BREAKING Guest Blog by Ken Henshaw, Social Action, Nigeria

The extraordinary behind-the-scenes story of the Bus memorial seizure and the struggle to release it, on the day of the 3rd Hearing to release the memorial to Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8.

Show your support – follow and tweet @GreatOgoni, @Kenn_Henshaw, @S_DouglasCamp. Support the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People

The Bus, Peckham Square, summer 2015

One rainy Wednesday in September 2015, Celestine AkpoBari, Abiodun Aremu and I dismounted from commercial motorcycles at the office of the Nigeria Customs Service, thoroughly drenched. Our mission was simple, meet with whomever was responsible for seizing the Ken Saro-Wiwa Memorial Bus, get him or her to rescind the decision, and return to conclude plans for the national tour of the ‪#‎Bus4Ogoni9‬. The arrival of the Bus memorial by the artist Sokari Douglas Camp on the shores of Nigeria from the UK was timely. On the 10th of November 2015, it was exactly 20 years since a Shell-BP instigated conflict in Ogoniland led to the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 other prominent Ogonis. For the Ogonis and other activists associated with the struggle for environmental justice in Nigeria, the Bus was going to be a Living Memorial, a source of inspiration and strength as well as a reminder that the struggle of the people of the Niger Delta has friends across the globe. That was not to be. On arrival in Nigeria on the 8th of September 2015, attempts by a clearing agent to get the Bus out of the Port were resisted. The agent was informed that he needed to invite the final ‘owner’ of the Bus for some questioning. Hence the journey to Nigeria’s commercial city, Lagos. 

At the Customs office, the three activists got a stern and hostile reception. First we were thoroughly harassed at the entrance gate by security operatives who didn’t understand why these rains soaked men–who didn’t look and act like the regular customers who will readily pay a bribe to gain access to where the valuation of their imported used car will be done- will demand to see their boss. With some explanation and a little altercation, that obstacle was crossed, leading to a long thin corridor with scores of sweaty customers literarily fighting and shoving to gain access into the office of the ‘OC Valuation’. After about an hour of standing in the human traffic, the three of us were ushered into the valuation office and in front of Aina Moyo, the man who took the decision to have the Ken Saro-Wiwa Memorial Bus seized.
Comrade Abiodun Aremu spoke first. Aremu is an outstanding long time labour unionist who has consistently defended the right of workers in the Lagos area. He calmly and carefully informed Aina Moyo that there was no sense in seizing the Bus, that the work of art posed no threat to the Nigerian state, but will be of great value to the Ogoni people and the people of the Niger Delta who were eagerly waiting to receive it. Aremu’s charm didn’t go far. The Customs Officer was not impressed. He was quick to remind the team

‘Don’t you know that the shadow of Ken Saro-Wiwa can kill someone? Do you want me to lose my job?’ ‘I am sorry, but this Bus is political, I cannot release it, the permission to let it out of the Ports needs to come from higher up, you will have to take this up with my bosses in Abuja, you should have informed the Nigerian government before importing the Bus’.

 

Every attempt to explain to him that this was an art work donated to the Ogoni people and not a ploy to ‘undermine the Nigerian government’ seemed to get him more enraged. By the time he was reminded that his action was a violation of citizens’ right, his patience had completely run out. He ended the meeting angrily and kicked the team out. 

Since September 2015, it has been an endless series of campaigns here, and also international appeals for the Bus to be released. The team embarked on several trips to Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja and met with several key government officials and high ranking Customs officials, each promising to put in some effort to get the Bus released. It only became obvious much later, that the promises, the seeming support and the many cries of ‘my hands are tied’ were part of a plan to wear the team out in the belief that interest in the Bus will simply ‘wither away’ after a while. It only became obvious much later from sympathetic sources that the reason the Bus was seized was the inscription on the body; the words of Ken Saro-Wiwa during his trial on trumped up murder charges, carved unto the side of the Bus: 

‘I accuse the oil companies of genocide against the Ogonis’.

Peckham Square, London; Photo: Sam Roberts.

It only became obvious later that the Customs officials acted to avoid an ‘embarrassment’ to Shell, the multinational oil company indicted in ecocide against the Ogonis, and fingered in the human rights crises which left thousands of Ogonis including Ken Saro-Wiwa dead. 

Working closely with international partners, local NGOs and community groups a global campaign was launched for the release of the Bus. When community people in locations where crude oil, the mainstay of the Nigerian economy, threatened to block access to oil installations until the Bus was released, it was met with a clear message from the Nigerian state.

In what was clearly reminiscent of the dark days of the 1990s when Ogoniland was declared a war zone, those locations were immediately ‘flooded’ with armed personnel, and leaders of the campaign Celestine AkpoBari and Ken Henshaw were placed under security surveillance. Threats were issued against ‘any attempt to block access to any oil facility’.

Stripped of options but determined to seek justice, a petition was sent to Nigeria’s House of Representatives in late 2015. In the third week of 2016, an invitation was received, asking the leaders of the campaign to meet with the legislators. After studying written submissions made by the team, the legislators found merit in the claims, but decided that those representing the Customs Service at the hearing were not competent to do so. It therefore stated clearly:


“Justice delayed is justice denied and we do not want to delay this matter, we will not also want to talk with any junior Custom Officer. We are therefore demanding that the Comptroller General of Nigeria Customs – Col Hammeed Ali appear before us in person with his Evaluation Officer, Mr Moyo Aina within 7 days. This is not 1995 and there is no tribunal in place. This case is hereby adjoined for 7 days from today.”


Two hearings after, a representative of the Customs informed the House of Representatives committee on public petitions that the memorial Bus was seized because it was a ‘caricature of a Black Maria, which carried four tyres and was covered with aluminum sheets’. The Bus was described as “unique” and would require the approval of the Comptroller-General, Hameed Ali before it is released. The Customs could not however mention any harm the Bus could possible cause if released.

Another Angle to the Ugly Tale
It is unusual for a work of art to cause so much stir. In some quarters, it is believed that the Customs Boss is directly responsible for keeping the Bus impounded. In 1995, Colonel Ali was a member of a puppet tribunal set up by former dictator Sani Abacha. The tribunal went ahead to sentence Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 other Ogonis – all members of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People- to death despite overwhelming evidence of their innocence and international outcry.

Is it possible that Mr Ali is completing a vendetta against Saro-Wiwa which started over 20 years ago? Is this a final effort to suppress the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa? 

Unfortunately, Mr Ali has consistently failed to appear before the legislative Committee to tell his own part of the ugly tale. The Committee has gone as far as threatening to issues a warrant for his arrest. Whatever twists and turns the journey to free the Bus assumes, the words of Saro Wiwa rings true even now ‘you can kill the messenger, but you can never kill the message’. The 3rd Hearing where Col Ali’s presence has been demanded is today.

Ken Henshaw, Social Action, Port Harcourt.

Artist Sokari Douglas Camp CBE and campaigner Celestine AkpoBari talk about the Bus, in Tottenham, London 2014.

 

Ken Henshaw talks about the Bus, Part 1, London 2015

Part 2

Show your support – follow and tweet @GreatOgoni, @Kenn_Henshaw, @S_DouglasCamp. Support the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People