with pollution
Silence would be treason
Punishable by a term in prison.”

We reminded ourselves that Saro-Wiwa understood his task as taking the Ogoni people on a journey. In a letter written on 1 October 1994 he referred to having escaped an assassination plot:

“Not that death would have mattered to me. It would have carried more harm to those still alive. However, I do want to take the Ogoni people as far on the journey to re-vitalization as is possible—until other leaders are bred.”

His socio-ecological dream was captured under what he termed ERECTISM – an acronym for ethnic autonomy, Resource and environmental control. His vision has nothing to do with partisan politics. He fought for the dignity of his people and for social, economic and environmental justice.

A second introductory presentation by Ken Henshaw of We The People spoke of Saro-Wiwa as a man that utilized his writing as a tool to liberate his people. He stressed that a writer must go beyond being a critic and use his craft as a tool for shaping society. He concluded by saying that Ken Saro-Wiwa lived the principle that a writer must be combative both in theory and in practice.

A punchy presentation by Celestine Akpobari summed that Saro-Wiwa was truthful, courageous and prophetic.

Participants in the conversation agreed that the positions taken by Ken Saro-Wiwa with regard to the devastation of the Ogoni environment have all been validated, especially by the 2011 report of the Assessment of the Ogoni environment by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The Conversation With Ken Saro-Wiwa stressed that although he focused primarily on the Ogoni situation the lessons from his life, ideas and actions have broad implications for oppressed peoples across Nigeria and beyond. He was more than just an Ogoni. He showed that we are all Ogoni.

A conversation with Saro-Wiwa would not be complete without reference to his allocutus or concluding speech before the Tribunal that passed a death sentence on him and 8 other Ogoni leaders.  In the allocutus he declared that “We all stand before history.” Our actions and sanctions will invariably be judged at some points in time.

“I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial and it is as well that it is represented by counsel said to be holding a watching brief. The Company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and the lessons learnt here may prove useful to it, for there is no “doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished. The crime of the Company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will also be punished.

“On trial also is the Nigerian nation, its present rulers and those who assist them. Any nation which can do to the weak and disadvantaged what the Nigerian nation has done to the Ogoni loses a claim to independence and to freedom from outside influence. I am not one of those who shy away from protesting injustice and oppression, arguing that they are expected in a military regime. The military do not act alone. They are supported by a gaggle of politicians, lawyers, academ­ics and businessmen, all of them hiding under the claim that they are only doing their duty, men and women too afraid to wash their pants of urine”

Conversations” is an initiative of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) as part of our learning efforts and aims to create space where citizens share ideas from the lives of reputable thinkers and practitioners in the quest for justice and radical Socio-economic transformation. We aim to ensure that young activists learn from history, struggle sacrificially and ground their works on solid thinking and analyses. We emphasize intellectual militancy!

Conversation with Ken Saro-Wiwa will be held in other locations including in Ogoni and in schools. We will also have Conversations with other leaders including Aminu Kano, Thomas Sankara, Amilcar Cabral, Eskor Toyo, Frantz Fanon, Oronto Douglas, Chima Ubani and others.

Is Transformation better than Change?

IMG_0430Is transformation better than change? Sometimes we can learn deep lessons from messages or fragments of wisdom on posters and billboards. They may jump at you as slogans and offer no further thoughts as to what they were meant to convey but when combined with photographs of products being advertised, some of these messages can keep you thinking for hours, days, weeks, months and even years. One of such posters has kept this writer thinking for years now.

Transformation is better than change. That was all the poster declared. And the thoughts about that assertion is what we will examine in this reflection. What is change, when does it occur and what may trigger it and for what purpose? Dictionaries tell us that change is a process by which a practice, function or thing is altered to become different compared to what it is at present. In other words, change is to alter, replace, exchange or convert. Transformation connotes change, but one that refers to a dramatic or total change in form or appearance of something or the order of things. Synonyms for transformation include alteration, variation, evolution, metamorphosis and mutation. In short, transformation refers to a process of profound or radical change.

