The Legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa
Born October 10, 1941, Ken Saro-Wiwa dedicated his life to environmental activism in Nigeria. Saro-Wiwa, one of Africa’s leading literary figures, authored children’s books, novels, plays, poetry, and writings that focused on political and environmental issues. He also produced a ground-breaking sitcom that ran from 1985 to 1995 and was later syndicated across Africa. His work projected a quick wit and local insight, and he has been referred to as the “Nigerian Mark Twain.” As a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in Nigeria, his passionate work in politics, writing, and activism, combined with an enduring love for his family, homeland, and its people, is legendary.
Crude oil extraction in Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta, began in 1958 when Shell Oil drilled its first well (they now own about 90 oil fields across the country.) Over the years the land has suffered extreme environmental damage from indiscriminate petroleum wastes that have contaminated the ground, air, and water. The Ogoni people view this unrepairable damage, and the resulting hardships placed upon its people, a product of corporate greed and political corruption.
Ken Saro-Wiwa with his son, Ken Saro-Wiwa Junior.
In 1990, Saro-Wiwa made a commitment to address this situation. The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) was formed with poet Ken Saro-Wiwa as president. The organization advocated for the rights of the people and created the Ogoni Bill of Rights. The movement’s demands included increased autonomy for the Ogoni people, a fair share of the proceeds of oil extraction, and remediation of environmental damage to their lands. Gas flaring and other environmental crises threatened traditional livelihoods in the area such as agriculture which had sustained the Ogoni for generations. The demands were a direct challenge to those who benefitted most from oil exploitation: oil and gas multinationals and the Nigerian military government. MOSOP’s main adversary became Royal Dutch Shell.
With regard to Shell, Saro-Wiwa demanded that the company bypass the central government, engage immediately in environmental impact assessments of its past activities, and raise its standards to “best practice.” Ken Saro Wiwa continued his fight for environmental and human rights by organizing peaceful movements, and for those efforts, he paid a price.
Saro-Wiwa led a nonviolent campaign against environmental degradation of Ogoniland.
The efforts focused on operations of the multinational petroleum industry, particularly Royal Dutch Shell.
Saro-Wiwa was arrested several times in 1993, and a final time in May 1994. The pretext for his arrest was that Saro-Wiwa had incited several youth to murder four political rivals who were shot at a 1994 political rally. He insisted he was framed because of his opposition to Nigeria’s military ruler, Sani Abacha, and the oil industry, which accounted for roughly eighty percent of the country’s foreign income. He was imprisoned in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. A unique collection of the last writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa reveals the indomitable mind and spirit of the legendary campaigner for justice. The letters and poems collected are his last writings and were smuggled out of military detention in food baskets.
At his tribunal, Ken Saro-Wiwa vowed that the oil giant Shell would one day be brought to justice. Saro-Wiwa, 54, was convicted on October 31, 1995. The trial was condemned by international observers, and described as judicial murder by the British Prime Minister. On November 10, 1995, Saro-Wiwa, and eight companions were roused one morning from their cells at the army camp where they had been held since their convictions. The nine men were herded into a room and shackles were placed on their wrists and ankles. They were then led out, one after the other, beginning with Saro-Wiwa. It took five attempts to hang Ken Saro-Wiwa before the Nigerian writer spoke his last words and his body went limp. “Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues.”
The letters and poems collected in this book are the last writings of a man on trial for his life.
They were smuggled out of military detention in food baskets.
Almost twenty-five years after Saro-Wiwa’s death, little has changed in Ogoniland. Pollution and environmental degradation caused by oil spills are still a major concern. Livelihoods have been destroyed and living conditions continue to deteriorate.
Saro-Wiwa’s son, Saro-Wiwa Jr., became a journalist, and was editor of the Guardian’s periodical New Media Lab, where he developed content for the paper’s online edition. He also produced and narrated television and radio documentaries for BBC and CBC, and wrote commentaries for National Public Radio. His memoir of his father, In the Shadow of a Saint, won the 2002 Hurston-Wright Nonfiction Award.
On June 8, 2009, Shell agreed to an out-of-court settlement with the Saro-Wiwa family for $15.5 million. Ben Amunwa, director of the “Remember Saro-Wiwa” organization, stated, “No company, that is innocent of any involvement with the Nigeria military and human rights abuses, would settle out of court for 15.5 million dollars. It clearly shows that they have something to hide.” Shell stated the payment was a humanitarian gesture and an act of sympathy, denying culpability in the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogonis.
Ken Saro Wiwa Jr. once stated, “If my father was to come back today he’d be shocked that nothing much has changed,” and in a BBC interview, he said that the Ogoni people had suffered a “collective pain,” and “perhaps one day my father’s story will be more than a footnote in the history of the carbon economy.” Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. died suddenly from a stroke on October 18, 2016, at the age of forty-seven in London.
A 2011 United Nations report stated that Nigeria’s Ogoniland region could take thirty years to recover fully from the damage caused by years of oil spills. The study said complete restoration could require the world’s “most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up.” It added that the local communities faced a severe health risk, with Ogoni families drinking water containing high levels of carcinogens.
Today, MOSOP still requires local as well as international support in dealing with what they call “a ground swell of an unholy alliance between the political class and transnational oil corporations.” A source familiar to the situation stated, “Shell has relocated to offshore operations in the Niger delta, the Nigerian state has lost control, environmental degradation is at its peak, and poverty and hunger are prevalent. Nigeria is a time bomb waiting to explode.”
Related Links and Resources:
The Irish Times
The legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa at Maynooth University
A letter from Ken Saro-Wiwa
Ken Saro-Wiwa Junior wrote the heartfelt introduction to one of his father’s last letters to him.
CLICK HERE to download the letter.
Ken Saro-Wiwa: 1995 Goldman Prize winner, Nigeria
The Goldman Environmental Prize is the world’s largest prize for grassroots environmentalists.
1995 Goldman Environmental Prize Ceremony: Ken Saro Wiwa
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Saro-Wiwa accepts the 1995 Goldman Environmental Prize
for his father.