Ken Saro-Wiwa: The Writer as Activist

Helon Habila on Ken Saro-Wiwa

Ken Saro-Wiwa has been described as many things, some correctly, some incorrectly. He has been called a Nigerian patriot, an Ogoni nationalist, the father of the African environmental movement, writer, poet, essayist, playwright, TV producer . . . and murderer, a crime for which he was arrested and hanged by the Nigerian government alongside eight others on November 10, 1995.

Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa was born on October 10, 1941, in Bori town, in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. His father was a local chieftain and a practicing Anglican. He attended secondary school at the popular Government College Umuoahia, where other famous Nigerians, like the novelist Chinua Achebe, attended. On completion he obtained a scholarship to study English at the University of Ibadan. After his university education, he became a teaching assistant at the University of Lagos. His aim, he stated in one of his books, was to become a teacher. To live the life of an academic was always his biggest dream, but it was a dream he never realized, even though it could be argued that as a writer and a public speaker he became a teacher on a much bigger scale than he had ever imagined.

Destiny has a way of taking over our lives, and for Ken Saro-Wiwa, destiny came in the form of the Nigerian Civil War of 1967. With the onset of the Nigerian Civil War, he was appointed civilian administrator for Bonny, a very important post, especially for a young man of twenty-five. This appointment made him a public figure very early and gave him a taste for service, and from then on there was no turning back.

In his war period memoir, On a Darkling Plain, one of the most detailed and interesting accounts of the civil war years written by a Nigerian, Saro-Wiwa describes the war of 1967–1970 as a time of confusion. Ogoni was itself divided because of the Biafran War, some sections preferring to go with the breakaway Biafran nation, another part, people like Saro-Wiwa, wanting to remain with the federal government.

Saro-Wiwa captures this division and confusion in his remarkable war novel, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English. This experimental novel—which famously begins with the line: “Although, everybody in Dukana was happy at first,” and ends: “Believe me yours sincerely”—is the story of a naïve and gullible, but somewhat likeable young man, Sozaboy, in a town called Dukana. Sozaboy joins the army and is sent to the front. His aim in joining the army is to be a hero and to come back someday and be the irresistible lover to the village beauty. The book is a bildungsroman, and in the growth and education of Sozaboy, we also see the growth and loss of innocence of not just the Ogoni, but of Nigeria as a whole. Saro-Wiwa shows that in this war there are no heroes and no sides. Most of the soldiers end up fighting for both sides at the same time, switching uniforms at random, doing whatever it takes to survive. And when Sozaboy returns to Dukana after the fighting, he finds his hometown, the town he so wanted to return to as a hero, in total ruins.

But perhaps the most interesting achievement of Sozaboy is its use of language. The book is written in pidgin English, or what Saro-Wiwa calls, “Rotten English.” This is the first African novel to consciously attempt that feat.

And so, from language to form to content, the novel shows the unnecessity, the chaos, and ultimately the evil that is war. The Nigerian war was especially so given the history and complexity of this new nation. With a current population of over 170 million, Nigeria is the most populous African nation, with about three hundred different ethnicities, most of them seen and treated as minorities by the three dominant ethnic groups: Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba. Saro-Wiwa belongs to one of the smallest minorities, the Ogoni.

What makes the Ogoni very important here is the abundant presence of crude oil and gas in the region. The Nigerian federal government consistently turned a blind eye to the deleterious, and even criminal activities of the big oil companies. Pipelines, often rusty and leaking, passed through Ogoni village centres and even family compounds, sometimes exploding and causing great casualties. The people were helpless as their rivers and farmlands were polluted and rendered useless for farming and fishing—two trades that had been the people’s stable way of survival. 

After the divisive civil war, uniting the people and restoring them to their past, pre-colonial glory became an obsession for Saro-Wiwa. Who appointed him a leader? No one. But he just felt that at times like this, in a time of crisis, it is the duty of every patriot to step forward and do what he or she can to lead the people forward. The civil war, he felt, created such a moment: a window of opportunity for him and for his people within the larger Nigerian context in which they were more or less held hostage.

If he had the passion and the ambition, fate also gave him the opportunity when he was made a Civilian Administrator during the war, and after the war he became a commissioner for Education for the newly created Rivers State. He set his mind to organizing the Ogoni, traveling widely among about a hundred Ogoni villages, getting to know the people, witnessing firsthand the devastation inflicted upon them by the war. He came to a few conclusions, one being that what the Ogoni needed more than anything else was unity, and that can be achieved mainly through centralized organization. He therefore set up the Ogoni Development Association, designed to organize the masses. He composed a sort of manifesto, which stated the aims and objectives of this group:

The Rivers State has been created, and a new Nigeria born. But we must remember that no matter the system of government, unless a people take their own destiny into their own hands, no improvement will come to them . . . We must begin immediately to organize ourselves enthusiastically for the difficult and turbulent days ahead . . .

