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Book Review: Saro-Wiwa’s Last Strike At The Hangmen By Patrick Naagbanton

December 14, 2013

Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa’s latest book, Silence Would Be Treason – Last Writings of Saro-Wiwa (2013) came to us as a big surprise. Some of us had thought that, “A Month and A Day (1995) was his last memoir. On 11th June 1993, operatives of Nigeria’s secret police, State Security Services (SSS), seized Saro-Wiwa’s international passport. Ten days after, he was “kidnapped” by plainclothes detectives and held in solitary confinement until 22nd July (a month and a day). Saro-Wiwa’s 180 page book (Silence Would be Treason) is published posthumously by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), Dakar, Senegal.

Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa’s latest book, Silence Would Be Treason – Last Writings of Saro-Wiwa (2013) came to us as a big surprise. Some of us had thought that, “A Month and A Day (1995) was his last memoir. On 11th June 1993, operatives of Nigeria’s secret police, State Security Services (SSS), seized Saro-Wiwa’s international passport. Ten days after, he was “kidnapped” by plainclothes detectives and held in solitary confinement until 22nd July (a month and a day). Saro-Wiwa’s 180 page book (Silence Would be Treason) is published posthumously by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), Dakar, Senegal.

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Silence Would be Treason is a different detention diary. The title is taken from one of Saro-Wiwa’s poems in the book, “Keep out of Prison,” page 159. From the book, (Silence Would Be Treason) wouldn’t be his last prison or so work. The current memoir is a collection of 28 letters and 28 poems (not 27 poems, page 3) he wrote while in military custody in Port Harcourt to (Sister Majella McCarron, the Irish missionary, teacher, poet, letter writer and environmental activist) between “20 October and 14 September 1995” (page ix).

Majella was Saro-Wiwa’s long-time friend and supporter of the Ogoni people’s nonviolence struggle for justice. She preserved them and “In 2011, -- donated letters she received from Ken Saro-Wiwa to the library at NUI (National University of Ireland) Maynooth.” (Page vi). There were correspondences between Saro-Wiwa and Majella. We hope she will publish her letters too.

Nigeria’s leading environmental rights campaigner, poet, activist and architect, Nnimmo Bassey wrote a foreword to the book (page ix-xvii), while three distinguished international scholars (Helen Fallon, Ide Corley and Laurence Cox) all at NUI, edited the book. Bassey in page ix denounced the inhuman conditions Saro-Wiwa was subjected before his hanging on 10th November, 1995. His foreword summarized the entire struggles of the Saro-Wiwa, his Ogoni people, the era and its challenges; Nnimo Bassey in the book boldly admitted that he was a student of the Saro-Wiwian School. “…Saro-Wiwa challenged me as a fledging writer who thought I would find a niche as a poet and short story writer. His pioneering work in building a virile environmental justice movement as well as the rights of minorities in Nigeria remains outstanding and continues to inspire campaigners around the world.”

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In the introductory section of the book, Helen Fallon, the Deputy Librarian at the NUI wrote the article, “The Saro-Wiwa Collection at the Library, National University of Ireland Maynooth.” (Page 3-13). While Ide Corley, whose expertise in the areas of “Postcolonial and World literatures,” Irish, African Literatures and struggles for modern African identity is outstanding. She wrote an article in the book, which runs from page 15-30, “Ken Saro-Wiwa and West African Literature; the Politics of Language.” And Laurence Cox, a specialist in social movements theorization and praxis, wrote, “Ken Saro-Wiwa in Political Context; Social Movements in the Niger Delta”(Page 31-38). Expectedly, the above scholars explicated the Saro-Wiwa phenomenon, its merits and demerits and the post-Saro-Wiwa’s epoch in the Niger Delta.

Saro-Wiwa belongs to the PostColonial Nigerian writers who view literature as a tool for consciousness nurturing and mobilization to confront problems of society. This is demonstrated even in his letters and poems in the book. The book exposes Saro-Wiwa as an archetypal soldier of the pen. Writers whether in the global south or north are just the same. Louise Purwin Zobel and Jacqueline Harmon Butler, both famed travel writers and academics, in their book, “Travel Writer’s Handbook” (2007) warned old, new or aspiring writers. “Writing is a public profession. You reveal so much of yourself. You may be writing about somebody quite different in a setting far away, but there’s always a great deal of you in the story. Your secrets, your mistakes are there for the world to see,” (Travel Writer’s Handbook) (page 284).

Silence would be Treason shows that Saro-Wiwa lived as a writer in the Zobel and Butler’s categorization. He knew that what the secrets he was exchanging with her friend and comrade, Majella McCarron would be made public a day. From his tortuous military detention, he shared his secrets about the Ogoni cause, his family, friends and foes and his passion for writing.

