Wiwa, Ken

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Ken Wiwa


Journalist, political activist

Ken Wiwa is a journalist and political activist whose life and career were transformed by the arrest and execution of his father, the Nigerian author and civil rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, in 1995. During his father's incarceration by the regime of Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, Wiwa worked feverishly but unsuccessfully to secure Saro-Wiwa's release. His father's execution drove Wiwa, then based in London, to embrace his African identity, speaking out on behalf of the Ogoni people against the oil interests that have exploited them for decades, and on behalf of oppressed people in Africa and throughout the world. He recounted his conflicted relationship with his father, as well as his struggle to prevent Saro-Wiwa's execution, in the memoir In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son's Journey to Understand His Father's Legacy (2000), which the South African human rights activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu called "riveting, searingly honest and deeply moving. It is a splendid monument to an outstanding man, warts and all."

Wiwa was born in 1968 in Lagos, Nigeria, while the country was in the midst of a civil war. After the war ended in 1970, his father took a position in government and traveled frequently. After Wiwa's brother, Gian, was born, his mother left to complete her education, so both Wiwa's parents were absent for much of his childhood.

In January of 1978 Wiwa, along with his mother and siblings, was sent to England to live. It was his father's dream that his children should get the best education possible, and for him that meant the boarding schools and universities of England. In his memoir Wiwa later described the day he learned his father was sending him to England as the end of his childhood. As the first-born son of a first-born son, he was expected to return to Nigeria after completing education to take up responsibilities in his father's businesses, his tribe's leadership, and his nation's politics. However, Wiwa resented his father both for that expectation and for his father's numerous infidelities. Years of English education and his troubled relationship with his father led Wiwa to stop identifying himself as African and to prefer the comforts of British life over the privations of Nigeria. He became apolitical and disinterested in following in his father's footsteps or returning to Nigeria to live. It was only through his mother's efforts that he retained the ability to speak Khana, the language of the Ogoni people.

In the early 1990s Wiwa's father, who had always combined his political activism with entrepreneurial and literary pursuits—producing a hit television comedy series, writing plays and novels, running a grocery business—quit writing to focus all his efforts on MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. The purpose of the movement was to secure economic and political autonomy for the half-million Ogoni who lived in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta—most of them in abject poverty, despite the immense value of the oil fields under their feet. Although Saro-Wiwa was dedicated to nonviolence, his opponents in the Nigerian government were not: his political activities inspired harassment, arrests, and politically motivated incarcerations.

On May 22, 1994, Saro-Wiwa was arrested for the final time. Four moderate Ogoni chiefs had been killed during a protest, and the government arrested Saro-Wiwa and eight of his confederates as their murderers. During the next fifteen months, as Saro-Wiwa was held pending trial, his son frantically immersed himself in his father's world of activism, trying to raise awareness of his father's plight in hopes that international outrage would force the Abacha government to drop the trumped-up charges against the "Ogoni Nine." Wiwa was successful in turning the international community against Abacha—his father's incarceration was condemned by various Western governments—but the regime refused to back down. Saro-Wiwa was tried in secret, sentenced to death, and on November 10, 1995, executed by hanging.

After the execution Wiwa was haunted by the unresolved feelings he had toward his father. Although he had advocated passionately for his father's release, he had remained intensely angry at Saro-Wiwa while doing so. When the news finally arrived that his father was dead, Wiwa found himself unable to cry. These feelings eventually led him to seek out the children of other famous political activists—including South African leaders Nelson Mandela, Steven Biko, and Burmese leader Aung San—to see if they dealt with the same issues. These conversations, along with reflections on his father's life, and the political struggle to give his father's remains a proper burial, form part of Wiwa's memoir, In the Shadow of a Saint.

The book, which took Wiwa three years to complete, met with critical acclaim upon its release in 2000. Gail Gerhardt of Foreign Affairs called it "A touching memoir written with subtlety and skill." Christopher Hirst of The Independent hailed the book's "honesty and clarity," while Sandra Jordan in The Observer wrote that Wiwa's "elegantly written book is a weave of Nigerian and family history, both turbulent, both tragic, neither without hope.… It is a story of being trapped in history." The book was converted to a documentary of the same name for the BBC, written and narrated by Wiwa. The resulting publicity made Wiwa an international celebrity.

In the wake of the book's success, Wiwa's activism slowly gained momentum. In 2001 he and several relatives commenced litigation against his father's old nemesis, the Shell Oil Company, in a U.S. federal court. Their complaint alleged Shell's complicity in the false charges made against Saro-Wiwa and his execution. As of 2008 legal maneuverings in the case were ongoing. In 2004 Wiwa established the Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation in honor of his father, to benefit the Ogoni people. By the time of the ten-year anniversary of his father's death, Wiwa had effectively duplicated his father's path, moving his family from Canada back to England, to facilitate dividing his time between them and his business obligations in Nigeria.

In July of 2006, the formerly apolitical Wiwa accepted a position in the Nigerian government, as a special assistant to President Olusegun Obasanjo on matters of "peace, conflict resolution, and reconciliation." Wiwa understood that his decision to join the government would be controversial, explaining in a column for The Observer that he could not resist because he saw "the outline of a plan to deliver help to the Niger Delta. It is a bold attempt not only to address poverty and empower people but to create robust economic opportunities to give militias a credible alternative to the gun." Wiwa retained his position when Umaru Yar'Ardua succeeded Obasanjo in 2007.

At a Glance …

Born Kenule Bornale Tsaro-Wiwa on November 28, 1968, in Lagos, Nigeria; son of Kenule (an author and political activist) and Maria Saro-Wiwa; married Olivia Burnett, 1996; children: Felix and Suanu. Education: University of London.

Career: Journalist and political activist. Reporter, Guardian (London, England); feature writer, Toronto Globe and Mail; Saul Rae Fellow, Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto; senior writing fellow, Massey College, University of Toronto; senior special assistant to the president of Nigeria

Memberships: Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People.

Awards: Legacy Award for Nonfiction, Hurston-Wright Foundation, 2002; Young Global Leader, World Economic Forum, 2005.

Addresses: Agent—c/o Westwood Creative Artists, 94 Harbord St., Toronto, ON M5S 1G6 Canada.

Selected writings


In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son's Journey to Understand His Father's Legacy, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2000.


"The Siren Call of Africa," New York Times, September 18, 2004.

"Death Rules Niger Delta in Battle to Control Oil," The Observer (London), March 5, 2006.

"Why I Work for the Land That Killed My Father," The Observer (London), July 9, 2006.



Boston Globe, June 3, 2001, p. A1.

Foreign Affairs, January/February 2002.

The Independent (London), November 7, 2000.

New York Times, June 9, 1998; March 22, 2000.

New York Times Book Review, October 21, 2001.

The Observer (London), November 19, 2000; March 20, 2005.


Finlay, Mary Lou, "As It Happens: Feature Interview with Ken Wiwa," CBC, November 10, 2000, http://www.cbc.ca/asithappens/international/kenwiwa.html (accessed April 18, 2008).

Goodman, Amy, "Democracy Now! Interview with Wangari Maathai and KenWiwa," Democracy Now!, September 20, 2005, http://www.democracynow.org/2005/9/20/nobel_peace_laureate_wangari_maathai_and (accessed April 18, 2008).

"Wiwa v. Shell Petroleum Company (Synopsis and Timeline)," Center for Constitutional Rights, http://ccrjustice.org/ourcases/current-cases/wiwa-v.-royal-dutch-petroleum%2C-wiwa-v.-anderson-and-wiwa-v.-shell-petroleum-d (accessed April 18, 2008).

—Derek Jacques