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Monday, January 23, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: THE ENDEMIC ‘OGA AT THE TOP’ SYNDROME

Book: A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary
Author: Ken Saro-Wiwa
Year of Publication: 1995
Publisher: Spectrum Books Limited
Reviewer: Olutayo Irantiola

The ‘Oga at the Top’ phrase largely attributed to the former Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) Commandant in Lagos State, Shem Obafaiye had been silently in existence for ages before it went viral in March 2013. The detention diary of Ken Saro-Wiwa typified the experience of eloquent activists during the deadly military junta prevalent in Africa. The endless struggle for power abounds despite the return to ‘pseudo-democracy’ and it can all be summed up as the greatest inhumanity of the Black man to his kind.

Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa is and was the foremost environmental activist from Ogoni, Rivers State. He fought the war against the environmental degradation of his fatherland wholeheartedly till he became the target of both the government and the oil companies that did not give a damn even at the behest of the international community. This book is an account of his experience between the 21st of June 1993 and the 22nd of July 1993 while he was held captive for the boycott of Ogoni indigenes in 12th of June 1993 Presidential elections. This was his fourth arrest in three months. However, he remained undeterred, he stood for this cause till he was accused of murder and executed in 1995.

This review will expose on the known colloquial phrases that pervade the civil service; the impediment of the efficiency of the civil service and the results of military force on civilians.

The book opened with the description of how Ken was accosted within the Port Harcourt metropolis, he had become ‘a well-known customer’ to the State Security Service. This depicted the extent to which he had become familiar with different law enforcement agents. He frolicked with them whenever they came for him.

Another statement that is commonly associated with the civil service is ‘we know our job’. According to the author, ‘the implication was that I was trying to teach him his job: a sin in Nigerian official circles punishable by great wickedness’. This showed the level at which civil servants abhor confrontational and assertive people.

The perennial contention between the lawyers and the Nigerian Police was also pinpointed in the book. According to Ken Saro-Wiwa, ‘The lawyer came and he was ordered to leave…. The Nigerian police hate lawyers. They do not mind doctors.’ Both organizations have the same denomination, law, but unfortunately, they are constantly at loggerhead.

Saro-Wiwa in the fourth chapter of the book, the longest chapter, described his modus operandi in equipping himself against the enriching ‘deals’ that pervaded the country-within the civil service; between the civil service and her contractors etc. He went into trading, invested in properties thereafter he divested into writing and publishing.
                ‘It was also important that in seeking limited financial security. I should maintain
                My integrity and not go into deals Nigerian-style such as would make it impossible
                For me to look anyone in the eyes.’

A hypothetical deal was described around the medical care of inmates when he was sick while in custody. The clinic where he was taken was a newly constructed one. He said the building had been constructed in the usual splash and dash manner of Nigerian official contract jobs, no doubt at ten times the normal cost.’

The sordid description of the premises of the Nigerian police and the inhuman treatment meted out on detainees. Some of the notable places mentioned included-
Central Police Station described it thus, ‘It was in disrepair. The lawn was littered with cars, in different colours and states. Some appeared to have been there for ages, waiting to be used for exhibits for cases that would never be tried.’ The full treatment of someone in police custody had been given to Dube and Nwiee …they had been thrown into the guardroom… they met with hardened criminals and petty thieves who held court and charged newcomers specific fees.’
The notorious Alagbon Close was said to be ‘extremely dirty. The wall were grimy with the marks of the years. The place had not been painted for ages. Ken Saro-Wiwa passed the night in the reception and the sergeant on duty was informed that he was not to go into the guardroom for the night. He was offered a room where he had his meal, ‘cobwebby, dusty, unswept with broken cupboards and grimy desks lying in thorough disorder.
His experience at the Imo State Police Command was narrated thus ‘we were led into a room… there was no light in it, the only available light coming from a beam which fell from the fluorescent tube in the corridor. There was no door, the only door having fallen off its hinges… Opposite the room was a bathroom from which came the stinking odour of human waste.
The Police Station at Awka with ‘the inside totally intolerably. It was all cobwebby and the walls were smudged. Truly, no one could ever do meaningful work in such a messy, grimy surrounding.’
The Port Harcourt prison said as having ‘the exterior is solid, grey and forbidden… its interior is grimy, squalid and dilapidated.’ The state of a nation can be told by the way it keep its prisons, prisoners being mostly out of sight. The negligence, callousness and incompetence of some thieving officials who had run the place over the years had a lot to do with it.
While he was conveyed in a Peugeot J5 during the ordeal, ‘the bus itself reeked of the smell of petrol.

