Ken Saro-Wiwa

Ken Saro-Wiwa was born in October 1941 in Bori. His father was a prominent community chief, and Ken’s extended family was a large one. His father was a forest ranger by profession. Being the eldest son in the family, the term "Saro" was added to his name, indicating his status as first-born son.

Nigeria was still a colony of the British at the time. Ken was only six years old when the Ogoni people won the right to have their own Ogoni Native Authority, a right which many other Nigerian ethnic groups had been given as far back as 1924. This was a victory marked after a long fight to extricate themselves from the three political Divisions in which they were scattered.

Ken was lucky enough to see the Ogoni people administrating themselves, something they hadn’t been able to do when divided up between several territories. They built their own schools, churches and roads. Ogoni at that time was fertile, and provided the Ogoni people with harvests of yam, cassava and vegetables. Ken was also able to watch the Ogoni fisherman who plied the waterways throughout Ogoni. Ken was proud to be Ogoni.
In 1954, Ken attended one of Nigeria’s best schools, Government College, Umuahia. He was the only Ogoni boy amongst three hundred. Ken flourished in the environment, and learned how to be disciplined about his quest for knowledge.

It was soon after his entry to school in Umuahia that Ken saw his homeland of Ogoni split up into different divisions once more. The co-operative nature of the Ogoni during the late forties and early fifties had evaporated.

In 1958, Shell first discovered oil in Ogoni. Ken witnessed the destruction of Ogoni forests as the Oil Company put in roads to explore for and exploit the oil. He also witnessed the social disruption caused by the Shell methods of dividing and conquering Ogoni communities over the use of oil rich land in the area. (Click here for further information on Shell's role in Ogoniland and their relatioship with the military dictatorship.)Although still a student, Ken wrote a number of pseudonymous letters to government controlled newspapers and Shell about his concerns. His concerns went unheeded.

Ken Saro-Wiwa moved on to the University of Ibadan in 1962, where he further flourished as an academic. Ken was teaching at the University when the Biafran War broke out in Nigeria. The Ibo ethnic group, which was one of the three dominant ethnic groups in the newly independent Nigeria, wanted to be independent. The Ogoni lived within the territory that the Ibo claimed as part of their new republic of Biafra. Disgusted with the violence of the Ibo around him, Ken gave up a promising academic career to escape Biafran territory and help the Nigerian side. He still believed that Nigeria might hold hope for a brighter, multi-ethnic future.

After a dramatic escape in canoe, Ken became the civilian administrator of Bonny Island, the most important oil facility in the Niger Delta. Ken was in charge of helping feed and house the civilians in Bonny, many of whom were refugees. Ken’s work with the Nigerian side cost he and his family dearly. His family were rounded up by the Biafrans and placed in concentration camps. It was at this time that Ken put his views on Shell, environmental rights and economic justice for the Ogoni in his pamphlet Ogoni Nationality, Today and Tomorrow.

After the war, Ken helped re-habilitate Ogoni by becoming a Commissioner in the Rivers State Government. However, Ken’s calls to recognize the rights of Ogoni and other minority rights in the State caused his sacking in March of 1973. It was during this time as Commissioner that Ken witnessed some of the worst environmental disasters perpetrated by Shell operations. The noise from continuously burning gas flares would prevent Ken from at night. He also noticed that the Ogoni people were continuously getting sick from these gas flares, oil blowouts and spills. He worked to find adequate compensation for Ogoni people affected by the gigantic Bomu oilfield blowout. The injustice was of the spill was glaring. The refusal of neither Shell nor the Nigerian government to pay adequate compensation or clean up the pollution added to his concerns. Finally, Shell circumvented Ken’s work by settling with the local Ogoni for approximately one percent of what Ken’s government report called for.

After leaving the Rivers State Government, Ken studied the Ogoni situation from a different perspective. He built a grocery business to help support his growing family. Ken also began writing regularly in newspapers about the Ogoni situation. Literature provided another avenue for Ken to express his ideas about Ogoni. His writing of Ogoni folktales, children's books and poetry helped express the frustration he and his compatriots felt about the Ogoni situation. On top of this creative output, Ken was the writer and producer of Basi and Company, the most popular sitcom in African television history garnering audiences of up to thirty million Nigerians a week. Basi and Company was the story of a poor Lagos man who was continually trying to beat a corrupt system – a system always stacked against him. The series was cancelled by the military dictatorship in 1992 because of its honest critique of Nigerian society.

