Ken Wiwa: In the Shadow of a Saint

Ken Wiwa, the son of slain Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, recently spoke to a group of students and journalists at the Kennedy School of Government. Wiwa was twenty-six years old when his father, the outspoken advocate for the economic and environmental rights of the Ogoni people in Nigeria, was executed by hanging on November 10, 1995, in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. His father’s death was headline news internationally and his name became a potent symbol in the struggle between indigenous peoples and the forces of globalization.

Wiwa’s appearance, which was tied to a publicity campaign for his new book, In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son’s Journey to Understand his Father’s Legacy, took the format of a lecture, with brief readings from the book, followed by questions from the audience. In addition to explaining his reasons for the writing the book, Wiwa addressed topics ranging from Shell Oil’s role in his father’s death to the current and future state of Nigeria.

On the Death of Ken Saro-Wiwa
Wiwa began the discussion by reading lengthy excerpts from three sections of his book. The first excerpt described the experience of his family on the day of his father’s execution. Wiwa’s father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight other Ogoni men were hanged on November 10, 1995 in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

Ken Saro-Wiwa had been arrested on May 21st, 1994, and although no charges were laid, the government alleged that he had conspired to kill four Ogoni chiefs in a riot earlier that day. It is widely believed that Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogoni men were truly on trial for having effectively organized the Ogoni people, into the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), to stand up for their rights in the face of abuse from the Nigerian dictatorship and the Shell Oil Company.

“Shell has never owned up to its mistakes and it continues to practice double-standards in Ogoni, Nigeria”, Wiwa told a packed auditorium in Pound Hall. “Numerous human rights and environmental abuses continue to occur in Ogoni till today” he said. Wiwa recommended that Shell should go back and own up to its wrongdoings in Ogoni.

Life in Nigeria
Wiwa’s second excerpt was a description of his return to Nigeria after 20 years in England. Wiwa was born in Lagos, Nigeria and was sent to England at an early age to pursue his education. Wiwa returned to Nigeria at the behest of his father to become involved in rebuilding the country he had left as a child.

“Nigeria should be God’s own country in Africa, “Wiwa said describing Nigeria’s potential. “One in six Africans and one in ten blacks are Nigerian. It ought to be the pride of the black man, but despite earning an estimated $600 billion from oil since 1960, Nigeria has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world and external debts of $40 billion.”

“I only spent 10 years in Nigeria as a child, and as a result, I can only write from that point of view,” Wiwa said when responding to a question about his negative views of Nigeria as an outsider. “I strongly believe there is hope for Nigeria, however, my views in the book are a result of my experiences after returning to Nigeria after being away for almost 20 years.”

Dealing with the Legacy
Wiwa’s third excerpt was a return to the events that motivated him to write his book. In 1997, two years after the death of his father, Wiwa decided to start writing a book about his father’s life and death. Wiwa had felt feelings of guilt, betrayal, and confusion before he decided to confront his feelings about his father.

He spent the next three years writing the memoir, trying to unravel the complexities of his relationship with his father. In the course of writing his book, Wiwa interviewed the children of other freedom fighters including Nkosinathi Biko, the son of South African freedom fighter Steve Biko, and Zindizi Mandela, daughter of famed South African leader Nelson Mandela, to get a better understanding of how others like himself have dealt with similar relationships.

“I am not concerned with the issue of living up to my father’s legacy” said Wiwa when asked how he felt about outdoing his father given his burden as his son. “My father told me to take my time when making my own contribution and that is what I intend to do,” he replied when asked if he ever thought of making more of a political contribution towards the continuing plight of the Ogoni people in Nigeria.

“As the first-born child of my father, I am responsible for everyone in my family, including my eight brothers and sisters, my grand parents and numerous relatives. My first priority is taking care of my family.”