Ken Saro Wiwa, Jr: Exit At The Entrance by Bishop Hassan Kukah

No thanks to a gerontocratic class that defiantly continues to stand between the present and future, younger generations in Africa find the rungs on the ladder of progress rather slippery. So, at 47, Ken could be said to have been at the prime of life, but still rather young to find a seat with the elders. His sudden death came as a great shock to those of us who knew him. I picked up the news of his rather untimely death, purely by chance. I spent a good part of the day unwilling to seek confirmation or further clarification, perhaps, emotionally thinking that the reality might just be different.

Like millions of others, I knew of him more by reputation and his fine skills as a writer. When I finally picked up his book, In the Shadow of a Saint, I found it quite gripping and fascinating. His use of language was quite plain, accessible and enchanting. He told the story of his early life and relationship with his father. The book was an account of a loving but rather troubled relationship between father and son. He showed clearly that much as he loved and admired the great work of his father, he had no wish to even try on his large prickly shoes. Yet, at a rather young age, his weak shoulders were almost forced to carry a burden that was in every sense of the word, too heavy for him. He had to cope with the emptiness of the shadows of his late father, but also deal with the burden of trying to raise his own family while remaining the man of the larger family. He seemed a bit out of place in Ogoniland and its struggles. His enthusiasm was measured and a bit restrained in his views of the Ogoni struggle at least as encapsulated in MOSOP after his father.

I met Ken first in May 2006. By then, I had successfully made some progress with my work in Ogoniland. I was at a point in which we were poised to take a giant leap towards addressing more concretely the issues of the internal reconciliation among the immediate families of both the Ogoni 4 and 9. At Oputa Panel, we had managed to successfully get the Ogoni people to appreciate the fact that the fractionalization of their sorrows into Ogoni 4 and Ogoni 9 could only further deepen the feeling of agony and pain, thus making healing even more difficult thus reconciliation a delayed project. I felt it was time to do something spectacular to catch public attention and instill confidence in the process.

I had come up with the idea of inviting President Obasanjo to visit Ogoniland after some reflections on the way forward. I shared the idea with Dr. Peter Odili, the then Governor of Rivers State. He sounded enthusiastic but wondered if I could pull it off. When I tabled the issue to President Obasanjo, he welcomed the idea immediately. To me, getting the President to visit Ogoniland as opposed to visiting Rivers State would be a great confidence booster to the people of Ogoni while enhancing confidence in the process itself. Despite the centrality of the Wiwa family, they had not petitioned the Oputa Panel. I had thought it might be better to let sleeping dogs lie, but I knew that they were central to bringing closure to the problem. President Obasanjo’s visit seemed a good opportunity to reach out to Wiwa’s family.

I approached Ledum Mitee, the then President of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, MOSOP and asked if he could put me in touch with Ken Saro Wiwa, or Junior as he was called.  I got his number and decided to put a call through to him. He answered the phone and when I introduced myself, he sounded genuinely enthusiastic. He said although we had never really met, he had followed my work with great admiration. That gave me a window.

President Obasanjo’s visit was a few days away so I cashed in on that. The President is coming to Ogoniland, I said to him, and I will like you to be physically here at home on behalf of your father and the family.

He paused for some time and sounded understandably emotional. He told me he was actually at the airport and was heading to Accra for something in honour of his father. I no longer remember the exact details. I prodded him a bit by saying: But you know, whatever it is that the Ghanaians are doing for your dad cannot come close to the President’s visit to Ogoniland. Our efforts at reconciling the families of the Ogoni 13 will not be complete without you. Please think about it and come home. Even though I had no budget, I decided to take a chance so I said to him: We will cover your travelling costs and accommodation for the period. There was a bit of silence and then, gently, almost measuring his words, he said to me: Ok, Father, I will cancel the trip to Accra and come home to support your work for our people. I was thrilled and truly did look forward to meeting him. I felt a sense of achievement.

