Skip to main content

Goodbye, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. By ‘Tope Oriola

October 28, 2016

Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. and I met at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua center in Abuja in 2010 when I was conducting research for my book Criminal Resistance? The Politics of Kidnapping Oil Workers. I was eager to interview the scion of the Saro-Wiwa family. I was particularly interested in the symbolism of the extrajudicial assassination of the Ogoni Nine (including Ken’s father) and the turn to explicitly violent repertoires of protest in the Niger Delta. Ken sent me a text a few days after my interview with Alhaji Asari Dokubo. Ken was planning to travel to London and wanted to know if I was still in Abuja, so we could have the interview before his departure. It was quite thoughtful of Ken. I was no longer in Abuja but flew the following morning to meet him at the Nicon Hilton Hotel.

I was shocked at the death of Ken on 18 October 2016 at the unripe age of 47. I remembered the one-hour-six-minute interview and Ken’s ebullience, confidence and acuity. I checked my records and listened once again to the interview. His voice, suave; his words, scintillatingly multichromatic and his understanding of the labyrinth of Nigeria’s oil-related insurgency profoundly befitting of the son of the lamb of Ogoni and lamp of the Niger Delta struggle for environmental justice and resource control. I also revisited Ken’s 261-page book In the shadow of a saint: A son’s journey to understand his father’s legacy.

Ken’s life was shaped by the monumental size of his father’s life, oeuvre and legacy. The opening line of Ken’s book puts it succinctly: “My father. Where does he end and where do I begin? I seem to have spent my whole life chasing his shadow…Is my life predetermined by his?” Ken struggled (or was perhaps reluctant) to cope with the enormous pressure posed by the world-historical identity of his father. Ken senior once drove his son around the sites of his businesses and told his son that all he had was “for one purpose: to secure justice for our people”. Ken informed me that somehow everyone expected him to step into his father’s shoes without consideration for what he wanted for himself and the significant difference between his upbringing (largely in England) and that of his father. He did not have similar experiences as his father and did not want to be an activist.

However, fate had some other plans for the young Ken. He had to rally the world to avert the seemingly pre-determined judgment of the Justice Ibrahim Auta tribunal. Ken was in New Zealand making efforts to engage with the likes of Nelson Mandela and other heads of commonwealth states when it became clear that the Ogoni Nine had been executed. Ken was 26 years old when his father was hanged in 1995. The manner of Ken senior’s death was profoundly evocative for Ken Jr. The hangmen tried five times before succeeding: “His corpse was dumped in an unmarked grave; acid was poured on his remains and soldiers posted outside the cemetery”.

Ken Jr. was suddenly thrust on the world stage and was expected to lead a fight against global oil capital and its entrenched interests. Ken said that he “hesitated, then left the stage altogether, pleading political naiveté and the need for time” to mourn his father. The senior Ken’s novella Lemona’s Tale was delivered to Ken Jr. after his father’s death. Junior did not touch it for a year. After the deciding to read it, he realized that in some ways his father was communicating with his children through the book. The final line of Lemona’s Tale spoke volumes. In it, Ken senior writes: “As I mounted the doorsteps of the plane, I thought how unfair it is that children do not choose their parents.”

I asked Ken if he agreed that it was rather paradoxical that the man who stood for nonviolent protest would be the symbol of inspiration for agitators who were destroying pipelines. He said his father challenged the Nigerian state with the “tools at his disposal”, such as education and media savviness but “the new generation does not necessarily have those tools and they are responding the way they know how”.

The interview also covered the $15.5 million out-of-court settlement reached by families of the Ogoni Nine with Shell in June 2009. I read out loud to Ken an extract from his book where he claimed that: “It was evident that Shell was in some ways responsible. Its fingerprints were all over the hangings”. I asked him: “Why did you accept the settlement? Would you say that you allowed your head to overrule your heart?” Ken said he listened to various perspectives on the matter. He also received legal counsel from experts who had been involved in similar kinds of litigations for over 40 years. He said several families were involved in the lawsuit. Therefore, “what is important to Ken Saro-Wiwa and his son is not more important than what happens to (the woman) who had her arm chopped off and lost her baby… Nobody talked about her in the media and wondered how she manages to survive. So, her view and her needs are just as important as Ken Saro-Wiwa’s”. He said they had to get the agreement of everybody involved and the discussions were intense. The settlement was needed by some of the families involved despite the criticisms by some Nigerians.

Legitimate questions may be asked about Ken’s role in government and what he accomplished for the Ogoni as presidential adviser. Nonetheless, very few families and individuals than the Saro-Wiwas have contended with the complexities of global finance, geopolitics and the world’s insatiable appetite for oil. Governments and NGOs in developing countries must learn from the Ogoni struggle whenever they are tempted to rush to western capitals for solutions to their problems. Ken felt let down by the international community, particularly the Commonwealth Heads of Governments who chose to deploy “constructive engagement” rather than concise action in dealing with General Sani Abacha. A recent piece by Kialee Nyiayaana, a friend and colleague at the University of Port Harcourt, indicates that there are still some Ogoni refugees in the Republic of Benin over 20 years after Saro-Wiwa’s death. This is how Nigeria treats its own.

The insurgency 3.0 led by the Niger Delta Avengers continues in full swing. The Nigerian state has all the signifying power. Militarization does not work and although the amnesty program may buy a modicum of peace, wholesale infrastructural and industrial development in the Niger Delta and fiscal federalism remain some of the most viable solutions.

Overall, I was impressed by KSW’s fine mind. His perspective was nuanced — the type that can comes from someone with a front row seat in life’s amphitheatre. As I gaze at the photographs of Ken and I from the day of the interview, Ken’s voice rings through my computer. I am left wondering: Why do the good ones die young? What a world! Goodbye, KSW.

‘Tope Oriola is professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, Canada. Follow me on Twitter: @topeoriola