Nnimmo Bassey

THESE LETTERS AND POEMS are invaluable fragments of a living conversation that portrays the indomitable power in humans to stay alive in the face of certain death — to stay alive even in death. Reading through the treasure trove of the letters and poems compiled here as The Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa evoked such intense memories of his resolute struggles against an oil behemoth and a deaf autocratic government. His crusade frames one of the most tumultuous periods of Nigeria’s history; his tragic story evokes anger and demands action to resolve the crises that first led the Ogoni people to demand that Shell clean up Ogoni or clear out of the territory. It was his leadership, in great part, that forced Shell out of Ogoni in January 1993.

These letters are a testament of hope. Being one side of robust conversa­tions between two persons that many would find unlikely as close friends, we learn the lessons that indeed ‘friends love at all times and brothers (and sisters) are born for adversity’, as a proverb in the Bible states. This is where we must applaud Sister Majella McCarron for preserving and making pub­lic these letters that Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote to her between 20 October 1993 and 14 September 1995.

As I read through this collection I felt a sense of awe at the positive dis­position of this saint—as aptly described by his son, Ken Wiwa Junior. The harshness of his prison conditions could not kill his strong sense of duty to his people and indeed, as the reader will find, his acerbic sense of humour. Never did the pressures of the tyrannical government dent his vision for an Ogoni free of pollution, oppression and exploitation. He worked assidu­ously to secure the dignity of the Ogoni and by extension, I would say, of other oppressed Nigerians and of all humanity.

The letters reveal to us a well-rounded man. His love for his family and concern for each individual in that close circle come through very strongly. His love for the Ogoni people and his readiness to invest as many resources in the struggle as he could muster must challenge our commitment to the causes that we support. His vulnerable position comes through when he states, in one of the letters, “I’m not particularly protected, although I have great faith in God, in the justness of my cause & in the belief in eventual VICTORY. But the pain which we all have to endure! Would to God it had been lighter!”[1] In the same letter he states, “But I’m in good spirit, undaunted, as convinced of my cause as ever. My real worry is the devas­tation of Ogoni villages, the destabilization of the area & the harassment & killing of the people.” This letter tells us much more: “I’m not worried for myself. When I undertook to confront Shell & the Nigerian establish­ment, I signed my death warrant, so to speak. At 52, I think I’ve served my time and, come to face it, I’ve lived a charmed life. A few more books, maybe, & the opportunity to assist others would have been welcome. But it’s okay.”

The letters reveal to us that being a keen student of current history helped to keep him in high spirits while held in the dungeon. His letter of 29/10/94 informs, “…do not forget that I’ve been here only 23 weeks now. Mandela & Sisulu were there for 26/27 years. How can I complain?” [2]

Repeatedly, Saro-Wiwa bemoaned the fact that MOSOP (Movement for Survival of the Ogoni People) had not adequately prepared the gener­ality of the Ogoni people for the struggle. This is a signal for all who are engaged in mass mobilisations and movement building.

At a time when my nation is mired in extreme cases of corruption and where security is assured mainly for those who follow the deviant path, we see in Ken Saro-Wiwa a different breed—a man who did not hesitate to spend his resources but was also keen to stay transparent and accountable to his people. Could it be that this irked the corporate and state gangs that relentlessly pursued him and eventually dropped the noose around his neck?

A man of letters, no pun intended, Ken Saro-Wiwa challenges us in his strong eye for details. His care to check grammatical errors in documents prepared by others, even while in the gulag, is stunning. Why would a man, literally in the belly of the beast, care about spelling errors in other people’s writings, in statements—even newspaper reports?

When Wale Okediran reviewed Ken Saro-Wiwa’s book in On a Darkling Plain in 1993 and suggested that he was too hard on the erstwhile leader of Biafra, Saro-Wiwa responded in a letter to Okediran that in “considering what Ojukwu had done to my people the Ogonis, I was actually very mild with him.” According to Okediran, what really surprised him when he met Saro-Wiwa in person was that “he had the effrontery to point out some grammatical mistakes he said I made in the review.” He acknowledges that Saro-Wiwa was “never shy of controversy, ever ready for a good argument and always finical with tiresome editorial details like punctuation marks and typos. Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa is one hell of a human maelstrom who leaves you breathless with his stamina and dexterity for discussions on every conceivable subject under the sky.”[3]

