This article has been in the works since November 1995 when Abacha killed the writer, activist and businessman, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Oftentimes I tried to forge ahead with it, but my ink dried up quicker than my thoughts could assume coherence. Recent events have fired my resolve to conclude and publish it.
The Justice Oputa-led Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission has been sitting awhile now, among other things, fanning the embers of controversy. Many still believe it is an exercise in futility. Others, on the other hand, are convinced it gives those who will tell the truth a podium and audience (and those who have no truth in them a chance to lead a perplexed Nigeria deeper into the forest of no return).
It also brought Kenule Saro-Wiwa back like a wound forever open into the forefront of national discourse.
Abi you too big to get small sense?”
Ken it was who called cross border attention to the fallout of about 40 years of rape of nature in certain sections of Nigeria, resulting in wasted landscapes and atmospheric pollution. “Nigeria is a cruel and harsh society to the minorities,” he used to say. Four Ogoni chiefs were killed in one of the pockets of civil disturbances that still discolor the area today and Ken was accused of being the ‘brain’ behind their murder.
Why all your tings na soso confusion?”
This piece isn’t about the guilt or non-guilt of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Rather, it’s a reflection on the murder of fair hearing. The enlightened few knew the hangman’s noose had been around Ken’s neck long before the case went to the charade they called a tribunal – long before the crime itself was hatched (if it was) and committed. If they had sentenced him to death after a trial in a normal court of law, right in the eye of the world, with a counsel chosen by him to state his side of the case, perhaps the conclusions would have been accepted.
“Anything that is predicated on double-standards cannot last”
I was one of the naïve fools who thought – no, hoped – Abacha couldn’t be so crazy that he would kill a Ken. But he did. Abacha was that kind of freak show, absolutely beyond predictability. And the Western powers that many expected to come charging in like rampaging bulls only stomped their feet and foamed at the mouth. They killed Ken Saro-Wiwa and the heart of the world did not even skip a beat. The sun rose the next morning. And the morning after…
“What are the greatest books on earth? The greatest books have to do with the devil”
His real crime was an abundance of talents: literary, oratory, above all, organizational. Ken was the civilian general marshalling his troops to the battlefield of ideas…for that was all the weapon he used; words. On paper, on the airwaves, at public gatherings, a little man flexing rippling muscles of ideas. He was a man of ideas, this Ken Saro-Wiwa. “Give me a better argument” was another of his favorite sayings, his hands flying like those of a thespian in the throes of impassioned characterization, swinging the perennially short-lived pipe in wild arcs in the space between him and his captive audience.
“Goodness is bland. It is wickedness that touches the imagination.”
A better argument? That was never a mean task in Ken’s permanent state of cerebral preparedness. The people who wanted him out of the way couldn’t think much anyway. What, Abacha, think? The goggled general was probably top of the class of people Ken thought had “hearts of stone and the brains of millipedes, because they’re not responding to pain. They don’t care.”
“For yonder soza dey shoot him enemy
Nigeria soza dey shoot him broder.”
Despite his frustrations and pain, Ken had a laugh that took you warmly by the hand, urging you to walk alongside him. There were variations to that laughter. It had its hues: angry, mocking, teasing… He brought the laughter into the homes of many Nigerians with Basi and Co, his TV show. He dragged laughter kicking and fighting into the confined space of our many frustrations. The laughter of his work was the laughter of his life. The laughter, hearty and booming and body shaking and prolonged…What was he laughing at, I once wondered. His laughter always preceded his entry into the hall. That bellyful laughter that rocked him and your eardrums and the room…What was he laughing at?
“Forgive me friend, if I laugh
At what should make me cry.”
Like many, I used to think he was playing to the gallery, a cantankerous little man thirsty for attention – and maybe the flirting gaze of the “someday” Nobel. But how wrong I was. How so wrong. He had to make noise because he needed to make himself heard amidst the din. Numbers are a factor in the strange kind of politics we play in Nigeria and the wail of little Ogoni with just a few hundred thousand mostly under-educated folks couldn’t be heard. A champion was needed. A man who had gone through the ranks and knew the power of timing and punchlines and understood the psychology of attention.
“It lit the dark
That gentle laugh…
But it was only the low laugh
Of one who was soon to die”
Was he preaching secession and disintegration? What else could he mean by saying “if it doesn’t work, why should you keep it going? At whose cost do you keep Nigeria going?” Now, we know better. Words were his artillery. He had to put them to creative use to shock and draw attention to the need to protect the minority voice in Nigeria before the majority blindly wiped them out. Yes, he talked “Ogoni,” but it was a platform for bigger concerns. “I believe the black man is so far down that he has to do something to pull himself up. But it is not through the way Nigeria is doing it. Nigeria is leading the black man into perdition.”
“To be, we have to think.”
You couldn’t have a conversation with ken without him mentioning a book of his. It used to sound like a publicity gimmick. Thinking about it now, Ken wrote about so many different issues in a couple of dozen books, over 80 TV scripts, countless articles and columns in every newspaper or magazine that had a readership. He could always refer to something because he had addressed it someplace, sometime. And his mind had total recall.
