Featured image created by Sam Nystrom Costales
While most Ted Lasso fans have likely never heard of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), the life and legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP are closely related to Sam Obisanya’s arc on the second season of the series. Danielle Sanchez sat down with Roy Doron, co-author of Ken Saro-Wiwa, to talk about environmental activism in Nigerian history. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Danielle Sanchez: In Ted Lasso, Sam Obisanya (Played by Toheeb Jimoh) is a twenty one-year-old Nigerian footballer who plays for AFC Richmond, a fictional British football club. He becomes incredibly famous on and off the field during the second season because of his commitment to environmental advocacy. While I was watching the Dubai Air episode (season 2, episode 3), I immediately connected Sam Obisanya to Ken Saro-Wiwa because of their concerns over oil pollution and corruption in Nigeria. For readers who are not familiar with Ken Saro-Wiwa, could you give them a little bit of information about his life?
Roy Doron: Ken Saro-Wiwa was best known as a Nigerian environmental activist in the late 20th century. He created MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, which fought to keep Shell from destroying Ogoni land through oil extraction. Saro-Wiwa was pretty well known before he became an activist. He was a playwright, a very well respected author, and produced Basi and Company, the most popular television show in Nigerian history. In 1990, he left all of that work behind and became involved in the fight to protect Ogoni land. He eventually ran afoul of Shell to such an extent that the corporation colluded with the Nigerian government to prosecute him for a crime that was committed when he was two hundred miles away. Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists, who became known as the Ogoni Nine, were convicted of murdering four traditional Lagoni chiefs in the Niger Delta, and were executed on November 10, 1995.
DS: Ken Saro-Wiwa wasn’t a random person who got involved with environmental justice work. As you mentioned, he was incredibly famous in Nigeria. How did he become interested in environmental issues in the Ogoni region?
RD: Ken Saro-Wiwa was pretty involved in activism beginning pretty early on in his career. During the Nigerian Civil War (1967 and 1970), he claimed his activism was for ideological purposes, which obviously could have been true… but he also might have been driven by pragmatism. Saro-Wiwa saw very quickly that Biafra was not going to win this war against Nigeria. He collaborated with the Nigerians and in September 1967, he got into a canoe with his wife and rode down to the Niger Delta to Bonny, the one town that the Nigerians had already taken, and became its Civil Administrator. After the Nigerian Civil War ended, Saro-Wiwa continued to work as an administrator under various Nigerian military governments. In 1979, the then-military dictator, later President Olusegun Obasanjo created a constitutional convention and people all over Nigeria had the opportunity to elect delegates. Ken Saro-Wiwa stood to be the delegate for the Ogoni people and he allegedly lost by one vote. At that point, he decided that if he was ever going to get into politics, he could not do it by going through the system. Instead, he created organizations that he would ultimately lead, as they did the work that he wanted to do. When he created MOSOP, he said something along the lines of “We need to address this urgent issue because environmental degradation is affecting our people. I am going to lead this organization and nobody else is going to have a say because this is my organization.” For Ken Saro-Wiwa, there is this combination of personal political advancement and doing the right thing that makes his life so interesting to me as a historian.
DS: That seems to be a lot more nuanced than press coverage after his death. I want to tie in Ted Lasso because the ways Sam Obisanya and Ken Saro-Wiwa talk about the destruction caused by oil corporations in Nigeria is fascinating. In one particular scene, Sam Obisanya talks to his teammates about his decision to place black tape over the name of AFC Richmond’s sponsor, Dubai Air, on his jersey. Sam states, “Dubai Air is owned by a horrible company–one that has turned the southern coast of Nigeria, my home, into a hellish, fiery swamp,” and that he can no longer wear their name on his chest. Obisanya’s description wasn’t quite as jarring as Ken Saro-Wiwa’s condemnation of Shell and the Nigerian government actions creating a genocide of the Ogoni people. Your book spends a considerable amount of time discussing Saro-Wiwa’s choice to evoke the term “genocide.” Why did that word matter in Saro-Wiwa’s fight for the Ogoni people?
RD: There are a few layers that I have to address to answer this question. The first layer goes back to the Nigerian Civil War, which was a major humanitarian catastrophe. Even by the most conservative estimates, about 500,000 people died during the Nigerian Civil War, most of whom were civilians. Other estimates range 1-3 million people. During the war, the Biafran government accused Nigeria of genocide, and they used a Swiss public relations firm to publicize that accusation. Think about the wider context: this was the year of the Tet offensive in the Vietnam War, Paris was burning, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia… and the world was actually paying attention to what was happening to the Biafrans.
Ken Saro-Wiwa saw the power that the genocide argument had during the Nigerian Civil War. When he decided to advocate for the Ogoni people, he realized very quickly the power and weight of the word “genocide.” He really wanted to use that word and connect it to what was happening with the Ogoni people. When Ken Saro-Wiwa toured the United States in November 1990, he met with several environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, and discussed the importance of environmental activism. After this trip abroad, he really began linking this environmental issue to genocide. He said that the environmental degradation of Ogoni land was genocide because Article 2 Section 3 of the Genocide Convention says that one of the aspects of genocide is creating an environment to make life impossible. Saro-Wiwa made the argument that Shell and the Nigerian government were poisoning their water and land for the last 25 years, which made life impossible. He then published a book called Genocide in Nigeria that linked the environmental crisis in Ogoniland to genocide, which definitely caught the attention of the Nigerian government.
