20 years since execution, Saro-Wiwa teaches us that we can always change

By: EVAN MWANGI

It is 20 years since the Nigerian government of Sani Abacha killed the writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, but African governments, including our own, are still behaving medieval in the way they treat writers and whistle-blowers against corruption.

With the ongoing harassment of journalists in Kenya, you would be forgiven for thinking that the primitive Abacha, the wicked Kamuzu Banda, and the unscrupulous Jomo Kenyatta were collectively in charge of this nation.

Saro-Wiwa is best known in Kenya for Africa Kills Her Sun, a satirical short story about corruption in Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s. It has been taught in Kenyan schools.

The story is in the form of a letter the narrator Bana writes his girlfriend Zole about the way he chose to be a robber instead of sitting in a government office receiving bribes to make ends meet.

He is among the robbers who plead guilty and request a death penalty to deny the corrupt judicial system the agency of coming up with the sentence for them.

Born Kenule Benson Tsaro-Wiwa in Bori, Rivers State, southern Nigeria, on October 10, 1941, the writer had a relatively relaxed early childhood.

His family was wealthy by local standards, his father being a colonial government interpreter, later a forest ranger, a trader in palm oil, and a community chief. His mother, Jessica Nwidu Wiwa, was a successful farmer.

As a young boy, Saro-Wiwa attended a local primary school, where he received the first two years of education in his mother tongue, Khana (one of the three languages spoken by the Ogoni people).

He infuses his English-language works with Khana and Nigerian Pidgin English to give them a local flavour, enhance irony and nature as well as relieve tension in texts that depict grave social issues.

FLOURISHED AS A PUPIL

Aged 13, Saro-Wiwa became the first Ogoni student at the Government College in Umuahia, an elite institution that would be the equivalent of Kenya’s Alliance High School.

He flourished as a pupil and even wrote poems, short stories, and plays in English.

Because of his neat handwriting, Saro-Wiwa was exempted at Umuahia from menial cleaning duties three out of five school days to devote himself to transcribing his dormitory’s handwritten magazine, The Pioneer. He edited other school magazines as well.

He developed his writing and publishing skills further at the University of Ibadan, which he joined in 1962. At the university, he became the editor of the English Department’s student magazine, The Horizon.

He also honed his theatrical skills as well at Ibadan, serving as the president of the university’s dramatic society. He graduated with a degree in English in 1965 and returned to the same university the following year to pursue post-graduate studies in drama while teaching part-time in a secondary school.

Saro-Wiwa abandoned his studies because of financial problems and served as a high school teacher. He later joined the University of Nigeria at Nsukka as a graduate assistant before moving to the University of Lagos at the same position.

His burning desire to pursue a PhD in theatre came a cropper in the wake of the Biafran civil war (1967-1969). He chose the federal side against the Biafran secessionists because, as he says in one of his later essays, he did not see the difference between the arguments presented by both sides.

PRESTIGIOUS JOBS

In what appears to be a reward for his loyalty to the federal government, Saro-Wiwa landed prestigious government jobs. He was edged out of the civil service in 1973 because of his criticism of the government and his call for the autonomy of Ogoni people.

He went into business after failing to secure a job as an assistant lecturer at University of Nigeria; the university insisted on reemploying him at the lower rank of a graduate assistant.

In the 1980s Saro-Wiwa opted to set up a publishing firm to publish his own work because the established presses rejected his manuscripts or took too long evaluate them.

As a writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa first achieved fame in 1972 with the prize-winning radio plays, The Transistor Radio, a farcical one-act play about corruption. His first novel, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English (1985) is a first-person narrative about the Biafra war told from the perspective of a poorly educated village man, Mene, who wants to become a sozaboy (Nigerian Pidgin English for “soldier boy”.)

Saro-Wiwa’s Adaku and Other Stories (1989) and Lemona’s Tale (1996) portray the struggles and resiliency of Nigerian women. From 1985, he wrote over 150 episodes of Basi and Company, a sit-com series that satirised corruption among other vices in Nigeria.

It was stopped by the military dictatorship in 1990.

Saro-Wiwa’s lively writing style, charismatic dramatic skills, and financial clout came in handy when he joined activism against the oppression of his Ogoni people. In 1991, he founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which

protested the collusion of the government with multinational oil companies to exploit the local people and degrade their environment.

In 1993, he was jailed for a month and a day while protesting election malpractices. His experiences in detention are recorded in A Month and a Day, published posthumously by Penguin in 1995.

On May 22, 1994, the Nigerian government arrested Saro-Wiwa along with 14 alleged accomplices, accusing them of murdering four Ogoni elders who disagreed with Saro-Wiwa’s methods of protesting against multinational oil companies and the government.

The activist and eight of his colleagues were convicted and sentenced to death on November 2, 1995. Despite international protests and appeals by world leaders to spare Saro-Wiwa’s life, Abacha’s military junta went ahead and executed the 54-year-old Saro-Wiwa on November 10, 1995.

The executioners doused his body with acid and buried him in an unmarked grave in Port Harcourt.

Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Wiwa, a remarkable writer in his own right, established the Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation in memory of his father and wrote a book, In the Shadow of a Saint (2001), to correct what he views as some distortions about his father.

Today Saro-Wiwa is widely considered a matyr.

There are a few lessons we can learn from Saro-Wiwa, the primary one being that it is never too late to change and start fighting on the side of the oppressed. A number of us enjoying government lucre are currently shamelessly defending corruption in

Kenyan and writing opinion articles using pseudonyms to defend stinking government officials with the moxie to waste our national resources on personal self-pleasure facilitation whatchamacallit.

Though rarely uttered, as it is evil to backbite dead people in Africa, even Saro-Wiwa at one time was what today can be called a pro-government sell-out.

When J.P. Clark, Wole Soyinka, and other Nigerian intellectuals were being harassed by the government between the late 1960s and 1970s because of their support for human rights, Saro-Wiwa was working with the government of the day or making some good money as a businessman.

If fact, his novel Sozaboy about the Biafra conflict, in which the Nigerian government murdered its own citizens by the thousand, seems to be making fun of the motivations that would lead a character to fight against such a government. In the novel, Mene joins the war for no reason except that his young wife, Agnes, goads him to prove his manhood.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION