Ken Saro-Wiwa

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Ken Saro-Wiwa
Ken Saro-Wiwa.jpg
Born 10 October 1941
Bori, Nigeria
Died 10 November 1995(1995-11-10) (aged 54)
Cause of death Executed
Occupation writer
Movement Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People
Awards Right Livelihood Award
Goldman Environmental Prize

Kenule Beeson "Ken" Saro-Wiwa (10 October 1941 – 10 November 1995) was a Nigerian writer, television producer, environmental activist, and winner of the Right Livelihood Award and the Goldman Environmental Prize. Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in Nigeria whose homeland, Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta has been targeted for crude oil extraction since the 1950s and which has suffered extreme environmental damage from decades of indiscriminate petroleum waste dumping. Initially as spokesperson, and then as president, of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Saro-Wiwa led a nonviolent campaign against environmental degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland by the operations of the multinational petroleum industry, especially the Royal Dutch Shell company. He was also an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government, which he viewed as reluctant to enforce environmental regulations on the foreign petroleum companies operating in the area.

At the peak of his non-violent campaign, he was tried by a special military tribunal for allegedly masterminding the gruesome murder of Ogoni chiefs at a pro-government meeting, and hanged in 1995 by the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. His execution provoked international outrage and resulted in Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations for over three years.


Early life[edit]

As a son of Ogoni chieftain Jim Wiwa, Ken was born in Bori, in the Niger Delta.[1] He spent his childhood in an Anglican home and eventually proved himself to be an excellent student; he attended secondary school at Government College Umuahia and on completion obtained a scholarship to study English at the University of Ibadan. He briefly became a teaching assistant at the University of Lagos.[2][3]

However, he soon took up a government post as the Civilian Administrator for the port city of Bonny in the Niger Delta, and during the Nigerian Civil War was a strong supporter of the federal cause against the Biafrans. His best known novel, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, tells the story of a naive village boy recruited to the army during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 to 1970, and intimates the political corruption and patronage in Nigeria's military regime of the time. Saro-Wiwa's war diaries, On a Darkling Plain, document his experience during the war. He was also a successful businessman and television producer. His satirical television series, Basi & Company, was wildly popular, with an estimated audience of 30 million.[4]

In the early 1970s Saro-Wiwa served as the Regional Commissioner for Education in the Rivers State Cabinet, but was dismissed in 1973 because of his support for Ogoni autonomy. In the late 1970s, he established a number of successful business ventures in retail and real estate, and during the 1980s concentrated primarily on his writing, journalism and television production. His intellectual work was interrupted in 1987 when he re-entered the political scene, appointed by the newly installed dictator Ibrahim Babangida to aid the country's transition to democracy. But Saro-Wiwa soon resigned because he felt Babangida's supposed plans for a return to democracy were disingenuous. Saro-Wiwa's sentiments were proven correct in the coming years, as Babangida failed to relinquish power. In 1993, Babangida annulled Nigeria's general elections that would have transferred power to a civilian government, sparking mass civil unrest and eventually forcing him to step down, at least officially, that same year.[citation needed]


In 1990, Saro-Wiwa began devoting most of his time to human rights and environmental causes, particularly in Ogoniland. He was one of the earliest members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which advocated for the rights of the Ogoni people. The Ogoni Bill of Rights, written by MOSOP, set out the movement's demands, including increased autonomy for the Ogoni people, a fair share of the proceeds of oil extraction, and remediation of environmental damage to Ogoni lands. In particular, MOSOP struggled against the degradation of Ogoni lands by Royal Dutch Shell.[5]

In 1992, Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned for several months, without trial, by the Nigerian military government.

Saro-Wiwa was Vice Chair of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) General Assembly from 1993 to 1995.[6] UNPO is an international, nonviolent, and democratic organisation (of which MOSOP is a member). Its members are indigenous peoples, minorities, and unrecognised or occupied territories who have joined together to protect and promote their human and cultural rights, to preserve their environments and to find nonviolent solutions to conflicts which affect them.

In January 1993, MOSOP organised peaceful marches of around 300,000 Ogoni people – more than half of the Ogoni population – through four Ogoni urban centres, drawing international attention to their people's plight. The same year the Nigerian government occupied the region militarily.

