‘We all stand before history’

Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and environmental activist on the 20th anniversary of his execution.

Protesters march to remember the 10th anniversary of a military junta''s execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa
To many in Ogoniland, Ken Saro-Wiwa gave voice to their aspirations [AP Photo/Sunday Alamba]

Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed on a school day.

That Friday morning of November 10, 1995, in my birthplace of Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta, I was seated in class when the news arrived that the Ogoni Nine had been hanged.

A buzz of excited voices burst over the schoolyard; my teacher stopped his lecture in mid-sentence, and then clasped his arms across his chest in cold horror before abandoning our classroom to join the huddle of adults in the staffroom. There was no official announcement, no ringing bells drawing us to the assembly ground to listen to sombre speeches. Yet we saw the truth in our teachers’ frightened faces: school was closed for the day.

I was a 16-year-old secondary school senior in a region that was increasingly turning to mass protests as the only way of expressing its frustration at state-sanctioned tyranny. Thus, when we heard that the corpses of the Ogoni Nine had been taken to the nearby Port Harcourt cemetery, I joined the crowd of chanting students that poured out of schoolyards all over the city.

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Rebellion was exciting, the world’s cameras were aimed at our streets, and this was perhaps our last chance to glimpse the face we all knew from TV, a hero who had lived and died among us.

“… some are tragic victims, some still have a chance to redeem themselves”*

We had all seen the Ogoni Nine convicted of murder on our TV screens in the partially televised and farcical trial by special tribunal. The world was pleading for clemency, but the Nigerian dictator, Sani Abacha, went ahead with the executions.

Port Harcourt was the regional base from which military operations had been ongoing in Ogoniland for several months: a systematic campaign of slaughter, looting, burning, and “deliberately terrorising the whole community, assaulting and beating indiscriminately”, according to Amnesty International. Given our awareness of these atrocities, we were not surprised that Saro-Wiwa didn’t survive the military government’s ruthless plan for him. Too many lines had been crossed, too much blood spilt.

We never got close enough to the cemetery to see what we came for.

The main street in the old township, the long and wide Aggrey Road, which ran past the Port Harcourt cemetery, was crammed tight with people, many of whose faces were contorted by grief. They had converged in the thousands, from schools and markets, from private companies and government offices, from the safety of their homes. Mothers, grandfathers, angry sweating men: This was the largest crowd I had ever seen from within.

I was swallowed by the swarming bodies. By the time I flailed a path to the outer fringes and paused to catch my breath, I saw I was alone, cut off from the school colours and bravura of my mates. I had come along for the spectacle, but was now part of the mourning masses.

Everything had changed, and yet one thing remained: a name, whispered and sung, invoked by everyone: Ken Saro-Wiwa.

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Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa was a writer, publisher, television producer, and environmental activist. He attracted international attention in the early 1990s when he began speaking out against the ecological devastation of his native land by the oil companies and the neglect of his people’s welfare by a complicit, corrupt Nigerian government. In 1990 he was a founder of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), a nonviolent grassroots organisation that enjoyed wide support among his ethnic minority based in the Niger Delta.

The high point of the fledgling organisation’s activism came on January 4, 1993, when, according to the organisers, around 300,000 people – about three-fifths of the Ogoni population – responded to MOSOP’s call and protested peacefully against the oil companies. This display of moral force finally caught the attention of the Nigerian rulers.

Just over a year later, on May 22, 1994, Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested for murder.

“… the scene here will be played and replayed by generations yet unborn”

On May 21, four Ogoni chiefs were beaten to death by angry Ogoni youths. The victims’ names were Edward Kobani, Alfred Badey, Samuel Orage, and Theophilus Orage: The latter two were Saro-Wiwa’s brothers-in-law, while Kobani was his longtime friend. On the same day of Saro-Wiwa’s arrest, even before police investigations could be concluded, the military administrator of Rivers State, of which Ogoniland is a part, called a press conference where he chided the media for being propagandist tools before proclaiming to the cameras that MOSOP was a terror group and that Saro-Wiwa was a “dictator who has … no room for dissenting view”, before ending by accusing him of inciting the murders. Saro-Wiwa had never been anywhere near the crime scene.

