Ken Saro Wiwa, Nigerian Activist (1941 – 1995)

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a famous Nigerian writer, politician, and activist who advocated for the Ogoni people’s rights against the environmental hazards in Ogoni land caused by the petroleum companies.

Early Life and Education of Ken Saro-Wiwa

At birth, Ken Saro-Wiwa, named Kenule Tsaro-Wiwa, was born on October 10, 1941, to Chief Jim Wiwa and Widu Wiwa. He was from the village of Bane in Ogoniland, Rivers State.

For his primary education, he attended the Native Authority School. He then proceeded to Government College Umuahia for his secondary school education. Saro-Wiwa proved himself to be an excellent student in school as he received prizes for being the best student in certain subjects. 

On completing his secondary school education, he received a scholarship to the University of Ibadan to study the English Language. He excelled at this higher institution, winning many departmental prizes and joining a drama troupe.

After his university education, he was an assistant lecturer at the University of Lagos. Then, after a while, he moved to work at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Activist

During the early days of the Nigerian-Biafran civil war (1967 – 1970), Saro-Wiwa saw many Igbo people who fled from the North returning to the East. In his own words, this was a “sorry sight to see”. Although Saro-Wiwa initially supported the federal government of Nigeria in the civil war, he would later become a critic of the government.

Saro-Wiwa’s activism came to the fore in 1990 when he began to speak against the environmental hazards caused in Ogoniland by petroleum waste dumping. He also spoke for the rights of the Ogoni people, whose crude oil was being extracted from their land without any form of compensation. Saro-Wiwa was also part of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). This organization supported the protection of the rights of the Ogoni people.

One of the things MOSOP did was write the proposal for a bill 

“The Ogoni Bill of Rights.” This bill requested that the Ogoni people receive a reasonable share of the proceeds from the oil extraction on their land. The bill also asked for a remedy to the environmental hazard on Ogoni lands caused by petroleum companies, especially the Royal Dutch Shell company.

Saro-Wiwa was the spokesperson (and later president) for MOSOP and led peaceful campaigns against the destruction of the Ogoniland by the petroleum industry. He was also the Vice-Chair of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), an international organization that advocated for the protection and promotion of human rights and their environments through peaceful methods. Saro-Wiwa was highly critical of the Nigerian government because they were reluctant to regulate the activities of the petroleum companies that were causing environmental hazards to the Ogoni lands.

In 1992, Saro-Wiwa was arrested and thrown into prison by the Nigerian military government without being tried. He was remanded in prison for months. In January 1993, MOSOP had a nonviolent demonstration involving three hundred thousand (300,000) Ogoni people who marched out against the government’s refusal to take actions against the environmental hazards committed to them by petroleum companies. Due to the size of this crowd, the attention of international organizations was drawn.

The Arrest and Execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa (1993 – 1995)

In June 1993, Ken Saro-Wiwa was re-arrested by the Nigerian government but was released a month later. Then, in May 1994, four Ogoni chiefs who had opposed MOSOP were murdered during a political rally. Although Saro-Wiwa was not present in Ogoniland on the day the murders took place, he was arrested and accused of aiding them. He was held in custody for over a year before being found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging by a military ruling council.

The execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa drew strong condemnation from the international community. As a result, Nigeria was suspended from being a member of the Commonwealth of Nations for three years.

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Personal Life

Ken Saro-Wiwa was married to Maria. Together, they had three children: Ken Wiwa, Noo Saro-Wiwa, and Zina Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa also had two daughters, Singto and Adele, with another woman and another son, Kwame Saro-Wiwa, with a Ghanaian woman.

Works by Ken Saro-Wiwa

Some of his works include:

● Basi and Company (TV series) — 1985 – 1990

● Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English — 1985

● On a Darkling Plain (War Diaries) — 1989

● Africa Kills Her Son (Short Play) — 1989

Quotes by Ken Saro-Wiwa

● I am more dangerous dead

● I’ve used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni People to confront their tormentors. I was not able to do it as a politician or a businessman. My writing did it… I think I have the moral victory.

● The writer cannot be a mere storyteller; he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot merely x-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved in shaping its present and its future.

● Whether I live or die is immaterial. It is enough to know that there are people who commit time, money, and energy to fight this one evil among so many others predominating worldwide. If they do not succeed today, they will succeed tomorrow.

● I tell you this, I may be dead but my ideas will not die.

● I saw the people who were singing, young young boys like myself, all of them with guns and uniforms. It is that uniform that I like very much. When I see how they are all marching, prouding, and singing, I am very happy but when I see all their uniform shining and very nice to see, I cannot tell you how I am feeling, immediately I know that this soza is wonderful thing.


The Guardian (2018)

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