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The Times: Moving testament to a lost fighter: Ken Saro-Wiwa

November 25, 2006

A battlebus will take the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the environmental campaigner, on the road, says Luke Richards 
Forging memorials to the great and the dead has probably never been harder. Few figures are without controversy and, as the debacle over Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth has suggested, figurative art is not as popular as it once was, and most people would rather duck the problem of choosing candidates anyway. Even when a candidate can be found, a celebration in abstract sculpture isn’t always satisfactory, as the Princess of Wales Memorial Foundation has shown.

But the problems that Sokari Douglas Camp faced when she sat down to devise a memorial to Ken Saro-Wiwa were particularly trying. Saro-Wiwa was executed on November 11, 1995 by the Nigerian Government after years spent campaigning against the oil companies that he claimed were polluting the Niger delta, particularly Shell and Chevron. The Government charged that he and eight other men who were executed with him were responsible for four murders; however, John Major, the then British Prime Minister, spoke for many when he called the executions “judicial murder”. 
How do you create a memorial to a man whose last words before he was executed were “Lord take my soul but the struggle continues”? And where, I asked Sokari Douglas Camp, do you install such a thing? “I’d rather not talk about installing it,” she says. “That sounds rather grand. It will just appear a bit like an ice- cream van.”

Now that might just sound inappropriate, but in fact it’s genius. Camp has taken the inspiration for the sculpture, entitled The Living Memorial, from the buses that are often seen around Nigeria. Laden with food, they transport farmers to market; laden with drugs, they transport medicine salesmen to small towns; and laden with politicians, they serve as election battlebuses. They are symbols of hope, yet as they travel the country they are also reminders, she says, of what is destroying it: the oil business. Thus she has made a battlebus to push Saro-Wiwa’s message around Britain.

The idea was brought to fruition by Platform, a London- based arts and social justice campaign group. After the bus’s stay at the Arnolfini Gallery, it is scheduled to appear at festivals and other venues for the next two or more years until a permanent home is found (a Thames-side location in London is hoped for). This is thought to be Britain’s first mobile memorial.

Camp is well-placed to have designed it: she hails from the Niger delta, but was educated in Britain and, like generations of Nigerian artists including Yinka Shonibare and Chris Ofili, she has made her career here; now in her late forties, she also retains close ties with her family back home. She established her reputation in Britain in the late 1980s when she began to make large-scale motorised sculptures, and her work has often touched on Nigerian traditions. For many years she has worked with welded steel, and she admits that her new creation is a little like a giant tin can.

It’s made of a shiny, silvery steel rather than the dark bronze usually used for public monuments. A quotation from Ken Saro-Wiwa’s last recorded interview is soldered through the metal around the outside (“I accuse the oil companies of practising genocide against the Ogoni”); on the top are eight barrels, similarly inscribed with the names of the men who died alongside Saro-Wiwa; and inside you can fit up to 30 people for meetings or a film to spread his message.

For his son, Ken Wiwa, keeping his father’s campaign alive is vital, as he explained when I called him in Nigeria. “This is an opportunity to reward non-violence rather than the violence which is predominant in the delta today,” he says. “And it’s important to remind people of some of the issues my father fought for, in particular the fact that what’s happening here has consequences for Africa and the rest of the world in terms of environmental damage, arms proliferation and energy security.” And on a local front, Saro-Wiwa’s message also remains important, as Ken Wiwa says.

Sokari Douglas Camp echoes this. The pollution from the gas flares has created masses of soot in towns. “Things have got so bad,” she says, “that oil workers are being kidnapped and now people are afraid to stay in the small villages around the delta.” Nigeria is “the crown of Shell’s wealth”, she says, and yet environmental issues do not always seem to be top of the company’s agenda. “People can’t fish there any more because the water is so polluted.”

If anyone is well-placed to talk about the relationship between Britain and Nigeria, Camp is, and talking about this seems to be central to the purpose of The Living Memorial. Saro-Wiwa’s message demands that those in Britain understand that decisions taken in offices here affect life in villages there — and then affect our lives back here.

Remembering Saro-Wiwa: The Living Memorial is at the Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol, today to Dec 7. For more details see or,,14933-2463771.html and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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