Many thinkers have pondered and debated over these two words and concepts with some declaring that the difference is not clear. What is agreed by most is that change can be externally instigated while transformation often works from within. We have change of policies, for instance, in order to respond or adapt to situations. On the other hand, our reaction to changes can transform or radically alter our disposition in fundamental ways.

Such responses can lead to resistance or even acceptance and accommodation of things and situations that were previously unthinkable.

Sometimes, things can be in such a state of flux that the statement, attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus, that change is the only constant thing offers a blanket for emotional stability, something to hang onto without being overcome by a sense of drift. We are often told to accept changes that come with age, social status, economic circumstances.

Many changes around us demand responses. Think of climate change.There is global agreement that the climate is changing inexorably and will continue to do so except some drastic changes are orchestrated or put in place. It is well known that the crisis is driven by the persistent fossil-fuel civilisation but policy makers find it inconceivable to rapidly stop the burning of fossil fuels and to redirect efforts to energy sources that are truly renewable and are not disruptive to global ecological balance.

Such a shift in direction requires radical changes in modes of production, consumption and other socio-ecological relations. Rather than tackling the root causes of the problems, society prefers to tinker at the edges and keep to what is considered safe and can maintain the status quo, especially including the privileges enjoyed by those that benefit from the crisis. This posturing leads to heavy investment in armament and in the enclosure of nations, if possible by walls, to ensure the exclusion of others who may wish to move to those locations. Enforcement of identity and exclusion have been the anchor of responses to some of the social, economic and political challenges in history and continue today. Exclusion can be an easy way out for those that do not wish to see societal transformation even where such is inevitable.

Change, as a slogan, played an incredibly effective role in the 2015 elections in Nigeria. In that season, the All Peoples Congress (APC) which was the main opposition party at that time, sold the idea of change to the populace. The change on offer was not interrogated but it stood as a veritable counterforce to a government that had claimed it had a transformation agenda, and they won. They won because Nigerians clamoured for change. At the next election cycle, it was quite clear that “Change” as a slogan would be problematic as Nigerians may have wished to be told what the core change of the previous four years was. The clever slogan on offer in 2019 was couched in a promise to take the people or economy to the “Next Level”. That slogan worked for the purpose of the election. Now, Nigerians have to examine what needs to be done to get to that next level or to say if they are already there.

Political change is not a matter of semantics. It is derived from practice. The same can be said of social and cultural changes including in the areas of the arts. Socio-economic changes can be complex and when birthed by forces of external power politics can have dire consequences. Consider for instance, the advice from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that Nigeria stops paying subsidies for petroleum products. Although the government has always said that the subsidies would be removed, doing so has not happened and may not happen soon. This state of affairs persisted because of the intricate and complex webs of corruption surrounding the scheme. The country is unable to accurately guesstimate the amount of petroleum products consumed by its citizens. If not for their being major sources of hydrocarbons pollution one would have said that the petroleum refineries in the country are a huge joke. They are not a joke but a major problem. The importers and marketers of the products are embedded in the system, enjoy hugely from the state of affairs and will continue to work to block positive changes.

Considering the spate of statistical bashings that Nigeria has had to endure in recent times, it is obvious that the nation sorely needs some radical changes in many sectors. The figures are horrendous in the areas of extreme poverty, infant and maternal mortality, out of school children, unemployment, access to water/sanitation and corruption. Even without adding the state of insecurity and ecological degradation to the list, it is clear that the country is in dire straits and citizens are on the throes of pain and collective disorientation.

One may be tempted to consider the examination of the meanings between change and development as mere hair-splitting, but it is not. The understanding of the terms has the tendency of giving direction to efforts especially in socio-political organisation and practice. How does the alternation in context challenge or affect our identity and history? In what direction would changes take us? Change and transformation are powerful words and concepts. Like others such as sustainable development and green economy, they can easily acquire questionable connotations or become oxymorons. No matter whether you vote for change or for transformation, it appears that we need a combination of both in order to build an inclusive system that caters for the interests of all, including the weakest and the most disadvantaged among us.

