20th Year Memorial: The Life, Activism and Execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa

A detailed account that charts the history of Saro-Wiwa’s life, activism and the executions.

imageKen Saro-Wiwa was born in October 1941, the eldest son of a prominent family in Ogoni, which is today in Rivers State, Nigeria. After leaving university he initially pursued an academic career.

During the Biafran war (1967-1970) he was a Civilian Administrator for the Port of Bonny, near Ogoni in the Niger Delta. He went on to be a businessman, novelist and television producer. His long-running satirical TV series Basi & Co was purported to be the most watched soap opera in Africa.

Two of his best known works were drawn from his observations and experiences of the Biafran war. His most famous work, Sozaboy: a Novel in Rotten English, is a harrowing tale of a naive village boy recruited into the army. On a Darkling Plain, is a diary of his experiences during the war.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was consistently concerned about the treatment of Ogoni within the Nigerian Federation and in 1973 was dismissed from his post as Regional Commissioner for Education in the Rivers State cabinet, for advocating greater Ogoni autonomy.

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.

Throughout his work he often made references to the exploitation he saw around him as the oil and gas industry took riches from the beneath the feet of the poor Ogoni farmers, and in return left them polluted and disenfranchised.

In his book of short stories, Forest of Flowers (1986), the following passage from the story Night Ride, reflects Saro-Wiwa’s anger at seeing multinational oil companies, like Shell, appropriating land from local people:

An old woman had hobbled up to him. My son, they arrived this morning and dug up my entire farm, my only farm. They mowed down the toil of my brows, the pride of the waiting months. They say they will pay me compensation. Can they compensate me for my labours? The joy I receive when I see the vegetables sprouting, God’s revelation to me in my old age? Oh my son, what can I do?

What answer now could he give her? I’ll look into it later, he had replied tamely.

Look into it later. He could almost hate himself for telling that lie. He cursed the earth for spouting oil, black gold, they called it. And he cursed the gods for not drying the oil wells. What did it matter that millions of barrels of oil were mined and exported daily, so long as this poor woman wept those tears of despair? What could he look into later? Could he make alternate land available? And would the lawmakers revise the laws just to bring a bit more happiness to these unhappy wretches whom the search for oil had reduced to an animal existence? They ought to send the oil royalties to the men whose farms and land were despoiled and ruined. But the lawyers were in the pay of the oil companies and the government people in the pay of the lawyers and the companies. So how could he look into it later?

In 1990, Saro-Wiwa started to dedicate himself to the amelioration of the problems of the oil producing regions of the Niger Delta. Focusing on his homeland, Ogoni, he launched a non-violent movement for social and ecological justice. In this role he attacked the oil companies and the Nigerian government accusing them of waging an ecological war against the Ogoni and precipitating the genocide of the Ogoni people. He was so effective, that by 1993 the oil companies had to pull out of Ogoni. This cost him his life.
« Continued from The Ogoni Struggle

Nine days after Okuntimo’s memo, on 21st May, four conservative Ogoni leaders were killed in Gokana, giving the military an excuse to “justify” a military presence, to undertake “wasting operations”. There is no doubt the killings of the Ogoni leaders were brutal. According to Human Rights Watch, “These men were reportedly attacked by a mob and beaten and hacked to death, but the precise chain of events leading to the murders is a source of great controversy”.

There are “disputed” reports as to what happened that day, according to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO) that sent a delegation to Ogoni in 1995, “with questions raised by other circumstances around the murders”. One of these was the tension between the Gokana Ogoni chiefs and MOSOP, but MOSOP denied any involvement in the killings.

Andrew Rowell writing in the book Green Backlash argues that: “Other suspicious happenings occurred that day too, which have led MOSOP to believe that the whole event was a complete set-up. Eye witness accounts talk of Ogoni ‘filled with soldiers’ in the morning before the killings, as if they were waiting for something to happen. These security forces did nothing when alerted of the disturbances to prevent the killings, although they were asked to quash the growing dissent. …There are too many other coincidences to suggest that agent provocateurs were not used, although conclusive proof will probably never be discernible.”

An anonymous Ogoni interviewed for the film Delta Force shown on Channel Four in the UK on 4th May 1995 recalls how: “Everywhere was quiet and then on the morning of May 21st … as we woke up in the morning most of the Ogoni villages were filled with soldiers and mobile policemen armed with sophisticated weapons. We don’t know why they just came, it was only when 4 prominent Ogoni sons were killed later in the afternoon of that day that we Ogoni ever knew that there was a grand design to cause disturbances in Ogoni in order to create an excuse for the government to send in more troops”.
The following day, Saro-Wiwa, Ledum Mitee and several others were arrested in connection to the deaths, although not formally charged. Amnesty International issued a statement that Saro-Wiwa’s arrest was “part of the continuing suppression by the Nigerian authorities of the Ogoni people’s campaign against the oil companies” and declared Saro-Wiwa a “prisoner of conscience – held because of his non-violent political activities.”

