I got to know of the social activist Ken Saro Wiwa, as a child, reading the opening credits of his long-running TV series, Basi and Company. Today for most Nigerians, marks the 15th anniversary of his Military execution. Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed for speaking out against injustice and oppression of the minority ethnic groups in the Niger Delta Region by the Nigerian government and by the multinational oil companies, especially Shell.
Kenule Beeson Saro Wiwa, most known as Ken Saro-Wiwa, was born to a prominent Bori family in October 1941. He was a native of Ogoni, in todays Rivers State, South-South Nigeria. Previously an academic, Ken Saro Wiwa went into politics as the Civilian Administrator for the Port of Bonny, near his hometown of Ogoni during the Nigeria-Biafra civil war (1967-1970) and later as regional Commisioner of Education in the Rivers State cabinet. During the 1970s he built up his businesses in real estate and retail and in the 1980s concentrated on his writing, journalism and television production. It was in 1990 that Ken Saro-Wiwa decided to concentrate his efforts to speaking and campaigning about the problems of the oil producing regions of the Niger Delta. He focused on his homeland, Ogoni, and launched the non-violent Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).
Basi & Co, his popular soap opera, may have often been too advanced for me when it ran on TV, however it had some very engaging characters, with distinctive names, dressings and manners of speech. I thoroughly enjoyed the dialogue and often acted out some of the scenes with my siblings after the show had ended. As one with great imagination, and even then, the stirrings of a writing muse, I was inspired by writers, and as such, the name of the writer of this witty drama stuck with me. As a young teenager, I found and read some of his books and followed his activism. Several children’s adventures later, I was working on a romance novella and waiting to take the entrance exams to university when the news of the execution broke. Ken Saro-Wiwa had been hanged, along with eight others (the Ogoni Nine), by the Nigerian military junta of the day.
I was stunned with disbelief. Saro-Wiwa was a thinker and activist who I had looked up to and aspired to be like. I had been too young to remark the military regime of the now late Gen. Sani Abacha, but then I was forced to consider how they stifled free speech, and how this might affect my own writing, my life. It was not an encouraging picture I saw. As it was, the hangings caused an international outcry and the immediate suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth – which lasted three years – as well as the calling back of many foreign diplomats. As the next few years dragged on, several writers, journalists and authors alike, were hounded and prosecuted, several went to jail or prison, and many left the country for asylum elsewhere.
Things are a bit better now. In the years in between Ken Saro Wiwa’s death and today, I had read two more of his books of his experiences during the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. Sozaboy: a Novel in Rotten English, of a naive village boy recruited into the army; and On a Darkling Plain, his personal diary. The first I read as a political university student, active in my faculty and department, an official in some groups and associations. The other I read as a young woman, living and working in Abuja, the new capital city of Nigeria. Both books and most of his others made references to the abuse he saw around him, as the oil companies took riches from beneath the soil of Ogoni land, and in return left them polluted and unusable. The fed into my world view of how the world worked, and why I needed to tell my own story however I could.
Today, 15 years later, I am more grown up and socially aware. I live in the United States by choice and will travel to Nigeria in the next couple of weeks. I am a full time writer, editor and author. My book, A Heart to Mend, has also been published and is doing very well in Nigeria. In March of this year, I established and currently serve as managing editor for a critique website for Nigerian writers called Naija Stories. The aim of the website is to provide a platform of opportunities to aspiring Nigerian writers and get them telling their stories on their own terms. In a press release yesterday by the Niger-Delta Restoration of Hope, two of Naija Stories members had won in a writing competition held to commemorate the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Their entries were appropriately titled “Road to Martyrdom” and “Life before Death”.
In his closing statement to the Nigerian military-appointed special tribunal, Ken Saro-Wiwa said;
“We all stand before history. I am a man of peace, of ideas. Appalled by the denigrating poverty of my people who live on a richly endowed land, distressed by their political marginalization and economic strangulation, angered by the devastation of their land, their ultimate heritage, anxious to preserve their right to life and to a decent living, and determined to usher to this country as a whole a fair and just democratic system which protects everyone and every ethnic group and gives us all a valid claim to human civilization, I have devoted my intellectual and material resources, my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief and from which I cannot be blackmailed or intimidated. I have no doubt at all about the ultimate success of my cause, no matter the trials and tribulations which I and those who believe with me may encounter on our journey. Nor imprisonment nor death can stop our ultimate victory.”
On Friday, the 10th of November 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed. He died for speaking out and making his voice relevant. I, and others will continue speaking.
About Myne Whitman
Award winning Myne Whitman is the author of A Heart to Mend. Her blog is the Nigerian Blog of the Year 2010 and she also writes for BellaNaija, Afrikan Goddess, Femme Lounge, and other online publications.