Ken Saro-Wiwa Essay - Critical Essays

Saro-Wiwa, Ken


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

The Transistor Radio (radio play) 1972
Bride by Return (radio play) 1973
Tabari (children's fiction) 1973
Tambari in Dukana (children's fiction) 1973
Songs in a Time of War (poetry) 1985
Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English (novel) 1985
A Forest of Flowers (short stories) 1986
Basi and Company: A Modern African Folktale (novel) 1987
Prisoners of Jebs (novel) 1988
Adaku and Other Stories (short stories) 1989
Four Farcical Plays (plays) 1989
On a Darkling Plain: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War (novel) 1989
Nigeria: The Brink of Disaster (essays) 1991
Pita Dumbrok's Prison (novel) 1991
Similia: Essays on Anomic Nigeria (essays) 1991
The Singing Anthill: Ogoni Folk Tales (short stories) 1991
Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy (nonfiction) 1992
A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary (diary) 1995


Graham Hough (review date 3 July 1986)

SOURCE: "Afro-Fictions," in London Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 12, July 3, 1986, pp. 22-3.

[Hough is an English author and educator. In the following review, he praises Saro-Wiwa's ability to capture the peculiarities of Nigerian life in A Forest of Flowers.]

Ken Saro-Wiwa's extremely accomplished collection of short stories [A Forest of Flowers] stands to Nigeria in something of the same relation as Joyce's Dubliners to Ireland. They are brief epiphanies, each crystallising a moment, a way of living, the whole course of a life. When as a youngster I first read Dubliners I remember being baffled by the way eerie characters and their bizarre...

(The entire section is 659 words.)

Ken Goodwin (review date Autumn 1987)

SOURCE: Review of Songs in a Time of War by Ken Saro-Wiwa, in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 27, No. 2, Autumn 1987, pp. 232-33.

[Goodwin is an Australian author and educator. In the following review, he praises Saro-Wiwa's evocation of war-time Nigeria in Songs in a Time of War.]

In this modest contribution to Nigerian poetry in English [Songs in a Time of War], Ken Saro-Wiwa writes chiefly about the political manipulation and human waste of warfare. The war references are to the Biafran war, during which Saro-Wiwa served as a Federal administrator. Though these poems lack the immediacy and vivid particularity of J. P. Clark's war poems, they...

(The entire section is 518 words.)

Adewale Maja-Pearce (review date 22 July 1988)

SOURCE: "Nigeria Laughs at Itself," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. I, No. 7, July 22, 1988, pp. 44.

[Maja-Pearce is a Nigerian-born author, editor, and educator. In the following review, she finds that while its subject matter is worthy of satire, Prisoners of Jebs is not entirely successful.]

Prisoners of Jebs is a collection of 53 sketches, first published as a weekly column between January 1986 and January 1987 in the Nigerian Vanguard newspaper. In the "Author's Note", Ken Saro-Wiwa tells us that he wanted his column to "examine weekly events in Nigeria", and to the extent that a knowledge of Nigerian politics of this period is helpful for...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Ken Saro-Wiwa (essay date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: "The Language of African Literature: A Writer's Testimony," in Research in African Studies, Vol. 23, No. I, Spring 1992, pp. 153-57.

[In the following essay, Saro-Wiwa justifies his choice of writing in English rather than any of the various Nigerian languages.]

I was born to Ogoni parents at Bori on the northern fringes of the delta of the Niger during the Second World War. I grew up speaking one of the three Ogoni languages—Khana, my mother-tongue—and listening to and telling folk tales in that language.

When I went to primary school in 1947, I was taught in my mother-tongue during the first two years. During the other six years of the...

(The entire section is 2471 words.)

William Boyd (essay date 27 November 1995)

SOURCE: "Death of a Writer," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, No. 38, November 27, 1995, pp. 51-5.

[Boyd is an acclaimed English novelist. In the following essay, he eulogizes his friend Saro-Wiwa and describes events that led up to his execution.]

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a friend of mine. At eleven-thirty in the morning on November 10th, he was hanged in a prison in Port Harcourt, in eastern Nigeria, on the orders of General Sani Abacha, the military leader of Nigeria. Ken Saro-Wiwa was fifty-four years old, and an innocent man.

I first met Ken in the summer of 1986 at a British Council seminar at Cambridge University. He had come to England from Nigeria in...

(The entire section is 2630 words.)

Rob Nixon (review date 4 April 1996)

SOURCE: "Pipe Dreams," in London Review of Books, Vol. 18, No. 7, April 4, 1996, pp. 18-19.

[Nixon is an English author and educator. In the following review of Saro-Wiwa's detention diary, A Month and a Day, he describes conditions in Nigeria after the encroachment of transnational companies—such as Shell Oil—into developing countries.]

Ken Saro-Wiwa squints at us from the cover of his detention diary, the posthumous A Month and a Day. His moustache looks precise and trim; his eyes are alight; the distinctive gash scrawls across his temple. But the picture is governed by his pipe. It's an intellectual's accessory, a good pipe to suck and clench, to...

(The entire section is 3291 words.)

Joshua Hammer (essay date June 1996)

SOURCE: "Nigeria Crude: A Hanged Man and an Oil-Fouled Landscape," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 292, No. 1753, pp. 58-68.

[Hammer is a journalist working in Africa. In the following essay, he covers the trial and execution of Saro-Wiwa and examines conditions in the Nigerian government and Shell Oil.]

The Commissioner went away, taking three or four of the soldiers with him. In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learned a number of things. One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting a hanged man from the tree. Such attention would give...

(The entire section is 6938 words.)

David Rieff (review date 16 June 1997)

SOURCE: "The Ruin of Nigeria, the Ruin of Africa. The Threat of Death," in The New Republic, Vol. 216, No. 24, June 16, 1997, pp. 33-41.

[Rieff is an American political writer. In the following review of A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary and Wole Soyinka's The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, he examines the current political, social, and economic state of Nigeria in particular and Africa overall.]


The hangmen who, on November 10, 1995, carried out the execution of the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues from MOSOP, or the Movement for the Salvation of the...

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Further Reading


George, Karibi T. "Myth and History in Ken Saro-Wiwa's Basi and Company: A Modern African Folktale." In African Literature and African Historical Experiences, edited by Chidi Ikonne, Emelia Oko, and Peter Onwudinjo, pp. 107-15. Ibadan, Nigeria: Heinemann Educational Books Nigeria PLC, 1991.

Uses an African traditionalist aesthetic criticism to explore Saro-Wiwa's use of the oral story-telling tradition in Basi and Company.

Maja-Pearce, Adewale. "Do It Yourself." New Statesman 112, No. 2885 (11 July 1986): 32-33.

Brief review of A Forest of...

(The entire section is 130 words.)