He did come and the rest is a story for another day. We had a good relationship and I found that he had good knowledge of the issues. It was clear that he looked very much an outsider in Ogoniland and understandably so for such a young man. As I got to know him a bit and we became comfortable with one another, I asked him a question: You know that you are an African. Why don’t you consider setting up firmer roots in Nigeria? You know your father’s legacy will be difficult to sustain without you being around. He reminded me that he had no intention of getting into activism and that much as he loved the country, settling down in Nigeria would not be easy. His mum and siblings were in England and he was also raising a young family, he said. I did not push it.

I told him I wanted to speak to his mother about what we were doing. He obliged me and I put a call through to her. She was polite, gentle and supportive but made it clear that she could not make it to Nigeria. Again, in her case, it was enough that she sounded quite encouraging. I was more than pleased that Ken was already in our corner because I was convinced that an endorsement of our work by their family was important for the integrity of the work itself.

Meanwhile, on my own initiative, I decided to approach Governor Odili with a proposal. I told him that I had spoken to Ken and it would seem he could be open to persuasion to return home and begin to spend more time in Nigeria. Governor Odili listened attentively and asked how I thought he could help. I suggested he could consider making him a Special Assistant or Adviser of some sorts. I tried to persuade the Governor that Ken could use his international networks to help the State and his presence could also inspire some Ogoni Youth. Almost automatically, Dr. Odili welcomed the idea especially as he had a soft spot for the Ogoni people.

Armed with this, I became a bit more confident and began to see if I could wear down Ken’s resistance. The President’s visit was barely a day away.

President Obasanjo finally came to Ogoniland on May 22, 2006 to lay the foundation stone for the building of the Ogoni Memorial in Bori. During that event, I introduced Ken to President Obasanjo formally. I had also arranged for President Obasanjo to shake the hands of all the key members of the families of the Ogoni 13. President Obasanjo was most gracious. I knew that when it came to spotting talent and giving people whom he believes can contribute to Nigeria a chance, President Obasanjo is second to none. I decided to exploit that window. I took a chance and raised the bar beyond what I had discussed with Dr. Odili in part because I sensed that Ken would rather I asked President Obasanjo if he thought he could find a role for Ken in his government. I told him that I was trying to persuade Ken to return home and a good Presidential carrot might do it quicker. It would also quicken our reconciliation and give the Ogoni people a greater feeling of belonging. What is more, it would be a fitting way to deal with his father’s memory. Ok, Ok, We will do something about it, I recall President Obasanjo saying. I imagine that with additional pressure from other angles, I was pleased when Ken was later announced a Special Aide to the President, a job he held right through the Presidencies of Yar’adua and Jonathan. After that, I saw very little of him.

I occassionally bumped into him at events. We had mutual respect for one another. I often joked with him over the fact that he was now chopping alone and not paying his tithe to me. My last meeting with him was in May this year. I commended him for his performance in the documentary on the Environment put together by the Yar’adua Foundation. I joked that he had now become a millionaire and a super star. It was often clear to me that Ken had not yet found his niche. Despite being an excellent writer, his byline had vanished and he had never really found his feet in national or local politics in Rivers State.

At our last meeting in the lobby of the Transcorp Hilton, he literally pulled me aside and said something in the following words: You know, looking back at how you midwifed the UNEP report and the way we treated you, I believe the Ogoni people owe you an apology. We totally misunderstood you. I admired your tenacity and moral authority. I want to thank you again. I reminded him that a group of Ogoni Youth had already come to me led by my good friend, Chief Giniwa, the Chairman of the Ogoni Council of Chiefs. I told him it was time to move on and that we all look forward to a future for the Ogoni people.

Sadly, just when it seemed he was poised to plunge into national life, his sudden death has turned the entrance door into an exit. May God console his mother, wife, children, siblings and the great Ogoni nation. Ken Sr. passed this way and for that alone, we know neither the Niger Delta nor Nigeria will be the same again. God rest his good soul and may the memories of the Wiwas live on.

– Hassan Kukah is the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese .

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