Annual Remember Saro-Wiwa Seminar Report 2007
On Saturday 10th of November, UCC hosted for the second year running the Annual Remember Ken Saro-Wiwa Seminar. It proved to be a lively and highly participatory event, and great credit is due to the members of Niger Delta Awareness who organised and co-ordinated the proceedings. A key theme of this year’s seminar was ‘memory’ and the associated dangers of forgetting. There is a risk that so long after the state sanctioned murder of a visionary and articulate community leader like Ken, that the gaze of the media and broader public opinion will shift to new subjects; that the ‘politics of oil’ as they impact on the people of the Niger Delta will be consigned to yesterday’s news.
In his opening address, Philip Ikurusi reminded us of the ongoing struggles of the peoples of this region and emphasised that the vision for which Ken and others died is still unrealised today. He also discussed recent political changes in Nigeria, urging us to critically reflect on the extent to which they would bring real benefits to the communities of Niger Delta. He then proceeded to show a fascinating documentary that charted the efforts of a range of visual artists to design public tributes to Ken and to the struggles with which he was associated. This film reminded us of what government and oil industry spokespeople would have us forget; that violence and environmental degradation have been central to the expropriation of natural resources in this region; but more hopefully, that the arts have a central role to play in highlighting and challenging such oppression.
Michael Ewing is a senior researcher at Sligo IT and he guided us through the important and, from an activist perspective, potentially useful Aarhus Convention that has been signed by Ireland but not yet ratified by the state. Michael is currently undertaking case-study research with local and activist groups in order to ascertain their ease of access to quality information on environmental issues. The Convention stresses that clear and up to date information; real opportunities for community participation in decision-making; and legal supports are the basis of true environmental democracy. Seminar participants then discussed - with a fair degree of pessimism - whether the Irish state really is, or might become, converted to this participatory vision. We also wondered why our government has been unwilling to ratify the treaty - a debate that continued during lunch.
After lunch, John Baker and Tracy Harper in a very moving presentation read some of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s poems. Ken was an artist whose political commitments enlivened his art and an activist whose art enriched his politics. This relationship between creativity and struggle was an important theme of this year’s seminar. Another was Ireland’s place in the debate about environmental justice and capitalist globalisation.
Kieran Allen offered some compelling and provocative reflections on the ‘personality’ of corporations, arguing that they can never be expected to work in the public interest because they answer to a bottom line of shareholder profits. He demonstrated the harm that has been done by well-known corporations internationally, highlighting their role in supporting oppressive regimes, hindering democracy and subverting trade unionism. Kieran’s presentation also prompted a fascinating debate on resistance to capitalist globalisation, with quite diverging views on the effectiveness of Fair Trade, green-consumerist and individualised forms of protest being articulated by participants.
The final presentation was by Terence Conway, an activist who is centrally involved in the current Shell to Sea Campaign in Bellnaboy. It is probably true to say that everyone in attendance was deeply impressed by his clear and honest appraisal of the fortunes of that campaign. He called our attention to the poverty of mainstream media coverage of the protests but promised that despite the best efforts of government, Gardai and vested business interests, solidarity in that community remains alive. It was a powerful note on which to end, asserting the continuity between struggles in the Niger Delta and those in Ireland, reminding us that as capitalism globalises so too do resistance and the imagination of alternatives.