In November 1995, while an overwhelming international outcry mounted against the execution of the Ogoni leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues, defiant military dictator, Sani Abacha, backed by a small band of military officers, convinced themselves that executing them, swiftly, was the best way to resolve the Ogoni unrest “once and for all”, and to make it clear to Nigerians and the world the authoritarian regime was no weakling.
A recording of the final meeting, where the decision to hang Mr. Saro-Wiwa and eight of his associates was taken, said, two days before the execution, Mr. Abacha told members of the Provisional Ruling Council, PRC, the regime’s highest decision making body, that the activists deserved no sympathy, and that hanging them would stem further discontent and prove to the world the regime was bold and courageous.
“He was of the view that no sympathy should be shown on the convicts so that the sentence will be a lesson to everybody. He stated that the Ogoni issue had lingered on for a very long time and should be addressed once and for all,” Mr. Abacha was quoted in the document now available exclusively to PREMIUM TIMES.
We obtained the memo from highly placed sources familiar with the proceedings and who requested not to be named so the Nigerian government does not hound them. We took further measures to ensure the documents are authentic including checking with other sources knowledgeable about the matter.
The former head of state said Mr. Saro-Wiwa was a foreign agent used to destabilize Nigeria, and a “separatist” who cloaked himself as an environmental activist, but whose true intention was to split the country and subvert its authority.
Members of the PRC at the time were Mr. Abacha; Maj. General Patrick Aziza (Minister of Communications under Abacha); Major Gen. Tajudeen Olarenwaju (GOC); General Abdulsalami Abubakar (Chief of Defence Staff); Lt. General Oladipo Diya (Chief of General Staff); Maj. Gen. Victor Malu (GOC); Ibrahim Coomasie (Inspector General of Police); Mike Akhigbe (Chief of Naval Staff); Maj. General Ishaya Bamaiyi (Chief of Army Staff); Nsikak Eduok (Chief of Air Staff); Lt. Gen. Jeremiah Useni (Minister of the Federal Capital Territory) and Michael Agbamuche (Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice).
Mr. Saro-Wiwa, a respected writer, activist and environmental campaigner, had been sentenced to death by a military tribunal set up by the regime. He was accused of masterminding the killings of four prominent Ogoni leaders – charges he forcefully denied.
The charges were widely viewed as framed to silence Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s campaign against the exploitation and degradation of the Ogoni land by international oil majors, especially Shell.
But while a global campaign to block the implementation of the tribunal’s verdict intensified, the regime, on November 10, 1995, two days after its meeting, staged a fast-tracked execution of the ruling, with a gruesome hanging of the nine leaders.
Others killed were Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine.
The killings sparked international outrage. While the European Union and the United States placed economic embargo and other restrictions on the country, the Commonwealth promptly suspended the country from its fold.
Shell, at the centre of the unrest, was accused of complicity in the killings, with allegations it sponsored the military junta’s onslaught on Ogoniland.
The company denied the allegations despite testimonies stating otherwise, and a $15.5 million out-of-court settlement it agreed in favour of the families of the victims in 2009. Shell said the payment was not a concession of guilt, but a gesture of peace.
The minutes of the military council meeting preceding the executions, a four-page memo, kept secret for years, document the behind-the-scenes moves, at the highest echelons of the Abacha regime’s decision-making organ, as it hurried through with the executions.
The details shed light on how the junta, accused of rights violations and fierce brutality, considered an unprecedented domestic and international calls to suspend the killings.
Besides deciding to forge ahead with the execution, the document states, the PRC offered frantic justification for the killings, planned broad state-sponsored propaganda against the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, MOSOP; considered the proscription of MOSOP; and how to further divide the group’s ranks, and “neutralize” its members.
Mr. Abacha chaired the meeting on November 8, 1995, and led junta officials through a deliberation that sought a speedy implementation of the death verdicts-which was implemented less than 48 hours after the meeting.
While a global campaign pushed for the rulings of the Kangaroo tribunal to be shelved, the minute shows, the 11-member PRC, comprising service chiefs, top military commanders, the Inspector General of Police and the Attorney General of the Federation, never considered backing down.
Instead, junta officials warned that a reversal would portray weakness. They accused the international community of double standards; choosing, for economic reasons, to look the other way when similar state decisions were taken elsewhere.
“The council was advised not to yield to pressure from the West, championed by the United States of America. The council was reminded that the Arab countries visited crimes with measurable punishment for which the West saw nothing wrong because of their economic interest,” the minutes said.
“It was therefore advocated that minimum time be wasted between the council decision its implementation,” it adds.
The junta described Mr. Saro-Wiwa‘s alleged crime as “heinous” and accused the media of attempting to whip up sympathy for him and the other accused.
“It was cautioned that if members soft-pedaled, the administration would be regarded as a weakling,” the document states.
The ‘Ungrateful’ Ogoni’s
With the backing of the council members, Mr. Abacha then declared that “anyone who killed his fellow citizen did not deserve to live”.
Mr. Abacha believed the Ogonis were asking for too much, and were ungrateful for “sizeable federal investment” located in the area- possibly a reference to Onne port and Eleme petrochemicals, both near Port Harcourt.
Despite the extensive considerations, barely did the meeting brook counter-opinion not in line with Mr. Abacha’s.
A suggestion by an unnamed member that in future such trials should be conducted by civil courts not to unnecessarily rile the international community was promptly overruled by Mr. Abacha who spoke of his preference for military tribunal for its speed.
“On whether the military tribunals should be replaced with civil courts, he expressed preference for military tribunals which he said considered and decided cases with dispatch,” the minutes said of Mr. Abacha.
The tribunal that convicted Mr. Saro-Wiwa turned out amongst the most controversial. Headed by Justice Ibrahim Auta, the current Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, the panel delivered a speedy, but severely criticized verdict on October 31, 1995, barely nine months after it was convened.
The panel faced severe criticism for alleged high-handedness, prompting defense lawyers, led by late Gani Fawehinmi, Femi Falana and Olisa Agbakoba, to stand down after accusing the Auta-led tribunal of violating all known judicial ethics and rules.
Mr. Auta, then a mid-career judge, turned down two key requests from the defence team, namely, two weeks of access to Mr. Saro-Wiwa and the rest, (having been denied access to their counsels); and an order transferring the accused from a military cell in Port Harcourt to a civil prison.
Mr. Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues were condemned to death without legal representations.
In years, Mr. Auta has risen to become a Chief Judge while the lead prosecutor, Joseph Daudu, is the immediate past chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association.
Praising Justice Auta, others
As the military brass met that November 8, 1995, the severely-castigated tribunal came up for a decent dose of praise for its “painstaking consideration” of the facts.
Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s campaign dated decades, but peaked in the 1990s as he struggled to draw national and international attention to the deprivations the Ogonis faced while Shell and American firm, Chevron, degraded their land and carted away billions of petrodollars.
Arrested and released repeatedly, the crisis took a fatal twist after four Ogoni leaders – accused of selling out to the government and Shell- were mobbed to death by some youth.
Mr. Saro-Wiwa denied the youth carried out his order; a claim countered by the military government, which, before then, had endured devastating restiveness the activist led to cripple oil production.
In turn, the military was accused of staging the killings as a way of eliminating the activists.
As the Abacha government faced the Saro-Wiwa episode in 1995, it had its hands full with a coup’detat case in which former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and others were indicted.
Amid international condemnation against the coup indictments, an allegation also viewed as staged to hound opponents, the regime backed down from its initial plan to execute the alleged coup plotters. But it later regretted that compassion, feeling it acted feebly.
The Saro-Wiwa case presented an opportunity to right that wrong and proved a strong point, the document said.
“Council was reminded that the government’s decision on the plotters had sent wrong signals to the generality of Nigerians and that the current case should be used to correct that wrong impression,” the minute said.
That concern turned up repeatedly in the meeting, according to the recordings, with some members appearing to compare the relatively mild response to the alleged plotters to the draconian reaction that trailed the Ogoni’s case.
Mr. Abacha laid that concern to rest as the meeting wound up, declaring that while the Ogonis’ case was a “premeditated murder”, the alleged coup plotters had yet to carry out their plot.
The Ogoni’s have a case
In a brief humane consideration, the council conceded that the trouble in Ogoniland was a result of years of neglect, failure and pent-up anger.
But members also swiftly argued that agitators like Mr. Saro-Wiwa were mischief makers who cashed in on a genuine grievance to seek selfish motives.
“It was therefore not surprising that a few mischievous individuals could exploit the situation for their selfish ends,” minute said. “Council was therefore urged to approve the judgment of the tribunal and ensure its expeditious implementation.”