On this day in 1995 Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian government. Officially, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were convicted of being responsible for the murder of four Ogoni tribal chiefs, but virtually everyone involved regards the hangings as a political rather than judicial act. Saro-Wiwa and the others had been too outspoken in their campaign to obtain a measure of self-determination and prosperity for their Ogoni people, and had accused too many -- federal politicians, tribal chiefs, Shell oil -- of having their fingers in the "lootocracy" pie. When they could not be bribed, blackmailed or beaten into keeping quiet, they were hung, their bodies buried in a secret, common grave.
Saro-Wiwa campaigned for his causes by poem and polemic, story and television sitcom. His letters from prison are clear-eyed about what would happen to him; his last play is titled, "On the Death of Ken Saro-Wiwa." But he had a sense of humor as well as a sense of mission and martyrdom. One 1990 newspaper column goes on to slam the World Bank for its misguided policies from this gentle start:
Almost twenty years ago, touring the United States of America, I came to know several variations of my surname. In New York, I was called Sora-Wawo, in Los Angeles Sira-Wawa. But the limit was in Atlanta, in the presence of Mrs. Coretta King, where I was introduced as Saro-Wee-Wee. Uncomfortably close to the toilet, you might say.
I was minded, that day, to change my name to something more heavenly like Wiwa or Saros. I refrained from doing so. In the interest of history.
The family name and the sense of history certainly became an issue for Saro-Wiwa's son, Ken Wiwa. He is the author of the 2000 memoir, In the Shadow of a Saint, a moving tale that reads partly as Hamlet, partly as a parable of some Third World paradox. Ken Saro-Wiwa was a successful businessman, wealthy enough to send his children to good English schools like Eton. The clear expectation, communicated by holiday reading lists and other directives -- "Kneel down! Where in the Holy Bible does it say that a son should disobey his father?" -- was that the sons should make something of themselves, and return to Nigeria to make something of it. This was especially true for Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., being the "saro" or "first" son. But Ken liked football and cricket and not being in Nigeria; instead of Oxford or Cambridge or law school, he took "a first class degree in beer and drank some history," and learned to disagree. The father who had become the symbol of dissent in his homeland was not happy with the son who had learned to practice it in his own house, and the two became estranged.
By the time Ken got the courage to tell his father (by letter) that he had legally dropped the "Saro" and the "Jr." from his name, Ken Saro-Wiwa was in prison, and not likely to come out alive. In the Shadow of a Saint tells the story of a reconciliation by mail, and of "A Son's Journey to Understand his Father's Legacy," as the subtitle puts it. Part of the journey was literal, Ken finally returning to bury his father-or rather, a coffin with only his father's pipe and two of his books in it, as the political situation in Nigeria was still so tangled at that time that the authorities would not release Saro-Wiwa's remains. An exhumation in the summer of 2002 seems to have recovered these.