OBITUARY: Ken Saro-Wiwa

Ken Saro-Wiwa, the irrepressible activist for the rights of the Ogoni of Nigeria who was executed yesterday, paid the ultimate price for a brave campaign for basic human and political rights and justice amongst his own Ogoni people and throughout Nigeria.

Last month, Amnesty International denounced the detentions and trials of Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni detainees as politically motivated. It deplored the ill-treatment of all the detainees and many of the witnesses at the military-controlled tribunal and the government's inaction about a spate of security force killings in Ogoniland in 1993 and 1994, in which hundreds of people died.

To the many people he met, it hardly seemed likely that the lecturer and writer Saro-Wiwa - a pipe-smoking humorist who was admired throughout Nigeria for his trenchant newspaper columns and for his scripting of a popular television comedy series, Basi and Company - would become a martyr to the cause of ethnic rights. It was only in the past five years that he began to pursue the cause of the Ogoni with single-minded determination, and without fear of the consequences.

To some, however, Saro-Wiwa carried an uncanny sense of destiny, even when only poking fun at himself. He once wrote of his tobacco habit: "I know that I am a mortuary candidate. But I intend to head for that mortuary with my pipe smoking."

Saro-Wiwa's semi-serious newspaper columns of the 1980s often satirised Nigeria's ostentatious traditional rulers, the military style of government and corruption in public life, but his conclusions were always eminently fair and balanced. Only in his later columns did the signs of his growing commitment to his Ogoni people start to show through, as in one column directly addressed to the Prince of Wales during a visit to Nigeria: "As you have shown concern for the deprived of Britain's inner cities, you must help save the peoples of the Nigerian delta for the deprivation, disaster and doom which oil exploration has brought in the last 30 years."

From 1990, the year he became a founding member of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop), Saro-Wiwa worked with environmental groups and encouraged television companies to see for themselves what was happening in Ogoniland. Thanks to the interest of Greenpeace, the Body Shop and Channel 4 television, the issue has now become familiar to both environmental and human rights lobbies. Eventually, earlier this year, the campaign forced the oil company Shell, whom Saro-Wiwa roundly accused of implication in the rape of Ogoniland, to undertake the first- ever environmental study of the Niger Delta.

Saro-Wiwa was educated at the University of Ibadan, where he read English Literature. For most of his life, he was a fully accepted member of the Nigerian elite. During the Nigerian civil war of 1967-70, he played an important role in support of the federal government in Rivers State, which was the first part of the former Biafra to fall to the government. He worked as a state administrator until 1973, then threw himself into writing and business, answering the call of national duty again in 1987, when the then President, Ibrahim Babangida, appointed him to head a special directorate of mobilisation, which was intended to prepare Nigerians for a post-military, democratic, era. He resigned after only a year in the job. He saw how Babangida intended to manipulate the transition that ended so disastrously with the annulment of presidential elections in June 1993, and wanted no part in it.

The "Similia" column in the government-owned Sunday Times was Saro-Wiwa's last attempt to work with federal institutions. A piece he had submitted in late 1990 under the title "The Coming War in the Delta" was not carried and the column was suspended.

In a letter to me in 1992, accepting my invitation to contribute to a guest column in the newsletter Africa Analysis, Saro-Wiwa asked, tongue- in-cheek: "Will you not find my polemical style rather robust for your paper? I cannot write about Nigeria and Africa without wanting to challenge my readers."

The pieces were indeed polemical but aroused much favourable comment. In one passage, he wrote: "Quite simply, Africa needs to unchain the latent energies and capabilities of its ethnic groups." But, far from advocating a rash of independence movements in Africa, he counselled confederations of ethnic groups, although insisting that the configuration should be chosen by the groups themselves. It is that insistence, perhaps, that stuck in the throats of General Abacha and his fellow generals.

Richard Synge

Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa, writer: born Bori, Nigeria 10 October 1941; Administrator of Bonny, Rivers State 1967-68; Rivers State Government Commissioner 1968-73; Executive Director, Directorate of Social Mobilisation, 1987-88; died Port Harcourt, Nigeria 10 November 1995.

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