He couldn’t have been more prophetic. The days ahead were going to be rocky and turbulent for the Ogoni, but especially for Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa was an exceptionally ambitious young man, and perhaps at the time too young to assume such an onerous task as the leadership of the entire Ogoni nation. It was inevitable that he would have made many mistakes, mostly inadvertently, and so not many people were happy with what they saw as the attempts of this young upstart to arrogate to himself the role of Ogoni leader, heir to the great Birabi. Soon, because of his unwillingness to play the political game, he was kicked out in 1973.

But he was learning quickly, and growing up, and his ideas constantly evolving. He was shrewd enough to see that not many people would take him seriously unless he was able to achieve something by himself in the world, and so he decided to withdraw, at least for a while, from politics. For most of the 1980s he turned fully to writing, and to business. He set up his own publishing company, Saros Stars Publishing Company, which was to publish all his books. Saro-Wiwa became, within two decades, perhaps Africa’s most prolific author. From essays to children’s stories to folktales to novels and plays, he wrote everything.

On his fiftieth birthday, for instance, he determined to publish “no less than eight books, seven of them mine.” But not for a moment did he ever forget his ultimate goal, which was to fight for the Ogoni cause; but already his ambition was widening: he began to see himself as not only fighting for the Ogoni, but all marginalized peoples everywhere. He turned each book launch, usually a big occasion in Nigeria, into a campaign for raising awareness about the Ogoni. He also, at the same time, was writing a fiery, political column, Similia, in Nigeria’s premier newspaper, the Daily Times. Typically he used the column as a platform to talk about the exploitative oil companies, the plight of the minority ethnic groups in Nigeria, and the environment. “Week after week I made sure that the name Ogoni appeared before the eyes of the reader. It was a television technique, designed to leave the name indelibly in their minds.”

Of course he knew a thing or two about television. Apart from his books, there was also the TV sitcom, Basi and Company, which he wrote and produced, and which made him famous in circles far beyond the reach of his books. He became a household name in Nigeria and beyond. The Indian poet and essayist, Vivek Narayan, describes the TV series as a cross between Waiting for Godot and Sanford and Son. It satirized the shallowness and the excessive materialism of Nigerian society. The program ran from 1985–1990, and at its peak it was watched by over thirty million viewers.

With each TV episode, and with each newspaper column, one could see his awareness rising. In his book, The Darkling Plain, for instance, he returned to the idea of Nigeria as a federation, and how that foundational idea was being thwarted by the military dictators. The duty of the writer in Africa, he came to realize, was to fight injustice, to raise awareness about oppression wherever it might exist: “the writer must be l’homme engagé: the intellectual man of action. He must take part in mass organisations. He must establish direct contact with the people and resort to the strength of African literature, oratory in the tongue.”

One of the best examples of such “engaged” writing is his short story, “Africa Kills Her Sun,” an ironic story about Bana, who is on death row for armed robbery. The story is in epistolary form, written by Bana and addressed to his girlfriend who is simply referred to as Zole. In the story, we discover how he becomes a robber: he realized one day that he was living in a society where only the crooked and the venal are rewarded, while the honest man is always the loser. So, because he couldn’t beat them, Bana decided to join the rest of society. He became a robber. But of course, things went wrong. Why, he asks, do presidents and ministers loot the treasury with impunity and they never get arrested, but he, a minor robber, who robs in partnership with the police, is facing the firing squad? Why is he derided when, after being caught, he confesses fully to his crimes and asks for no mercy? He and his friends have no qualms about their impending fate: it is rightly deserved, and in this way, they are proving to be morally superior to the politicians who steal daily and will never admit it. He writes to Zole, “We went into our career because we didn’t see any basic difference between what we were doing and what most others are doing throughout the land today. In every facet of our lives—in politics, in commerce and in the professions—robbery is the baseline.”

The metaphor of prison and incarceration runs throughout Saro-Wiwa’s work. He saw the Ogoni as prisoners in their own land, prisoners to Shell and the federal government, prisoners to the oil wealth that should have been a source of riches to them but was instead proving to be their ruin. In his book, Prisoners of Jebs, he extends further this metaphor of prison. Prisoners of Jebs, together with Pita Dumbrok’s Prison and Return to Jebs, is part of a trilogy. But this theme of prison is perfected in Saro-Wiwa’s final work, the prison memoir published posthumously, A Month and a Day.

