Death and the writer

Ken Saro-Wiwa paid the ultimate price for exercising freedom of speech. His prison diary tells the story of his last days.

Death and the writer
Ken Saro-Wiwa. Photograph by Tim Lambon for Greenpeace
By John Ryle  •  8 December 1995  •  City of Words  •  The Guardian  •  Posted 2016  •  963 words

The late Ken Saro-Wiwa’s jail diary, A Month and a Day, is a grim example of the literature of confinement. a conscript genre that forcibly recruits generations of writers in the world’s most repressive countries. Published just a month after his execution by the military government in Nigeria the book is a monument to Saro-Wiwa’s activism on behalf of the Ogoni people and the campaign he led against environmental degradation caused by oil companies operating in the Niger Delta, notably Royal Dutch Shell

In Africa, in the last two decades, the prison diary has been a thriving literary genre: Breyten Breytenbach in South Africa, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in Kenya and Wole Soyinka in Nigeria have each produced enduring accounts of their lives in prison, written while they were still detained. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, part of which was first drafted on Robben Island, partakes of this genre too. The travails of these writers invite comparison with those of intellectuals in the former Soviet block, or in South American countries during the era of military dictatorships in the 196os and 1970s. In the case of South Africa, jailed and exiled writers can claim to have had a real effect on political developments; in other African countries—countries where the political issues are less clear-cut and the role of the independent intellectual not so well established—they are a rarer breed.

Prison literature combines a contemplative, introspective form of writing with a rhetoric of denunciation—bridging the gap between public and private, between activism and self-examination. By the circumstances of their composition, books written in jail tend to be uneven and fragmentary. This can be a source of moral authority: such books bespeak the conditions under which they were written, even as they chronicle the struggle to overcome them. For the engaged writer the personal struggle becomes part of a wider search for justice and good government—a struggle that, in post-colonial Africa particularly, seems to be never-ending. Mandela is in power, but Saro-Wiwa is dead. Soyinka and Ngũgĩ (two new books by Ngũgĩ are published next week) are both in exile, Soyinka for the third time.

Soyinka’s The Man Died was written while the author was in Kaduna prison in the late 1960s—the text interpolated clandestinely between the lines of one of the few books he was allowed in jail (the book was Paul Radin’s Primitive Religion). The Man Died is a devastating attack on General Gowon, leader of the Nigerian government of the day, and his role in provoking the Biafran war. It is also, in keeping with the double aspect of the literature of confinement, an extended reflection on the evil that flourishes in the hearts of both prisoners and jailers.

Saro-Wiwa cannot quite match Soyinka’s range of reference or his moral force; nevertheless A Month and a Day, with its stylish denunciations of the current Nigerian government and good-humoured account of the campaign to bring the plight of the Ogoni to world attention, is a worthy successor to The Man Died. That another distinguished Nigerian writer should be subjected, 25 years on, to even worse brutality than Soyinka, by a government still farther gone in wickedness than that of General Gowon, confirms the depressing obduracy of corruption and autocracy in Nigeria. But it can also be taken as a sign of hope that the country continues to produce writers of a stature sufficient to challenge the degeneracy of its public life.

The Ogoni cause would have got nowhere internationally without Saro-Wiwa’s celebrity as a writer. And the campaign to free him—and, now that has failed, to pursue accountability for his death—would not be where it is without the global alliance between environmentalists, campaigners for freedom of expression and human rights activists, a coalition for which Saro-Wiwa became a symbol of resistance to a wide range of ills in the Nigerian body politic. Can such a campaign repeat the success of the anti-apartheid movement? Can it extend beyond the Ogoni question to the wider issue of the malformation of the state in Nigeria and other African countries?

At the memorial service in London last Sunday for Saro-Wiwa and the other eight Ogoni leaders executed with him last month, Bishop Tutu denounced the Nigerian government, comparing its leader, General Sani Abacha, to the former South African President P.W.Botha. It was sign of a particular outrage on the part of South Africa’s ruling establishment at the Nigerian regime’s snub to President Mandela’s attempt to intervene in the conflict. Abroad, the Ogoni campaign is trying to tap the moral force that drove the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. In targeting multinationals with investments in Nigeria, it is taking another leaf out of the anti-apartheid campaigners’ book. And in the case of Shell, it is one of the very same multinationals that is, with good reason, being targeted.

There is another book that all concerned—campaigners and Shell executives alike —would do well to read. Published by Amsterdam University Press, Embargo is the story of the Shipping Research Bureau, a tiny organisation that monitored violations of the South African oil embargo from 1979 to 1993. The effect of sanctions on the South African economy in that period is debatable, but there is no doubt that the campaign kept the iniquities of the South African government in the spotlight. And it certainly had an effect on Shell, which started out defying the embargo, but ended up publicly supporting the ANC in its call to maintain sanctions. Shell executives who say they cannot interfere in the politics of Nigeria should be given copies of this book, along with Ken Saro-Wiwa’s, so that they may think again. ★