Saro-Wiwa, Kenule 1941–1995
Kenule Saro-Wiwa 1941–1995
The life and death of Kenule Saro-Wiwa reflected the massive changes that transformed his native country of Nigeria in the last half of the twentieth century. Born into a ruling tribal family in the Delta region of Nigeria, Saro-Wiwa was among the first graduates of the newly independent nation’s University of Ibadan in 1965. He then served as a federal administrator for the Bonny Island oil terminal, a key source of the country’s growing wealth from its energy reserves. Saro-Wiwa supported the federal government’s efforts to stop the state of Biafra from seceding in a bloody civil war from 1967 to 1970 and at the conclusion of the war was rewarded with an appointment as the commissioner of education for the region’s Rivers State. After running afoul of authorities for criticizing official corruption, Saro-Wiwa began a new career as an entrepreneur and opened stores, trading posts, and real-estate operations. He gained his greatest fame, however, as the writer of Basi & Co. a drama about the lives of street-gang members in Nigeria’s then-capital, Lagos. Saro-Wiwa also remained active in politics, usually as a critic of the federal government and its actions to exploit the oil resources of his tribe’s traditional homelands. In May of 1994 Saro-Wiwa was arrested for allegedly planning the deaths of some rival tribal leaders who opposed his organization, Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Saro-Wiwa’s trial and subsequent execution on November 10, 1995, led to an international outcry as many observers thought the entire process was designed solely to remove one of Nigeria’s best known and respected opposition figures.
Kenule “Ken” Saro-Wiwa was born on October 10, 1941, near the village of Bori in the southeastern Delta region of Nigeria. As the eldest son in a ruling Ogoni family, Saro-Wiwa enjoyed a marginally more privileged life than other Ogoni youth, but his life was still shaped by his country’s tumultuous history. Nigeria was a British colony during Saro-Wiwa’s childhood and tensions among its two-hundred distinct ethnic groups meant that it was ill-prepared for the independence that it gained in 1960. With a weak federal system in place, the dominant ethnic groups in Nigeria—the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba of the southwest, and the Igbo of the southeast—fought to dominate the country as well as its smaller ethnic groups, such as the Ogoni.
Saro-Wiwa was one of the few Ogoni students who was able to attend high school. After completing his secondary education at the Government College in Umuahia, he enrolled at the University of Ibadan, one of the first institutions of higher learning in Nigeria. Saro-Wiwa finished his degree in 1965 and married Nene Saro-Wiwa in 1967. The couple eventually had three sons, Ken, Gian, and Tedum, and two daughters, Noo and Nina. Although he considered leaving Nigeria to study in Great Britain, Saro-Wiwa’s first job after college was as an administrator of the oil refinery station at Bonny Island in the Delta State. The job was a prestigious one and vital to the nation’s economic future. Oil exploration by international companies had
At a Glance…
Born Kenule Saro-Wiwa on October 10, 1941, near Bori, Nigeria; died on November 10, 1995, in Lagos, Nigeria; married Nene Saro-Wiwa in 1967; children: Ken, Gian, Tedum, Noo, and Nina. Education: University of Ibadan, BA, 1965. Politics: Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP)
Career: Nigerian government, federal administrator, 1965-70, commissioner of education for the Rivers State, 1970-72; business owner 1973-95; writer, 1973-95.
Memberships: Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, party official and founder, 1987-95.
begun in the province in the 1950s and by the 1960s massive refineries, pipelines, and shipping networks crisscrossed the Delta State.
Saro-Wiwa’s government post plunged him into controversy almost immediately. In May of 1967 Igbo Colonel Emeka Ojukwu announced the secession of the southeastern region of Nigeria under the name of Biafra. The Biafran Civil War, which lasted until 1970, demonstrated the volatility of ethnic relations among the Igbo and other major tribal groups. It also made international headlines when a famine occurred in Biafra in 1968. As many as one million people died in the Biafran war and famine before the secession was put down. Saro-Wiwa, who resented both sides’ victimization of the Ogoni during the war, remained loyal to the federal government in the conflict, a position that many Igbos criticized.
