On November 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged in prison in Port Harcourt in Eastern Nigeria as ordered by Sani Abacha the fifty-four year old military leader. His violent death sparked outrage in Nigeria as well as throughout the world. He still is considered to be a heroic martyr by a majority of his countrymen.
Saro-Wiwa had a diverse life in which he was a public servant, a celebrated author and a businessman. He was born on October 10, 1941, while Nigeria was under British colonial rule – the country gained independence in 1960. He was born in Ogoniland in Bori on the Niger Delta and was a member of Ogoni people, a minority population. His father, Jim Wiwa, was an Ogoni chieftain. The Niger Delta was found to be an oil-rich region and was targeted from the 1950s for oil development.
As a nation, Nigeria was an artificial construct as a result of colonization by the British. It was created from the remains of the Niger River Trading Company. The Europeans helped themselves to vast territorial holdings in Africa as a result of the Treaty of Berlin signed in 1884.
Northern Nigeria was populated by Muslims – the Hausa Fulani ethnic group ruled by emirs. The people of northern Nigeria were relatively easy to control on account of the hierarchical nature of their social structure. The peoples of southern Nigeria, on the other hand, were more difficult to control – they were fiercely democratic. In order to subdue them, the British used religion, bribery, the influence of missionaries, and the power of the military. It was British administration driven by economic considerations that carved out the Nigerian borders. It was through the clever application of divide and conquer that the colonialists used the differences between the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba peoples in the west and the Ibo in the east to control the country and extract the economic resources of the region.
Oil was discovered in Nigeria in 1958. For over 30 years oil has provided over 30 billion dollars to the Nigerian economy. However, this revenue fed corruption and enriched a small and well-connected minority of the nation's population. The Ogoni people received no real benefit from their oil-rich land. Quite to the contrary, they had no reliable electricity, no pipe-born water and they were not the beneficiaries of any significant social or economic projects. In addition, their language was disappearing and they were effectively pushed into slavery as their environment became increasingly assaulted by irresponsible practices on the part of the oil industry.
As a young man, Saro-Wiwa witnessed the break out of civil war. On July 6, 1967 the so-called Biafran War began. The Ibo people of eastern Nigeria formed a loose ethnic grouping that was called Biafra. The Ibo leader, Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, seceded from the Nigerian Federation taking most of the country's oil reserves. Civil war broke out as a direct result of this action. Over the duration of hostilities, a million people died mainly as a result of starvation. The Ogoni people did not directly participate in this conflict. The conflict finally ended in 1970 with the collapse of the Biafran forces. During this conflict, Saro-Wiwa was appointed as a civilian administrator of a crucial oil port on the Niger River Delta. The brutality of this conflict had such a marked impact on him that he crafted an anti-war novel around this historic event that he entitled, Sozaboy. His harsh criticism of the military in later years was essentially formulated as a direct result of his experience in regards to the civil war, the plight of minority peoples and the corrupting influence of the wealth and power associated with oil. He felt a compelling need to be true to his own conscience.
On account of these influences, Saro-Wiwa strived to exert some influence on the course of Nigerian affairs – he attempted to run for office. When he failed to get into the constituent assembly in 1977, however, he decided to embark into the world of business. Seeking financial security, he opened a grocery store, invested in property and began a career in writing and publishing. He did well in all these endeavors. In spite of these successes, he was determined to exert some positive political influence.
He reentered public life when was appointed to the position of Executive Director of the federal government's Directorate of Mass Mobilization for Self-Reliance, Social Justice and Economic Recovery (MAMSER). One of his chief responsibilities was to awaken Nigerians to their rights and obligations as citizens. This role caused Saro-Wiwa to become intimately involved in social mobilization in order to seek social justice for his people and his country.
Saro-Wiwa gained renown as a satirical political Columnist. He wrote for Lagos daily newspapers, including the Vanguard and the Daily Times. He attempted to address the ills of his society and government which he defined as tribalism, ignorance of the rights of minorities, materialism and corruption. In the late 1980s he focused his attention on the plight of his people, the Ogoni. They inhabited a small but fertile area on the Niger River Delta. The region happened to possess a significant portion of Nigeria's oil reserves. Since the 1950s, Ogoniland was devastated by the pollution caused by the extraction of oil as mentioned previously.
He witnessed the wholesale environmental degradation of his homeland that was a byproduct of oil development under the aegis of the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company – a multinational concern. The environmental damage was multi-faceted and resulted in an ecological wasteland:
· The loss of a once rich and prosperous agriculture
· The destruction of fisheries as a direct result of ongoing pollution
· The concentration of sulfur in creeks and watering holes poisoned by indiscriminate oil spillage.
It is what Saro-Wiwa referred to as a "slow genocide. In reaction to this reality, Saro-Wiwa presided over the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP); an organization that began in 1990. This organization called for the immediate compensation from the Nigerian government and Royal Dutch Shell to the Ogoni people, and sponsored mass demonstrations that were both peaceful and non-violent. On account of his unrelenting and open criticism of the Nigerian government and the military and his role in the demonstrations, he was arrested in 1992 by the Nigerian military and held in prison without trial. On account of intense international pressure, Shell ultimately ceased operations in the Ogoni region. On January 4, 1993, MOSOP sponsored a mass rally calling for nonviolent resistance; some 300,000 people participated. In regards to Saro-Wiwa's role in the demonstration he said, "It had fallen to me to wake them – the Ogoni people – from the sleep of the century."
At that time the Ogoni military was led by General Ibrahim Babangida. Saro-Wiwa was eventually released from prison and general elections were held on June 12 of 1993. MOSOP boycotted that election. General Moshood Abiola was chosen to lead by the electorate. However, General Abacha declared the results of the election were null and void and imprisoned the victor. On June 12, 1993, Saro-Wiwa was arrested by the State Security Service (SSS); he was asked to write a statement about his activities and was released.
The situation as he witnessed it looked bleak; oil money had a very corrupting influence on the government and its policies. For this reason, Saro-Wiwa continued his protests. As a result of his activities, he was arrested once again. This time the charge was incitement to murder; an accusation that was without merit. He was imprisoned for more than a year and tried by a specially convened tribunal that amounted to a show trial. On Thursday November 2, 1995, he and eight other co-defendants were sentenced to death and on November 10 of that year, he was executed.
In response to this reprehensible act of horrific injustice, much of the world became incensed. To this day, Ken Saro-Wiwa's contribution to the cause of peace and social justice is honored and remembered.