Obituary: Ken Wiwa (Kenule Bornale Tsaro-Wiwa), writer and campaigner, born 28 November 1968; died 18 October 2016
Ken Wiwa, who has died aged 47 after a stroke, was a journalist and author, adviser to three Nigerian presidents and a campaigner for social and environmental justice. As the eldest son of the poet, human rights activist and author Ken Saro-Wiwa, he struggled as a young man to forge his own identity. But following his father’s detention on a trumped-up accusation of murder, “Ken Junior”, as he was widely known, became a powerful advocate for peace and reconciliation, keeping the territory of Ogoniland on the world stage as a symbol of the injustice of oil exploitation in developing countries.
Born in Lagos, Ken was sent from Nigeria to Britain, along with his mother, Maria, and four siblings, and studied at Tonbridge School in Kent. He had a complicated relationship with his wealthy anglophile father, a traditional Ogoni leader who had worked for both the Nigerian federal and state governments post-independence in 1960, but who devoted his later life to a struggle for Ogoni autonomy – and to fighting Shell’s presence in his homeland.
High quality crude oil had been discovered by Shell in the small, 404 square mile area of the Niger delta close to Port Harcourt in south Nigeria in 1958. The elder Saro-Wiwa saw clearly that, rather than bringing wealth and prosperity, it had led to war, devastation, social division and the degradation of farm and fishing grounds.
The flamboyant author, who expected his expensively educated son to return to Nigeria to continue his own political struggle for Ogoni autonomy, became increasingly a thorn in the side of Shell and the military government led by General Sani Abacha. Matters came to a head in 1994 when Saro-Wiwa led a peaceful revolt against the oil group. Shell was humiliated, forced to withdraw from Ogoniland and stop production in one of the world’s most oil-rich regions.
The Ogonis had won a great victory in their fight for self-determination, but the price of their rebellion was the wrath of the military dictatorship. In 1994, Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were accused of complicity in the murders of four Ogoni chiefs. The nine were detained in a military camp outside Port Harcourt to be tried by a special military tribunal.
Their detention and subsequent torture posed a personal dilemma for the young Ken. Father and son had been close, but by his teens Ken felt intimidated and unable to develop his own identity. So great was his need for independence from his powerful and charismatic father that in 1992, at the age of 23, he changed his name in London to be rid of what he later called “the straitjacket of identity my father was trying to impose on me”.
Becoming “Ken Wiwa”, however, was not the liberating experience he had hoped for. “[It] seemed flat and rather unimpressive next to the more colourful Ken Saro-Wiwa,” he said. Tellingly, it took Wiwa two years to break the news to his father of the rejection of his name. When he did so, it was by letter to the military camp where he was being held. The elder man was furious, writing back: “There is no way in our culture that Ken Wiwa can be the son of Ken Saro-Wiwa”.
The dilemma was particularly acute because his father’s detention took place just as his own career was taking off in the UK. Wiwa had become the Guardian’s first online journalist, working with the New Media Laboratory, the groundbreaking forerunner of the paper’s full entry into the digital revolution that was soon to engulf the industry.
As the detention of the Ogoni nine became an international issue, with environmental and human rights activists, writers and politicians all appealing to Abacha for clemency, Wiwa found himself sucked ever deeper into his father’s world of politics. In 1995, he gave up his job in journalism to dedicate himself to saving his father’s life, travelling the world to lobby politicians and heads of state to intervene, and to mobilise public opinion. The result was that his father’s name, which he had rejected, became a symbol of the emerging worldwide struggle for environmental justice.
Abacha, however, was unmoved – and on 10 November 1995, Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni leaders were executed after the military tribunal found them guilty of murder. Their executions took place when Wiwa was in Auckland, New Zealand, to lobby the Commonwealth heads of state and Nelson Mandela, and triggered a worldwide outcry. The British Prime Minister, John Major, described it as “judicial murder”, Mandela declared it a “heinous act” and world figures joined the condemnation of Abacha. Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth.
When the outrage subsided, many expected Wiwa to return to Nigeria to take up his father’s mantle and lead the Ogoni struggle. But although his father had effectively been canonised, he again chose his own path. He had married Olivia Burnett in London in 1996, and the couple and their two sons, Felix and Suanu, went to live in Canada, where Wiwa became a writer-in-residence and a fellow at several universities and foundations, as well as a successful feature writer and TV and radio producer. In 2001, he published In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son’s Journey to Understand His Father’s Legacy, a moving memoir of a complex life lived between different cultures.
Having at times felt isolated from Africa, Wiwa returned to his Nigerian roots. In 2005 he became a World Economic Forum “young global leader” and a member of the Africa advisory council of the Prince of Wales’s rainforests project. The Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo appointed him as his special assistant on peace, conflict resolution and reconciliation in 2006, and Wiwa later worked as an aide in Abuja to presidents Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan.
In 2009, he and the families of the other executed Ogoni leaders sued Shell in New York, accusing its Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), of having collaborated in their executions. The case never went to full trial, with Shell offering at the last minute to settle out of court for £9.6m. To this day, the company dismisses all claims made against it, saying it had attempted to persuade the Nigerian government to grant clemency.
The landmark case was one of the first to see a multinational corporation accused of human rights violations, and confirmed that western corporations working in Africa could no longer act with impunity. It also paved the way for Shell to pay out over $50m in settlements to around 15,000 Ogoni people for pipeline pollution episodes in Ogoniland in 2011.
Wiwa finally resolved his differences with his father, accepting his flaws and attributing to him his strong political conscience, and moral compass. “His influence remains in everything I do, especially in my relationships with my children,” he said in 2010. “I am much closer to him now, if that makes sense. In a way that’s how it should be with fathers and sons – I had to get away from him to become my own man, and once I had done that, it was easier to appreciate him as a man and a father.”
He is survived by his wife and sons, and by his mother.
This article was amended on 28 October 2016. Ken Wiwa went to Tonbridge School in Kent, not Malvern College in Worcestershire.
Courtesy of Meredeth Thurshen D.Phil. Professor E.J. Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy Rutgers University 33 Livingston Avenue, Suite 500 New Brunswick, NJ 08901 USA