At the war’s conclusion, Saro-Wiwa was appointed commissioner of education for the Rivers State. His tenure as the commissioner was short-lived, however, as his public criticism of official corruption soon led to his ouster from office. Deciding to go into business for himself, Saro-Wiwa opened up a general store in Port Harcourt, the Delta region’s largest city, in 1973. The business prospered and Saro-Wiwa built a business empire over the course of the next decade that included real-estate and commodities-trading operations. His wealth allowed him to send his sons to private schools in Great Britain but also raised allegations that he had engaged in corruption, a fact of everyday life in the Nigerian business world. Ken Wiwa, Saro-Wiwa’s son, flatly rejected such allegations in In the Shadow of a Saint: “I never forgot the day he decided to let me in on the meaning of his and my life. We were driving around Port Harcourt and he was showing me his business empire. Everything, he revealed, was for one purpose: to secure justice for our people. His books, the properties, the businesses—everything was subservient to his hopes and ambitions for our people.”
Saro-Wiwa became a nationally recognized figure in the 1980s, not as a businessman but as the writer and producer of Bani & Co., a television drama that depicted the lives of street-gang youths in Lagos, then the capital of Nigeria. Saro-Wiwa also authored dozens of novels and collections of poetry and wrote a regular column for the Lagos Sunday Times, which gained him an audience outside of Nigeria. It was politics, however, that preoccupied most of Saro-Wiwa’s attention by the end of the decade. Although he served briefly in one presidential administration in 1987, the corruption and repression of Nigeria’s successive military regimes confirmed Saro-Wiwa’s belief that it was no longer possible to work within the country’s official power structure.
As a founding member in 1990 of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), the author of The Ogoni Bill of Rights, and an activist with ties to Greenpeace International, Saro-Wiwa became the foremost opposition leader in Nigeria. Under Saro-Wiwa’s leadership, MOSOP likewise became one of the most visible organizations in protesting the economic exploitation and environmental degradation of the Delta region, where most of the country’s oil reserves were located. Despite Saro-Wiwa’s forceful presence, however, MOSOP was split among several competing factions, with some groups engaging in terrorism and violence to make their demands known. Saro-Wiwa also faced opposition from some Ogoni tribal elders who believed that the group should continue to negotiate with the international oil companies instead of turning their backs on further talks. On May 21, 1994, when four of Saro-Wiwa’s opponents were killed in an ambush led by a MOSOP splinter group, the Nigerian government laid the blame on Saro-Wiwa, who was arrested along with eight of his colleagues. The fact that Saro-Wiwa had long dismissed such terrorist tactics and was working to suppress such violence was disregarded by the regime of General Sani Abacha, who had seized power in November of 1993.
The “Ogoni Nine,” as the defendants became known, were tried by a Nigerian military court in proceedings that international observers condemned as patently unfair. Despite the international outcry, Saro-Wiwa was convicted and sentenced to death. Saro-Wiwa used his last statement in court to make an impassioned critique of Nigeria’s dilemma. “On trial also is the Nigerian nation, its present rulers and those who assist them,” he told the court, “Any nation which can do to the weak and disadvantaged what the Nigerian nation has done to the Ogoni, loses a claim to independence and to freedom from outside influence. We all stand on trial, my Lord, for by our actions we have denigrated our country and jeopardized the future of our children.” Kenule Saro-Wiwa was executed on November 10, 1995.
Saro-Wiwa’s family later filed a lawsuit in the United States against the Shell Corporation, which it accused of acting in conjunction with the Nigerian government to stage his arrest, trial, and execution and thereby dampen MOSOP protests. Civilian government returned to Nigeria in 1999 with the election of Olusegun Obasanjo as president. Although democratically elected, the country continued to suffer from ethnic strife, environmental disasters, and economic chaos, with two-thirds of the country living below the poverty level in 2001 under his rule.
Falola, Toyin, The History of Nigeria, Greenwood Press, 1999.
Maier, Karl, This House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria, Public Affairs, 2000.
Soyinka, Wole, The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Wiwa, Ken, In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son’s Journey to Understand His Father’s Legacy, Steer-forth Press, 2001.
Economist, September 1, 2001.
World Watch, July/August 2002.
“Ken Saro-Wiwa,” Public Broadcasting System, www.pbs.org/Kcet/newamericans/2.0/nigeria/sa-rowiwal.htm (March 15, 2003).
“Saro-Wiwa Writings: Closing Statement to the Nigerian Military Appointed Tribunal,” Public Broadcasting System, www.pbs.orgAcet/newamericans/2.0/nigeria/sarowiwa5.htm (March 15, 2003).
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