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Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Living Drama of the Niger Delta

November 19, 2007
On 7 November 2007, Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight Ogoni minority and environmental rights activists murdered by the military regime of the late General Sani Abacha were remembered in New York in an event featuring the sensational one-man play, Tings Dey Happen, written and performed by the young American playwright, Dan Hoyle. The commemoration consisted of a viewing of Tings Dey Happen — which drew perhaps its largest Nigerian audience so far — followed by a discussion featuring Hoyle; Omoyele Sowore, publisher of, the hot online newsmagazine now the must-go-to-place for news, facts and figures about Nigeria’s irredeemably corrupt politicians; Jackson Ogbonna, who also publishes a highly informative internet news bulletin,; and the poet, Ogaga Ifowodo. The discussion was moderated by Jessica Applebaum of Culture Project who stood in for Lisa Vives, director of Global Information Network, an NGO whose goal is the distribution of news and feature articles on Africa and the developing world to mainstream and alternative outlets in the U.S. and Canada in the hope of helping to bring about fairer media coverage of the so-called Third World. Vives, the principal organiser who had hoped to return from an out-of-state commitment early enough for the event was unable to do so. The prolific columnist, Okey Ndibe, a featured speaker for the night, was also unable to make it from Connecticut due to unforeseen circumstances. The commemoration came three days earlier than the 10 November date on which the judicial murder—as the former British prime minister, John Major, among many others, described the tragedy—were hanged on the orders of Abacha even while an appeal against the decision of the kangaroo tribunal set up for the purpose was pending. And it was a night that Saro-Wiwa, a noted playwright with a fondness for satire, author and producer of the 80’s hit television comedy, Basi & Company, would have approved of, beginning with the venue of the memorial. The Culture Project, located at 55 Mercer Street in Manhattan’s SoHo (South Houston) district, has the high reputation of being the home of cutting edge political drama. And it is where Hoyle’s play which has created quite a stir as an Off-Broadway show is currently having an extended run from August till December. When I say that Saro-Wiwa would have approved of the evening’s event, I speak more specifically of Tings Dey Happen and I make the claim with good reason. Like virtually every other fellow citizen, my first reaction on learning that a play about Nigeria by some white writer was playing to packed audiences in San Francisco was, well, lukewarm — to put it mildly. Above all else, I felt the title gave the author away as just another foreigner of European extraction who would seek to add a few more pages to the never-ending representation of Africa as the white man’s burden. Tings Dey Happen? The play announced itself in legitimate Nigerian pidgin English. That, I thought was rank affectation; it certainly couldn’t be familiar diction to the ears of San Francisco or New York theatre goers. So why would they be queuing up to see Hoyle’s play? The answer seemed plain enough to me: his work was either a clever revival of blackface minstrelsy with the slave plantation transformed into the real African jungle or he had dramatised to its full potential another tale of doom from the “dark continent.” Not much difference between the two, but I certainly wasn’t going to put a viewing of Tings Dey Happen on my to-do list. Needless to say, I have since changed my mind. Hoyle’s play came to New York, as indeed many a cultural project in the US that didn’t start there must before long — and I’m glad it did. At Lisa Vives’s urging, I accepted a free ticket to see the show on 26 October. And I was mesmerised! Thus, when the chance came for me to see it a second time — as the special event of the twelfth anniversary memorial of the Ogoni tragedy — I couldn’t wait for the curtains to open. Tings Dey Happen is at once grim political theatre and dramatised travelogue. It is an acerbic satire of oil mercenaries and the shenanigans of the international community which colludes in the rape and pillage of the Niger Delta. “It is easier to manage war than work for peace,” an American oil mercenary specialising in security for Chevron-Texaco tells Hoyle. Tings Dey Happen is also a gripping portrayal of the pathos of the intolerably abject circumstances of the inhabitants of the Niger Delta, driven to militancy, prostitution and whatever other desperate act of survival. As I listened more carefully to the closing “dialogue,” it occurred to me that perhaps the play’s emotional power lies in Hoyle’s reflection on the oneness of our being, on an uninhibited expression of his humanism. And it comes across not only in the creative process of writing the play or in his superb performance — how his incredibly fluid facial and bodily movement make it possible for him to so effortlessly become each of his motley characters — but clearly long after he was done with the Fullbright fellowship that took him to Nigeria and he had returned to his country. In his author’s note to the performance, Hoyle says: “Events continue to unfold in Nigeria. Of the people I got to know there, one has died, one has been jailed for two years and then released, some have been kidnapped, others have helped with the kidnappings. For tonight, I honor them all with this play, and hope that their stories stay with you after you leave the theater, as they continue to haunt and delight me.” This point about Hoyle’s humanism may not be so evident to the viewer, and might be an over-interpretation on my own part but I dare say that it is unmistakably there in the increasingly impassioned ranting of the Community Relations Officer who, just before urging Hoyle to “try harder” at understanding the fate of the black man, especially the one trapped in the Niger Delta creeks, remarks that in the beginning, everyone was black, till some went away to Europe and became white only to return and not want to acknowledge their brothers whom they left behind. But if that claim is too large, you could trace that humanism — which is no more than saying that as humans we have a joint destiny on planet earth — in the direct accusation of the ordinary American by the security expert: when you fill your Cadillac with gas (petrol), you are helping to fund war in the Niger Delta. But this is hardly the only ground on which to praise Hoyle’s play. In any case, so many good things have already been said about Tings