Ken Saro-Wiwa read English at Nigeria’s premiere university located in the ancient city of Ibadan, and then taught for a while. During the Nigerian civil war and afterwards, he was employed by government in a number of high profile positions. However, he desperately needed his independence for a number of reasons. First, he wanted the freedom to pursue a career in literature. Second, he needed to be out of government to commit himself to a single-minded devotion to the Ogoni quest for self-determination. Finally, he needed to be able to avoid the temptations offered by multinational oil concerns to potentially oppositional figures. Thus in order to pursue his interests and struggles – his early struggles to establish himself as an author and also his quest elevate his Ogoni compatriots above their sociopolitical obstacles – he ventured into the world of business.
Once his various business ventures took off, he began writing an exceedingly popular television series. The sitcom, Basi and Company, ran for many years on Nigerian television networks. This sitcom reveals much about Saro-Wiwa’s literary temperament. It introduced a form of irony and quirkiness that was not (and probably still isn’t) common in Nigerian popular culture. Saro-Wiwa had a particular perspective of Nigerian society that brought to the fore a deeper appreciation of the refinements of language, individual style and collective humour. Clearly, his television series set new standards along the lines just described in a manner that has hardly been matched let alone surpassed.
Saro-Wiwa also established a publishing company, Saros International, to release mainly his works. Having a publishing firm of his own meant he did not have to compromise his particular artistic vision and tastes and it also meant acquiring the liberty to widely experimental in unconventional ways. For instance, one of his best known novels, Soza Boy, is written in a language almost entirely of his own invention. It is not written in standard English and it also not written in the straightforward Nigerian form of pidgin. Instead like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, it is a deeply idiosyncratic form of novelistic discourse. Saro-Wiwa wrote a few more books in this vein but they have not been as popular as either his immensely gratifying television series or his more direct forms of protest literature espousing the Ogoni cause for cultural and political self-assertion.
In 1968 at the age of twenty-seven years old, Saro-Wiwa published a pamphlet entitled The Ogoni Nationality Today and Tomorrow. Saro-Wiwa was to concede later that the political tract was largely the exuberant pseudo-philosophical reflections of a young man, but nonetheless it possessed the seeds and incipient activism of what would become in time the full articulation of the Ogoni struggle. On a Darkling Plain, on the other hand, is a much more mature exposition of the genesis of the crisis that would shake the Nigerian federation to its very roots. Saro-Wiwa pledged himself to uplifting the collective existence of the life of the Ogoni people and this meant his efforts were also geared towards other ethnic minorities within the Niger Delta suffering similar kinds of neglect (Saro-Wiwa, 1995:49). His multi-faceted activities in this regard would ultimately cost him his life.
Initially, self-determination had not been uppermost in his mind. After all, during the civil war, he had served as a member of the Interim Advisory Council of the newly created Rivers State. He was Administrator for Bonny, which was an important export oil terminal in the Niger River Delta close to Ogoni lands (ibid. 51). He was also appointed a Commissioner in the Rivers State Cabinet during the final quarter of 1968. When he was better established, he took up a position as an Executive Director of the Directorate of Social Mobilisation under the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida whom he would later call “the conman and dictator of Nigeria” (ibid. 42) in 1987.
After he was relieved of his position within the Rivers State Cabinet in 1973, he tried his hands at running a grocery store and at “wholesale trading in locally manufactured and imported goods.” He also developed an interest in acquiring landed property, which he thought was crucial for the generation and investment of wealth.
Saro-Wiwa, since his university days at Ibadan, had always had a strong inclination for literary and scholarly pursuits, so around 1983, he committed himself to writing and publishing. Within the next decade he had published some thirty books and won prizes such as the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prize for Drama in 1990 for a collection of plays entitled Four Farcical Plays. Two other books authored by him were shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. Thus, within a short period, he secured a noteworthy international literary reputation for himself, having served as an energetic president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) just before the Ogoni struggle assumed its fullest dimensions. William Boyd, the prominent British novelist who wrote a moving introduction to Saro-Wiwa’s moving A Month and A Day, a posthumously published chronicle of his life and the Ogoni crisis.
In 1995, Saro-Wiwa won the Goldman Environmental Prize, but being in prison, he was unable to attend the award ceremony. In the following year, he was posthumously awarded the Conde Nast-Traveller’s Seventh Annual Environmental Award, an award worth $10,000. The Goldman Environmental Foundation subsequently created a Ken Saro-Wiwa Memorial Fund “to protect environmental advocates in danger around the world.” It launched the fund, administered by Human Rights Watch, with a $200,000 contribution. Similarly, a federation of international writers in the French language established a $50,000 award in his name. Within the shores of Nigeria, a high profile anthology of 92 poems by 66 authors, entitled For Ken, for Nigeria, was published in 1996. In 2000, Akeem Lasisi’s Iremoje: Ritual Poetry for Ken Saro-Wiwa won the Association of Nigerian Authors’ prize for poetry.
As mentioned earlier Ken Saro-Wiwa’s real masterpieces were in the spheres of politics and social activism. He was an engaging essayist and political commentator as well an off-beat novelist who blended both his insider and outsider perspectives of Nigerian society in unusual ways and with uncommon courage.
Sanya Osha holds a PhD in Philosophy and is a senior researcher at the School for Graduate Studies, University of South Africa. He has also published extensively in the fields of anthropology, politics and critical theory. He is the author of Kwasi Wiredu and Beyond: The Text, Writing and Thought in Africa (2005) and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow: Politics, Nationalism and the Ogoni Protest Movement (2007).
September 15th, 2009
Jon Paul Fiorentino awarded 2009 Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry
August 1st, 2009
Amatoritsero Ede publishes much anticipated book