Monday, 26 June 2017

The activism of Ken Saro Wiwa and how the military government killed him by hanging in 1995

Born to Jim Wiwa, a forest ranger and
his third wife, Widu in Bori, Ogoniland
on October 10, 1941, his birth name was
Kenule Tsaro-Wiwa but was later
changed to Saro Wiwa after the
Nigerian civil war. With a brain for
education, he got his primary education
at a native authority school in his
hometown Bori, and attended secondary
school at Government College Umuahia
where he was captain of the table tennis
team. From his young days, he
repeatedly won prizes for his
proficiency in English and History.
He subsequently proceeded to study
English at the Premiere University of
Ibadan on scholarship, and plunged
himself into different academic and
cultural interests. He worked for a
drama troupe which had performances
in Kano, Benin, Ilorin and Lagos and
collaborated with the Nottingham
Playhouse theatre group that included a
young Judi Dench.
He briefly became a teaching assistant
at the University of Lagos and later at
University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Saro-
Wiwa was an African literature lecturer
in Nsukka when the civil war broke out,
he supported the federal government
and 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, and was so moved that he
described it as a "sorry sight to see."
Three days after his arrival, nearby
Bonny was liberated by federal troops.
He and his family then stayed in Bonny,
he traveled back to Lagos and took a
position at UNILAG which did not last
long as he was called back to Bonny to
become the civilian administrator for
the port city of Bonny in the Niger
Delta. At the same time, he combined
this job with his appointment as a
commissioner in the old Rivers state.
It is believed that most of his
experiences he put into writing. 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. Saro-Wiwa's war
diaries, On a Darkling Plain,
documented 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.
Saro-Wiwa's works include TV, drama
and prose writing. His earlier works
from 1970s to 1980s are mostly satirical
displays that portray a counter-image of
Nigerian society but his later writings
were more inspired by political
dimensions such as environmental and
social justice than satire. Transistor
Radio, one of his best known plays was
written for a revue during his
university days at Ibadan but still
resonated well with Nigerian society
and was adapted into a television
series. Some of his works drew
inspiration from the play.
In the early 1970s, Saro-Wiwa served as
the regional commissioner for education
in the Rivers state cabinet, but was
dismissed in 1973 because of his support
for Ogoni autonomy. In the late 1970s,
he established a number of successful
business ventures in retail and real
estate, and by the 1980s his focus was
primarily on his writing, journalism
and television production. It wasn’t
until 1977 that he became involved in
the politics as the candidate to
represent Ogoni in the constituent
assembly, an election which he
narrowly lost.

By the beginning of the last decade of
the 2oth century, Saro Wiwa started
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 and
particularly struggled against the
degradation of Ogoni lands by Royal
Dutch Shell. 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.
Saro-Wiwa was vice chair of the
Unrepresented Nations and Peoples
Organization (UNPO) General Assembly
from 1993 to 1995. UNPO is an
international, non-violent, and
democratic organisation (of which
MOSOP is a member). Its members were
indigenous peoples, minorities, and
unrecognised or occupied territories
who joined together to protect and
promote their human and cultural
rights, to preserve their environments
and to find non-violent solutions to
conflicts which affect them.

As expected, this stance did not place
him in the good books of the
government, especially since it was a
military government. In 1992, Saro-
Wiwa was imprisoned for several
months, without trial, by the Nigerian
military government. In January 1993,
MOSOP organised peaceful marches of
around 300,000 Ogoni people, more
than half of the Ogoni population,
through four Ogoni urban centres,
drawing international attention to their
people's plight.
Saro-Wiwa was arrested again and
detained by Nigerian authorities in June
1993 but was released after a month. On
21 May 1994, four Ogoni chiefs (all on
the conservative side of a schism within
MOSOP over strategy) were brutally
Even though Saro-Wiwa had been
denied entry to Ogoniland on the day of
the murders, he was arrested along with
eight other MOSOP leaders and accused
of having a hand in it. They denied the
charges but was still imprisoned for
over a year before being found guilty
and sentenced to death by a specially
convened tribunal.
Some of their lawyers resigned in
protest against the alleged manipulation
of the trial by the Abacha regime. The
resignations left the defendants to their
own means against the tribunal, which
continued to bring witnesses to testify
against Saro-Wiwa and his peers.
Many of these supposed witnesses later
admitted that they had been bribed by
the Nigerian government to support the
criminal allegations. At least two
witnesses who testified that Saro-Wiwa
was involved in the murders of the
Ogoni elders later recanted, stating that
they had been bribed with money and
offers of jobs with Shell to give false
testimony, in the presence of Shell's

On 10 November 1995, Saro-Wiwa and
the rest of the Ogoni nine were killed by
hanging by military personnel. They
were buried in Port Harcourt cemetery.
The trial was widely criticized by
human rights organisations and, half a
year later, Ken Saro-Wiwa received the
Right Livelihood Award for his courage,
as well as the Goldman Environmental
Their execution led to Nigeria’s
suspension from the Commonwealth of
Nations, which lasted for over three
years. The Royal Dutch Shell and Brain
Anderson, Head of its Nigeria
Operations, were believed to have
connived with the military government
on Saro-Wiwa’s trial and execution.

Beginning in 1996, the Center for
Constitutional Rights (CCR), Earth Rights
International (ERI), Paul Hoffman of
Schonbrun, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris &
Hoffman and other human rights
attorneys have brought a series of cases
to hold Shell accountable for alleged
human rights violations in Nigeria,
including summary execution, crimes
against humanity, torture, inhumane
treatment and arbitrary arrest and
The company denied the allegations,
despite testimonies stating otherwise,
but it agreed a $15.5 million out-of-
court settlement in favour of the
families of the victims in 2009, saying
that the payment was not a concession
of guilt, but a gesture for peace.
Recalling his death, his son Kenule
Bornale Saro-Wiwa, writer and
journalist, recalled the tragic event thus:
“ On the day they killed him I remember
walking up a hilly street in Auckland. I
was 25 years old and had flown to New
Zealand to try to lobby the
Commonwealth heads of state to
intervene on behalf of my father, who
had been sentenced to death at the end of
October. At the top of the street I turned
to view the sunset.
“ Looking out over the city centre below
me and out into the harbour in the
distance, I watched the sun sink into the
sea, casting a pale orange glow against
the sky. I remember the exact moment he
died. I was sitting in a restaurant
chatting and laughing with friends when
I felt a brief palpitation in my chest, it
felt like a vital connection had been
ruptured inside me and I just knew. It
was midnight in Auckland and midday in
Nigeria and my father had just been
hanged; his broken body lay in a shallow
sand pit in a hut at the condemned
prisoners block at Port Harcourt
prison .”
Sadly, most of the things for which he
fought and died, his people are yet to
fully enjoy as there is still a lot to be
done in terms of environmental clean-
up, and providing of facilities for the
indigenes of Ogoniland.

Long Live LUB

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