Nigerian Execution

November 10, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Nigeria, among the largest and potentially wealthiest nations in Africa, has been under military rule for much of its history. Today, the current military government announced it has executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his associates. Saro-Wiwa was a Nobel Prize nominee and writer.

NELSON MANDELA, President, South Africa: In view of this latest development, the South African delegation at the commonwealth conference will recommend the expulsion of Nigeria from the commonwealth, pending the installation of a democratic government.

JOHN MAJOR, Prime Minister, Great Britain: I said yesterday that I thought this was a fraudulent trial, a bad verdict, an unjust sentence, and it has now been followed by judicial murder.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Nigeria’s fellow members of the British Commonwealth were not the only nations to react strongly to the executions. The United States late today recalled its ambassador to Nigeria and halted military sales. This afternoon, the United Nations Security Council debated the issue.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, UN Ambassador: Their conviction was stunning in its absence of any modicum of the due process under law. The unseemly haste of this reported step contravenes all values of the civilized world. The defendants were not given a fair and free trial, were not able to present witnesses or evidence.

BENNO ANTONIUS EITEL, UN Ambassador, Germany: The government has worked for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. We shall continue to do so. If the shocking news I have just mentioned should prove to be correct, my delegation cannot but join those delegations that have before me expressed their utter dismay over these executions.

JOHN WESTON, UN Ambassador, Great Britain: The British government has stated in London that the British government is appalled at this callous act. The British prime minister is in close contact with his colleagues at Aukland about further steps. Thank you, Mr. President.

ISAAC AYEWAH, Deputy UN Ambassador, Nigeria: The Nigerian delegation wishes to remind those delegations which have ascribed to themselves the rule of the world’s policemen to kindly note that what has reportedly taken place in Nigeria today in relation to the subject of their comment bears no relevance to the item under consideration in the council.

The Nigerian delegation, therefore, finds it unacceptable for those members to want to meddle in the domestic affairs of Nigeria. We regard it as a gross interference in our internal affairs. I thank you.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For more now, we go to Jean Herskovits, a professor of African history at the state university of New York in Purchase. She has followed Nigerian politics for the past 30 years and was there most recently this summer. Prof. Herskovits, you knew Ken Saro-Wiwa. Tell us just a little bit about him and the nature of his activism.

JEAN HERSKOVITS, Africa Analyst: (New York) I haven’t–I haven’t actually seen him for some years. I knew him in an earlier carnation, as it were, when he was involved in the teaching of literature and the writing of plays and the writing of newspaper columns which always satirized and criticized virtually every Nigerian government, and so it’s in that context that I had seen him personally in earlier years.

More recently, he’s become much more of a political activist, of course, on behalf of what he called the Ogoni nation. And his concerns were environmental but they were also–they were also political in the sense of setting forth plans to–if necessary–even declare the Ogoni a separate nation from Nigeria.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Tell us just briefly about the Ogoni and how Saro-Wiwa’s activism fits into the charges that brought him to this situation today, the execution.

PROF. HERSKOVITS: Well, the, the oil-producing areas of Nigeria are largely, though not exclusively, in the Niger Delta, and the Ogoni are one of the ethnic groups who live there. They number–I’ve seen estimates that go up to about 100,000 people in a country, as you know, of 100 million.

So we’re not talking about one of the largest ethnic groups. But they, along with others in the rivers, have felt the ecological consequences and mostly those of course have been negative of the oil industry that has been the major source of Nigeria’s revenues over the years.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and his–the organization he put together, starting as I believe about 1990, was protesting against that–the degradation of the environment, but this is, I think it’s only fair to say, something that Nigerian governments since the early ’80s had also turned their attention to, so he was drawing particularly vivid attention to problems that needed it but that were not going unaddressed by a number of others specially in the riverine areas.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, the charges against him related to the killing of four moderate Ogoni chiefs who were opposed to this kind of demonstrating, is that right?

PROF. HERSKOVITS: Yes. As I understand it, and of course I am not privy to any special details of, of the case, but as I understood it as long as eighteen or more, eighteen months, two years ago, there came to be some divisions among the Ogoni about how best to approach these issues, and whether to take a militant and confrontational stance, which included some sabotaging of oil installations and threats of more.

So there was a political division then within the Ogoni, I understand, and it’s in that connection that demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, violence, and, indeed, army interference in an attempt, it was said, to keep the peace, all took place, and it was as a consequence of some of that confrontational difficulty that the murders of these four other Ogoni took place.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And, of course, Ken Saro-Wiwa was not present, not at the scene of the murders, but he was charged with inciting them, is that not right?

PROF. HERSKOVITS: That’s how I understand it, yes.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, foreign governments, human rights groups, you just heard the taped piece, have said that this was not a free and fair trial, that they weren’t able to present evidence and witnesses. Is there anything that you know about this trial, it was in secret, it was done by the military, is there any light you can shed on that briefly?

PROF. HERSKOVITS: I’m afraid not very much, because I’m not a lawyer, and of course, I wasn’t in the country, but in all military governments, in most places, you have different kinds of judicial procedures than you do in obviously in a democracy. Nigeria has had in the past a strong judiciary, but there have been some other tribunals set up to deal over successive governments with particular kinds of difficulties and offenses, allegations of offenses.


PROF. HERSKOVITS: And this was one of those, I believe.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Just a few months ago, there were over 30 Nigerians, including Gen. Obosojo, sentenced to death for allegedly plotting coups against the government, and international appeals of clemency from this country, from President Mandela, and others resulted in the government commuting the sentences. Why was this case different, do you think, that they didn’t listen to the same appeals from the same people, including the Pope as well?

PROF. HERSKOVITS: Yes. I think as best as I can understand it, there is a differentiation in the minds of those running Nigeria’s affairs now between the two kinds of offenses. In the case of the coup attempt, this was, of course, much debated. Within the army there were certainly pressures to carry out the sentences as originally handed down.

But those were seen as in some sense political offenses, and as a consequence, I think there was more receptivity to pressure than what in this case is seen as a succession of criminal offenses, which range all the way from the sabotage efforts that I mentioned before to these killings. And so in the view of the government I believe they saw a distinction and believed that in criminal cases they could not listen to these kinds of appeals, or at least would not.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You know, in general, Nigeria has been criticized because the government has not moved towards establishing democratic elections and there have been accusations of human rights abuses that the government was and the country was increasingly corrupt, and today the “Christian Science Monitor,” yesterday said that they were moving closer to mass violence and political disintegration.

What do you think the impact of this trial–this execution is going to be, just very briefly, on the general state of things, and can any of these nations, including the U.S., Mandela, do anything about it?

PROF. HERSKOVITS: Well, in the first instance, I don’t know the basis on which one would draw the conclusion that there was political disintegration in the works, compared to a much more disordered time, even as recently as a year and a half ago.

I think it’s my sense and on my recent trip it was my impression that there were many, many serious problems, but political disintegration, it wasn’t one of them. There is a transition program that’s been put in place, and although it is three years of duration which many outside and inside the country regard as too long, nonetheless, there’s a program in which there are a lot of people starting to organize political parties and so on to participate in the process.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, we’re just going to have to see what happens as this story unfolds. Thank you very much, Prof. Herskovits, for being with us.

PROF. HERSKOVITS: My pleasure.