“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.”
Nigerian environmentalist, author, and television producer Ken Saro-Wiwa lived and died by the words above. Born on October 10, 1941, Kenule “Ken” Beeson Saro Wiwa was an Ogoni (an ethnic minority in Nigeria). Ogoniland, located in the Niger Delta, is rich in oil that has been looted by the petroleum industry — with the explicit consent of the Nigerian government — for decades. As a result, the Niger Delta is listed as one of the most polluted places in the world; its population is poor and powerless.
Saro-Wiwa spent a great deal of his life and resources trying to fight against the environmental destruction of the land and waters of Ogoniland. He founded the non-violent organization Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) as a way to bring international attention to the plight of his people. An outspoken critic of the Nigerian government and the multi-national oil companies, Saro-Wiwa was arrested and detained numerous times on bogus charges. A prolific writer, he authored many books about his imprisonment, such as Before I am Hanged and A Month and a Day.
In 1994, the Nigerian government under General Sani Abacha charged Saro-Wiwa and eight others with inciting the murders of four conservative Ogoni chiefs. Despite numerous evidence of witness tampering, the nine men were convicted and sentenced to death by a military tribunal. In his closing statement, Saro-Wiwa called out both his government and the Royal Dutch Shell Company:
I have devoted my intellectual and material resources, my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief and from which I cannot be blackmailed or intimidated… I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is on trial… On trial also is the Nigerian nation, its present rulers and those who assist them. Any nation which can do to the weak and disadvantaged what the Nigerian nation has done to the Ogoni, loses a claim to independence and to freedom from outside influence.
Despite international outcry and numerous threats of international sanctions, on November 10, 1995, Nigeria summarily executed Saro-Wiwa and his eight co-defendants.
Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Wiwa, along with international human rights groups, sued Shell for human rights violation inthe Niger Delta and a host of other crimes in connection with Saro-Wiwa’s and other civilian deaths. In 2009, Shell settled the case for $15.5 million USD days before the trial was set to begin in New York City.
Although Shell ceased its operations in Ogoniland in 1993, the environmental damage has not been undone and other oil companies continue to exploit the region.
Today, Saro-Wiwa is remembered as an international symbol of environmental causes.