In the 1990s he decided to return fully to fighting for the Ogoni, something that he had never truly abandoned but was just biding his time to recommit to. He was always traveling, trying to raise awareness about his cause in international circles. Despite his efforts to raise international awareness, he didn’t get much sympathy from official government quarters. He wrote: “As with the British, so with the Dutch and the Swiss whom I had the opportunity to meet on one or two occasions in their home offices. They were even further removed from the problem, the Dutch interest being pre-eminently connected with Shell. In effect, the problems of Nigeria, of Africa, were not really on the table.”

If there was going to be a solution, it had to be discovered at home, in Africa. After all, most of the problems he was trying to fight came about because of these same European powers and their colonial policies. But in his travels he did meet with, and found sympathetic ears in, international NGOs engaged in fighting environmental degradation and ethnic marginalization all over the world. From them he realized his fight for Ogoni sovereignty could not be achieved separately from environmental safety concerns. As he put it somewhere, the word “Ogoniland” has no meaning; the word Ogoni alone says it all: the people are the land, they are indivisibly linked to the land, and if the land dies, the people die also; and so basically what the oil companies are doing, with the government’s help, is genocide.

He decided to take his message directly to the people, and he saw that the best way to do that was through the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), an organization for which he had always been an advocate and was a pioneer member. To set things in motion for the protest marches, he quickly wrote a book, Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Story, which attempted to explain what the movement was about and where it was headed. On November 14 and 28, 1992, MOSOP undertook awareness-raising tours of the entire Ogoni Kingdom. They were surprised by the enthusiasm with which they were received by the angry and marginalized Ogoni youth.

It goes without saying that though the youth and the marginalized may be with them, not all the Ogoni elite was behind MOSOP. It was a particularly divisive moment in Ogoni; President Babangida had recently lifted the ban on political party activities and many of the Ogoni elite were vying for national office, and any incendiary activity that might heat up the polity was something they would rather not have. But the demonstrations went ahead and succeeded even beyond Saro-Wiwa’s wildest hopes. There were observers and reporters from local and international organizations to cover the events. Speakers, led by Saro-Wiwa and other leaders of MOSOP, went from village to village, from Gokana to Bori to Baen and Tabangh, addressing huge congregations. He spoke in Khana, the local dialect, and in his speech he declared Shell persona non grata in Ogoni, and “challenged them to kill off all Ogoni men, women, and children before taking any more oil from Ogoni.”

It was a strong speech and of course, Shell was taking note, and so was the new Nigerian dictator, General Sani Abacha, who had taken over after Babangida was disgraced out of office. It could be said that from that day Saro-Wiwa became a marked man. 

His first arrest by security agents came on April 3, 1993. He had just returned from England where he had gone to bury his fourteen-year-old son, Tedum, who had died at Eton, and though tired and heartbroken, he still found the reserve to try to honour a speaking engagement to students in Warri. At the entrance to the lecture hall, he was met by twenty armed policemen who escorted him out of the city and back to Rivers State. He was arrested again on April 18 for no reason. Again, on June 21, 1993. Then came the killings of May 21, 1994: four Ogoni chiefs, who were well-known opponents of MOSOP, were killed by an angry Ogoni mob. The next day, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of MOSOP were arrested.

Over a year later, with the whole world watching, Ken Sawo-Wiwa and the other eight Ogoni chiefs were hanged by General Sani Abacha and, most people believe, with the active connivance of Shell.

Writing in his foreword to A Month and a Day, the poet laureate, Wole Soyinka, says:

These were brutal, horrendous killings, totally indefensible. To the extent that the murders had been committed by Ogoni youth militants, members of MOSOP . . . who owed loyalty to Ken Saro-Wiwa, their leader, and that he failed to condemn the murders in the most rigorous language, Ken could be assailed with a measure of moral responsibility. But to accuse him of complicity, direct or indirect, was an act of cynical opportunism.

Not only was he accused of complicity, he was convicted and hanged for a crime he wasn’t proven to have committed. But history and moral victory have turned out to be on his side. His legacy as an ardent champion of his people, and of the land, keeps growing stronger every day. He has shown the world that the oil companies will stop at nothing to make money, and that the problem facing the Ogoni is not a local one, but an international one. In a letter, Saro-Wiwa assured his friend, the British novelist William Boyd: “There’s no doubt that my idea will succeed in time, but I’ll have to bear the pain of the moment . . . the most important thing for me is that I’ve used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni people to confront their tormentors. I was not able to do it as a politician or a businessman. My writing did it . . . I think I have the moral victory.”