FLAT EARTH

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The Independent Online
Saints and sinners

OK, SO Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed in Nigeria a year ago today, was no angel. It seems some of his wealth came by dubious means, he was more than a bit of a demagogue, the environmental damage in the Ogoni tribal area might have been exaggerated and what harm there is might be more the fault of the Nigerian government than the Shell oil company.

But this does not make the soldiers who run Nigeria any nicer, or Shell any less tainted by contact with them. What was striking about Channel 4's tribute to Saro-Wiwa last night was the way Sandhurst training has given many Nigerian officers a vocabulary of security-speak in which to justify bullying tribal minorities, such as the Ogoni, who get between them and their perks. Footage of his trial showed a travesty of British judicial procedure.

The trouble is that to interest the Western public in such goings-on, activists and documentary makers feel obliged to create saints and reduce complex issues to personalities. Like Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi in their countries, Ken Saro-Wiwa has come to symbolise everything that needs to be put right in Nigeria. That is fine, until your hero is discovered to have flaws: any imperfections can then be seized upon to invalidate his cause.

Flown by Italians

IF YOU are between Italian cities and want to be sure of staying in one piece, here's a useful tip: don't fly when Juventus is playing a football match.

Richard Castle, a publishing sales manager based in Florence, was in the front row of an Alitalia plane taxiing across the tarmac at Rome's Fiumicino airport when he heard the unmistakeable hysteria of a football commentary coming from the cockpit. After takeoff he remonstrated with the pilot, who was angrily unpersuaded that listening to a European Cup clash might distract him from getting to Pisa safely.

At Pisa airport there was an undignified race to the police post between Castle and the pilot, who was trying to get his denunciation in first. Eventually the publishing man was given a police escort to the civil aviation board office - only to find the staff, whose duties include allocating parking slots to aircraft, all watching the match on TV. He complained about them as well, both to Alitalia and the civil aviation authorities in Rome.

All that was some time ago. Alitalia and the director of Pisa airport are making inquiries, and Castle is still waiting for the outcome. He has discovered, though, that the crew were not listening to the match on a portable trannie: it was being relayed live over one of the air traffic channels.

Coded message

THE US military, that most public relations-conscious of outfits, is a great one for giving snappy titles to its operations and exercises. You know the kind of thing - Desert Shield, promptly changed to Desert Storm as soon as the unpleasant bit began, Team Spirit for the joint exercises in South Korea, Rescue Eagle for the rehearsal it held for plucking forces out of Bosnia.

It is a mystery why military correspondents persist in calling these labels "codenames", since the intention behind them is the opposite of secrecy. Who dreams them up? Does the Pentagon pay outside consultants?

I don't know, but whoever invented the name for the unprecedented joint exercise being held on Japanese soil between American forces and the local Self-Defence Force - "Operation Keen Sword" - should be aware that it has been rechristened in the messrooms, where they call it "Operation Mighty Member".

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