Today we’ll be looking briefly at the life of Ken Saro Wiwa and his secrets of success.
Ken Saro Wiwa’s Early Life
Kenule Saro-Wiwa, the son of Jim Wiwa, a forest ranger and his third wife, Widu. He changed his name to Saro-Wiwa after the Nigerian Civil war.
His father’s home town is the village of Bori, Ogoniland whose residents speak the Khana dialect of Ogoni language. Saro-Wiwa spent his childhood in an Anglican home and eventually proved himself to be an excellent student; he received primary education at a Native Authority school in Bori, then attended secondary school at Government College Umuahia.
A distinguished student, Saro-Wiwa was captain of the table tennis team and amassed school prizes in history and English. At Umuahia, he was the only student from Ogoni land but fellow students were mandated to speak English which made Saro-Wiwa feel Nigerian; he embraced the language as a useful way to communicate to a larger audience at home and abroad.
On completion of secondary education, he obtained a scholarship to study English at the University of Ibadan. At Ibadan, he plunged into academic and cultural interests, he won departmental prizes in 1963 and 1965 and worked for a drama troupe.
The traveling drama troupe performed in Kano, Benin Ilorin and Lagos and collaborated with the Nottingham Playhouse theatre group that included a young Judi Dench. He briefly became a teaching assistant at the University of Lagos and later at University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
Saro-Wiwa was an African literature lecturer in Nsukka when the Civil war broke out, he supported the Federal Government and had to leave the region for his hometown of Bori. On his journey to Port-Harcourt, he witnessed the multitudes of refugees returning to the East, a scene he described as a “sorry sight to see”.
Three days after his arrival, nearby Bonny was liberated by federal troops. He and his family then stayed in Bonny, he traveled back to Lagos and took a position at UNILAG which did not last long as he was called back to Bonny.
He called back to become the Civilian Administrator for the port city of Bonny in the Niger Delta and during the Nigerian Civil War positioned himself as an Ogoni leader dedicated to the Federal cause. He followed his job as an administrator with appointment as a commissioner in the old Rivers State.
Wiwa’s best known novel, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, tells the story of a naive village boy recruited to the army during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 to 1970, and intimates the political corruption and patronage in Nigeria’s military regime of the time.
Saro-Wiwa’s war diaries, On a Darkling Plain, document his experience during the war. He was also a successful businessman and television producer. His satirical television series, Basi & Company, was wildly popular, with an estimated audience of 30 million.
In the early 1970s Saro-Wiwa served as the Regional Commissioner for Education in the Rivers State Cabinet, but was dismissed in 1973 because of his support for Ogoni autonomy.
In the late 1970s, he established a number of successful business ventures in retail and real estate, and during the 1980s concentrated primarily on his writing, journalism and television production. In 1977, he became involved in the political arena running as the candidate to represent Ogoni in the Constituent Assembly. Saro-Wiwa lost the election in a narrow margin. It was during this time he had a fall out with his friend Edwards Kobani.
Ken Saro Wiwa’s Marriage & Personal Life
Saro-Wiwa and his wife Maria had five children, who grew up with their mother in the United Kingdom while their father remained in Nigeria. They include Ken Wiwaand Noo Saro-Wiwa, both journalists and writers, and Noo’s twin Zina Saro-Wiwa, a journalist and filmmaker. In addition, Saro-Wiwa had two daughters (Singto & Adele) with another woman. Ken also had another son, Kwame Saro-Wiwa, who was only 1 year old when his father was executed.
Ken’s Life’s Work
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.
He Became Activist for Ogoni Rights
Saro-Wiwa became a nationally recognized figure in the 1980s, not as a businessman but as the writer and producer of Basi & 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, 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.
Ken Saro Wiwa’s Detained and His Execution
Saro-Wiwa was arrested again and detained by Nigerian authorities in June 1993 but was released after a month. On 21 May 1994 four Ogoni chiefs (all on the conservative side of a schism within MOSOP over strategy) were brutally murdered. Saro-Wiwa had been denied entry to Ogoniland on the day of the murders, but he was arrested and accused of incitement to them.
He denied the charges but was imprisoned for over a year before being found guilty and sentenced to death by a specially convened tribunal. The same happened to eight other MOSOP leaders who, along with Saro-Wiwa, became known as the Ogoni Nine.
Some of the defendants’ lawyers resigned in protest against the alleged rigging of the trial by the Abacha regime. The resignations left the defendants to their own means against the tribunal, which continued to bring witnesses to testify against Saro-Wiwa and his peers. Many of these supposed witnesses later admitted that they had been bribed by the Nigerian government to support the criminal allegations.
At least two witnesses who testified that Saro-Wiwa was involved in the murders of the Ogoni elders later recanted, stating that they had been bribed with money and offers of jobs with Shell to give false testimony, in the presence of Shell’s lawyer.
The trial was widely criticised by human rights organisations and, half a year later, Ken Saro-Wiwa received the Right Livelihood Award for his courage, as well as the Goldman Environmental Prize.
On 10 November 1995, Saro-Wiwa and the rest of the Ogoni Nine were killed by hanging by military personnel. They were buried in Port Harcourt Cemetery.
In his satirical piece Africa Kills Her Sun, first published in 1989, Saro-Wiwa in a resigned, melancholic mood foreshadowed his own execution.