Part of the painful happenings within the civil service include the downward trend of happenings in our country. As of 1993 when the writer was postulating, it was not as bad as what is obtainable now. According to him, ‘Our ship of state is today sinking! A few are manipulating the system to their advantage, but our intellectuals, our women, our youths, the masses are being flushed down the drain. All our systems, educational, economic, health, are in shambles.’

The biased reportage of State-owned media was used by the Rivers State Government against Ken Saro-Wiwa. The copious example is that of Nigerian Tide, the newspaper that he set up in 1971 when he was the Commissioner for Information and Home Affairs, ‘… the newspaper had since been misused by successive administrations and was now more and less useless.’

The archetypal bureaucracy of the civil service was seen in two different ways; among the law enforcement agents, the Nigerian Police and the Nigerian Prison Service on how a detainee can access medical aids and the judiciary. All judges were not willing to sign the writs while Lagos lawyers were boycotting the court for one week; it took a brave judge in Owerri to sign it. All of these slowed down judicial verdicts.

Another disaster that has befallen the civil service is the inability of her officers to be vocal about the challenges that have befallen the society in general. ‘I felt sorry for… all those men and women who were being forced by the system to subvert the law, tell lies, play dirty tricks, in order to earn their monthly pay.’

Also, the poor remuneration of civil servants as exemplified by the dismal condition of service of the officers of the Nigerian Prison Service, was a part of the discourse, and the salary a mere pittance.
Other renowned things that happen in Nigeria mentioned in the book include the firing of tear gas canisters at protesters; the killing of women; the detention of the journalist of The News magazine; the betrayal of those that should support the same cause; the state of Nigerian roads; trigger happy uniform officers; the care of detainees left to their families and friends while in incarceration; the ransack of people’s private homes;  the way in which international organizations get away with environment degradation in Nigeria and not in other countries.

As a cerebral person, Ken Saro-Wiwa mentioned the names of other prominent people across academics and corporate Nigeria that he encountered at different point in time. Such names include- Professors Claude Ake; Chike Obi; Femi Osofisan; Kole Omotoso; Theo Vincent; Drs.  Olu Onagoruwa; Dr. Odili; Yemi Ogunbiyi; Obi Wali.  Others are Uche Chukwumerije; Bayo Balogun; Nnaemeka Achebe and Rufus Ada George.

All the officers in this book were acting on the next order from their superiors aka ‘Oga at the Top’. The use of initiative is rather unpopular among the civil servants. The officer assigned to manage him, Mr Ogbeifun, had to wait on the orders of the Deputy Inspector General of Police in charge of FIIB. Subsequently, the invites by the Inspector General of Police; the meeting with the Head of National Intelligence Agency, Brigadier-General Halilu Akilu; National Security Adviser, Major-General Aliyu Mohammed and the final instruction of Augustus Aikhomu to release him.

Worthy of note is that the family man in Ken Saro-Wiwa never died in all these struggles. He ‘thought of his family; father, mother, brothers and sisters… his children who just buried earlier in the year.’  He still found time to take his children on holiday and visited them regularly in the United Kingdom. Equally, he enjoyed the support of his parents and siblings who visited him in detention and his Mum gave him a delicacy he had not taken in 40 years.


A Month and a Day is a poignant account of the political war of tyranny, oppression and greed designed to dispossess the Ogoni people of their rights; their wealth. The struggle for restoration; a struggle for equity; a challenge of the status quo resonated throughout the text. He witnessed the efficiency of evil in a country where virtually nothing worked and all orders were carried out with military precision. The voice of Ken Saro-Wiwa had never drowned and all efforts are ongoing to ensure that what he stood for will result into the eventual clean-up of Ogoni and her environs. The text is a great addition to Prison and Environmental literature. 
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