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A Writer’s Violent End, and His Activist Legacy

The New York Times


Published: May 4, 2009

“I had a surprising call this week,” the author Richard North Patterson told the audience that had gathered last weekend as part of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. It was former President Bill Clinton. Mr. Patterson’s new novel, “Eclipse,” is based on the case of the Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Mr. Clinton spoke of a phone call he had made 14 years ago to Gen. Sani Abacha of Nigeria, asking him to spare Mr. Saro-Wiwa from the hangman.

The Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.
(Photo: Jennifer S. Altman

(Ken Wiwa, son of the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, says his father’s legacy has influenced his own life and career choices.)

Mr. Clinton said General Abacha “was very polite,” but “he was cold,” Mr. Patterson related. “Clinton took away from that, among other things, that oil and the need for oil on behalf of the West and other places made Abacha, in his mind, impervious.”

The event’s moderator, the Nigerian novelist Okey Ndibe, added an unexpected epilogue. A friend in the Abacha cabinet said the general later boasted: “All these pro-democracy activists run to America and expect America to save them. But the U.S. president himself is calling me ‘sir.’ He is scared of me.”

Mr. Saro-Wiwa, a popular author who helped create a peaceful mass movement on behalf of the Ogoni people, was executed in November 1995 along with eight other environmental and human rights activists on what many contended were trumped-up murder charges. His body was burned with acid and thrown in an unmarked grave.

PEN, an international association of writers dedicated to defending free expression, along with Guernica, the online literary magazine, sponsored the panel with Mr. Patterson, Mr. Ndibe and Ken Wiwa, Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s son, to discuss Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s literary and political legacy.

Fourteen years have passed. General Abacha has died, and Mr. Saro-Wiwa has had a proper burial, but the circumstances surrounding the nine executions, along with related incidents of brutal attacks and torture, are getting another hearing. This month the Wiwa family’s lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell over its role in those events goes to trial in federal court in Manhattan.

“We feel that Shell’s fingerprints are all over,” Ken Wiwa told the audience. “Clearly Shell financed and provided logistical support.”

Among the accusations are that Shell employees were present when two witnesses were offered bribes to testify against Mr. Saro-Wiwa, said Jennie Green, a senior lawyer at the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the family. She said Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s brother Owens has also stated that Shell’s managing director, Brian Anderson (now retired), told him, “If you call off the campaign, maybe we can do something for your brother.”

Under American law you don’t have to be the one who “tightened the noose” to be found guilty, Ms. Green said.

In a statement Shell said: “Shell in no way encouraged or advocated any act of violence against them or their fellow Ogonis. We believe that the evidence will show clearly that Shell was not responsible for these tragic events.” The company added, “Shell attempted to persuade that government to grant clemency.”

Mr. Wiwa, 40, said his father was an ebullient, ambitious man with a wicked sense of humor. “All other things being equal, he probably would have been a comedian or an actor, but he was compelled to write,” he said.

At the start of the panel two performers read a short excerpt from Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s play “The Transistor Radio,” one of many he wrote for Nigerian radio and television that satirized the country’s numbing poverty and rampant corruption. “Why were you fired?” one man asks another. He responds, “For getting the job.”

Mr. Wiwa, who published a memoir in 2001, “In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son’s Journey to Understand His Father’s Legacy” (Steerforth), said: “My father was a great man. I grew up with this man, the myth and the memory always in front of me.”

He added, “The struggle to define yourself against your father gives you a sense initially of something to write about,” as did the political situation he found himself thrust into.

Mr. Wiwa is now writing a novel, but he has also felt compelled to carry on his father’s environmental and human rights work. He serves as a special assistant in the government but warns that the ecological and human devastation in the Niger delta, one of the world’s largest wetlands, is worse than ever.

Thousands of miles of oil pipelines run through coastland occupied by the Ogoni people, one of 250 ethnic tribes in Nigeria. Noxious fumes, spills and development have turned much of the area into a wasteland, causing severe deforestation as well as desperate poverty.

Going off on his own and writing, untroubled by politics, has “been a dream for 30 years,” said Mr. Wiwa, who is Ogoni, like his father. But he added, “A lot of my most profound thoughts originate from being involved in this struggle. It compels you to consider the idea of what happens if you just go away and write. Because you may not have anything to say.”

Mr. Ndibe asked about sacrifices his family made because of his father’s commitment, but Mr. Wiwa demurred.

“All of us have a choice, to make our children safe in the world or to make the world safe for our children, and there are implications to that,” Mr. Wiwa said, referring to others he has met who share his situation, like Nelson Mandela’s daughter Zindzi and Nkosinathi Biko, the son of the South African activist Steve Biko. “Our fathers chose a different path.”

Mr. Patterson was on the board of PEN 15 years ago when the organization lobbied on Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s behalf. Before the panel began, he explained how he came to write “Eclipse.” Since 9/11 the United States has become even more dependent on Nigerian oil, Mr. Patterson said. “I thought it was time to put Saro-Wiwa in the context of today’s politics of oil: how we are all implicated in the lives of people we don’t even know.”

During his imprisonment Mr. Saro-Wiwa said that he often envied Western writers “who can peacefully practice their craft.” Yet he also recognized that wasn’t his path. As he wrote in 1993, “The writer cannot be a mere storyteller, he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot merely X-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils, he or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future.”


Times Topics: Ken Saro-Wiwa

A version of this article appeared in print on May 5, 2009, on page C1 of the New York edition. and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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