All these years later, nobody knows the truth of what led to the deaths of the Ogoni chiefs. The Abacha-led government had decided who was guilty, and everything that happened afterwards was obfuscation and lawlessness: the torture in detention of Saro-Wiwa; the harassment of his defence counsel; the military massacres in Ogoniland; the special tribunal (which included a soldier, Colonel Hameed Ali, on the three-member judging panel) that was convened to hear the civilian case; the hanging of Nordu Eawo, Saturday Dobee, John Kpuine, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Daniel Gbooko, Barinem Kiobel, Baribor Bera, and Ken Saro-Wiwa.

All these violations were on the minds of the mourning crowd in the streets of Port Harcourt on November 10. Swirling through the charged air was talk of the condemned men being beaten before their execution, and of desecrated corpses, all of which fuelled our grief. Along with these rumours we heard other sounds whose sources were easier to verify. The rumble of army trucks, the bullhorn orders to disperse, the popping of guns, and the clatter of tear gas canisters. The violence that the crowd held in check for several hours finally collapsed upon our heads. With the soldiers in pursuit, we turned on each other in terror and trampled whoever blocked our escape paths.

I was lucky to have moved aside before the crowd scattered and I sprinted to my grandmother’s house a few streets away, weeping from bitterness and the burn of tear gas. I remember hearing my family talk about how people had died in the crowd that day, although I didn’t see any myself and the censored television news certainly never spoke of it.

“On trial also is the Nigerian nation …”

Twenty years have passed since Nigeria’s murder of an Ogoni hero, and time has brought the awareness that not all martyrs are saints.

Even in the Niger Delta, the theatre of Saro-Wiwa’s labours as a writer and environmentalist, there is no consensus on the purity of his actions in the struggle that cost his life.

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Outside his Ogoni homeland, in the consciousness of wider Nigeria, he was a figure whose importance was mainly due to international recognition. His politics, focused as it was on Rivers State, was regional. His activism, in practice rather than principle, was ethnic.

Where Saro-Wiwa came closest to engaging the general interests of Nigerians was in his writing. This was especially so with the popular TV sitcom Basi and Company, written and produced by him, which was broadcast on the government-owned television network. The catchphrases “to be a millionaire, think like a millionaire” and “Madam the madam” – two jocular expressions often repeated by the rascally Mr B, the main character – have permeated Nigerian lingo, though nowadays few realise they are quoting Ken Saro-Wiwa.

“I am a man of peace, of ideas”

To many in Ogoniland, Saro-Wiwa gave voice to their aspirations and fought gallantly against their oppressors. He put the agenda of the Ogoni on the international map. Even his critics would agree that he is the most renowned Ogoni person who ever lived, and whenever his name is mentioned, his people will be remembered. He was a man of the people.


For the international community, his image is yoked to his environmental activism and the manner of his death. As the website of the Goldman Environmental Prize, which he was awarded before his execution in 1995, states: “Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life has provided a legacy of great inspiration for human rights and environmental activists around the world.”

His legacy to the Nigerian nation is less easy to grasp.

“… a denouement of the riddle of the Niger Delta will soon come”

Back in 1990, around the time of MOSOP’s formation, a group of Ogoni leaders including Saro-Wiwa – as well as two of the chiefs whose deaths he was later claimed to have caused – signed the Ogoni Bill of Rights. This document listed the foundational complaints of the Ogoni struggle and demanded greater participation for the indigenes in the running of their affairs.

It was ignored by the Nigerian government.

In December 1998, six months after Sani Abacha’s sudden death, the Kaiama Declaration was born. Like the preceding Ogoni document, this was about indigenous control of resources. The key difference between the two communiqués was the people whose views they represented. The sleepy town of Kaiama in Bayelsa State, where the document was signed, is on the ancestral land of the Ijaw, one of the largest ethnic groups in the Niger Delta.

