Ken Saro-Wiwa was a writer and television producer of the hit series Basi and Company and most notably known for his civil rights advocacy for the Ogoni people against the environmental and political injustice by the Nigerian government and particularly against the oil company, Royal Dutch Shell.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was born to Jim Wiwa, an Ogoni chieftain, in Bori, southern Nigeria. He grew up in an Anglican home where he had access to education. He attended the prestigious Government College, Umuahia and as s a result of his excellent performance in secondary school, he obtained full scholarship to study at the University of Ibadan, where he majored in English. After graduation, he worked briefly as teaching assistant at the University of Lagos.
Saro-Wiwa was a novelist, poet and author of satirical works and children’s stories. His first novels, Songs in a Time of war and Sozaboy were published in 1985. As a television series writer and producer, his most famous work was Basi and Company: a comedic drama series in the 1980s that profiled the lives of street-gang youths in Lagos, Nigeria which aired over 150 episodes. Ken Saro-Wiwa was also a columnist for the Lagos Sunday Times, a role which gained him an international audience. Towards the end of the 1980s, most of his writings were political satires, through which he criticized the Federal Government for corrupt practices.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was a civil rights advocate for the Ogoni people, a minority ethnic group in southern Nigeria. Prior to his activist years, he served as civilian administrator of Bonny, a port city in the Niger Delta. During the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970), he was a strong supporter of the federal cause against the Biafrans. In the early 1970s, Ken served in the Rivers State cabinet as Regional Commissioner for Education; a position he lost soon after he showed support for Ogoni autonomy. In 1987, he re-entered the political scene when he was appointed by General Ibrahim Babangida, the Head-of-State to help in the country’s transition from military rule to democracy. However, he resigned not long after his appointment because he doubted Babangida’s plans to relinquish power.
In 1990, he became a founding member of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) which demanded increased autonomy for the Ogoni people, improved compensation, and a fair share of oil proceeds and clean up for damaged lands. At the focal point of the movement was Royal Dutch Shell, an oil company responsible for the contamination of arable lands in the region. Under his leadership, MOSOP became one of the most visible organizations protesting against exploitation and environmental degradation of the Niger Delta region, where most of Nigeria’s oil resources are located. MOSOP organized peaceful marches through four major Ogoni urban centers, drawing international attention to their plights.
In 1994, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists were arrested by the military government on charges of complicity in the murders of four Ogoni chiefs. He was executed alongside others, an act that drew international condemnation and led to international sanctions against Nigeria, including suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations.
Ken Saro-Wiwa continues to be a reference point and symbol for the emancipation of the Niger Delta region and internationally for his advocacy for the environment and civil rights. His legacy as stated by Jagoda Munic the chairperson of Friends of the Earth International reads, “Ken Saro-Wiwa’s legacy is not only a major source of inspiration to the people of Nigeria, it also serves as a beacon of hope to people across the world struggling for environmental justice”.
In recognition of his courage, Ken Saro-Wiwa received the Right Livelihood award and the Goldman Environmental prize. In memoriam, the Rivers State Polytechnic was renamed Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa Polytechnic; a street in Amsterdam was named Ken Saro-Wiwastraat and a living memorial sculpture to Ken Saro-Wiwa, called ‘The Bus’ by a Nigerian-born artist, Sokari Douglas Camp was unveiled in London 2006 and toured the United Kingdom in 2007.
- James Brooke, ed. “Enugu Journal: 30 Million Nigerians Are Laughing at Themselves”. Special Editorial. The New York Times, 1987. Print. Online version <http://www.nytimes.com/1987/07/24/enugu-journal-30-million-nigerians-are-laughing-at-themselves.html>.
- “Biography of Ken Saro-Wiwa”. African Success. Web. 28 December. 2015. <http://www.africansuccess.org/visuFiche.php>.
- Patricia Cohen, ed. “A Writer’s violent End, and His Activist Legacy”. The New York Times, 2009. Print. Online Version <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/05/books/05wiwa.html>.
- “Ken Saro-Wiwa”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 25 May. 2016. <http://www.britannica.com/biography/Ken-Saro-Wiwa>.
- “Ken Saro-Wiwa”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 25 May. 2016. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Saro-Wiwa>.
- “Ken Saro Wiwa Continues to Inspire 20 Years On”. Friends of the Earth. Editorial. Web. 10 November. 2015. <https://www.foeeurope.org/ken-saro-wiwa-continues-to-inspire-101115>.
- Basi and Company. <https://www.youtube.com/user/basiandcompany/videos>.