Whilst Saro-Wiwa was routinely tortured in prison, put in leg-irons, and denied access to family, friends, a lawyer and medication, the Internal Security Task Force, “ostensibly searching for those directly responsible for the killings”, started “deliberately terrorising the whole community, assaulting and beating indiscriminately”, according to Amnesty International. Over the next few months, hundreds of Ogoni were arrested, beaten, intimidated and killed. Many young girls, older women and pregnant women were raped. Thousands fled in terror into the bush as Okuntimo’s soldiers looted hundreds of villages destroying houses in a systematic campaign of terror to ‘sanitize Ogoni’. Okuntimo told a British environmentalist he detained that “he was doing it all for Shell … But he was not happy because the last time he had asked Shell to pay his men their out-station allowances he had been refused which was not the usual procedure”.

Later that year Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP were awarded the Right Livelihood Award (known as the alternative Nobel peace prize), for Saro-Wiwa’s “exemplary and selfless courage and in striving non-violently for the civil, economic and environmental rights of his people”. Some eight months after being arrested in January 1995, Saro-Wiwa and four other Ogoni were finally charged with the murder of the four Ogoni leaders.

The following month an affidavit was signed by one of the two chief prosecution witnesses, Charles Danwi. It alleged that he had been bribed by Shell and others to testify against Saro-Wiwa. It read: “He was told that he would be given a house, a contract from Shell and Ompadec and some money … He was given 30,000 Naira … At a later meeting security agents, government officials and …representatives of Shell and Ompadec were all present.” Another affidavit from the other Chief prosecution witness, Nayone Akpa, was signed alleging that he was offered “30,000 Naira, employment with the Gokana Local Government, weekly allowances and contracts with Ompadec and Shell” if he signed a document that implicated Saro-Wiwa too.

Shell of course denies bribing the prosecution witnesses, but it was meeting secretly with the Nigerian military and government. In March 1995, a meeting took place between four senior Shell officials, the Nigerian High Commissioner and the Nigerian Army and Police at the Shell Centre in London where a strategy was planned against the protests.

But the protests continued. Saro-Wiwa’s brother, Owens Wiwa, secretly met the head of Shell Nigeria, Brian Anderson between May and July in order to explore ways of securing Saro-Wiwa’s release. Anderson told Owens that “He would be able to help us get Ken freed if we stopped the protest campaign abroad”.

The military tribunal/trial against Saro-Wiwa and the others started in February 1995, when the men were finally allowed to see their lawyers. In May 1995, Saro-Wiwa smuggled a letter out of a military hospital. He wrote “For two nights I have not slept a wink, I am being intimidated, harassed and de-humanized, even though I am supposed to be receiving medical attention … I am like Ogoni, battered, bruised, brutalized, bloodied and almost buried”.

A Report into Saro-Wiwa’s trial written by leading British counsel, Michael Birnbaum QC, concluded “It is my view that the breaches of fundamental rights are so serious as to arouse grave concern that any trial before this tribunal will be fundamentally flawed and unfair”. Amongst many misgivings, Birnbaum was particularly concerned about the undue influence of Major Okuntimo at the trial. In Late October, Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni were sentenced to death. Six of the fifteen defendants were released, including Ledum Mitee, Vice President of MOSOP.

Saro-Wiwa wrote for his closing testimony at the trial: “I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial and it is as well that it is represented by counsel said to be holding a watching brief. The Company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and the lessons learnt here may prove useful to it for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished. The crime of the Company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will also be punished.”

As leaders of the Commonwealth gathered in Auckland, the Nigerian government’s Provisional Ruling Council confirmed the death sentences. Despite Shell’s repeated claims it could not get involved in the legal process in Nigeria, the company issued a statement in response to the confirmation of the death sentences which acknowledged that a letter had been sent to Abacha asking for clemency.

On 10 November 1995, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were executed in defiance of international appeals for leniency. There was international condemnation and outrage against both the military junta and Shell. The condemnation led to the strengthening of limited sanctions, and Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth. U.K. Prime Minister John Major, described the trial as, “a fraudulent trial, a bad verdict, an unjust sentence. It has now been followed by judicial murder”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *