(By Sam Olukoya) -The nine Ogoni men (Ken Saro-Wiwa, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine) executed November 10 (1995) at the Port Harcourt prison never thought death will come so soon. Though the Provisional Ruling Council, PRC, two days earlier confirmed their sentence, the news did not reach the men and they were until minutes before their execution still hopeful for their lives.
For four of the condemned men, they were practically tricked to their death on execution day. The four men, Ken Saro-Wiwa, minority rights crusader and environmentalist; Barinem Kiobel, a former commissioner in Rivers State, John Kpunien, deputy president of the National Youth Council of Ogoni People, NYCOP; and Baribor Bera, another NYCOP member, had been kept incommunicado at the Bori Military Camp, Port Harcourt, since their arrest last year. After the tribunal condemned them to death on October 31, they requested to be moved to the prison where they felt their relations would have easy access to them. This request was, however, turned down.
But at about 10.00 a.m. November 10, security men told them their request had been granted. The men were unable to pack their belongings from their cells as they were told the movement to the prison had to be hurriedly done so as to meet a senior prison official who may not be readily available again if the opportunity of seeing him that morning was missed. Saro-Wiwa was only able to pick his pipe and a small hand bag before he and the three others were hurriedly ushered into a black maria.
The vehicle was escorted by armoured cars and some vehicles carrying armed policemen. With siren blaring, the convoy moved easily along the busy Aba road as it made its way to the Port Harcourt prison. The convoy attracted hundreds of people who rightly suspected that Saro-Wiwa and the other men were being taken to the prison for execution. Tens of residents of the city rushed to the prison when the news of the unusual movement spread. The wives of the four men, who had trailed the convoy from the military barracks where they had made a futile effort earlier that morning to see their husbands, managed to catch a last glimpse as they stepped out of the black maria into the prison.
As the men walked in, they were unaware that one hour earlier, coffins meant for them had been carried into the prison. They were similarly not aware that the previous day, hangmen from Sokoto and Kaduna had arrived to put the noose round their necks.
Inside the prison, the four men were moved to one of the condemned criminal’s cells, CCC, where the other set of five condemned Ogoni men had been kept since their conviction. The first hint of death came when an Anglican priest was brought to give them the last prayer. Two of the men, according to a source, started crying. Newswatch gathered in Port Harcourt that Saro-Wiwa calmed them saying that none of them should be afraid to shed his blood for Ogoni land.
Before the execution commenced, the men reportedly requested to be allowed to send words to their wives. The request was turned down. The execution which started at about 12.00 noon, took place at the prison’s gallows. The room housing the gallows has a direct link to the cell in which they were kept.
Sources said each man had his hands and legs chained. They were blindfolded, a mask placed over their heads. The men, who were executed one at a time, were led from the cell to the gallows. There, they stood on a metal plate which concealed a pit of about 4×4 feet wide and 12 feet deep. While standing on the plate, the hangmen put a noose around their necks. Once the noose was in place, communication between the hangmen was done. At the final signal, a hand jack similar to that used by the rail ways was pulled and the metal plate shifted under the condemned man, forcing him to fall almost to the bottom of the pit, his life snuffed out.
While each of the men took his turn at the gallows, the others left in the cell were unaware of what was happening since the gallows is out of their view from the cell. Each of the men was dumped in a coffin placed outside the room housing the gallows. Saro-Wiwa was the first to be executed, followed by Kpunien, Kiobel and Bera, according to sources. After this, the remaining Ogonis originally in the prison were executed. They were Saturday Doobee, a security guard with the Federal Mortgage Bank, Bori; Paul Leyula, 26, a fisherman, Daniel Gbokoo, 35, an electrician; Felix Nwate and Mordu Eaoo.
At about 2.30 p.m when a yellow truck belonging to the Port Harcourt City Council drove away from the prison with the coffins, no one was in doubt that the men had been executed. The corpses were taken to the Port Harcourt cemetery by the same security team that brought the men to the prison. As the convoy moved to the cemetery, more people became aware of what had happened. “Port Harcourt stood still during the execution, and when the deed was over, the city wept”, a resident had observed.
D.M. Kemebigha, the lawyer whose services were engaged by the government to defend Saro-Wiwa after his own lawyers pulled out of the case in protest against what they described as the bias of the tribunal, told Newswatch that Saro-Wiwa died a very innocent death. “When I heard the news on the Cable News Network, CNN, I wept, “He said. According to him, from what he observed, the witnesses who testified against Saro-Wiwa at the tribunal were tutored and unreliable.
One week after, the cemetery where the men were buried was still being guarded by a detachment of mobile policemen. If anything, the action created a larger than life image for the men. “In life, they were afraid of Saro-Wiwa, now after his death, they are even more afraid of him,” observed an Ogoni youth.
Editor’s note: This piece was published in NEWSWATCH in 1995 but reproduced here with minor but needful addition for the purpose of clarity.