Dey Happen and in the most important places that I can hardly do anything here to further boost its credentials. Deserving of special mention, however, is Hoyle’s uncanny ability to translate the creek version of Nigerian pidgin English and give it living breath through his performance. I come from Delta State and went to secondary school in the oil city of Warri, generally regarded as the home of Nigerian pidgin English. At the end of my first viewing of the play, I had a long conversation in the foyer of Culture Project with Hoyle who proved even more likable in person than on stage. The entire conversation — except when we had to translate to Applebaum and Vives — was in pidgin! He further impressed me when he corroborated, without any prompting on my part, an observation I had made just before he came out of the dressing room about the points of deviation of the creek pidgin English version he mostly used from the Warri “standard” version with which I was more familiar. I should add this: coming to the play with not a little scepticism, I had waited patiently for that moment when the racist beast coaxed to sleep in the white travel writer’s heart would leap forth with some damnable stereotype. I’m happy to say that I was disappointed. If anything, I came away thinking about Things Dey Happen as I now do in a post-Achebean appreciation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: that Euro-America, and not Africa (read Nigeria), is cast in the darker light in Hoyle’s play. Indeed, the amazing beauty of Hoyle’s achievement is rather in shattering stereotypes! Those who have seen Hoyle become each of his characters — prostitute, mercenary oil prospector, representative of foreign charitable organisation, Serbian arms dealer, US ambassador, local mediator between oil-ravaged community and giant oil corporations, destitute old man, repentant sniper, warlord, etc. — will testify that if there are any doubts about his agenda, they can only be resolved in his favour. Which is to say that by electing to stay faithful to the appalling human dimensions of the Niger Delta tragedy, and by extension the Nigerian horror story, Hoyle could only end up winning sympathy for the downtrodden but resilient and fighting ordinary people of his play. If you do not feel weighed down to your seat by a heavy sadness and wish you could send a mite to the real life human being after whom Hoyle’s Okosi, the sniper with a heart and a dream, is modelled, then you would be even more of a dangerous reptile than the Nigerian soldiers who daily rain terror on poor villagers in a bid to pacify the Delta for continued oil extraction. Or, for that matter, the US ambassador whose disembodied diplomatese is as deadly as the fumes from gas flares by the oil companies. The play over, Hoyle had enough time to change before joining us for a short tribute to Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8. As memorials go, it was time to reflect on the legacy of their martyrdom. It was already quite late in the night, but nearly a third of the audience had stayed back. Hoyle spoke first. Not surprisingly, he acknowledged that he was able to write his play because Ken Saro-Wiwa had put the Niger Delta story “out there”; had managed to direct the attention of the world to the plight of the people whose land produced the oil wealth of Nigeria. I had remarked to Lisa Vives during the planning stage that the insurrection in the Niger Delta apart, Hoyle’s play was in itself eloquent testimony to the legacy of the Ogoni Nine’s sacrifice. Jackson, now living in the US, recalled his experiences as a journalist when he was part of a fact-finding mission to the Niger Delta communities and how that changed his perspective on the Nigerian question. The hanging of Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8 only confirmed his fear that Nigeria would know no peace until the Niger Delta question was solved. Given the strategic role of oil in the world, he enjoined the international community to actively support the cause. Sowore, on his part, wished to take the American security expert’s accusation further. What, he wanted to know, were Americans doing to prevent blood oil from underwriting their comfort? Did they not know that their love affair with the automobile made it possible for the people of the Niger Delta to be further repressed? He hoped for a relentless escalation of the turmoil in the creeks so that the gallon price of petrol would continue to soar, until Americans would be shocked out of their complacency. Readers of Jean Paul Sartre’s famous preface to Frantz Fanon’s classic, The Wretched of the Earth, will remember the moral force of this charge: the complicity of the even the most ordinary French person, of the ordinary European, in the imperial wars and atrocities of their governments. I was the last to speak, purely by the order of our seating. I spoke about the tremendous achievement of Hoyle in Tings Dey Happen and remarked that it is a play many a Nigerian might wish he or she had written. I said that my shared Niger Delta origin apart, two other points of interest connected me to Saro-Wiwa: my work for eight years at the Civil Liberties Organisation where we introduced environmental rights issues into the mainly civil rights-centred work of the Nigerian NGO community through our Environmental Rights Action, soon to become an autonomous NGO, and my membership as a fledgling writer in the Association of Nigerian Authors of which Saro-Wiwa was a president. But the night was far gone, so I read a few sections from my last poetry volume, The Oil Lamp, devoted entirely to the Niger Delta. A member of the audience wanted to know what effective steps were being taken to end the odious practice of gas flaring by oil companies. We gave a two-pronged answer: gas flaring would stop when Nigeria at last got a responsible government, and when true federalism which would give the people greater control over their lands and resources had been entrenched. For then, the people — whose lives are ruined by the environmental degradation resulting from callous oil prospecting practices — would matter more than the greed and avarice of oil cartels like Shell and Chevron-Texaco in cahoots with the bribe-loving governments we have had so far. Twelve years after their horrendous state-sanctioned murder, Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8 continue to inspire not only their fellow dispossessed and disenfranchised denizens of the Niger Delta but all people of conscience able to see or hear their story. Even those who can only see it through the highly filtered medium of a one-man play in swanky Manhattan. * Ifowodo, poet, law

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