In 1989, Ken realized that a large non-violent political movement was necessary to enact change in Ogoni. He approached the Ogoni people with an idea of forming an organization that could peacefully protest their deplorable situation. This is what led to the formation of The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). The Ogoni people were ready to listen to Ken, and together they worked launch MOSOP in 1990. One of their first acts was to publish the Ogoni Bill of Rights, which Ken drafted with the assistance and approval of the people.

Ken was MOSOP’s spokesperson. His experience as a writer and communicator was crucial in getting MOSOP’s message out to Nigeria and the rest of the world. Ken offered MOSOP the use of his offices in organizing their protests against the dictatorship and Shell. In fact, over the course of a few years, Ken had invested the bulk of his personal worth into the operation of MOSOP. Of course, it was Ken’s success in leadership role that helped start the backlash against him and the Ogoni people at the hands of Shell and their allies in the Nigerian dictatorship.

Ken was arrested on many occasions, as the Nigerian military began to intimidate the Ogoni people with attacks on their communities. Leading up to the Nigerian general election of June 12, 1993, Ken and MOSOP called for the Ogoni people to boycott the polls, since the Ogoni people had no power nor rights under the existing Nigerian constitution. Some forces opposed to Saro-Wiwa tried to forge his signature to a document calling on the Ogoni people to vote. The Ogoni people knew it was a sham and stayed away from the polls. For helping lead this protest, Ken was thrown in jail for a month and a day. During that stay in jail, the Ogoni people voted Ken President of MOSOP in absentia.

During this time, Shell and the Nigerian dictatorship met to discuss the threat that Ken posed to their oil operations in Ogoni territory. Ken was to be watched and action taken, if necessary.

Between June 1993, and May 1994, the Nigerian military began a systematic destruction of Ogoni villages and their economy. Thousands died and thousands more were made homeless. Ken continued exhorting the people in mass rallies.

Finally, the Nigerian dictatorship and their Shell allies had had enough. Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested on May 21st, 1994. No charges were laid although the government alleged that he had conspired to kill four Ogoni chiefs in a riot earlier that day. It is clear that Saro-Wiwa had nothing to do with it. Nigerian troops were already swarming through Ogoni in the thousands. They were under orders to destroy MOSOP. The chiefs had all been friends of Saro-Wiwa’s, and one an in-law. It is clear that the Nigerian security forces killed these men.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni colleagues were held without charge for ten months. They were tortured and denied medical and legal attention. Still, Ken was able to smuggle many messages in and out of prison to supporters and family.

Finally, in February of 1995, the Nigerian dictatorship created a military-appointed tribunal to try Ken and the others on trumped-up charges of having conspired to kill the four Ogoni chiefs. They were truly on trial for having effectively organized the Ogoni people to stand up for their rights in the face of abuse from the Nigerian dictatorship and Shell. The decree under which they were tried was specially created for Ken and the Ogoni. It dictated that people who were found guilty of inciting ethnic violence would be hanged, with no right of appeal.

The trial was a sham. Numerous international observers reported on the outrageous nature of the trial. The Nigerian General on the tribunal answered questions on behalf of witnesses. Important video evidence was dismissed arbitrarily. It was clear from the start that the Nigerian dictatorship aimed to find a guilty verdict. Realizing this, Ken and his co-defendants called off their defense in July of 1995.

Ken insisted on reading a forty page closing statement to the tribunal. It is an eloquent record of Ken's life and the struggle of the Ogoni people. It summarizes the culpability of Shell in the entire affair. It is interesting to note that Shell maintained a watching brief at the trial throughout its duration.

On October 31st, 1995, Ken and his co-defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death. International outrage caused Western leaders such as Nelson Mandela and John Major to call for clemency for Ken and his colleagues. Despite such pressure, the Nigerian dictatorship hanged Ken and the eight other Ogoni men on November 10th, 1995.

Still, the struggle continues without Ken. His words live on, and his spirit is still in the Ogoni people. They will follow the non-violent struggle to its ultimate conclusion: justice for them, peace, and a cleaner environment.

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