Sani Abacha’s military successor handed over power – on May 29, 1999 – to a democratically elected government headed by a retired general and past dictator, Olusegun Obasanjo. By this time, the issues raised in the Kaiama Declaration, which the government had again ignored, were festering into communal conflict. And then, in November of that year, Obasanjo ordered soldiers into Odi, an Ijaw town in Bayelsa State.

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The reason given for the military incursion was that a band of armed criminals had killed several police officers in the town, and were thought to be still hiding there. According to Human Rights Watch, the “murders were committed by a group with no apparent political agenda, but took place against a rising clamour from those living in the oil-producing areas for a greater share of the oil wealth”. None of the criminals was captured in that military reprisal

Yet by the time the guns stopped shooting and the smoke cleared, most of Odi town was burned to the ground and all its surviving inhabitants had fled into the surrounding swamps.

Five years after the first wave of military carnage in Ogoniland, the government was repeating its terror tactics in another part of the Niger Delta. This time, however, there was no “man of the people” to be martyred; no internationally esteemed figure to preach nonviolent activism and to promote his peoples’ cause on the world stage. The government’s handling of Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people had been taken to heart by the new leaders of the Ijaw struggle. When the fight came to them, their response was armed insurrection.

“The military do not act alone”

After his execution, Saro-Wiwa’s corpse was burned with acid and buried in an unmarked grave. Ten years later, in 2005, Obasanjo’s government finally released the remains to the bereaved family. At this time the Niger Delta militancy was ongoing, with Nigeria’s crude oil production suffering as a result. Bloody skirmishes between armed groups and the military, but also among the internecine armed factions, had now become a part of daily life in the oil-producing areas.

Port Harcourt was the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the Niger Delta, but due to the protracted violence, it soon lost its innocence, then its charm, and finally its business. Foreign oil workers, who had been reduced to a form of currency through the incessant kidnappings for ransoms always paid by their multinational employers, began fleeing the city. The hostage-takers then turned on the undefended citizens, who either paid up or were killed.


At the conclusion of Obasanjo’s second tenure as civilian president, Umaru Yar’Adua assumed office. It was May 2007. His vice president was Goodluck Jonathan, a Bayelsa State indigene and the first person from the Niger Delta to attain such national prominence. The new Nigerian leadership promptly brokered a ceasefire with the armed Ijaw groups, after which an amnesty deal was negotiated and signed. In exchange for giving up not only their weapons, but also the dreams encapsulated in the Kaiama Declaration, the fighters were paid off and pardoned.

“… we all stand before history”

What Nigerians got from the brokered peace was increased piracy in our waters, continuing abductions of citizens for ransom payouts, disastrous oil spillages from vandalised pipelines, and security forces that had grown even deadlier from years of pillaging with impunity.

As the Saro-Wiwa story had already shown, nonviolent activism could get you killed in Nigeria. All the government proved with its amnesty deal was that violence pays.

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s legacy to the Nigerian nation is a fitting one. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I could already feel it as a 16-year-old schoolboy running away from the soldiers. It is the anger many Nigerians nurse at the everyday injustices meted out to the country’s citizens. This legacy is less his doing than ours, the ones who remain to learn nothing from the past.

“Come the day”

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the killing of the Ogoni Nine, a sculpture in the form of a steel bus – created by the Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp – was donated to the Ogoni people. It was shipped from London on August 19, arrived in Lagos on September 8, and was impounded by custom officials because of its “political value”. The names of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other eight Ogonis are inscribed on the side of the bus along with these words by Saro-Wiwa: “I accuse the oil companies of practising genocide against the Ogoni.”

As I write these words, the Ogoni memorial sculpture has still not been freed. According to MOSOP, a letter requesting its release was submitted to the newly appointed Comptroller General of the Nigerian Customs Service, Hameed Ali. Colonel Ali, who was called out of retirement by Nigerian President Buhari, was the only soldier on the judging panel of the special tribunal that sentenced the Ogoni Nine to death in 1995.

* All section headings are quotes from Ken Saro-Wiwa’s final statement, which he wasn’t allowed to read, to the special tribunal.

A Igoni Barrett is a Nigerian writer based in Lagos. His most recent book, a novel entitled Blackass, was published in 2015.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy. 

Source: Al Jazeera