DS: I’m intrigued by this juxtaposition of Sam Obisanya’s quick way of using a piece of black tape to bring attention to the Dubai Air/Cerithium Oil situation and the much longer arc of Saro-Wiwa’s fight against Shell and the Nigerian government. Earlier in the season, Sam tells Keeley Jones (played by Juno Temple) that he would love to participate in ad campaigns for environmentally minded companies, but he did not know about the huge environmental crisis in southern Nigeria before his father sent him an article that focused on the issue. Activists were clearly talking about the crisis caused by Cerithium Oil in Nigeria, but it’s Sam’s celebrity status that heightens awareness of it around the world. It seems like a very different process occurred with Ken Saro-Wiwa, right?
RD: Actually, no. Saro-Wiwa did a lot of environmental activism in the background and didn’t get much traction. The first time he went to prison for a month and a day, he wrote about the Sierra Club and his efforts to develop momentum behind MOSOP. He called a bunch of major human and environmental rights organizations and told them about the environmental crisis happening in southern Nigeria. These organizations were not interested in causes like MOSOP unless activists were in jail or about to be executed. He eventually got the attention of a couple of smaller environmental organizations like Rainforest Now!, and in January 1993 staged a big event called Ogoni Day. At the event, Saro-Wiwa protested oil pollution in the region and theatrically declared Shell persona non grata in Ogoniland. At the time, the Ogoni population was a little over 500,000, but 300,000 people showed up for Ogoni Day events. As soon as that hit the news, suddenly Amnesty International and Greenpeace threw their support behind Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP. Until that point, it was really hard for Ken Saro-Wiwa to get any recognition of MOSOP’s fight against Shell and the Nigerian government.
DS: Let’s talk about personalities. Sam Obisanya is one of the most beloved characters on Ted Lasso. He is a smart and kind human being with seemingly no flaws, except for his preference for Nigerian jollof rice.
RD: Why is that a flaw?
DS: Because Ghanaian jollof rice is so much better! Back to Ken Saro-Wiwa: we’ve talked a lot about his activism. Was he as flawless as Sam Obisanya?
RD: No one is flawless. Ken Saro-Wiwa definitely wasn’t flawless. We want all of our heroes to be perfect and that’s impossible. Saro-Wiwa was ambitious and, at times, greedy and corrupt. He was the administrator for the schools in Port Harcourt and he also owned a grocery company and publishing company called Saro’s Publishing. As the administrator of Port Harcourt schools, who was he going to get his textbooks from? Who was going to supply food to the schools? Obviously his businesses profited from his position as an administrator. He also did a lot of not-so-great things on a personal level. No, he definitely wasn’t a perfect human being, but who is? What he did was use the connections that he developed over his years in government and private business and used those connections to work for bettering his people, who were caught in a hopeless situation that they were powerless to fight. For all his personal flaws, he was a champion of his people and a beacon of hope for the downtrodden around the world.
DS: Since Ted Lasso is a show about football (and bringing out the best in each other), I think we should conclude this interview by talking about Nigerian football. Do you have a favorite Nigerian football player?
RD: Of course I have a favorite Nigerian football player, but my answer is going to make me sound old. My favorite Nigerian footballer is Taribo West. I’ve always been a fan of defensive style players and Taribo was one of the best. He wasn’t the fastest player on the pitch, but he was a rock in the defense.
To find out more about Ken Saro-Wiwa, read Roy Doron’s fantastic book, Ken Saro-Wiwa. You can purchase the book from the Ohio University Press website and other retailers.
Dr. Roy Doron is Associate Professor of History at Winston-Salem State University. Before arriving at Winston-Salem, he taught at the University of Texas at Austin where he completed his doctorate, and Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. His research looks at the history of war, conflict; specifically how military and state relations help shape identity in Africa. His first book, a biography of Ken Saro-Wiwa (coauthored with Toyin Falola), was named a CHOICE Reviews Outstanding Academic Text for 2017. He is currently completing a history of the Nigerian Civil War, and has published on the many aspects of that war. His work has appeared in edited volumes, as well as the Journal of Genocide Research and African Economic History. He is also founding editor of the Journal of African Military History.
Dr. Danielle Sanchez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Colorado College. Her research focuses on the Second World War in Africa, specifically popular culture, consumption, and social movements in francophone and lusophone Africa. She teaches a range of pop culture and history courses, but her favorites are Health and Healing in African History, The Empires Strike Back: From Anti-Colonial Resistance to Star Wars, and Writing Graphic Histories. Her nerdy obsessions include knitting, roller derby, Star Wars, contemporary romance novels, and the MCU. Twitter: @drdanisanchez