Ken Saro-Wiwa was never a saint

Donu Kogbara grew up as a family friend of the Ogoni dissident hanged a year ago by the Nigerians. Here she sympathises with the man and his cause, but also tells of his pursuit of power and wealth, and how his politics led to the death of his moderate allies
Click to follow
Whenever anyone dares to hint that Ken Saro-Wiwa was not a saint - as Richard North did in Friday's Independent - there are outraged responses from people who have no significant knowledge of Ogoniland or Saro-Wiwa's complex personality.

I totally understand why Ken's son - Ken Wiwa - reacts emotionally to any remarks that tarnish his father's image. But everyone else should be able to stand back and calmly listen to criticisms of the man. .

I'm an Ogoni myself. My father is a businessman and politician. He has been a minister for trade/industry. He was also a state chairman of Nigeria's last democratic government, and a rebel Biafran ambassador in London in the 1960s when Saro-Wiwa was one of the minuscule number of Ogonis who were firm friends of the Nigerian federal military government.

The Nigerian military won the Biafran civil war. My father was sentenced to death in absentia and forced to live in exile in Britain. Unlike 99 per cent of Ogonis, Saro-Wiwa did well out of that civil war. When everyone else was broke, he was rolling in it.

But my father's differences with Saro-Wiwa were eventually forgiven and I grew up in the 1970s knowing and being encouraged to like Saro-Wiwa.It was easy to like him. He even bought me my first typewriter.

Saro-Wiwa had never been 100 per cent idealistic about anything. Read some of his earliest writings and you'll discover that he opposed those who supported the Biafran civil war mostly because he thought that sedition was bad for one's career.

And if you could have tuned into some of his conversations with me in the late 1980s/early 1990s, you'd have discovered that he later changed his mind about sedition and decided that it was a great vehicle for ambitious African politicians.

Saro-Wiwa told me that if I totally committed myself to his campaign, I would become dazzlingly famous and rich beyond my wildest dreams. He enjoyed listing all the "silly" white liberals who might bankroll the Ogoni cause (which he had conveniently ignored in the 1960s). He used to tell me, in fairly bitter tones, that whale-saving white liberals didn't care about the Third World's "real" problems. "But environmental complaints will get to them," he would add.

And while politely exempting myself from Saro-Wiwa's self-aggrandising plans, I half-heartedly wished him well, knowing that he wasn't totally cynical and sure that Ogonis would benefit indirectly if he got famous and even richer .

I did not approve of the kangaroo court that sentenced Ken Saro-Wiwa; and I was horrified when he was judicially murdered by Nigeria's brutal military dictators. But whenever I'm asked to comment on Saro-Wiwa's erudite, swashbuckling life and truly tragic death, I feel obliged to say that, despite his good qualities and the fact that his aims were partly laudable, he was an awesomely efficient publicity-manipulator who had a dark, power- hungry, rabble-rousing side that led to the deaths of four Ogoni moderates. He was a risk-taker. And he lost the gamble.

When Saro-Wiwa started his environmental campaign, the Ogoni elite were divided between radicals like Saro-Wiwa who favoured the sabotaging of oil pipelines, and moderates like his brother-in-law, Chief Orage, and my father who shared his basic aims but felt that guerrilla action would encourage the military to lash out.

Saro-Wiwa took exception to those who urged caution and, according to witnesses whom I've met, ordered the hotheads who surrounded him to take harsh action against them. My father narrowly escaped death at a public rally. Saro-Wiwa's brother-in- law and three other men were not so lucky.

They were butchered in broad daylight. Local villagers say they were killed by known members of Saro-Wiwa's private army. One chap who openly threatened to testify against Saro-Wiwa's thugs had a nail driven into his skull before Saro-Wiwa's trial.

Amnesty International, Greenpeace and other observers and commentators (including Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel Prize-winner - a privileged Yoruba tribesman who knows nothing about Ogoniland) never properly investigated the claims against Saro-Wiwa. My view is that they found it hard to believe that a pipe-smoking intellectual with a brave and benevolent image could be indirectly responsible for such savagery. Furthermore, the Nigerian regime is so dreadful that any action it takes is quite rightly regarded with suspicion. The fact remains that Saro-Wiwa was not the totally blameless gentleman he is widely believed to be.

Since I first spoke out against Saro-Wiwa in l995, my media career has suffered. Even when people think that I might be telling the truth, some are afraid of being seen to be hiring or befriending me.

The past few months have been frightening and disillusioning for those of us who once fondly believed a) that free speech prevails in the United Kingdom, and b) that British journalists do not draw conclusions about important matters without first doing in-depth research. I'm amazed by the number of hacks who have made their minds up without visiting Ogoniland.

Saro-Wiwa's acolytes have been allowed to speak - unopposed and at great length - on a thousand platforms. Meanwhile, representatives of Saro-Wiwa's victims have, in effect, been gagged. Many are profoundly traumatised by the obsequious fanfare surrounding this first anniversary of his hanging.

Meanwhile, I've been told that I should not show my face at writers' events, that I'll never work again for anyone half-way respectable, and that my parents and I will be killed in our beds when our "protectors" (the Nigerian government) are driven out of office.

The head of a writers' group has refused to meet me to discuss my concerns. MPs have vilified me. I have lost friends who belong to the Anglo- African liberal literary establishment. I'd have gained much more if I'd jumped on the pro-Saro-Wiwa bandwagon or if I'd kept my mouth tightly shut.

As for young Ken Wiwa's claim that I'm simply slavishly echoing my father's hatred of his father: my father did not hate Saro-Wiwa until 1993, when Saro-Wiwa publicly deposited my father's name on his "traitors" hit-list.

I frequently disagree with my father. I did not vote for my father's political party in the 1983 elections in Nigeria. I have written and broadcast criticisms of some of my father's cronies. And I was actually closer, in some ways, to Saro-Wiwa than I was to my own father. Saro-Wiwa got me my first columnist job on a Nigerian newspaper.

I miss Saro-Wiwa's cleverness, charismatic wit and moments of total sweetness and warmth. I'd give anything to believe that he was not capable of incitement to murder. And I concede that he was capable of incitement very grudgingly indeed. I still make excuses for him.

I babble desperately about his brief moments of madness. I say that Saro- Wiwa was not intrinsically wicked. By insisting that he had many redeeming features, that I'm sure he didn't really want those four men dead, and that capital punishment is judicial murder under every single circumstance. I have upset a lot of people in the anti-Saro-Wiwa camp back home (including my parents). So here I am, stuck in the middle and isolated.

All I ask is that those who despise me should seriously consider my assertion that I've taken the suicidal and reluctant decision to criticise a global icon, former intimate and dearly-loved mentor only because I sincerely believe that he is an unsuitable candidate for canonisation, due to the fact that he was indirectly responsible for at least four deaths.

I sometimes think that people are not so much genuinely contemptuous of Saro-Wiva's critics as cowardly and terrified that their grandstanding on his behalf will be proved to be fraudulent or misguided. It is hard for them to admit that they have been wrong about something so serious.

The writer is a broadcaster and journalist living in London.