The letters start from page 46 and end on page 131, while the poems start from page 134 and end on page 162. The first letter dated 20th October 1993 was virtually a response to Majella’s earlier letter. Saro-Wiwa was thanking her for mobilizing grants to help his poor Ogoni villagers when they were attacked. “Thanks for your note. I’m really quite happy to have EC (European Commission) help pass through the Catholic Church. You’ve all been supportive and MOSOP will be right glad to have such friends or supervisors”, he wrote on page 46.

From page 54, one sees the real anguish of Saro-Wiwa in deplorable military custody. On Saturday, 21st May 1994, four chiefs from the Gokana Kingdom of the Ogoni nation were murdered at Giokoo community, the traditional home of the Gokana people. Saro-Wiwa and others were promptly arrested as the masterminds. In the letters, Saro-Wiwa stated explicitly his innocence of the allegation of murders. There was no evidence of Saro-Wiwa’s direct or indirect involvement in the murders of the chiefs, which he had some relations with. In the third letter on page 54, he lamented about his condition. “My current detention is sheer torture. I’m a private prisoner of the Lt. Col. Komo and his Internal Security Task Force”.

Komo was the Military Administrator of Rivers State, who from the letters, was posted to the state to “pacify” the Ogoni. While, the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force (RSISTF) was headed by Major Paul Okuntimo. In the book, Saro-Wiwa tagged Okuntimo, “the sadist” because of the beating of famous British ecologist, Nick Aston of Jones, (page 66). In page 86, the 15th letter to Majella dated 27th October 1994, he described Okuntimo again as “Commander of the Ogoni murder squad.” In September, Saro-Wiwa informed that as a new person, Major Obi Umahi took over as the head of the RSISTF and continued the bloodletting from where his successor stopped. Apart from Ogoniland, the RSISTF also committed violence and extra-judicial killings in place like Etche Local Government Area and other places in the state. But their killings and violence spree was more in Ogoniland than any other place.

In later part of that third letter in page 55, Saro-Wiwa told us again that he knew the consequences of his nonviolence struggle. “I am not worried for myself. When I undertook to confront Shell and the Nigerian establishment, I signed my death warrant, so to speak. At 52, I think I’ve served my time and, come to face it, I’ve lived a charmed life. A few more books, maybe, & the opportunity to assist others would have been welcome. But it’s okay,” he said. In page 117, offended by the unbearable condition in detention, sought for martyrdom for the sake of his people, “… have always recognized that my cause could lead to death”, he said.

In same letter above, Saro-Wiwa reinforced his guiltlessness and blamed the murders on the tyrannical state under General Sani Abacha “I even suspect that Kobani and others were murdered by the security agencies in order to justify some of the reports that had been submitted by the security people in support of the Constitutional Conference. We (Ledum Mitee and I) have met soldiers who are prepared, if they have the protection, to talk about what instructions they had, who looted what, who killed whom,” he said (page 88). He re-defined what the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), the organization he founded was all about. “Of course, I and MOSOP had nothing to do with the death of the 4 gentlemen. We are struggling for justice, not for power” Here again, Saro-Wiwa pointedly accused Komo of complicity in the murders of the chiefs. “Komo has just succeeded in mask the government’s role in the unfortunate and brutal deaths”. 

Though such custody Saro-Wiwa was dumped into wasn’t a good place to be, but it afforded him the opportunity to write and read copiously.  In letter 16(page 11), he took solace in what the comrades before him had suffered. “Yes, I have everything to be thankful for, and do not forget that I’ve been here only 23 weeks now. Mandela and Walter Sisulu were there for 26/27 years. How can I complain?” He also lamented the lack of culture of writing among his Ogoni people and others.

In three places in the book – page 59, 111 and 113 respectively, mention were made of a book, which we have not seen or heard about. In page 59, he said, “…somehow, I’m finding a lot of activity – reading and writing. I’ve now completed a volume of short stories. I’ve actually written five of the stories before now. I’ve done 5 more & gotten a book.” The editors alleged that it might be “A Kind of Festival and Other Stories”. Saro-Wiwa also said, “I start on re-writing the novel I lost in 1992 at the end of next week.” The editors’ guessed again, it might be another book, Lemona’s Tale. In letter 23, page 111, he wrote; “However, I hope to complete the diary of my first detention and to send it off to the U.K. in the hope that I might find a publisher. Also a collection of short stories, A Kind of Festival and Other Stories which I believe to be the best of the three collections I’ve done so far.” Again, in page 113, “…I’ve completed the corrections on my latest short story collection A Kind of Festival and Other Stories. I think this collection my best so far. I’II be sending both to junior Ken & asking him to see if he can get a publisher in the U.K.”

