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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995)


Nigerian television producer, writer of satirical novels, children's tales, and plays. In 1994 Ken Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned by order of the dictator Sani Abacha. He had strongly defended the rights of the Ogoni people and criticized the government's oil policy with Royal Dutch/Shell. Despite wide international protests, Saro-Wiwa was hanged after a show trial with other eight Ogoni rights activists in Port Harcourt, on November 10, 1995.

"He laughed gently and I relaxed
Happy to find
In spite of the gun.
He was still a man.
It lit the dark
that gentle laugh
In the pith of night...
But it was only the low laugh
Of one who was soon to die."

(from Songs in a Time of War by Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1985)

Ken Saro-Wiwa was born Kenule Benson Tsaro-Wiwa in Bori, Rivers State, the son of Jim Beesom Wiwa, a businessman and community chief, and Widy, a farmer. "My father was seen as a child prodigy," the author's son said, "he walked at seven months, and his parents doted on him because he was, for the first seven years of his life, their only child." (In The Shadow Of A Saint: A Son's Journey to Understand His Father's Legacy by Ken Wiwa, 2010, p. 47) At the age of thirteen, Saro-Wiwa won a scholarship to Government College in Umuahia, where also Chinua Achebe and Elechi Amadi studied. He was a model pupil and adored the English way of life.

After graduating from the University of Ibadan, Saro-Wiwa taught at the government college in Umuahia, and at Stella Maris Colege in Port Harcourt. He worked also as a teacher at the University of Lagos. Some of Saro-Wiwa's earlier writings appeared in the student magazine The Horizon, which he edited.

During the Biafran civil war he chose the Nigerian side and was the administrator for the oil depot at Bonny Island. He then served in the Rivers State Cabinet as a regional commissioner for education. In 1973 he was dismissed due his opinions on autonomy for the Ogoni people. Oil had been found in the region in the late 1950s, but economic growth and big business also created around it an entangled web of political intrigues, environmental problems and corruption. Through his writings Saro-Wiwa became increasingly involved in activities, which brought national and international attention to the campaign of the Ogoni people. However, he did not imagine that he would become a full-time writer. He once said in a lecture that "the writer cannot be a mere storyteller; he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot merely X-ray society's weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future." (In The Shadow Of A Saint by Ken Wiwa, 2010, p. 63)

In the 1970s Saro-Wiwa established several retail and real estate ventures. Most of his books were published by his Saros publishing company. As a writer he first achieved fame with the awarded radio play 'The Transistor Radio' (1972). Several of his short stories and journalistic works he wrote for Sam Amuka-Pemu's ("Sad Sam") newspapers and magazines; it was Amuka who encouraged Saro-Wiwa to beging writing again. In Vanguard Saro-Wiwa published political columns. From 1989 he wrote the "Similla" column for a local Sunday newspaper. Amuka-Pemu was killed in 1977. Saro-Wiwa's collection of essays, Nigeria, The Brink of Disaster (1991) was dedicated to him.

Saro-Wiwa's first novel was Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, (1985).  This antiwar work – its title means "soldier boy" – was written in "pidgin" English ("rotten English"), an English-based dialect spoken by many Nigerians, with occasional flashes of good and idiomatic English. While still an undergraduate student, Saro-Wiwa had already experimented in 'High Life' (1969) with the vernacular style. However, primarily an oral medium, Pidgin was considered too artifical or ridiculous to be used seriously by authors, but on radio it was very popular.

Partly based on Saro-Wiwa's own experiences, the story told about a young man, named Mene, who serves as a soldier during the Biafran War. The language of the narrator is as disordered as the chaotic, lawless world around him: "Oh Jesus Christ son of God, the thing wey I see my mouth no fit talk am. Oh God our father way dey for up, why you make man wicked like this to his own brother?" (Ibid., p. 111) During the search of his mother and his wife, Mene witnesses all sorts of wartime atrocities, and is eventually considered a ghost, coming to revenge the deaths of his loved ones.

Adaku and Other Stories (1989), depicting "the condition of women", Saro-Wiwa dedicated to his sisters. Lemona's Tale (1996), published posthumously, also examined the role of women in changing society. For young people Saro-Wiwa produced an extremely popular series created around a character called Basi. For the humorous television series Basi & Company, set in Lagos, he wrote and produced more than 150 episodes. The series was cancelled by the military dictatorship in 1992. Several of its scripts were adapted into children's books.

At the height of his career, Saro-Wiwa wrote and published seven books in one year. However, his success was shadowed by a family tragedy. He had sent five of his children to private schools in England, hoping that they would all return to Nigeria and contribute to the development of the country. The death of his son, an Eton student, during a rugby game was a deep blow to the author.

In 1990 Saro-Wiwa founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). A more radical youth movement, also founded by Saro-Wiwa, was reputedly engaged in sabotage against Shell. The company decided to cease operations in Ogoniland in 1993. In Nigeria, The Brink of Disaster and Genocide in Nigeria (1992), Saro-Wiwa criticized corruption and condemned Shell and British Petroleum. The Nigerian government decided to break MOSOP and Saro-Wiwa was arrested and a number of his supporters and relatives were slain at Giokoo. In his letter, which was written in prison and published in the Mail and the Guardian, Saro-Wiwa stated: "Ultimately the fault lies at the door of the British government. It is the British government which supplies arms and credit to the military dictators of Nigeria, knowing full well that all such arms will only be used against innocent, unarmed citizens." (International Environmental Disputes: A Reference Handbook by Aaron Schwabach, 2006, p. 174) Much of the world's outrage was directed at Shell.