Coloniality and the Geography of Seeds and Foods

NnimmoBThe geography of food shows the peculiarities and patterns of food production and consumption across the world or in particular territories. It tells a tapestry of stories of the individuals or communities where they are found and consumed. Food is a key component and marker of any culture.

Peculiar food types are found in particular places and are promoted by persons embedded in such places. The geography of food is largely determined by the type of plants and animal species prevalent in particular areas. The spread of plants and animals across the world is largely dispersed according to the climatic realities of various territories. Available food sources determine our cuisine, support our health needs and impact economic, socio-cultural and religious activities.

Plants-based foods begin their journeys to our plates as seeds. Considering that seeds are essentially whole plants or animals covered by a seed coat, it is correct to say that seed is life. It is life to its species as well as life for those who make their foods from them. Many factors have affected the availability and prevalence of certain seeds in particular territories, nations and regions. Some of these factors include climatic changes as well as economic and political pressures. Natural disasters and wars also orchestrate a change of diet for peoples especially when the response to such situations include the philanthropic supply of seeds and foods that may also be targeted to ultimately trigger food dependence by impacted territories.

Colonialism, neocolonialism and neoliberalism are deeply implicated in the disruption of food systems and in the introduction of plants and animals that are not found in nature. We note that colonialism was a geopolitical tool utilized to ensure extraction of resources and labour from subjugated territories. In terms of agriculture, the major approaches included growing crops mainly for export to the home bases of the colonial powers. These were appropriately called cash crops. They literally shifted the control of local agriculture from the communities to distant market forces and at the same time deprecated community values. The approach of moving agriculture from meeting the needs of the producers can be seen in the manner by which a bulk of genetically modified (GM) crops are cultivated for animal feeds and for industrial purposes.

In considering the matter of seeds, foods and biosafety in Nigeria we are confronted by the display of a sophisticated lack of knowledge by highly schooled professionals who insist that whatever they say must be accepted as truth. These highly placed players pose a grave threat to Africa and not just Nigeria.

Today governments willingly sacrifice national interests in order to attract positive relationships with corporations and international financial institutions. The mindset that promotes this subservient disposition clearly ignores cultural values, our indigenous knowledge and the pressures on our people whose natural socio-ecological support systems are being eroded.

Over the years our farmers have selected, preserved and shared the best seeds. In some cultures, it is an abomination to sell seeds. Our peoples built socio-economic systems that promote human dignity and community cohesion. They built knowledge and values that respect other beings and species with the understanding of our deep interconnectedness as citizens of the Planet. Today seeds have become a global commodity and means of control.

Must we all be molecular biologists before we can reject GMOs and insist on natural seeds and foods? When can people speak up if toxic herbicides like Roundup poison non-scientists? From the grave? If a scientist tells me that cigarettes are good for my health – as they did for several years – should my response be an applause, an Amen? If an engineer or architect swears that a collapsing building is safe, should I move in and begin to decorate it? Or would painting it over with graffiti or poetry change the status of the building?

Many protagonists of the erosion of our dignity and right to life hide under the cloak of science to conceal colonial intent of control, subjugation and denial of the right of choice. The worst form of slavery happens, it is said, when the slave does not perceive that he is a slave and celebrates what he thinks is freedom within his wretched condition. It also happens when the slave master accords some powers to heads of slave gangs and watches them inflict injury of their fellow slaves. Frantz Fanon captured this situation when he stated in his book, The Wretched of the Earth, that “The national bourgeoisie will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent, and it will play its part without any complexes in a most dignified manner… In its beginnings, the national bourgeoisie of the colonial country identifies itself with the decadence of the bourgeoisie of the West. We need not think that it is jumping ahead; it is in fact beginning at the end. It is already senile before it has come to know the petulance, the fearlessness, or the will to succeed of youth.”

In considering the matter of seeds, foods and biosafety in Nigeria we are confronted by the display of a sophisticated lack of knowledge by highly schooled professionals who insist that whatever they say must be accepted as truth. These highly placed players pose a grave threat to Africa and not just Nigeria. There was a time when our country was a bastion of support for the liberation of Africa from colonial subjugation. At a time when the struggle raged in the southern parts of Africa, Nigeria was considered a frontline state in the struggles for liberation. Today when it comes to biosafety and the protection of biodiversity, Nigeria has rapidly become the soft under belly of the continent, the gateway towards a recolonization of the continent. This state of things is celebrated by GMO promoters who have foot soldiers in the corridors of government offices, research institutes and increasingly in the media.