The fact that he was concerned with details and aimed for perfec­tion in his own writing can be seen in his requests to McCarron to help edit some of his drafts, such as his acceptance speech when he won the Right Livelihood Award—also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize— in 1994.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and Sister McCarron both influenced my life and growth as an environmental justice advocate. In addition, Saro-Wiwa chal­lenged me as a fledging writer who thought I would find a niche as a poet and short story writer. His pioneering work in building a virile environ­mental justice movement as well as those for the rights of minorities in Nigeria remains outstanding and continues to inspire campaigners around the world. I recall his visit to my humble home in Benin City when he came to lead a conference of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) in 1994. It was a memorable occasion and I heartily drank from his spring of wisdom on a variety of topics. We veered to issues of the rights of minori­ties in Nigeria. When I made the claim that I was also from a minority eth­nic nation, he laughed and stated firmly that I could not be right because, with a population of close to three million, the Ibibio could not claim the minorities tag. Arguments on that led us nowhere and I knew better than to get trapped in it. There was so much to learn, and, as it turned out, there was very little time left.

November 10, 1995: that date has come to stay with us. It is a date that is both frozen and unforgettable. On that day, few gave any thought to the Port Harcourt Prisons and the diabolical plans of General Abacha and his henchmen. The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) was holding its annual conference at the University of Lagos, and by this time I was the General Secretary and Odia Ofeimum was the President. Saro-Wiwa’s ten­ure as ANA president ended in 1993. One of the issues of critical concern at that 1995 conference was the statement ANA was to issue concerning the death sentence passed by the kangaroo tribunal that had tried Ken Saro-Wiwa, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine.

We debated over the tenor of the statement. Should ANA denounce the arrest, detention and sham trial/verdict passed on its past president, Ken Saro-Wiwa, or should the statement be a politely worded plea for leni­ency, with nothing said to ruffle the feathers of the dark-shaded despot, Abacha? It was while we were locked in this debate that the news filtered through that Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other eight Ogoni leaders had been executed. The execution was carried out days before the appeal period set by military decree was to expire. This cruel and unjust act confirmed the rigged nature of the entire affair.

The world and environmental justice activists in the grassroots net­works, such as the Friends of the Earth International, were numbed by this bloodletting; November 10 has become a day of remembrance of the martyrs of resistance against mining, oil and gas. The lesson that this sends is a confirmation that killing the messenger merely throws up more mes­sengers. The message cannot be killed.

Sister McCarron watered my activist roots through books and other resources that she donated to the then very young Environmental Rights Action. The books all showed strong links between social justice and human dignity. They all stressed that the heavenly focus is not genuine if it negates our humanity and our need to be concerned with the state of the planet and the people. It is no surprise that she forged a strong connection with Ken Saro-Wiwa and was a strong supporter of the Ogoni and wider Niger Delta struggles.

Meeting Sister McCarron in Leitrim, Ireland at a campaign stop against fracking in August 2012, brought a new spark of inspiration to me, seeing that her commitment to securing and preserving a sane envi­ronment is a lifelong affair. The campaign in County Leitrim was against fracking in Ireland. From there I moved to Erris in County Mayo on a solidarity visit with the people organised by Friends of the Earth, Ireland. Sister McCarron has worked with the people in this county, supporting their struggles against the building of gas pipelines and a refinery in the area by Shell. That struggle, epitomised by the existence of the Rossport Solidarity Camp and the nine white crosses (for the Ogoni nine) opposite the entrance to the refinery at Ballinaboy, has gone on for over a decade, in the face of intimidation, beatings and jailings.

In the poem, For Sr. Majella McCarron, written in June 1995, we read the pointed question and answer:

What is it, I often ask, unites
County Fermanagh and Ogoni?
Ah, well, it must be the agony
The hunger for justice and peace
Which married our memories
To a journey of faith

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a man of peace. As these letters clearly show, his struggles were built on the platform of non-violence through the mobili­sation of the mass of Ogoni people using socio-cultural and educational tools. His disdain for violence can be seen in some of his writings, espe­cially in the novel, Sozaboy.

He was a prolific writer, and is even said to have engaged in writ­ing anonymous letters to editors of newspapers while he was in the secondary school. His books such as On a Darkling Plain focused on his Biafra-Nigeria civil war experiences and ruffled the feathers of those who do not agree with his interpretation of the events. Saro-Wiwa’s works included children’s books as well as the highly successful satirical television series, Basi & Co. One of his short stories, Africa Kills Her Sun, first published in 1989, foreshadowed his execution and denial of a decent grave. The book, The Politics of Bones, written by J. Timothy Hunt about Owens Wiwa, Saro-Wiwa’s brother and comrade in the struggle, fittingly captures the struggle for a decent resting place for Saro-Wiwa.

Saro-Wiwa captured the hearts of many through his writings and showed that enduring change required fundamental reorientations to ensure that his people worked for the good of the collective rather than for self-aggrandizement.

