A sculpture created as a memorial to Nigerian environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists has been denied entry to Nigeria, where it had been sent as a gift to mark the 20th anniversary of their execution by the military government of the late General Sani Abacha.
Customs officials under the orders of its new Boss, Col. Hamid Ali (rtd) impounded Sokari Douglas Camp’s sculpture, in the form of a steel bus, when it arrived at Lagos port on 8 September, on grounds of its “political value”. Leaflets and reports sent by courier to commemorate Saro-Wiwa’s life and death were also seized.
Subsequent efforts by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, Social Action and other pressure groups have failed to secure the work’s release and a memorial vigil in Bori-Ogoni may have to go ahead without it.
It will be recalled that Nigeria’s newly appointed CG of Customs, Col. Hamid Ali (rtd), was handpicked by the Abacha regime as a member of the kangaroo tribunal that sentenced the renowned environmentalist and minority rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others to death by hanging. A section of Nigeria’s pro-democracy activists expressed shock when he was named by President Muhammadu Buhari as the Comptroller-General of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS).
The Abacha regime set up the tribunal after falsely accusing Saro-Wiwa of orchestrating the death of four Ogoni elders. After prolonged abuse, torture and intimidation of Mr. Wiwa’s counsel by the Abacha regime, the panel sentenced Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni activists to death by hanging for a crime they never committed.
The Abacha regime swiftly ratified the tribunal’s verdict and thereafter murdered Saro-Wiwa and the eight activists before the period allowed for an appeal had elapsed. This happened in defiance of calls by the international community, particularly groups like Amnesty International for their lives to be spared.
The bodies of the executed men were subsequently dissolved in sulphuric acid.
Celestine AkpoBari, national coordinator for the Ogoni Solidarity Forum-Nigeria, has spent the past two months working to secure the release of the sculpture, called The Bus – Living Memorial, from a secure area of Lagos port and remains determined to get it to Ogoniland, nine hours’ drive from Lagos, next week, according to a report by the UK Guardian.
“I have been fortunate to see the bus in London but it will be so exciting to see it in Nigeria, I don’t know if I might faint,” he told the Guardian. “It will give so much happiness and strength and every Ogoni will want to come home and see it. We are still looking forward to hearing the good news, we need the bus because it is the symbol of our struggle now that Ken is not with us. We will use the presence of the bus to begin another era of our campaign for justice.”
The Bus was commissioned following a competition to mark the 10th anniversary of the executions and first exhibited outside the Guardian’s London offices in 2006. The artist described her work as a “spectacle” and symbol of the importance of transport to environmental debate.
It was given to the Ogoni people by UK campaign group Platform, to show solidarity with continuing efforts to get oil giant Shell to repair damage caused by spills in Ogoniland over many years.
Saro-Wiwa’s hanging on 10 November 1995 sparked international outrage and led to Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth for four years, until the military handed control back to a civilian government in 1999. In 2009 Shell agreed to pay $15.5m (£9.6m) to settle a claim brought by relatives of the Ogoni nine, after it was accused of having collaborated in the violation of their human rights.
The Bus spent four days at the bottom of the Thames in August, after it was dropped while being loaded on to a ship at the Port of Tilbury in Kent, and was repaired before leaving the UK for Lagos on 19 August. The plan was for it to make several stops in Nigeria en route to its final destination in Ogoniland.
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