Ken Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian writer, television producer, and environmental activist. Ken Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in Nigeria whose homeland, Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta has been targeted for crude oil extraction since the 1950s suffering extreme environmental damage as a result.
Ken Saro-Wiwa led a non violent protest against the environmental degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland by the operations of the multinational petroleum industry, especially the Royal Dutch Shell company. He is also known as a critic of the Nigerian government, for its allegedly reluctant behavior to enforce environmental regulations on the foreign petroleum companies operating in the area.
At the peak of his non-violent campaign, he was tried by a special military tribunal for allegedly masterminding the gruesome murder of Ogoni chiefs at a pro-government meeting, and he was eventually hanged in 1995 by the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha.
KEN SARO-WIWA: BACKGROUND AND WORK
Born Kenule Tsaro-Wiwa, Ken Saro-Wiwa was the son of Chief Jim Wiwa, a forest ranger, and his third wife Widu. He officially changed his name to Saro-Wiwa after the Nigerian Civil war. Ken Saro-Wiwa spent his childhood in an Anglican home and eventually proved himself to be an excellent student; he received primary education at a Native Authority school in Bori, then attended secondary school at Government College Umuahia.
He briefly became a teaching assistant at the University of Lagos and later at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Ken Saro-Wiwa was an African literature lecturer in Nsukka when the Civil war broke out, and due to his support of the Federal Government, he had to leave the region for his hometown of Bori. On his journey to Port-Harcourt, he witnessed the multitudes of refugees returning to the East, a scene he described as a “sorry sight to see”.
He was called back to Bonny to become the Civilian Administrator, and during the Civil War, positioned himself as an Ogoni leader dedicated to the Federal cause. He followed his job as an administrator with an appointment as a commissioner in the old Rivers State. His best known novel, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, tells the story of a naive village boy recruited to the army during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 to 1970, and intimates the political corruption and patronage in Nigeria’s military regime of the time.
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s war diaries, On a Darkling Plain, document his experience during the war. He was also a successful businessman and television producer. His satirical television series, Basi & Company, was wildly popular, with an estimated audience of 30 million.
His intellectual work was interrupted in 1987 when he re-entered the political scene, having been appointed by the newly installed dictator Ibrahim Babangida to aid the country’s transition to democracy. But he soon resigned because he felt Babangida’s supposed plans for a return to democracy were disingenuous.
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s sentiments were proven correct in the coming years, as Babangida failed to relinquish power. In 1993, Babangida annulled Nigeria’s general elections that would have transferred power to a civilian government, sparking mass civil unrest and eventually forcing him to step down, at least officially, that same year.
In 1990, Saro-Wiwa began devoting most of his time to human rights and environmental causes, particularly in Ogoniland. He was one of the earliest members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People(MOSOP), which advocated for the rights of the Ogoni people. The Ogoni Bill of Rights, written by MOSOP, set out the movement’s demands, including increased autonomy for the Ogoni people, a fair share of the proceeds of oil extraction, and remediation of environmental damage to Ogoni lands. In particular, MOSOP struggled against the degradation of Ogoni lands by Royal Dutch Shell.
Saro-Wiwa was Vice Chair of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) General Assembly from 1993 to 1995. UNPO is an international, nonviolent, and democratic organization (of which MOSOP is a member). Its members are indigenous peoples, minorities, and under-recognized or occupied territories who have joined together to protect and promote their human and cultural rights, to preserve their environments and to find nonviolent solutions to conflicts which affect them.
In January 1993, MOSOP organized peaceful marches of around 300,000 Ogoni people – more than half of the Ogoni population – through four Ogoni urban centers, drawing international attention to their people’s plight. The same year the Nigerian government occupied the region militarily.
In 1992, Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned for several months, without trial, by the Nigerian military government.
Arrest and execution
On 21 May 1994 four Ogoni chiefs (all on the conservative side of a schism within MOSOP over strategy) were brutally murdered. Saro-Wiwa had been denied entry to Ogoniland on the day of the murders, but he was arrested and accused of inciting them. He denied the charges but was imprisoned for over a year before being found guilty and sentenced to death by a specially convened tribunal. The same happened to eight other MOSOP leaders who, along with Saro-Wiwa, became known as the Ogoni Nine.
On 8 November 1995, a military ruling council upheld the death sentences. The military government then immediately moved to carry them out. The prison in Port harcourt was selected as the place of execution. Although the government wanted to carry out the sentences immediately, it had to wait two days for a makeshift gallows to be built. Within hours of the sentences being upheld, nine coffins were taken to the prison, and the following day a team of executioners was flown in from Sokoto to Port Harcourt.
On 10 November 1995, Saro-Wiwa and the rest of the Ogoni Nine were taken from the army base where they were being held to Port Harcourt prison. They were told that they were being moved to Port Harcourt because it was feared that the army base they were being held in might be attacked by Ogoni youths.
The prison was heavily guarded by riot police and tanks, and hundreds of people lined the streets in anticipation of the executions. After arriving at Port Harcourt prison, Saro-Wiwa and the others were herded into a single room and their wrists and ankles were shackled. They were then led one by one to the gallows and executed by hanging, with Saro-Wiwa being the first. It took five tries to execute him due to faulty equipment. His last words were “Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues.” After the executions, the bodies were taken to the Port Harcourt cemetery under armed guard and buried.
Anticipating disturbances as a result of the executions, the Nigerian government deployed tens of thousands of troops and riot police to two southern provinces and major oil refineries around the country. The Port Harcourt Cemetery was surrounded by soldiers and tanks.
In his 1989 short story “Africa Kills Her Sun”, Saro-Wiwa in a resigned, melancholic mood, foreshadowed his own execution.