Campaigners have begun legal proceedings to gain possession of a ‘living memorial’ to Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Britain-based campaign group Platform shipped the eight-metre long steel sculpture – titled The Bus – to the Ogoni people, to be displayed as a public work of art, which would call attention to the toxic legacy left by multinationals such as Shell in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
However, the art-work never arrived. Instead, it was impounded by Nigerian customs in 2015 because of its ‘political value’.
The 1.5-tonne bus, created by artist Sokari Douglas Camp, is emblazoned with the words: ‘I accuse the oil companies of practising genocide against the Ogoni people’, which were spoken by activist-poet Ken Saro-Wiwa.
He and eight other Ogoni environmental rights activists were sentenced and killed by a military tribunal in 1995. The names of the other men who were executed are also inscribed on it.
The government’s continued refusal to release the sculpture is seen as further proof that the state is seeking to erase the memory of Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8, along with their struggles for justice.
It is no coincidence that the current head of the Nigeria customs service, Colonel Hammed Ali, was also a member of the kangaroo tribunal set up by former dictator Sanni Abacha, which eventually sentenced Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8 to hang. Ali connects the current aggression from the state to the repression that began 22 years ago.
This month, Ali and the Attorney General are due to appear before the Lagos Federal High Court to explain why The Bus continues to be held, despite a recommendation from the National Assembly that it be released.
Whatever happens on this journey to free The Bus, the words of Saro-Wiwa ring true: ‘you can kill the messenger, but you can never kill the message’.