Ken Saro-Wiwa 1941–1995
(Full name Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa) Nigerian novelist, essayist, diarist, poet, short story writer, playwright, television writer and producer.
The following entry provides an overview of Saro-Wiwa's career through 1997.
Saro-Wiwa achieved popularity in Nigeria as a satirist of Nigeria's notoriously corrupt government, but gained worldwide fame as a political activist executed for his vocal protest of multinational exploitation of local culture. His nonfiction works detailing Nigerian corruption and his own imprisonment have been widely praised as provocative and compassionate.
Born in Bori, in southeastern Nigeria, in 1941, Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni tribe, one of Nigeria's many ethnic minorities. His father was Chief J. B. Wiwa, a civil servant, and his mother was Widu Wiwa, a trader and farmer. Recognized early as a gifted student, Saro-Wiwa attended the Native Authority School from 1947 to 1954 and went on to the distinguished Government College Omaha until 1961. There he took advantage of the school's extensive library to study literature and explore his proclivity for writing and publishing. After graduating, Saro-Wiwa taught at the school for a year before his acceptance into the University of Ibadan, where he furthered his study of English as well as French and German literature and began working in drama. He graduated in 1965 and taught at Stella Maris College in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and then at Government College Omaha before returning to the University of Ibadan for further study of drama. His work there was cut short by the political violence that escalated into civil war in 1967. Saro-Wiwa held two more teaching positions before entering the political sphere as an administrator for Bonny, Rivers State, after its liberation from Biafran forces and as a member of the Interim Advisory Council of Rivers State. Shortly thereafter, Saro-Wiwa began his literary career with his radio play The Transistor Radio (1972), which tied for fourth place in the British Broadcasting Service competition in drama. He published books for young people and plays in the next year, and then his career in government ended when he was forced to resign his post as commissioner in the Ministry of Works, Land, and Transport, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Information and Home Affairs when the governor of the state objected to Saro-Wiwa's play Eneka. Over the next twelve years Saro-Wiwa became a successful businessman and eventually founded Saros International Publishers to publish his own works. He also wrote and produced a highly successful situation comedy on Nigerian television, Basi and Company, a satire that lampooned widespread Nigerian corruption. In 1985 his first self-published works appeared—a collection of poems entitled Songs in a Time of War and his most acclaimed novel, Sozaboy. At this point, Saro-Wiwa began focusing more, in both his writing and his personal life, on Nigeria's devastating civil war and on the oppression of the Ogoni people by government forces and multinational oil companies whose efforts to profit from the oil fields beneath the Ogoni region had left the land blighted. Saro-Wiwa launched a campaign against Shell Oil—which had been drilling in the region since the 1930s and had left the land severely polluted and infertile—with a group called Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Dedicated to seeking redress from Shell and in calling government complicity with Shell genocide, the group incurred the suspicion of the militaristic regime. Saro-Wiwa was arrested in 1993 and charged with treason. He was released after several months, but was again arrested when a MOSOP rally, not attended by Saro-Wiwa, erupted in violence and four Ogoni elders were killed. Saro-Wiwa and eight others were charged with murder and imprisoned for over a year. The affair prompted international outrage from political and environmental organizations, who unsuccessfully tried to pressure the Nigerian government into dropping charges. After the trial—largely considered to be merely a staged publicity stunt to appease the opposition—Saro-Wiwa and the others were executed.
Saro-Wiwa's literary career is generally considered to fall into two distinct periods: the early 1970s, and the 1980s until his death. His first two published works, Tambari (1973) and Tambari in Dukana (1973) are adventure stories for young readers in which Saro-Wiwa employs qualities of traditional African folktales and oral story-telling set against colorful descriptions of village life. Embarking on a business career, Saro-Wiwa gave up writing until 1985, when he began publishing his own works. In Songs in a Time of War (1985), his first collection of poetry, Saro-Wiwa depicts the tragedy of Nigeria's civil war largely in pidgin (or "rotten") English. His next published work, Sozaboy (1985), is written entirely in pidgin to offer a rhythmic, lyrical sense of authenticity. His most acclaimed work of fiction, the novel concerns a young man who dreams of becoming a "sozaboy," or soldier boy, in the civil war. He is instead captured and forced to fight for the enemy's side, and upon his return home, he learns of his wife's and mother's death in the war and is shunned by his family. A Forest of Flowers (1986), Saro-Wiwa's first short story collection, evokes village life in Nigeria both before and after the civil war. In the 1980s Saro-Wiwa wrote and produced a highly successful television series called Basi and Company. A farcical situation comedy, the show spoofed the widespread corruption in Nigerian government and society. Saro-Wiwa also published a series of books based on the television series. He again satirized the Nigerian government in Prisoners of Jebs (1988), his third novel. The prison portrayed in the novel represents the African continent in microcosm, and this allows Saro-Wiwa the ability to comment on the social and political atmosphere in post-colonial Africa. Saro-Wiwa gained great respect as a critic of Nigeria's—and Africa's—political system beginning with his autobiographical novel On a Darkling Plain (1989), in which he focused on the devastating effects of the war on the Ogoni people of his homeland. After two more volumes of short stories—Adaku and Other Stories (1989) and The Singing Anthill (1991)—Saro-Wiwa turned to nonfiction in Nigeria (1991) and Similia (1991), both of which address the oppression of the Ogoni people. In 1992 Saro-Wiwa published Genocide in Nigeria. In this book, he openly accuses the Nigerian government of genocide because of its compliance with multinational oil companies. Saro-Wiwa's final publication was the posthumous A Month and a Day (1995), the diary he secretly kept during his imprisonment prior to his execution.
While Saro-Wiwa has been praised for his experimentation with pidgin English and his sensitive evocation of village life in his fiction, as well as the biting satire on his television series, Basi and Company, he received the highest praise for his nonfiction works critical of Nigeria's corrupt government. His passionate pleas to end the exploitation of the Ogoni people earned him high regard from environmental and human rights activists around the world.