Perhaps the letters set out in this book provide a partial completion of his diaries from an earlier period of detention, A Month and a Day. The final part may not be known until we know the contents of the letters that Sister Majella wrote in reply to these.

Perhaps one of the most critical contributions of Ken Saro-Wiwa to the struggle for the salvaging of the Ogoni environment and by extension the larger Nigerian environment was his participation in the production of the Ogoni Bill of Rights (1990) by MOSOP. That bill of rights remains the cardinal articulation of the demands for holistic justice for the Ogoni people. The Bill pioneered the way for the formulation of bills of rights by other ethnic nations in Nigeria, including the Kaiama Declaration by Ijaw youths (1998), the Oron Bill of Rights (1999), the Aklaka Declaration (1999) of the Urhobo Economic Summit and others.

We do not exaggerate if we say that Ken Saro-Wiwa was prescient, even prophetic, in his writings. A recent assessment of the Ogoni envi­ronment by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) clearly vindicates the complaints of the Ogoni that their environment had literally been killed by the polluting activities of the international oil companies led by Shell, as well as by their Nigerian counterpart, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. According to UNEP, it would take about 30 years of focussed and robust clean up efforts to restore the Ogoni environment. A year and a half after the publication of the UNEP report, the Ogoni people and all watchers of the territory are scandalised that the Nigerian govern­ment has not declared a state of environmental emergency in the area.

The chapters prefacing the letters and poems provide excellent analyses that help us understand the person of Ken Saro-Wiwa as a selfless, dogged fighter, who did not project himself as a hero but rather fought for the collective Ogoni nation. Laurence Cox’s chapter on “Ken Saro-Wiwa in Political Context: Social Movements in the Niger Delta” brings up the interesting discourse on “the curse of oil.” He shows how the struggle against Shell in County Mayo, Ireland, and the use of security forces to counter dissent draws strong parallels between Ireland and Nigeria.

Cox also calls for caution when Norway is presented as an exception to the rule of oil not being of benefit to local populations in countries where it is extracted. The vital point here is that Norway was different at the onset of oil activities there, not by the benevolence or brilliance of government or oil sector players but by the efforts of popular movements that were determined to ensure that oil wealth benefited all. Analysts also show that a strong workers movement ensured that technology was bent to ensure safety rather than merely profits. As Norwegian oil begins to peter out, the country’s oil sector players are seeking to drill in fragile ecosys­tems, including in the Arctic regions—a possible harbinger of fracturing of the image that the Norwegian nation has built and that has lured nations across Africa to think that the Ogoni experience cannot be replicated in their territories. The thinking of nations that change can come about with­out robust resistance is nothing but a pipedream.

The last speech that Ken Saro-Wiwa made, before the rigged tribunal that condemned him, reads like a letter to the world; his challenge to every­one remains valid. Here is what he said:

I repeat that we all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial and it is as well that it is rep­resented by counsel said to be holding a watching brief. The Company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and the lessons learnt here may prove useful to it, for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished. The crime of the Company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will also be punished.

On trial also is the Nigerian nation, its present rulers and those who assist them. Any nation which can do to the weak and disadvan­taged what the Nigerian nation has done to the Ogoni loses a claim to independence and to freedom from outside influence. I am not one of those who shy away from protesting injustice and oppression, arguing that they are expected in a military regime. The military do not act alone. They are supported by a gaggle of politicians, lawyers, academ­ics and businessmen, all of them hiding under the claim that they are only doing their duty, men and women too afraid to wash their pants of urine.[4]

This collection is a unique gift, a treasure to humanity. The letters provide strands that can be woven into manuals for popular struggles. In places, their humour is quite hilarious. And revealing. Happily, rather than being moved to despair, they will help the reader make up his or her mind on whether to raise a voice or stay silent in the face of tyranny. This pub­lication is a fitting tribute to this gentle but strong leader, and it is hoped that it will help clarify his enigmatic personality and inspire positive action against oppression and ecocide anywhere and everywhere. Our struggles may be in different locations, but they are one and the same. We are all Ogoni. And in the words of Ken Saro-Wiwa, “the Ogoni story will be told.” We are happy to say that this book tells a critical part of that story.

  1. MU archive PP/7/4
  2. MU archive PP/7/14
  3. Wale Okediran, “Ken Saro-Wiwa at 50”. Guardian (London). 19th October 1991, p. 11
  4. “Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Final Address to the Military-Appointed Tribunal.” Earth Island Journal. 11.1 (Winter 1995): 25


Silence Would Be Treason Copyright © 2018 by Nnimmo Bassey. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book