It took five tries to hang Saro-Wiwa

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The Independent Online

Associated Press

Lagos - It took five attempts to hang Ken Saro-Wiwa before the Nigerian writer spoke his last words and his body went limp. "Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues," were the anti-government activist's final words before he died on Friday morning, blindfolded and dangling from a rope.

Several Lagos newspapers reported yesterday that Saro-Wiwa was the first of the nine condemned Ogoni activists to be hanged in Port Harcourt.

According to the Lagos daily AM News, the hangmen made four attempts before finally killing Saro-Wiwa on the fifth one. At one point Saro- Wiwa asked: "Why are you people treating me like this? Which type of country is this?"

Saro-Wiwa, 54, was convicted on 31 October by a tribunal in the southern port city of ordering the murders of four political rivals who were shot at a 1994 political rally. He insisted he was framed because of his opposition to Nigeria's military ruler, Sani Abacha, and the oil industry, which accounts for about 80 per cent of the country's foreign income.

Several newspapers reported that only hours after the government upheld the death sentences, nine coffins were moved to the Port Harcourt prison. The junta apparently wanted the executions to take place immediately but later found that Port Harcourt, which had held no executions since Nigeria's independence from Britain in 1960, did not have the equipment for hangings.

On Thursday, executioners were flown in from the northern Muslim city of Sokoto. They took rooms in a hotel and awaited their task.

About 5am on Friday, Saro-Wiwa and his eight companions were roused from their cells at the army camp where they had been held since their convictions. They were told they were being taken to the Port Harcourt prison, on the purported grounds that there was reason to suspect the army camp might be attacked by Ogoni youths.

Once inside the prison, the nine men were herded into one room and shackles were placed on their wrists and ankles. They were then led out, one after the other, beginning with Saro-Wiwa. After the executions, the bodies were taken under armed guard to the public cemetery about 3.15pm. Relatives have not been allowed to visit the graves.

In a written response to questions from Newsweek magazine that were smuggled out of his prison cell in May, Saro-Wiwa said that he did not fear being executed. "I expect it," he said. "The men we are dealing with are mindless, Stone Age dictators addicted to blood." The remarks are appearing for the first time in the American version of Newsweek. "[Nigeria's rulers] have been responsible for the African nightmare, afraid as they are of ideas and men of ideas. They are daylight robbers who kill for money," Saro-Wiwi wrote.

Two Nigerian men claiming to be sons of two of the murdered Ogonis - Kenneth Kobani, a London-based lawyer, and Desmond Orage, an insurance agent in Los Angeles - said yesterday that Saro-Wiwa was guilty. "I do accept that Nigeria has some flaws," Mr Kobani said. "However, even an unpopular government can sometimes be right. I believe the verdict of guilt is a justified one."

The government-backed News Agency of Nigeria said the country's suspension from the Commonwealth amounted to unfair meddling. ``Suspending Nigeria is not appropriate," said Hawalu Yadudu, special adviser to General Abacha on legal matters. "It has been carried out without due regard for the role of non-interference in the internal affairs of member countries." According to Mr Yadudu, Saro-Wiwa and the other executed men had identified 14 Ogoni leaders for elimination, including the four men who were killed.