I first met Ken Saro-Wiwa in London, when he was producing plays and arts programmes about Africa for BBC World Service. Ken was an occasional visitor to the office, a short man, often curled up-on a chair with a big smile, his ever-present pipe and his twinkling eyes. I got a good sense of the steel beneath the chat when I hired him to judge a short story competition. He was a tough bargainer, a seasoned negotiator, particularly when it came to money. The original Nigerian trader showed through.
He was a very successful businessman, who owned his own publishing company, and was not going to be ripped off by anyone. That is one of the things that always attracted me about his writing – he had a grip on the real issues, what really matters to people and his feet were firmly on the ground. But it was then I learnt that I had become the BBC’s correspondent in Nigeria, to be based in Lagos that his political antennae responded. Suddenly the Ogoni issue took over – that was all we could speak about.
I took his claims with a pinch of salt, finding it annoying to pick my way through truth and propaganda. I am not easily convinced about genocide or environmental devastation. But Ken was a very persuasive speaker. And when I saw for myself the huge gas flares dotting the green mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta, I realised there are some real problems which should not be covered up.
Ken was right too when he said that the people who live in Nigeria’s oil-producing areas have seen the benefits from oil production. I have visited villages with no electricity, running water or proper roads. But I have been to places in the far north of Nigeria which are much worse.
Ken also argued that Nigeria’s minority groups should have the right to run their own govern. I did not agree. What Nigeria needs is a functional democracy to enable everyone to have their fair share of resources, not specially set aside places for the 250-odd minorities. That is merely a recipe for chaos.
I have visited Ogoniland several times since Ken’s arrest. I have come to my own conclusions about the rights and the wrongs of the case against him. Nothing he may or may not have done justifies hanging him. It is difficult to be critical. But perhaps I do feel Ken bore some responsibility for the murders that were committed.
His Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People became the spearhead for a real social revolution.
The young men who took over the streets did cause a breakdown in law and order. They did threaten the interests of their elders in the Ogoni community who had been used to a cosy relationship with government and the oil companies. Nobody had managed to make that happen in Nigeria before.
Ken therefore posed a threat to the state, but he was a hero to many of his people. They believed he could change the world. But maybe he did not realise what his power could really do, and what his supporters would do without his permission.
His trial was a travesty. I still do not know if he really took it seriously, because he presented no defence.
The trial took nine months to come to court, and his defence lawyers withdrew part way through, alleging a biased tribunal.
I am still coming to terms with his death. I can still see him walking out of the courtroom on the last day, after he had heard the death sentence. He turned to me and through the mass of armed soldeirs he shouted a greeting: “Good to see you, Janet.”
It was good to know you too Ken. I will be re-reading your novels and plays and I will remember.
Article from Tempo newspaper Nigeria above, published 2 Jan 1996, page 2, under the headline:
“Ken Saro-Wiwa: A Playwright And Revolutionary, But A Man With Trading Instinct “.
Originally published by The Daily Telegraph: 13 November 1995. A valuable first-hand account by a BBC producer and correspondent, Janet Anderson