NIGERIA: A Writer's Violent End, and His Activist Legacy

Publisher Name: 
New York Times

"I had a surprising call this week," the author Richard North
Patterson told the audience that had gathered last weekend as part of
the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. It was
former President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Patterson's new novel, "Eclipse," is based on the case of the
Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Mr. Clinton spoke of a
phone call he had made 14 years ago to Gen. Sani Abacha of Nigeria, asking him to spare Mr. Saro-Wiwa from the hangman.

Mr. Clinton said General Abacha "was very polite," but "he was
cold," Mr. Patterson related. "Clinton took away from that, among other
things, that oil and the need for oil on behalf of the West and other
places made Abacha, in his mind, impervious."

The event's moderator, the Nigerian novelist Okey Ndibe, added an
unexpected epilogue. A friend in the Abacha cabinet said the general
later boasted: "All these pro-democracy activists run to America and
expect America to save them. But the U.S. president himself is calling
me 'sir.' He is scared of me."

Mr. Saro-Wiwa, a popular author who helped create a peaceful mass
movement on behalf of the Ogoni people, was executed in November 1995
along with eight other environmental and human rights activists on what
many contended were trumped-up murder charges. His body was burned with
acid and thrown in an unmarked grave.

PEN, an international association of writers dedicated to defending
free expression, along with Guernica, the online literary magazine,
sponsored the panel with Mr. Patterson, Mr. Ndibe and Ken Wiwa, Mr.
Saro-Wiwa's son, to discuss Mr. Saro-Wiwa's literary and political
legacy.

Fourteen years have passed. General Abacha has died, and Mr.
Saro-Wiwa has had a proper burial, but the circumstances surrounding
the nine executions, along with related incidents of brutal attacks and
torture, are getting another hearing. This month the Wiwa family's
lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell over its role in those events goes to
trial in federal court in Manhattan.

"We feel that Shell's fingerprints are all over," Ken Wiwa told the
audience. "Clearly Shell financed and provided logistical support."

Among the accusations are that Shell employees were present when two
witnesses were offered bribes to testify against Mr. Saro-Wiwa, said
Jennie Green, a senior lawyer at the nonprofit Center for
Constitutional Rights, which is representing the family. She said Mr.
Saro-Wiwa's brother Owens has also stated that Shell's managing
director, Brian Anderson (now retired), told him, "If you call off the
campaign, maybe we can do something for your brother."

Under American law you don't have to be the one who "tightened the noose" to be found guilty, Ms. Green said.

In a statement Shell said: "Shell in no way encouraged or advocated
any act of violence against them or their fellow Ogonis. We believe
that the evidence will show clearly that Shell was not responsible for
these tragic events." The company added, "Shell attempted to persuade
that government to grant clemency."

Mr. Wiwa, 40, said his father was an ebullient, ambitious man with a
wicked sense of humor. "All other things being equal, he probably would
have been a comedian or an actor, but he was compelled to write," he
said.

At the start of the panel two performers read a short excerpt from
Mr. Saro-Wiwa's play "The Transistor Radio," one of many he wrote for
Nigerian radio and television that satirized the country's numbing
poverty and rampant corruption. "Why were you fired?" one man asks
another. He responds, "For getting the job."

Mr. Wiwa, who published a memoir in 2001, "In the Shadow of a
Saint: A Son's Journey to Understand His Father's Legacy" (Steerforth),
said: "My father was a great man. I grew up with this man, the myth and
the memory always in front of me."

He added, "The struggle to define yourself against your father gives
you a sense initially of something to write about," as did the
political situation he found himself thrust into.

Mr. Wiwa is now writing a novel, but he has also felt compelled to
carry on his father's environmental and human rights work. He serves as
a special assistant in the government but warns that the ecological and
human devastation in the Niger delta, one of the world's largest
wetlands, is worse than ever.

Thousands of miles of oil pipelines run through coastland occupied
by the Ogoni people, one of 250 ethnic tribes in Nigeria. Noxious
fumes, spills and development have turned much of the area into a
wasteland, causing severe deforestation as well as desperate poverty.

Going off on his own and writing, untroubled by politics, has "been
a dream for 30 years," said Mr. Wiwa, who is Ogoni, like his father.
But he added, "A lot of my most profound thoughts originate from being
involved in this struggle. It compels you to consider the idea of what
happens if you just go away and write. Because you may not have
anything to say."

Mr. Ndibe asked about sacrifices his family made because of his father's commitment, but Mr. Wiwa demurred.

"All of us have a choice, to make our children safe in the world or
to make the world safe for our children, and there are implications to
that," Mr. Wiwa said, referring to others he has met who share his
situation, like Nelson Mandela's
daughter Zindzi and Nkosinathi Biko, the son of the South African
activist Steve Biko. "Our fathers chose a different path."

Mr. Patterson was on the board of PEN 15 years ago when the
organization lobbied on Mr. Saro-Wiwa's behalf. Before the panel began,
he explained how he came to write "Eclipse." Since 9/11 the United
States has become even more dependent on Nigerian oil, Mr. Patterson
said. "I thought it was time to put Saro-Wiwa in the context of today's
politics of oil: how we are all implicated in the lives of people we
don't even know."

During his imprisonment Mr. Saro-Wiwa said that he often envied
Western writers "who can peacefully practice their craft." Yet he also
recognized that wasn't his path. As he wrote in 1993, "The writer
cannot be a mere storyteller, he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot
merely X-ray society's weaknesses, its ills, its perils, he or she must
be actively involved shaping its present and its future."

AMP Section Name:Human Rights
  • 104 Globalization
  • 106 Money & Politics
  • 185 Corruption
  • 190 Natural Resources