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From Reuters

‘This is what my father lived and died for. He believed in Nigeria’

ABUJA, Nigeria (Reuters) — A decade after Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by Nigeria’s military junta over his struggle for the rights of the Ogoni people, his son says he is ready to take up his father’s legacy — in the heart of government.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, eldest son and namesake of the activist whose hanging in 1995 made Nigeria a pariah state, has just taken up a job as special assistant to President Olusegun Obasanjo on peace, conflict resolution and reconciliation.

“Being my father’s son has a number of implications and one of them is that I have to play a role in this country. I felt the time was right to move forward in my life and take that place,” Saro-Wiwa, 37, told Reuters in an interview.

Africa’s most populous country was ruled by army dictator Sani Abacha at the time when the elder Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists were hanged over what were widely seen as trumped-up murder charges.

Nigeria was thrown out of the Commonwealth over the executions.

Obasanjo came to power in a 1999 transition to democracy. Diplomats say his choice of Saro-Wiwa, whose name has tremendous resonance in Nigeria, as his special assistant is a measure of how far the country has come since 1999.

Yet Saro-Wiwa’s decision to take the job is surprising, not least because in the troubled oil-producing Niger Delta, home to the Ogoni, most people feel a deep distrust towards government.

“My father left a legacy of trust. Just because I’m working for the government doesn’t mean I’m going to abandon my father’s legacy,” Saro-Wiwa said. He added that most Ogoni had been supportive of the decision although a few people had “grumbled”.

The elder Saro-Wiwa’s struggle centered on environmental damage inflicted by oil extraction and on what he saw as neglect by a government that lived on petrodollars but gave nothing back to the people playing host to the industry.

Backlash against oil industry

A decade later, little has changed. Most of the Niger Delta’s estimated 20 million people live in poverty, with no electricity, roads or doctors, while their air and water are polluted by oil spills and huge toxic orange flames of natural gas that burn 24 hours a day.

This state of affairs has fueled an increasingly violent backlash against the oil industry and the government. This year, a wave of attacks on oil facilities has killed an unknown number of people and shut down a quarter of Nigeria’s crude output.

Trust in government essential

Saro-Wiwa says one way out of the crisis is to rebuild trust between the people and the government.

“The default response of people when the government presents a policy is to say it won’t work. What we have to do is to make policies that the people can embrace and contribute to.”

Although there has been little improvement in the Delta under Obasanjo, Saro-Wiwa says he trusts that the government is serious about resolving the crisis there.

Obasanjo is due to step down after elections scheduled for April next year, but Saro-Wiwa says the short time he has left is no hindrance. He sees it as an opportunity to lay the foundations for future work.

He points to Obasanjo’s team of economic reformers, who have cleaned up Nigeria’s previously disastrous finances, as an example of “activists in government” whom he wants to emulate.

Saro-Wiwa’s new job has yet to be defined precisely but it does not only cover the Niger Delta.

“There are a lot of people trying to move this country forward and I would like to be seen as one of them,” he said.

“This is what my father lived and died for. He believed in project Nigeria. I believe in it.”

Copyright 2006 Reuters. All rights reserved

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