Arrest and execution[edit]

Saro-Wiwa was arrested again and detained by Nigerian authorities in June 1993 but was released after a month.[7] On 21 May 1994 four Ogoni chiefs (all on the conservative side of a schism within MOSOP over strategy) were brutally murdered. Saro-Wiwa had been denied entry to Ogoniland on the day of the murders, but he was arrested and accused of incitement to them. He denied the charges but was imprisoned for over a year before being found guilty and sentenced to death by a specially convened tribunal. The same happened to eight other MOSOP leaders who, along with Saro-Wiwa, became known as the Ogoni Nine.[8]

Some of the defendants' lawyers resigned in protest against the alleged rigging of the trial by the Abacha regime. The resignations left the defendants to their own means against the tribunal, which continued to bring witnesses to testify against Saro-Wiwa and his peers. Many of these supposed witnesses later admitted that they had been bribed by the Nigerian government to support the criminal allegations. At least two witnesses who testified that Saro-Wiwa was involved in the murders of the Ogoni elders later recanted, stating that they had been bribed with money and offers of jobs with Shell to give false testimony, in the presence of Shell's lawyer.[9]

The trial was widely criticised by human rights organisations and, half a year later, Ken Saro-Wiwa received the Right Livelihood Award[10] for his courage, as well as the Goldman Environmental Prize.[11]

On 10 November 1995, Saro-Wiwa and the rest of the Ogoni Nine were killed by hanging by military personnel. They were buried in Port Harcourt Cemetery.[12]

In his satirical piece Africa Kills Her Sun, first published in 1989, Saro-Wiwa in a resigned, melancholic mood foreshadowed his own execution.[13][14]

Family lawsuits against Royal Dutch Shell[edit]

Beginning in 1996, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), EarthRights International (ERI), Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman and other human rights attorneys have brought a series of cases to hold Shell accountable for alleged human rights violations in Nigeria, including summary execution, crimes against humanity, torture, inhumane treatment and arbitrary arrest and detention. The lawsuits are brought against Royal Dutch Shell and Brian Anderson, the head of its Nigerian operation.[15]

The cases were brought under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1978 statute giving non-US citizens the right to file suits in US courts for international human rights violations, and the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows individuals to seek damages in the US for torture or extrajudicial killing, regardless of where the violations take place.

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York set a trial date of June 2009. On 9 June 2009 Shell agreed to an out-of-court settlement of US$15.5 million to victims' families. However, the company denied any liability for the deaths, stating that the payment was part of a reconciliation process.[16] In a statement given after the settlement, Shell suggested that the money was being provided to the relatives of Saro-Wiwa and the eight other victims, to cover the legal costs of the case and also in recognition of the events that took place in the region.[17] Some of the funding is also expected to be used to set up a development trust for the Ogoni people, who inhabit the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.[18] The settlement was made just days before the trial, which had been brought by Ken Saro-Wiwa's son, was due to begin in New York.[17]


Saro-Wiwa's death provoked international outrage and the immediate suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth of Nations, as well as the calling back of many foreign diplomats for consultation. The United States and other countries considered imposing economic sanctions. Other tributes to him include:

Artwork and memorials[edit]

  • A memorial to Saro-Wiwa was unveiled in London on 10 November 2006 by London organisation Platform.[19] It consists of a sculpture in the form of a bus and was created by Nigerian-born artist Sokari Douglas Camp. It toured the UK the following year.



Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa Polytechnic[edit]

Maynooth University and Ken Saro-Wiwa[edit]

A collection of handwritten letters by Ken Saro-Wiwa were donated to Maynooth University by Sister Majella McCarron, also in the collection are 27 poems, recordings of visits and meetings with family and friends after Saro-Wiwa's death, a collection of photographs and other documents.

The letters are now in the Digital Repository of Ireland[23] (DRI)

The Ken Saro-Wiwa Archive is housed in Special Collections at Maynooth University[24]


  • The Italian band Il Teatro degli Orrori dedicated their song "A sangue freddo" ("In cold blood" – also the title track of their second album) to the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa.[25]
  • The Finnish band Ultra Bra dedicated their song "Ken Saro-Wiwa on kuollut" ("Ken Saro-Wiwa is dead") to the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa.[26]


  • Amsterdam has named a street after Saro-Wiwa, the Ken Saro-Wiwastraat.

