Thursday, November 10, 2016

Ken Saro-Wiwa: 21 Years After

By Dan Amor
Today, Thursday November 10, 2016, indubitably marks the twenty-first anniversary of the tragic and shocking death of Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni kinsmen, in the evil hands of professional hangmen who sneaked into Port Harcourt from Sokoto in the cover of darkness. By his death, the Sani Abacha-led military junta had demonstrated, in shocking finality, to the larger world, that it was guided by the most base, most callous of instincts. 
*Ken Saro-Wiwa
As a student of Nigerian history, and of the literature of the Nigerian Civil War, I am adequately aware that Ken Saro-Wiwa, against the backdrop of our multicultural complexities allegedly worked against his own region during the War, the consequences of which he would have regretted even in his grave. But I write of him today not as a politician but as a literary man and environmental rights activist. We remember him because, for this writer, as for most disinterested Nigerians, Ken Saro-Wiwa lives alternatively as an inspirational spirit, and a haunting one at that. Now, as always, Nigerians who care still hear Ken's steps on the polluted land of his ancestors. They still see the monstrous flares from poisonous gas stacks, and still remember his symbolic pipe. Now, as always, passionate Nigerians will remember and hear the gleeful blast of the Ogoni song, the song Ken sang at his peril. Yet, only the initiated can see the Ogoni national flag flutter cautiously in the saddened clouds of a proud land. But all can hear his name in the fluttering of the Eagle's wing.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a modern Nigerian hero who did not sacrifice sense and spirit merely to pedantic refinements. As an aggrieved writer, appalled by the denigrating poverty of his people who live on a richly endowed land, distressed by their political marginalization and economic strangulation, angered by the devastation of their God-given land, their ultimate heritage, anxious to preserve their right to life and to a decent living, and determined to usher to his country as a whole, a fair and just democratic system which protects every one and every ethnic group and gives all a valid claim to human civilization, he was an embodiment of the writer as crusader. There is, indeed, a prophetic, all-embracing commitment to a depiction of the reality of his Ogoni kinsmen in his works about which he seems helpless. For that matter, there is in his writing career, something of an overloading, of avocation and responsibilities variously devolving on the ethnographer, the creative writer, the polemicist, the politician and the activist. No doubt, Nigerians will wake up one day to discover that in the little man from Ogoni, the nation produced, without realizing it, one of the major literary voices of the contemporary world.

If Ken Saro-Wiwa weren't head and shoulders above the ranks of the organized stealing called military regime, and if he didn't amply deserve his position as a recognized and popular Commander-in-Chief of the Literary Brigade of his generation, I wouldn't be wasting my precious time here discussing his contributions to modern artistic creativity and minority rights awareness in Nigeria and the world. The great division in all contemporary writing is between that little that has been written by men and women who had clarified their intentions; who were writing with the sole aim of registering and communicating truth or their desire, and the overwhelming bulk composed by the consciously dishonest and of those whose writing has been affected at second or tenth remove by economic pressure, economic temptation, economic flattery, and so on. For Ken, "writing must do something to transform the lives of a community, of a nation. What is of interest to me is that my art should be able to alter the lives of a large number of people, of a whole community, of the entire country, so that my literature has to be entirely different." It could therefore be seen that as one who hailed from one of the marginalized minority areas of this country, Saro-Wiwa used his literature to propagate the delicate and monolithic national question.

Ken saw literature as a veritable instrument for a committed global crusade for his people, and he actually pursued this goal with his exuding physical and intellectual energy, his material wealth and his precious life. If Professor Wole Soyinka's voice is the loudest in the Nigerian literary cosmos, Ken's is the most disturbing, for he brings to his readers the unrelieved darkness of tragedy. His persistent anger against those who steal our national patrimony into their private pockets thereby reducing the nation to rubble is palpable in his writings. A number of properties can be associated with his writing: the fictionality of all memories and anticipations, radical linguistic skepticism and the obligation not to remain silent. Of course, not much in terms of detailed stylistic exegesis has been carried out on his works by our army of critics, but the canonical ambience of his art shows a more than clever anatomy of its technical grace and distinction. His mercurial temperament notwithstanding, Saro-Wiwa's style bears witness to the integration of a writer's prodigious lyrical gift and pyrotechnic wit with a mournful sense of helplessness and waste. His grace of style is always in tandem with the rhetorical dazzle, a streak of malicious artistic cruelty that may, for all anyone knows, have been the earliest beginnings of his paranoia. Ken's consistent refrain is the streak of humour which overlaces a well-textured irony with the profundity of the prophet.

Consequently, on the artistic canvas, we are yet missing an accomplished writer of such an immense vitality whose diction is stiff with gorgeous embroidery. Ken Saro-Wiwa was not only the immediate past President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) who was hanged on the day ANA was having its annual convention at the University of Lagos, he had won the Foulon Nichols Award for Creative Writing and Human Rights Crusade. He also won the prestigious Rights Livelihood Prize, which is widely regarded as the Alternative Nobel, and the British Environment and Media (Special Awareness) Award. Nothing we can say today that will add much to the fame Saro-Wiwa had garnered globally before his brutal murder on the hangman's noose by agents of intimidation in solidarity with advanced state terrorism. He will also be remembered as a thinker and polemicist whose collection of newspaper articles written under a column of the title "SIMILIA", is arguably one of the most poised, most distinguished, and most wide-ranging bodies of such views we are likely to have in Nigeria for a long time.

Saro-Wiwa was desirous that his people should think for themselves as well as tax themselves, and should be emancipated from the dominion of prejudice as well as from the painful tyranny of a jackboot. His killers thought that by his death they would have silenced all forms of agitation in the Niger Delta. The whole gamut of crises, resistance and even militancy in the region, shows that unless the Nigerian State summons the political will to address the intractable plight of the people of the Niger Delta, whose land produces the nation's enormous wealth, unless Shell Petroleum Development Company and other multinational oil companies respect the laws of the land and manifest their corporate social responsibility in their host communities, the Isaac Adaka Boros, the Ken Saro-Wiwas, will continue to constitute a nightmare to them. And their restless and unrelenting spirits shall continue to haunt their murderers and their collaborators. As we remember him this week, as always, may Ken's spirit continue to reign supreme in the literary firmament of Heaven.
*Dan Amor, a public affairs analyst writes from Abuja (

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