On page 84 (letter 14) Saro-Wiwa stated clearly that he was not going into partisan politics, rather expanding the Ogoni struggle to other parts of the Niger Delta. He outlined what he was struggling as “ERECTISM – ethnic autonomy, resource and environmental control.” In same page, Saro-Wiwa eulogized Oronto Natei Douglas, “Oronto is a lawyer and committed to the Niger Delta – his home is one of the six places studied.” Not only Oronto, he also praised progressive Yoruba leaders and independent press and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)( page 100). “Locally, the support of the non-governmental press has been tremendous. And Yoruba leaders meeting on August 31 (1994) sent solidarity messages to the Ogoni and called for my release” (Page 72).

Icons like Wole Soyinka, the late Claude Ake and the late British Anita Roddick, the late Gani Fawehinmi were lavishly praised by Saro-Wiwa (see pages 61,72,90,108,106,114,117 and 130). He also mentioned the roles of other defence lawyers, Femi Falana, Olisa Agbakobar and his younger brother, Owens Wiwa (pages 106 and 114). He also praised Mairead Corrigan, the Northern Ireland peace activist award winner (page 123), the Irish and their organisations like Trocaire( page 106) and the Ogoni Solidarity Ireland(page 123). Remember that Saro-Wiwa had said he drew some of his inspiration from the Irish Renaissance of the Swiftian period.

Even in prison, Saro-Wiwa’s undying love for his suffering Ogoni people was demonstrated. From there, he deployed his diminishing financial resources to support them – especially his comrades who were either in detention, underground or haunted – page 109. On page 130, he vowed, “I am in good spirits, expecting the worst as usual, but hopeful for the best.” According to the book, Saro-Wiwa’s deep distrust in the Nigerian judiciary, contrary to his parent’s expectation is exposed. “My parents are always in court, and my father believes that I will be free at the end of the case. I’ve tried very hard to dampen his optimism but the old man won’t budge. I just hope he does not get a rude shock” (Page 130). On page 88 (letter 15) Saro-Wiwa warned, “Don’t expect anything from the court. The matter is political, and the military do not care for the judicial system”, ( page 87).

Saro-Wiwa strongly believed that the intervention of the West would save the situation of the Ogoni. He specifically appealed to the American President Jimmy Carter to intervene in the Ogoni situation as well as Western embassies in Nigeria. He took a swipe at the military dictatorship and called on the European Union (EU) and the Americans to kick the military out if any meaningful development would take place in Nigeria. They couldn’t save Ken Saro-Wiwa. Abacha hanged him on 10th November 1995. But General Abacha, the maximum head of the Nigerian establishment was eventually kicked out as Saro-Wiwa requested. He reportedly died of “cardiac arrest”. Professor Charles R. Larson, in his ground-breaking book, The Ordeal of the African Writer (2001) on page 140, lampooned the international system Saro-Wiwa believed so much in. “Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa’s execution by hanging on 10 November 1995 was a travesty of justice, a mockery of human rights and a failure of international diplomacy”.

From page 133-162 are the 28 poems. In the collection, Saro-Wiwa poeticised about the Ogoni struggle-“Around the drooping neck of a shell-shocked land”- page 143. The sweeping solidarity for the Ogoni struggle, “On the walls of history”- page 142. His love of great women like Anita Roddick, “I would sing your song”- page 136 and Majella McCarron, “--- To a journey of faith/-- For the voiceless of the earth!/-- And strange lands, we pour fourth/--- Of your Ogoni, my Fermangh”, page 137. He complained about “the agony of trees dying—of dying children” (page 143) and poor Ogoni women, “Her wretched soul destroyed”- line 4 on page 150. He satirized about prison condition in the poem, “Prison Song”- “Bedbugs, fleas and insects/---- I’m reminded of this crude place/Shared with unusual inmates”- page 140.

Saro-Wiwa, even when walking to his grave didn’t spare military dictatorship- “Makes Babangidance such a hit!” (Line 12 in page 148). Babangidance, derived from the name of Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, Nigeria’s former military ruler becomes a metaphor for dictatorship. He wrote of his love for his children, both male and female. It pervades both the letters and poems. But deeper one for the females- Zina and her sisters ( Singto, Adele, Noo) “which you and your kids must ponder”- page 151. Back to the letters, Saro-Wiwa was happy that, “– I have a real team of capable women, if they do not meet and get enslaved by some mean men!”

The book, Silence Would be Treason – Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa, is a great book. It revives and supplements the fading memories of actors and actresses like us (not spectators) during the gloomy days. It needs to be read carefully with an open mind. The book contains correct information about the hey days of the Ogoni struggle, its victories, failures, betrayals and travails in the naked face of highly organized state/corporate violence and conspiracies against a marginalised and embittered people of the eastern Niger Delta belt in Nigeria.


Naagbanton, the book reviewer lives in Port Harcourt, Rivers State capital

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