NWR Issue 31

Ken Saro-Wiwa

It is savage comment on today's world that the closing weeks of Swansea's U.K. Year of Literature should be marked by the murder of one of its patrons - Ken Saro-Wiwa - and ten of his compatriots by the Nigerian military dictatorship. Aged 54, Ken Saro-Wiwa also achieved notable success as university lecturer, government administrator and businessman, but his first love was writing. He published 22 books embracing all genres of literature. They included four novels, a poetry collection, two books of short stories, three on general topics, two volumes of drama, a volume on folklore and nine children's books. His most highly regarded work, Sazaboy: A Novel in Rotten English is a wryly ironic portrait of the endemic corruption of the military.

In 1991, Saro-Wiwa decided to put his creative writing into abeyance, relinquish his position as President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, which he had held for three years, and devote his pen and prestige to the cause of the Ogoni people, a cause which has now cost him his life. In a final interview carried in The Guardian newspaper he explained why:

"Nigeria consists of 300 different peoples who were put together by the British. Although the country is a federation, ever since the military came to power, its people have tried to turn this federation into a military system. Under this system the ethnic groups have cheated the smaller groups because 94 per cent of the GNP of Nigeria is oil and the oil lies predominantly in the Niger delta which is inhabited by the small groups. Ogoni country produces oil and has produced oil since 1958 but the Ogoni people have nothing to show for it.

"Over the past 33 years, the Ogoni country has been completely destroyed by the search for oil. If they have their own government, their own administration, they will be able to settle those laws and regulations that will control the rampaging oil companies. Oil blow-outs, spillages, oil slicks and general pollution accompany the search for oil. In most cases, the oil companies have an obligation to ensure that these things do not happen.

"Unfortunately, they have not done these things in Nigeria. Oil companies have flared gas in Nigeria for the past 33 years causing acid rain. This is an area of very high rainfall. Acid rain then gets back into the soil, and what used to be the breadbasket of the delta has now become totally infertile. This is the worst case of pollution I have seen in any part of the world where people have prospected for oil.

"Because the Government of Nigeria is colonial, as far as the ethnic minorities such as the Ogoni are concerned, the interests of Shell and of those who are running Nigeria at this time, mix. I accuse Shell of racism because they are doing in Ogoni what they dare not do in Europe or America, where they also prospect for oil.

"All the oil that is produced in Nigeria is bought by America and the West and Japan. If they insisted' Look, we are not going to buy this oil unless you ensure that the environment is protected, unless you ensure that rent and royalties are paid to the landlords - to the owners of the oil, it would be a different story altogether¬Ö

"In this country (Britain) writers write to entertain, they raise questions of individual existence - you know the angst of the individual - but for a Nigerian writer in my position you can't go into that. Literature has to be combative. You cannot have art for art's sake. This art must do something to transform the lives of the community, of a nation...When you are asking for the rights of the people, you cannot begin to wonder whether you are going to be killed or sent to jail or whatever. Right is right and it must be fought for. I have been at it for 20 years and at this point in my life there's nothing really to fear. I think we have seen a lot of dictators collapse in the past and these ones are going to collapse as well.

"I believe that all those who buy Nigerian oil are encouraging genocide in Ogoni. I think the entire international community should come forward to disavow the process of genocide. The fact that the ethnic majority in Nigeria colludes in genocide does not exclude it. 1 appeal to the entire community to come to the help of Ogoni now, because if nothing is done, the Ogoni people are going to be extinct in no more than ten years."

Nigeria's dictators sought to silence this voice. As is always the case, their action has had the opposite effect. They have created a martyr and focussed the conscience of the world upon the cause for which Ken Sara-Wiwa gave his life - the pen is ultimately always mightier than the sword.


previous editorial: The house we live in
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