Twenty-one years after his death at the hands of Nigeria’s last military dictatorship, environmental and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa’s story still draws attention, mostly for the work he did to save the land and water of his fellow Ogoni people near the end of his life. A brilliant new biography by Roy Doron and Toyin Falola places Saro-Wiwa’s activism into the broader context of his life, his experiences in public administration and the arts, and his persistent and nuanced view of the role that ethnicity and identity should play in post-colonial Nigeria. The book is an accessible and affordable read that speaks to anyone interested in Nigerian history and politics. You can read a free preview of Ken Saro-Wiwa‘s introduction here.
I had the opportunity to ask Doron and Falola several questions about their book:
LS: Ken Saro-Wiwa is well known for his environmental activism, but your book shows that this was something he engaged in mostly in the latter part of his life. Tell us a bit about his experiences and career over his lifetime, and how those experiences relate to the activism that eventually led to his death at the hands of Sani Abacha’s military dictatorship.
TF & RD: It is true that Saro-Wiwa’s most lasting legacy came about because of how and why he died, a victim of his success in bringing the Ogoni crisis to the world stage. However, he would never have been able to do that without his previous experiences, which both helped him forge the connections that he utilized later in life and gave him a unique literary voice that enabled him to bring his ideas to a mass global (and local) audience.
His first foray into local politics came almost by accident. Though he most likely harbored political ambitions from a very young age, it wasn’t until the Civil War broke out in 1967 that he seized his opportunity. Though he claimed to have been against Biafra from the outset, his actions in the buildup to the war show us that he was more ambivalent, and that perhaps he was waiting to see how the situation would unfold before making his choice. When the Nigerians captured the southern oil city of Bonny at the very start of the war, Saro-Wiwa realized very early that the federal government would win the war, and made his move to support Lagos. He went to Bonny in a canoe, and soon became the government civilian administrator for the city. Though he detested Emeka Ojukwu, the Biafran leader, he quickly understood the power of using the word “genocide” to galvanize support for the Biafran cause around the world. He would use that lesson to great effect in the 1990s when he began the activist phase of his life.
Like many in the country, he used his government position to amass considerable wealth, both during the war and after, when he held several lucrative government positions and used them to help fund his private businesses, a grocery store and a publishing company. However, he ran afoul of his political rivals and in 1973 was removed from his post for using government funds to pay for private business trips abroad. He then turned to both his business and creative work, which lasted until 1990. During this period, he developed his reputation, both at home and abroad, as a literary titan. In many respects, he was the Nigerian Mark Twain. He created works that used the particular Nigerian vernacular and coupled that mastery of the local variation of English with a biting wit and sarcasm that resonated with his compatriots of all ethnicities. He showed all Nigerians that they had something in common, whether through his serialized novel Prisoners of Jebs, or his popular television show Basi & Company.
In 1978, he made his only attempt at electoral politics, where he lost his bid to represent the Ogoni in the constitutional convention that ushered in the short-lived Second Republic. He reportedly lost by a single vote, largely because of his antagonistic relations with the Ogoni elders, four of whom would later be brutally murdered and start the chain of events that led to his execution. When he lost the election, he also lost faith in the Nigerian system, and when he later created his Movement for Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), he took care to make sure that he would be the leader and not have to be held accountable for his leadership position.
In that way, he was both a shaper of his country’s ethnic conversation, but he was also a product of it. His worldview was directly shaped by his experience as a relatively privileged member of a small minority. Thus, he could access the corridors of power, but he also wanted to change the system, but only if he could place himself as the leader of that change.
LS: How did Saro-Wiwa’s conception of what it means to be Nigerian – and to be a member of a minority ethnic group within Nigeria – evolve over his lifetime?
TF & RD: The Ogoni are a very small ethnic group within Nigeria, numbering less than a million in a country of nearly 200 million. Saro-Wiwa developed the idea of indigenous imperialism, claiming that Nigerian domination of the Ogoni was no different than British rule over Nigeria. Both were two faces of the same type of exploitation. This idea was at the core of his attempts to define what it meant to be Nigerian. For Saro-Wiwa, being Nigerian meant transcending the idea of ethnicity to dominate the country’s political scene.
I think that losing the election in 1978 changed him in a profound way. He realized that ethnic politics was the key to having a political voice in Nigeria, but he wanted to change that. Basi & Company and Prisoners of Jebs are reflections of his commitment to a single Nigerian culture, but he also began formulating his ideas regarding his future activism. In his civil war memoir he goes to great pains to establish how pro-Nigerian he was throughout the war, even though some of the evidence calls that assertion into question. I think what he was trying to do was establish his Nigerian loyalty bona fides to insulate himself from accusations of treason and subversion, crime for which the government initially tried to prosecute him but failed to find evidence.