“I want the country to be together. I want one country, but I want a true federation, not this apparition…”
During an interview with him in 1991 when he turned 50 (in his tiny office at Ojuelegba), Ken likened his persecution to that of Jesus Christ who was eventually crucified. If only he knew… He couldn’t have anticipated the extent the madmen in power were willing to go! Asked if he ever contemplated arrest, he countered “You cannot destroy an idea like mine…Even if I were to die tomorrow, even if I were to be locked up in prison…You can’t destroy an idea like mine.”
“People have to think. Africans must think if we are to improve our society…so you can establish theories and test your practice against those theories. And if you fail, you go back. You look at the theory again.”
Tomorrow came and they imprisoned him. Tomorrow came and he died. But he was right about one thing: his ideas soar with his ghost like the phoenix, haunting his killers…haunting us all. They killed him because they were afraid. Those who think they have more patriotism than the rest of us they lord it over…They killed him because they were afraid. He was the single tree who made the forest, the one man that was an island, the footfall that caused an earthquake, the exception that taunted the rule. They killed him out of fear. But instead of snuffing out his pipe, they lit a volcano in it.
“Look at the history of this country…what is this history of bloodshed?
He asked of Babangida’s “disengagement” plans in 1991, “there is a transition programme going on, but what are you transiting to? You can’t transit to chaos and despair…” We did, Ken. We did. He was once asked how he would address the Nigerian problem if he became president: his response? “The thing is so far-fetched that it doesn’t arise at all.” He never had a conversation without calling our attention to the past: “Unless you go back to how the country started, we will never be able to find a way out of our dilemma.”
“A book must stir you up to do something.”
He was a man unafraid to do something. Read his books. Discover his convictions. He respected talent. He respected life. It doesn’t matter what Justice Auta and PRC propaganda tried to make us all think. It matters less if some insist “he carries (a) moral responsibility for the murders.” Ken was too intelligent to be involved with murder. That booming laughter would have perished the thought, mocked it into the grave. I say that with due respect to the memory of the four chiefs who lost their lives. Their children, wives and parents also deserve justice, but the Ken I knew couldn’t have been a killer. His rage wasn’t unchanelled and directionless and self-consuming. It was focused, caring, educated, righteous.
“…I beg make una sorry me small
Becos I don confuse well well at all
Sake of dis I-love-I-no-love Nigeria
At first, they killed Dele Giwa. We sighed. Then they killed Mamman Vatsa.We sighed again. Then they killed Ken. Must soldiers always behave true to form? You cannot strip a giant of his giganticism, even if you bury him like a dog. Since the entry of the military into the arena of Nigerian politics, our nation has done nothing but feast on the entrails of its children. Nobel Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka has consistently said there is a need to demystify the gun. And tin-goddism, I dare say. Writers write. They don’t kill. Soldiers kill. That’s what they do.
“My vision of Nigeria is of a competent, well-ordered society where people care for each other and where the laws protect the weak and enhance the abilities of all citizens. Simple.”
Did they read Songs In A Time of War? On a Darkling Plain? Pita Dumbrok’s Prison? He only urged us to ask questions, query the status quo. But that is anathema to the rulers Nigeria has had across the years. Do they even read anything? When books intimidate, you cannot be receptive to other views, and in Ken’s immortal words, “It is the responsibility of the writer who has thought about his ideas very carefully to present them fearlessly.” Immortal? Oh yes. Ken had already immortalized his own name in the numerous books, but the clowns who swung him from the pole only martyred him. His ghost, guilty or wrongly accused, will forever haunt our beleaguered country – haunt us until the injustices that led to his death and all other unjust deaths that daily consume the voiceless masses in Nigeria are forever exorcised. They are lesions, folks, and only the keen edged blade can excise them.
“In the daytime, I don’t do any writing. I’m in business. At night, I’m a writer.”
I remember him twirling everyplace on his little legs at the 1990 Unibadan Convention where he was elected to replace Prof. Femi Osofisan as the president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA (they killed him during another convention). I recall now an illustration of him by the artist Yomi Ola in the Daily Times, his head bulbous, his pipe in perspective. I understand he found that image funny. He was in the habit of poking fun at his small frame before you could. I remember it all like it was only yesterday…I see it all begin to fade away…
“You go sorry for yourself oh, Nigeria
Me I tire for all your wahala.”
But ken is out of it now. He doesn’t have to concern himself with the constant harassment of security operatives. Even his ecological and human rights worries are unimportant to him now. He’s sucking that eternal pipe in that mysterious wherever inhabited by hanged men and their hangmen, all waiting to answer the questions evaded on this plane of existence.
“Oh, Nigeria, I too like you.”
Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed Nov 5, 1995 by Sani Abacha.
Ken Saro-Wiwa lives still.
All quotes by Ken Saro-Wiwa in interviews and books.
Writers Ken Saro-Wiwa (late) and Flora Nwapa (late).
Pix by Sola Osofisan
“Water wey dey boil
No hot like dis Nigeria”