Larry Siems: Ken Saro-Wiwa: The High Price of Dissent
Larry Siems is a poet and director of the Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center.
In the spring of 1995, Ken Wiwa stood in for his father, Nigerian novelist, playwright, and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, at a ceremony honoring recipients of that year’s Goldman Environmental Prize. I was there, standing in for PEN, which, for the second time since Ken Saro-Wiwa lugged a box of if-something-happens-to-me documents into PEN’s London office, was campaigning to win his release from a Nigerian military prison. International pressure had ended the first detention, but now nearly a year had passed since his arrest on trumped-up murder charges. Saro-Wiwa’s son, a British-based journalist in his late twenties, had begun to assume the role of the jailed writer’s chief international spokesperson, and he delivered the acceptance with a polish that suggested events like this were multiplying—which augured well for another release, I thought. But backstage, Ken Wiwa was ill at ease and gloomy, cold to all questions that even approached the personal: he seemed to be saying, how should I know? you know as much as I do about him now.
A few months later, a young African-American intern at PEN in Los Angeles received an answer to a reverent letter he’d sent Ken Saro-Wiwa in prison. “I’ve often envied those writers in the Western world who can peacefully practise their craft and earn a living thereby,” wrote Saro-Wiwa, who set aside a successful literary career to found and guide a protest movement against oil exploitation in his home Ogoni region of the Niger River Delta. “I cannot say that I would not have preferred that to the dangerous paths through which my art is taking me. However, we must go where the spirit moves us, and I can only hope that my travails will have brought pleasure in the future to many more people than my books will probably have done….On the lighter side, I might add that the goons in authority here do give us freedom to write, knowing full well that only a few people read anyway. In short, they do not want literature on the streets! And that is where, in Africa, it must be.” Saro-Wiwa ended the letter with a legacy-conscious, fatherly gesture. “By doing what you did during your internship you have helped a lot in this task, possibly unknown to you. And you have served humanity thereby. I hope the experience will shape your future activity as a writer or critic.”
On November 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged along with eight other members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. The death sentences were handed down by a military tribunal appointed by General Sani Abacha after a trial that was universally condemned as violating international standards of justice and due process. News that Abacha had ratified the sentences reached Ken Wiwa on November 8 in Auckland, New Zealand, where he had flown to make a last-ditch personal appeal at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and where he would discover what his father had long known: that official action, when it came, would be circumscribed by interests beyond justice, and in any case would come too late.
Wiwa recounts those final, disillusioning hours in his memoir, In the Shadow of a Saint. The book is both a clear-eyed account of his father’s life and death and a critical, and even more self-critical, examination of the relationships between Great Leaders—paradoxical figures who seek to parent not only children but also political and social movements—and their sometimes determinedly anti-heroic children. Struggling to reconcile these contradictions after his father’s martyrdom, Ken Wiwa sought the counsel of three children of famous fathers, Zindzi Mandela and Nathi Biko in South Africa, and in the scene that follows, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. Of the four, only Aung San Suu Kyi has, as Wiwa puts it, gone into the “family business”—a business that, in her case, has brought permanent separation from her family. She remains largely confined to her compound in Rangoon, and her nearly mythological isolation stands as the supreme illustration of how Power responds to the challenges of great women and men by targeting the most essential human bonds, testing families to the limit of their capacity for separation, estrangement, and loss.
Four years after Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged, and six months after Nigerians elected a civilian president, I traveled to Ogoniland to see for myself the cost of the military’s campaign to silence dissent in oil-producing communities. Both the dissent and the campaign continued, despite the transition to democracy: that same day, about an hour’s drive from Saro-Wiwa’s home village of Bonny, troops were mopping up after subduing—which meant almost leveling—an increasingly restive town. Meanwhile in Ogoni, ground zero for what the military prescribed as “wasting operations” in the 1990s but abandoned long ago by oil companies and finally by troops, oilworks stood rusting alongside still-unelectrified villages.
I went to pay my respects to Saro-Wiwa’s parents. With “Papa” heading toward one hundred and “Mama” heading toward ninety, they seemed almost supernaturally old in a country where life expectancy remains stubbornly below sixty. Their ordeal had aged them in opposite ways: she was tiny and frail, and kept vanishing into the periphery; he looked muscular but moved slowly, possessed by a ferocious gravity. With uniformed schoolchildren watching, he recited a list of recent visitors from the international human rights community, fell silent for an uncomfortable while, then roused himself to add that . “I’m ninety-six years old,” he said, after a final bitter pause. “I should have my sons at my side to help feed me my soup.”