To his friend, the Scottish novelist William Boyd, Saro-Wiwa said in a letter: "... the most important thing for me is that I've used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni people to confront their tormentors. I was not able to do it as a politician or a businessman. My writing did it. . . . I think that I have the moral victory." ('Pipe Dreams: Ken Saro-Wiva, Environmental Justice, and Microminority Rights' by Rob Nixon, in Ken Saro-Wiwa: Writer and Political Activist, edited by Craig W. McLuckie, Aubrey McPhail, 2000, p. 110) Wiwa had first met Boyd while taking publishing courses at Book House Trust in London in the mid-1980s. Boyd wrote the introduction to Saro-Wiwa's A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary (1995). 

Following a show trial, a panel of two civilians and one military judge found  Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders guilty and sentenced them to the  gallows. Human-right activists pleaded for his release, but to no avail. The United States and Canada, among others, withdrew their ambassadors from Lagos. The official Shell response to the execution was silence, but the chairman of Royal Dutch Shell wrote a letter requesting clemency to days before the executions. The former President Bill Clinton made a phone call to Nigeria's military leader, General Sani Abacha, asking him to spare Saro-Wiwa's life.

Because there had not been a willing hangman within reach, the executioner was despatched from the north to Port Harcourt. It took five attempt to hang Saro-Wiwa. On the third or fourth time, he cried out, "Why are you people doing this to me? What sort of a nation is this?" (The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis by Wole Soyinka, 1995, p. 149) Saro-Wiwa's body was burned with acid and buried in an unmarked, common grave in the eastern city of Port Harcourt. His father, Chief Jim Beesom Wiwa, said in an interview in 2001 that according to Ogoni tradition, he should now be being looked after by his son – he was 96. "No-one is feeding me. I leave the whole thing in the hands of God, but how can I be happy?" ('No end to Saro-Wiwa's struggle' by Barnaby Phillips, in BBC News, 15 January, 2001)

The author's son, Ken Wiwa, has confessed that it was never natural for him to continue in his father's footsteps. "Saro Wiva usually opened the proceeding, droning on about his politics, trying to drill his values into me, sprinkling the lecture with his favorite phrases: 'Hard work doesn't kill'; 'To whom much is given, much is expected'; 'In Nigeria, the only wrongdoers are those who do no wrong'; 'To live a day in Nigeria is to die many times.' He usually ended with the clincher that the ball was in my court, or with the reminder that he had given me the best opportunities in life." (I Am a Nigerian, Not a Terrorist by Toyin Ayeni, 2010, p. 80) Eventually Ken Wiwa became a journalist, who determined to keep his father's memory alive, and started to work toward the establishment of the Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation.

For further reading: The Literature and Arts of the Niger Delta, edited by Tanure Ojaide and Enajite Eseoghene Ojaruega (2021); Ken Saro-Wiwa: My Obituary, (Prophecy of His Death), edited by Amanyanabo O. Daminabo (2018); Ken Saro-Wiwa by Roy Doron and Toyin Falola (2016); Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa (2012); Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP: the Story and Revelation by Ben Wuloo Ikari (2006); In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son's Journey to Understand His Father's Legacy by Ken Wiwa (2001); Ken Saro-Wiwa: (A Bio-Critical Study) by Femi Ojo-Ade (1999); Ken Saro-Wiwa: Writer and Political Activist, ed. by Craig W. McLuckie and Aubrey McPhail (1999) ; Before I Am Hanged: Ken Saro-Wiwa, Literature, Politics, and Dissent, ed. Onookome Okome (1999); 'Saro-Wiwa, Ken' by E.M. [Edward Moran], in World Authors 1990-1995, edited by Clifford Thompson (1999); Ogoni's Agonies: Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Crisis in Nigeria, ed. Abdul-Rasheed Na'Allah et al. (1998); 'Death of a Writer' by William Boyd, in New Yorker (Nov. 27, 1995); see also William Boyd's introduction to A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary by Ken Saro-Wiwa (1995); Nigeria, Fundamental Rights Denied: Report of the Trial of Ken Saro-Wiwa and Others by Michael Birnbaum (1995); Critical Essays on Ken Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy, ed. Charles E. Nnolim (1992)

Selected works:

  • 'The Transistor Radio', 1971
  • Tambari, 1973
  • Tambari in Dukana, 1973
  • Songs in a Time of War, 1985
  • Sozaboy, 1985
  • Forest Flowers: Short Stories, 1986
  • Mr. B, 1987 (illustrated by Peregrino Brimoh)
  • Basi and Company: A Modern African Folktale, 1987
  • Prisoners of Jebs, 1988
  • Basi & Company: Four Television Plays, 1988
  • Transistor Radio, 1989
  • Letter to Ogoni Youth, 1989
  • Four Farcical Plays, 1989
  • Mr. B Again, 1989 (illustrated by Peregrino Brimah)
  • Adaku and Other Stories, 1989
  • A Shipload of Rice, 1991 (illustrated by Peregrino Brimah)
  • Segi Finds the Radio, 1991 (illustrated by Peregrino Brimah)
  • Pita Dumbrok's Prison, 1991
  • Mr. B Is Dead, 1991 (illustrated by Peregrino Brimah)
  • Nigeria, The Brink of Disaster, 1991
  • The Singing Anthill: Ogoni Folk Tales, 1991
  • Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy, 1992
  • Mr. B's Mattress, 1992
  • Second Letter to Ogoni Youth, 1993
  • Ogoni: Moment of Truth, 1994
  • A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary, 1995 (introduction by William Boyd)
    - Vankilapäiväkirja (suom. Markku Tuiskula, 1996)
  • Lemona's Tale, 1996
  • A Month and a Day & Letters, 2012 (foreword by Wole Soyinka)
  • Silence Would Be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa, 2013  (edited by Ide Corley, Helen Fallon, Laurence Cox)

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