Personal life[edit]

Saro-Wiwa and his wife Maria had five children, who grew up with their mother in the United Kingdom while their father remained in Nigeria. They include Ken Wiwa and Noo Saro-Wiwa, both journalists and writers, and Noo's twin Zina Saro-Wiwa, a journalist and filmmaker.[27][28] In addition, Saro-Wiwa had two daughters with another woman.[27]


  • Canadian author J. Timothy Hunt's The Politics of Bones (September 2005), published shortly before the 10th anniversary of Saro-Wiwa's execution, documented the flight of Saro-Wiwa's brother Owens Wiwa, after his brother's execution and his own imminent arrest, to London and then on to Canada, where he is now a citizen and continues his brother's fight on behalf of the Ogoni people. Moreover, it is also the story of Owens' personal battle against the Nigerian government to locate his brother's remains after they were buried in an unmarked mass-grave.
  • Ogoni's Agonies: Ken Saro Wiwa and the Crisis in Nigeria (1998), edited by Abdul Rasheed Naʾallah, provides more information on the struggles of the Ogoni people [29]
  • Onookome Okome's book, Before I Am Hanged: Ken Saro-Wiwa--Literature, Politics, and Dissent (1999)[30] is a collection of essays about Wiwa
  • In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son's Journey to Understanding His Father's Legacy, was written by his son Ken Wiwa.
  • Saro-Wiwa's own diary, A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary, was published in January 1995, two months after his execution.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hamilton, Janice. Nigeria in Pictures, p. 71.
  2. ^ Boyle, Catherine (26 May 2009). "Portrait: Ken Saro-Wiwa". The Times. Wapping, London, UK: News Corporation. Retrieved 28 February 2011. 
  3. ^ "Nigerian expat sees us with fresh eyes". Toronto, Canada: Postmedia Network Inc. 27 April 2008. Retrieved 28 February 2011. 
  4. ^ Brooke, James (24 July 1987). "Enugu Journal; 30 Million Nigerians are Laughing at Themselves". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ "About Wiwa v. Shell". Wiwa family lawsuits against Royal Dutch Shell. Retrieved 10 November 2011. 
  6. ^ "Clean the Niger Delta – 'We all stand before history', Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1995". UNPO. 19 October 2010. Retrieved 10 November 2011. 
  7. ^ "The Life & Death of Ken Saro-Wiwa: The Struggle for Justice in the Niger Delta". 
  8. ^ Pilkington, Ed (9 June 2009). "Shell pays out $15.5m over Saro-Wiwa killing". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  9. ^ Entine, Jon (18 June 2009). "Seeds of NGO Activism: Shell Capitulates in Saro-Wiwa Case". NGO Watch. Archived from the original on 29 October 2011. Retrieved 14 November 2011. 
  10. ^ "Ken Saro-Wiwa/Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Nigeria)". The Right Livelihood Award. 1994. Retrieved 14 November 2011. 
  11. ^ "Ken Saro-Wiwa". The Goldman Environmental Prize. 1995. Retrieved 14 November 2011. 
  12. ^ "Nigeria's Military Leaders Hang Playwright And 8 Other Activists". Deseret News Publishing Company. 11 November 1995. Retrieved 7 July 2014. 
  13. ^ "Africa Kills Her Sun Summary". eNotes. 
  14. ^ Ken Saro-Wiwa, Africa Kills Her Sun, p. 365.
  15. ^ "Wiwa et al v. Royal Dutch Petroleum et al.". Center for Constitutional Rights. 
  16. ^ "Shell settles Nigeria deaths case". BBC. 9 June 2009. Retrieved 9 June 2009. 
  17. ^ a b Mouawad, Jad (9 June 2009). "Shell to Pay $15.5 Million to Settle Nigerian Case". New York Times. Retrieved 9 June 2009. 
  18. ^ Seib, Christine (9 June 2009). "Shell agrees $15.5m settlement over death of Saro-Wiwa and eight others". London: The Times. Retrieved 9 June 2009. 
  19. ^ "Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  20. ^ "2012 Association of Nigerian Authors [ANA] Prizes: CALL FOR ENTRIES". Kabura Zakama Randomised. 
  21. ^ "Ken Saro-Wiwa". The My Hero Project. Retrieved December 5, 2016. 
  22. ^ "Richard North Patterson author interview". Retrieved 29 December 2015. 
  23. ^ "Digital Repository of Ireland". 
  24. ^ "Special Collections Maynooth University". 
  25. ^
  26. ^ Ultra Bra (1996), "Ken Saro-Wiwa on kuollut" on their album Vapaaherran elämää.
  27. ^ a b Henley, Jon (30 December 2011). "Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa's daughter remembers her father". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 February 2015. 
  28. ^ Berens, Jessica (28 May 2004). "'I've seen a different face of Nigeria'". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 12 February 2015. 
  29. ^ Na'Allah, Abdul Rasheed (Editor) (1998). Ogoni's Agonies: Ken Saro Wiwa and the Crisis in Nigeria. Africa World Press,. ISBN 0865436479. 
  30. ^ Okome, Onookome (1999). Before I Am Hanged: Ken Saro-Wiwa--Literature, Politics, and Dissent. Africa World Press. 

External links[edit]