Man in the news

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria - Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of nine environmental and human rights activists hanged by Nigerian authorities Friday, touched a raw nerve by focusing his minority rights campaign on Nigeria's lifeblood oil industry.

In his crusade against oil pollution in the Niger Delta, Saro-Wiwa, a prominent playwright and satirist, also challenged the might of the Anglo-Dutch Shell, the leading oil company operating in the area and throughout Nigeria.

A tribunal sentenced Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow activists to death last week on murder charges stemming from the deaths of four moderate chiefs during disturbances linked to the campaign for the Ogoni people's rights.

"I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial," Saro-Wiwa said in a prepared statement issued after his conviction on incitement to murder. "Shell is here on trial and it is well that it is represented by counsel to be holding a watching brief."

Echoing the statement made by South Africa's Nelson Mandela when he was sentenced to life for his anti-apartheid campaign, Saro-Wiwa added: "I have devoted my intellectual and material resources, my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief and from which I cannot be blackmailed or intimidated."

The sentence was swiftly ratified by the Nigerian military rulers who said the issue was that of murder and not his minority rights activities. Fourteen members of Saro-Wiwa’s Movement for the Survival of Ogoni Peoples (MOSOP) were tried for the murder of four moderate Ogoni leaders in May 1994. Five were acquitted.

The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), reporting the hangings from the southeastern Nigerian oil center of Port Harcourt, said hundreds of Ogonis who lined the route to the prison in anticipation of Saro-Wiwa's execution wept uncontrollably. The region inhabited by the 500,000 Ogonis produces some of OPEC-member Nigeria’s oil wealth. Shell denies causing undue (!) pollution but Saro-Wiwa, backed by international pressure groups like Greenpeace, had campaigned relentlessly for compensation for local people.

"The Ogoni case has exposed simmering hatreds that could tear Nigeria apart," Saro-Wiwa said in a public speech to a 1992 Geneva conference on indigenous populations.

"Oil exploration has turned Ogoni into a wasteland. In return we have received nothing and in the circumstance, the interests of the few like the Ogonis was bound to suffer," he said.

Nigeria fought a bitter 30-month civil war from mid-1967 over breakaway Biafra, in which oil, notably in the area of the Ogonis, was a major bone of contention.

During the civil war, Saro-Wiwa was an administrator for Bonny, the hub of the oil industry in the Niger delta. He later served in military administrations in the area after.

Born Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa on Oct. 10, 1941, at Bori, Rivers State, he grew up in a large family where responsibility for oneself was vital from an early age. He was educated at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria's premier college. He graduated in 1965 and went to teach at his old high school in Umuahia, southeastern Nigeria. He later taught at universities in Lagos and in eastern Nigeria.

But it was through writing of humorous and satirical stories and novels that Saro-Wiwa achieved fame. His soap opera Basi and Co. was very popular on state television.

I believe in using satire as my weapon to fight and what does a satirist do? The satirist holds up a distorting mirror before the people who get scared when they see their reflection. There are many scared people in Nigeria," Saro-Wiwa once said.

Source: "Man in the news: Ken Saro-Wiwa, writer and rights crusader", Reuter News Report, 1995.