Is shameful when educated persons claim that because genetic engineering is a science, non-scientists must unquestioningly accept whatever product is allowed by the regulators into our environment or market shelves. They claim that those that insist on precaution when it comes to GMOs must produce “evidence-based” scientific reasons for their claims. It must be said that this is a standard biotech industry public relations response to questions from citizens who are truly concerned about the erosion of our biodiversity and the challenges to environmental and human health by these unnatural species and products derived from them.

In fact, the head of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) routinely claims that whatever they allow into Nigeria is safe. That claim of absolute certainty cannot be supported by science as humans are yet to fully comprehend the intricacies of the interdependencies of ecosystems at molecular and at other levels.

In the past four years Nigeria has witnessed the influx of GMOs and products derived from these novel organisms.  The claim of safety is premised on the arguments of GMO promoters that there is no scientific evidence that such products can be harmful to humans or to the environment does not recognise the highly circumscribed nature of the tests conducted often under the control of the promoting industry. In a recently decided case in the USA where a gardener was awarded millions of dollars for having cancer after being exposed to the chemical glyphosate (once described as a carcinogen) in Bayer/Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, industry hatchet jobbers insist that the decision made by the jury was not acceptable because none of them is a scientist!

Must we all be molecular biologists before we can reject GMOs and insist on natural seeds and foods? When can people speak up if toxic herbicides like Roundup poison non-scientists? From the grave? If a scientist tells me that cigarettes are good for my health – as they did for several years – should my response be an applause, an Amen? If an engineer or architect swears that a collapsing building is safe, should I move in and begin to decorate it? Or would painting it over with graffiti or poetry change the status of the building?

Over the past four years we have repeatedly heard highly “educated” promoters of modern agricultural biotechnology in Nigeria claim that the taking of a rib from Adam to create Eve was biotechnology. In other words, that creation was by biotechnology. This claim was repeated at the recently held public hearing at the House of Representatives on the attempt by NBMA to expand its law by inserting definitions of extreme forms of biotechnology, including synthetic biology and gene drives. The claim could be interpreted as blasphemous or as an indication that GMO promoters are playing God or that the act of genetic engineering is a form of worship. The claim that creation was by biotechnology is a shameful low that should not be heard from the lips of highly placed government officials.

We are concerned because new techniques deployed in genetic engineering have risks beyond the ones posed by first generation modern biotechnology. Gene drives have the capacity of driving species to extinction – a direct and irreversible threat to biodiversity. While the world is grappling with understanding the implications of these technologies and what governance mechanisms to adopt, our Nigerian regulators and some lawmakers are pushing to open the way for them to be tested here probably based on their unverified claims that Nigeria has the most qualified practitioners as well as the best equipped laboratories in Africa.

It is time for the Nigerian government to fund our research institutions and agencies so that they actually carry out researches that support our seeds, agriculture and food systems. We cannot continue to be a testing ground for risky technologies developed elsewhere. So far, it is doubtful if any of the permits issued in Nigeria is for a variety genetically engineered in Nigeria. They are more likely all engineered elsewhere and brought here to be tested.

We reiterate that seeds, agriculture and food systems mirror and develop our culture. Seed is life. Food is life. Although food is consumed mainly for energy, nutrition and health, its import clearly goes beyond just being things that humans ingest for these purposes.

Along with the GMO debacle in Nigeria is the quiet push to have Nigeria sign unto international seed laws that would further pressure our farmers and open the doors to corporate seed conglomerates to dominate and control our food systems. The combination of GMOs and uninterrogated seed laws will constitute grave environmental harm and will intensify hunger, poverty and social inequality in the country. We must continue to question and reject both.

10 April 2019

Cross section of participants at the Seeds, Foods and Biosafety Conference hosted by HOMEF on 10.04.19