I think Saro-Wiwa was proud to be a Nigerian, and he wanted to help create a country where all Nigerians had equal access to state support. But his ego sometimes got in the way. He did not just want to help create the country he envisioned, he was determined to be at the forefront. When he failed in 1978, it seems he determined to not risk another loss and established MOSOP to lead from outside and make the establishment deal with him.
LS: How did Saro-Wiwa incorporate his understanding of Nigerian identity into his writings and the long-running television show he produced? How did his work affect ordinary Nigerians over the course of his life?
TF & RD: Basi & Company was the most successful television show in Nigerian history. People from all over the country could relate to it, because it spoke to the ideas that made Nigerians Nigerians. The constant attempts to get rich through corruption, the ways that ordinary people manipulated the system, the general idea that work will not get the average Nigerian a decent standard of living – Saro-Wiwa used all of themes as constant material in his show and as a result, the show resonated with people all over the country, irrespective of ethnicity or religion. In fact, it was impossible to tell what ethnicity Basi or any of the supporting characters were. They were all simply people caught in the hustle that was Lagosian society in the 1980s.
His other works garnered much more critical attention around the world, especially Sozaboy, which was unique in its story and use of language. However, they did not resonate as much in Nigeria as Basi and Jebs. What they did do was secure him a global audience that would otherwise not be aware of him, and gave him the connections he would utilize later when agitating for Ogoni.
What all his works did was give him the economic stability to send his family to England and continue his work in Nigeria (where he fathered an entirely different family that he hid from his children in England). Thus, when he began his work in MOSOP, his literary works gave him both the name recognition in Nigeria and a door into the European and American intelligentsia through his novels, short stories and poetry.
LS: How was Saro-Wiwa so successful in mobilizing global interest in and activism for the Ogoni crisis? Why did his effort to get attention from international NGOs succeed when so many other, similar efforts fail?
TF & RD: Political scientist Clifford Bob discussed at length why some organizations garner attention while others fail, paying special attention to the Ogoni case. It has very little to do with the cause’s “worthiness” and more to with the connections they are able to foster and how they are able to portray themselves. I attribute much of Saro-Wiwa’s success to the fact that he accepted advice on how to build a movement. Our book chronicles how he went from naïvely calling Greenpeace and Amnesty expecting them to jump to his aid to building coalitions with smaller environmental and human rights groups around the world. It was his work with them that made the larger organizations take notice and move to support him.
LS: The trial and execution of the Ogoni Nine was an obviously unjust process carried out by a brutal military dictatorship that had little respect for human rights or fair judicial processes. The role of Shell Oil is a bit more opaque and there are many conspiracy theories about what Shell executives did or did not do at the time. What’s your view of the role that Shell played in the Ogoni crisis and in the deaths of Saro-Wiwa and his fellow activists?
TF & RD: Shell played the game that they felt they had to play in a Nigeria run by a corrupt and brutal dictatorship. But their role went deeper than that. They actively solicited “protection” from the Nigerian military knowing exactly the kind of brutality it would entail. Shell also actively colluded with the Nigerian government in Saro-Wiwa’s prosecution, and when their role became apparent, claimed that it was the state’s role to ensure fairness under the law, and not a corporation’s. This is a claim that many of Shell’s apologists continue to make and the hypocrisy of these ideas is one of the central aspects of the final chapter of our book.
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LS: It’s been more than 20 years since Saro-Wiwa’s untimely death in 1995. What does his legacy mean for activists, observers, and Nigerians today?
TF & RD: To a large extent, Saro-Wiwa’s legacy in Nigeria has been lost. Because he lost his life focusing on the Ogoni, he is largely remembered as an Ogoni agitator, and has thus been largely coopted into the ethnic politics that he tried so hard to redefine.
Outside Nigeria he has left a much more lasting impact, especially in redefining the concept of genocide in activist circles. After Saro-Wiwa successfully linked economic exploitation to genocide so successfully, activists all over the world found similar links in their own societies in ways that they had never done so before. Also, after his death, several Ogoni parties brought about lawsuits against Shell for their role in both Saro-Wiwa’s trial and execution and in their treatment of Ogoni lands over the past decades. Saro-Wiwa’s family received $15.5 million in a settlement with Shell in 2009 through the American court system. However, in 2010, another case, brought forward by Esther Kiobel, resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that ended petitions to prosecute corporations through the Alien Tort Claims Act. However outside the United States, lawsuits against Shell continued. In 2013, a Dutch court found Shell guilty in destroying the livelihood of farmers through oil spills and inadequate responses. The ruling was upheld on appeal in 2015. Earlier this year, Nigerian groups were allowed to proceed with a similar case against Shell in the United Kingdom.
So perhaps Saro-Wiwa’s most important legacy was the push to hold corporations accountable when their operations violate local or international laws and the companies hide behind a complicit or ineffectual government.
Roy Doron is an assistant professor of history at Winston-Salem State University. Toyin Falola is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities and a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.