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Popularly known as Ken Saro Wiwa, the man was born on the 10th 0f October 1941 to Jim and Widu Wiwa. The couple named the child Kenule Beeson TSaro-Wiwa; a name he will later change to Saro-Wiwa after the Nigerian Civil war. The man Ken Saro-Wiwa was known as a Nigerian writer, television producer, environmental activist, and winner of the Right Livelihood Award and the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Background and Early Education

Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in Nigeria whose homeland, Ogoniland, is found in the Niger Delta. Regarded as an excellent student, he received primary education at a Native Authority School in Bori, Secondary education at Government College, Umuahia and eventually obtained a post-secondary school scholarship to study English at the University of Ibadan. Because of his excellent performances in the arts and cultural related performances home and abroad, He had an appointment as a teaching assistant at the University of Lagos and later at University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

Saro-Wiwa: Bonny to the Bone

Saro-wiwa was a leader at his core; at one time, he became the Civilian Administrator for the port city of Bonny in the Niger Delta. He followed his job as an administrator with an appointment as a regional commissioner of education in the old Rivers State. In conjunction with his administrative exploits, he was also an excellent business man; establishing a number of successful business ventures in retail and real estate, and during the 1980s concentrated primarily on his writing, journalism and television production.

In 1990, Saro-Wiwa began devoting most of his time to human rights and environmental causes, particularly in Ogoniland. He was one of the earliest members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which advocated for the rights of the Ogoni people. The Ogoni Bill of Rights, written by MOSOP, set out the movement’s demands, including increased autonomy for the Ogoni people, a fair share of the proceeds of oil extraction, and remediation of environmental damage to Ogoni lands. In particular, MOSOP struggled against the degradation of Ogoni lands by Royal Dutch Shell.

Saro-Wiwa was also the Vice Chair of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) General Assembly from 1993 to 1995. UNPO was an international, nonviolent, and democratic organisation (of which MOSOP is a member). Its members are indigenous peoples, minorities, and unrecognised or occupied territories who have joined together to protect and promote their human and cultural rights, to preserve their environments and to find nonviolent solutions to conflicts which affect them. In January 1993, MOSOP organised peaceful marches of around 300,000 Ogoni people – more than half of the Ogoni population – through four Ogoni urban centres, drawing international attention to their people’s plight. The same year the Nigerian government occupied the region militarily.

Saro-Wiwa: Short-Life Lived, Long List of Legacies

On the 10th of November 1995, Saro-Wiwa died by a death sentence; an ignoble way for a noble man. The manner of his death however led to an international uproar. After his death, series of tributes, awards and memorial were attributed to him. For example, posthumously, Ken Saro-Wiwa received the Right Livelihood Award for his courage, as well as the Goldman Environmental Prize.

In literature, Saro-Wiwa’s execution is quoted and used as an inspiration for Beverley Naidoo’s novel in 2000, ‘The Other Side of Truth’. Richard North Patterson published a novel in 2009 titled, Eclipse, based upon the life and death of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Furthermore, a collection of handwritten letters by Ken Saro-Wiwa were donated to Maynooth University by Sister Majella McCarron, also in the collection are 27 poems, recordings of visits and meetings with family and friends after Saro-Wiwa’s death, a collection of photographs and other documents. The letters are now in the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI). The Ken Saro-Wiwa Archive is housed in Special Collections at Maynooth University. Other books include Ogoni’s Agonies: Ken Saro Wiwa and the Crisis in Nigeria (1998), edited by Abdul Rasheed Naʾallah, which provides more information on the struggles of the Ogoni people. Onookome Okome’s book, Before I Am Hanged: Ken Saro-Wiwa—Literature, Politics, and Dissent (1999), which is a collection of essays about Wiwa. In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son’s Journey to Understanding His Father’s Legacy, which was written by his son Ken Wiwa.

In terms of Artwork and memorials, a memorial to Saro-Wiwa was unveiled in London on 10 November 2006 by London organisation Platform. It consists of a sculpture in the form of a bus and was created by Nigerian-born artist Sokari Douglas Camp. It toured the UK the following year.

In Music, The Italian band Il Teatro degli Orrori dedicated their song “A sangue freddo” (“In cold blood” – also the title track of their second album) to the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa. The Finnish band Ultra Bra dedicated their song “Ken Saro-Wiwa on kuollut” (“Ken Saro-Wiwa is dead”) to the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa’s execution inspired the song “Rational” by Canadian band King Cobb Steelie. Rapper Milo shouts Ken Saro-Wiwa out on the song Zen Scientist. The punk rock band Anti-Flag talk about him in their song Mumia’s Song.

In Awards, The Association of Nigerian Authors is a sponsor of the Ken Saro-Wiwa Prize for Prose. He is also named a Writer hero by The My Hero Project.

In Amsterdam, a street has been named after Saro-Wiwa, the ‘Ken Saro-Wiwa straat’.

A summarized list of Saro-Wiwa’s Bibliography includes: Tambari (1973), Songs in a Time of War (1985), Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English (1986), Mr. B., Basi and Company: A Modern African Folktale and  Basi and Company: Four Television Plays (all in 1987), On a Darkling Plain: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War (1989), Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy (1992),  A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary (1995).

The Governor of Rivers State, Ezenwo Nyesom Wike renamed the Rivers State Polytechnic after Ken Saro-Wiwa.





Featured image source: The Guardian Nigeria

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This article was first published on 10th June 2019


Jeremiah is a scholar and a poet. He has a keen eye for studying the world and is passionate about people. He tweets at @jeremiahaluwong.

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