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Ken Saro-Wiwa: Africa's Own Post-colonial Martyr

Updated on April 30, 2015
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Denis is a freelancer addicted to football (yeah...it's not soccer!). He thinks POLITICS and REALITY TV were invited to dumb us down.

The long awaited post-colonial period in Africa proved to be a real letdown for most Africans. The colonialists left the largely uneducated masses at the mercy of the élite few. Consequently, corruption and bad governance became the order of the day. In most countries, the military offered an alternative option to the mostly incompetent civilian governments. They would prove to be a costly alternative as seen in Nigeria, Uganda and, quite recently in Egypt! Military regimes proved to be as corrupt as their alternative and even more ruthless.

Ken Saro-Wiwa

One sad example of how ugly it could get can be found in the life story of Nigeria’s Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people – an ethnic minority in the Niger Delta. In fact, the Niger Delta’s oil potential would play a big part in the eventual fate of Saro-Wiwa. His active involvement in social and political issues meant that he was never one of Africa’s prolific writers. His best work was the African classic, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English. The novel tells the story of a naïve village boy as he joins the Nigerian army during the infamous civil war in Biafra.

Africa Kills Her Son

However, it is his famous short story, Africa Kills Her Son, which would eventually leave a lasting impression.

The story chronicles the last days of a prisoner as he awaits his execution by a cruel and corrupt regime. The dark satire reads as a last letter by the wrongfully condemned man to his former girlfriend. Ken Saro-Wiwa used the narrative to denounce the military dictatorship that had taken power at the time. After a successful coup, the succeeding dictatorship – under Ibrahim Babangida – had ingenuously promised the Nigerian people a democracy. Little did he know that he had put to paper, what would eventually be his fate!

Through his writing, Saro-Wiwa exposed his dislike for the exploitation of the common Nigerian by a corrupt and ruthless Nigerian military dictatorship. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising when he began actively protesting against the environmental degradation of oil-rich Nigeria by big foreign oil companies. Thus began his frequent clashes with the Nigerian dictatorship - and countless arrests. In particular, his homeland in the Niger Delta had become a target of powerful oil companies such as the Royal Dutch Shell. Saro-Wiwa, as president of theMovement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, became a constant headache for the Sani Abacha's dictatorship, and its lucrative relationship with Royal Dutch Shell.

Martyrdom

Eventually, Sani Abacha’s regime found a way to get rid of him. His final arrest came in 1994 for the apparent murder of four Ogoni chiefs. He and his associates stood before a military tribunal without any representation as their lawyers had quit after accusing the Abacha regime of rigging the trial. With the help of dubious witness accounts, the famous nine found themselves on the end of a guilty verdict. They all received death sentences by hanging.

The international community - who had followed the trial closely - promptly protested at the evident injustice. Human rights groups around the world called for sanctions. The Commonwealth of Nations immediately suspended Nigeria until the end of military dictatorship in 1999.

Posthumously, Saro-Wiwa’s courageous exploits earned him the Right Livelihood Award as well as the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Eventual Justice?

Later on, two of the witnesses recanted their statements and claimed that the government bribed them. The bribes included job offers from Royal Dutch Shell. Some concluded that the Anglo-Dutch company had taken an active role in the murder of Saro-Wiwa. Consequently, the company was taken to court for human rights violation. In 2009, the company avoided a suit filed by Saro-Wiwa’s son by paying a $15.5m out-of-court settlement just before the case started in New York.

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