Book Extract: Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow (Expanded Edition)

Nigeria: Politics, Nationalism and the Ogoni Protest Movement

Nigeria: Politics, Nationalism and the Ogoni Protest Movement

Understanding Nigeria is fundamental to understanding not just West Africa, but also the key role the continental powerhouse plays in Africa. Nigerian author Sanya Osha has expanded and updated his book, ‘Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow’ (Cambridge Scholars Publishing). This is an extract from the 2021 ‘Expanded Edition’ with an explanatory introduction by the author.

Nigeria remains as bewildering as ever. Africa’s largest economy, it appears to be an anomaly in every sense, being plagued and stymied by an enormous range of dysfunction, alter-modernities in addition to ethno- crypto- and necro-nationalisms.

But lately, its multiple regressive tendencies are worsening, drowning out civil discourse and possibilities for healthy nationhood. The federal government, lacking in visionary leadership, ability and foresight has become an indisputably ineffectual and sordidly spectral presence, removed from all but a few powerful individuals corseted by decadent trappings of power.

It has been claimed that only two countries — Iraq and Afghanistan — are now worse than Nigeria in terms of security. Recently, the scourge of deadly Fulani herdsmen and not the insurgents of the Niger Delta has become the bane of national security. The highways have been, for the most part, hijacked by largely faceless bandits who rob, terrorise, rape, maim and kill commuters in broad daylight with impunity.

Government security operatives such as the recently disbanded SARS organisation turn upon citizens rather than the seemingly endless swarm of stateless bandits terrorising the highways. Clearly, an undeclared war is being waged, a war that the country has quietly ignited. Muhammadu Buhari, the dull and listless national president offers an unprecedented portrait of myopia, incompetence and shallowness; bereft of thought, not to mention intellectual perspicuity.

He just cannot be looked upon for inspiring thought and action. Every semblance of an act from him emerges as a fragmentary afterthought, uncertain, irresolute and provisional as the country whose slow and tortuous death he listlessly presides over. Things have changed drastically since the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogoni activists by the General Sani Abacha regime in 1995.

In the light of the agonising implosion occurring in Nigeria currently, it is necessary to re-visit the figure of Saro-Wiwa and the unfortunate developments that have transpired since his judicial murder.


These edited excerpts from my new book, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow (Expanded Edition), released in 2021 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK, address the scourge of Boko Haram and the irreversible impact it has had on the national psyche.

Boko Haram: Terror unlimited

Perhaps the most singular act of terror that thrust Boko Haram into the global spotlight is the 2014 mass kidnap of 276 girls from the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State. A global outcry ensued which Boko Haram, for the most part, ignored.

Although some of the girls managed to escape — for instance, 57 managed to flee in 2016 — to freedom, all of them were most probably molested in various ways including sexually. This brazen act gave rise to the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls international outcry.

However, this unfortunate incident is not the first act of Boko Haram’s distressing trail of terror randomly targeting and slaughtering students. On July 6, 2013, 42 students at the Government Secondary School, Mamudo were killed. In the same year, on September 29, about 50 students were murdered during an attack on the College of Agriculture, Gujba. The Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, assumed the presidency based on widespread expectations that he would be able to curb the spiralling activities of Boko Haram.

The supposed mind of Boko Haram is terrifying, to say the least, because it contains its own self-exculpatory and complete justification regarding what it recognises as its manifest destiny, which upholds the mass slaughter of perceived infidels, in short, the waging of total war against all of those it considers to be enemies of Islam. In this self-contained and self-absorbed fundamentalist cocoon, the idea of toleration, compromise and alterity is deemed to be anathema and idolatrous and therefore worthy of the wrath and vengeance of a jihad.

If Boko Haram views its enemies with utter disgust and contempt, it then becomes possible to follow a rigid mindset down an unforgiving path of death and destruction to all infidels. Jihad, all through and through, is deemed a supreme necessity.

Most of the teachings of Muhammad Yusuf, who was killed by Nigerian law enforcement authorities in 2009, and current Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau are what form the key tenets of Boko Haram as a sect. Boko Haram denounces the Nigerian state and its constitution, together with all its organs of governance and agencies. It also disapproves of Christianity, Judaism, Western education, secularism, in short, anything that does not fall within an insufferably narrow radius of its definition of Islam. And through exhortations and inexorable doses of indoctrination, the sheer blindness of dogma becomes clearly evident.

There is also a powerful anti-Semitic streak in the numerous public pronouncements of the leaders of Boko Haram. Sometimes this antipathy is conflated with an equally virulent dislike for Europeans who are dismissed in the following terms by Yusuf: “It does not escape any Muslim, upon whom Allah has bestowed understanding, the severity of the Jews’ and Christians’ enmity towards the Muslims. They will never stop their onslaught on Islam and Muslims day and night. They have taken different measures and attempted to find every means to wreak havoc on the Muslims. They want to remove the Muslims from their religion of truth towards the abyss of misguidance. They fought Muslims with weapons for many years during the time of colonial rule. Then they came to teach the lessons of scepticism, in the minds of Muslims, scepticism about their religion, their Qu’ran and their Prophet Muhammad.”

The quotation above reveals a chronic persecution complex to which the sect always resorts in justifying its mayhem and carnage and which it employs in describing what it perceives to be its unacceptable plight within the shores of Nigeria: “Now, they have also killed children, burnt and roasted them. In the face of all these killings, they still claim that we do not have power to do anything. It is a condition. Is it until they finish their killings? There is nothing that will prevent these killings except jihad in Allah’s path, but they said they will not allow us. They made all efforts to perceive us by taking reports about us to the SSS (State Security Service). They will inform the SSS to be careful about us.”

Nothing best defines the modus operandi of Boko Haram than the constant infliction of faith by dogma. Once the power of dogma takes hold, it becomes impossible to view the world through an alternative lens, or at least, without the risk of death. At times, Boko Haram tries to portray itself as a victim tearing asunder swathes of north-eastern Nigeria and other countries in the region and it is apparent that its intention has never been to live in peace with its neighbours and those who subscribe to different belief systems. Its beliefs are couched in a sordid, monochrome hue that forbids the admission of alterity, non-conformity or dissent. It is as such against all that we have to come to historically define as civilisation and what we understand it to mean today.

Also troubling is the fact that Boko Haram refuses to acknowledge the possibilities inherent in inter-religious and intercultural dialogue and instead is confined to a tunnel vision that perennially absolves it of responsibility and culpability for wrongdoings and violence committed in its name. If groups and communities outside its fold bear the brunt of its random violence, they, in turn, are responsible for it. In other words, apart from the impossibility of entering into a dialogue with it, it further turns logic upon its head by the unprecedented scale of its capacity for violence.

Conceptually, Boko Haram promotes a freezing up of history and social movement. Therefore as noted, the idea of progress which is integral to human evolution, science and technology is completely anathema. Once this is well understood, the necessity to kill, maim and plunder on a mass scale and at a global level becomes perhaps slightly less difficult to digest even though it doesn’t make it any more palatable.

Boko Haram’s violent onslaughts against the Nigerian state and by extension, nation, stems from the fact that it views the Nigerian constitution as being an infringement on the law of Allah. Allah is the sole provider and arbiter of the law and any other laws that do not bear His seal of approval are considered instances of apostasy inviting the retribution of a jihad, which in this case, is a multi-faceted form of cleansing (religious, social, cultural, political and psychological) until the law and reign of Allah are imposed.

This conception of Islam is, to put it rather harshly, totalitarian since it offers strict injunctions on all aspects of human life, with the laws of Allah, the Qu’ran and the Sunni (practice) of the Prophet, in conjunction, being the guide and unchangeable framework through which life must be lived. Shekau describes the constitution as “a collection of man-made laws” and therefore is the product of the minds of unbelievers.

Boko Haram considers it its supreme duty to launch an all-out war on those considered to be idolaters or even “moderate” adherents of Islam. Yet it considers it an act of grave injustice for state authorities to attempt to curb its violence by employing violent means.

If Boko (Western education) is Haram (forbidden), then the possibilities for conversation become highly constrained. In the absence of dialogue, violence and death become the norm and this is a reality and an outcome that the sect accepts whole-heartedly. Consequently, this is what makes the sect not only a formidable threat to the Nigerian nation, but to all nations as they currently exist everywhere. Its version of Islam then replaces the nation as it seeks to expand its power and borders until it attains a borderless state.

Boko Haram, at the zenith of its political and territorial powers between 2014 and 2015, never managed to create a viable Islamic state on the captured territories of north-eastern Nigeria. In addition, in political terms, rather than attract new adherents among die-hard Muslims, it has only succeeded in repelling them because apart from what appears to be its unalloyed nihilism and insufferable taste for violence and vengeance, it had very little else to offer.

In spite of these significant shortcomings, it is apparent that neither the Nigerian nor the Cameroonian government has the capacity to extinguish the murderous rage fueling Boko Haram to ever more shocking depths of terror.

In view of such a dire prognosis, two approaches immediately come to mind; newer ways of living and coping with international terror would have to be found; and secondly, government authorities need to devise more integrated as well as multi-pronged approaches in deciding what forms of terror are likely to have global impact on a scale of priorities, and on that basis, initiate plans of action. In an age when the whole of humanity trembles under constant threat, and basic humanism is sorely tested, post-traumatic stress disorder a widespread reality, every effort ought to be made without recourse to the textbook terrorism of professional terrorists (and that’s the hard part), to re-establish and retain what makes us simply and truly human. DM

Sanya Osha has published prose, poetry and works of philosophy. His latest book is Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow (Expanded Edition) (2021) and he is also a frequent contributor to Africa Review of Books/Revue Africaine des Livres. His other work has appeared in the Johannesburg Review of Books, Gadfly Online, Transition, Pambazuka News, The Missing Slate and Research in Africa Literatures. He works at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.


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