Nigeria Hangs Saro-Wiwa and Other Rights Advocates

In violation of internationally accepted standards of due process and in the face of worldwide protest, Nigeria’s military government executed prominent writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other human rights activists.

Summary of Event

Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other activists who were executed with him in 1995 belonged to the Ogoni tribe, a relatively small community within Nigeria’s ethnically diverse population. The Ogoni live in a 350-square-mile area of the Niger Delta, where most of Nigeria’s oil is produced. The region has been identified by the United Nations as the most endangered river delta in the world. Traditionally, the Ogoni were farmers and fishermen who prospered in the region’s fertile wetlands, coastal rain forest, and mangrove habitats. However, in 1958, Shell Oil, Shell Oil Company which later became the Royal Dutch/Shell Company, Royal Dutch/Shell Corporation began oil drilling and removal operations in the region, contaminating the fragile ecosystem. Over time, the fish and crop harvests dwindled, but the oil operations continued to expand after Nigerian independence in 1960. In the years following independence, young intellectuals such as Ken Saro-Wiwa became concerned that the international corporations were wielding too much power and influence. Executions;Ken Saro-Wiwa[Saro Wiwa]
Nigeria;human rights abuses
Human rights abuses;Nigeria
[kw]Nigeria Hangs Saro-Wiwa and Other Rights Advocates (Nov. 10, 1995)
[kw]Hangs Saro-Wiwa and Other Rights Advocates, Nigeria (Nov. 10, 1995)
[kw]Saro-Wiwa and Other Rights Advocates, Nigeria Hangs (Nov. 10, 1995)
[kw]Rights Advocates, Nigeria Hangs Saro-Wiwa and Other (Nov. 10, 1995)
[kw]Advocates, Nigeria Hangs Saro-Wiwa and Other Rights (Nov. 10, 1995)
Executions;Ken Saro-Wiwa[Saro Wiwa]
Nigeria;human rights abuses
Human rights abuses;Nigeria
[g]Africa;Nov. 10, 1995: Nigeria Hangs Saro-Wiwa and Other Rights Advocates[09350]
[g]Nigeria;Nov. 10, 1995: Nigeria Hangs Saro-Wiwa and Other Rights Advocates[09350]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Nov. 10, 1995: Nigeria Hangs Saro-Wiwa and Other Rights Advocates[09350]
[c]Human rights;Nov. 10, 1995: Nigeria Hangs Saro-Wiwa and Other Rights Advocates[09350]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Nov. 10, 1995: Nigeria Hangs Saro-Wiwa and Other Rights Advocates[09350]
Saro-Wiwa, Ken
Abacha, Sani
Anderson, Brian

Like several other famous Nigerian writers, such as Chinua Achebe, Saro-Wiwa was educated in English at the Government College in Umuahia. After finishing his studies at Ibadan University in 1965, he worked as a teaching assistant at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka and later lectured at Lagos University. Although Saro-Wiwa had served as a high-level administrator for the federal side during the disastrous Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), he was committed to nonviolence. In terms of political philosophy, he argued for cultural decentralization and against the dominance of ethnic majorities.

In 1973, Saro-Wiwa left the public sector and became a successful business owner. Financially independent, he focused on his writing career and published works in many genres, including novels, short stories, poems, folklore, plays, children’s books, and essays. Saro-Wiwa ridiculed Nigeria’s corrupt military government and the dehumanizing effects of war in his most famous novel, Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English (1985). Sozaboy (Saro-Wiwa) His satirical television soap opera Basi and Company
Basi and Company (television program) ran for five years and was popular throughout the country during the 1980’s. His internationally acclaimed literary works reflected his views about the complexity of postcolonial identity and the continued manipulation of ethnic tensions by politicians and their corporate allies.

In 1987, President Ibrahim Babangida Babangida, Ibrahim enlisted Saro-Wiwa to help the government in its efforts to restore civilian rule. Saro-Wiwa became suspicious of the government’s intent, however, and resigned to devote himself to the plight of the Ogoni people and the restoration of their environmental and political rights. By writing in English, he could communicate with Nigerians from other ethnic backgrounds as well as with a sympathetic international audience. When Ogoni tribal leaders formed the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in 1990, they appointed Saro-Wiwa as spokesman. In addition to demands for improved environmental and economic policies, the group advocated political autonomy for the Ogoni region. Group members committed themselves to the nonviolent pursuit of MOSOP’s goals.

MOSOP’s Ogoni Bill of Rights stated that thirty billion dollars of revenue had been taken from Ogoni lands, with no compensation for the people living there, and identified both Shell and the Nigerian government as being responsible for the situation. The ecological damage continued at an increased pace, and more than 6.4 million liters of oil were spilled in Nigeria between 1982 and 1992.

Saro-Wiwa was highly effective in his role as a spokesman, and his activities included the use of film and other media, which were distributed internationally. He began to advocate sabotage of the Shell Oil operations, although not all of the Ogoni people agreed with this policy. Saro-Wiwa also continued to be an articulate and effective critic of Nigeria’s military government, and he became a target of Nigeria’s military ruler, Sani Abacha, who seized power in 1993. Although his personal wealth would have permitted Saro-Wiwa to extricate himself from an increasingly dangerous situation, he remained in Nigeria as tensions escalated. He sought support from international groups such as Greenpeace, and in 1992 he went to Geneva to address the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations and to the United States, where he spoke to a committee of delegates to the United Nations in New York.

Meanwhile, conditions in Nigeria deteriorated rapidly. Shell Oil ordered Nigeria’s military government to protect Shell’s operations from activists, and the military conducted a brutal offensive in Ogoniland, massacring entire villages and displacing thousands of Ogoni. Saro-Wiwa was first arrested on June 21, 1993, and was imprisoned until July 22, 1993. He was then rearrested on May 22, 1994, along with fourteen others who were all accused by the government of conspiracy in the murders of several moderate Ogoni leaders who had been killed by a mob. The mob’s victims included Chief Edward Kobani, Kobani, Edward who had been a deputy president of MOSOP.

After the arrests, the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Okuntimo, Okuntimo, Paul conducted more raids in Ogoni territory and engaged in atrocities that Okuntimo described as“psychological warfare.” International concern over these events mounted, and the fate of Saro-Wiwa and the other detainees was uncertain. Meanwhile, Saro-Wiwa was beaten, deprived of food, and manacled to the wall of his cell. He and his colleagues were held for eight months before they were charged.

In November, 1994, under the auspices of the Special Tribunal Edict (Offenses Relating to Civil Disturbances), the government appointed a special three-member tribunal to handle the matter. This edict permitted the death penalty for “capital offenses committed in connection with civil disturbances, as well as previously noncapital crimes including attempted murder.” Because the tribunal was not part of the normal judicial system, its rulings could not be appealed; they merely required confirmation by the military rulers.

A protestor hangs himself in a mock execution from a Shell station sign on November 8, 1995, in San Francisco, in protest of the impending execution of Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who led a campaign against Royal Dutch Shell’s presence in the Niger Delta.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1995, while in prison awaiting trial, Saro-Wiwa was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, a prestigious award given annually to one environmental activist on each continent. On November 2, 1995, his trial began, but it was widely regarded as a farce, and two of the prosecution’s witnesses later signed affidavits saying that they and several other witnesses had been bribed, claiming that they had been offered money, government jobs, and contracts from Shell. One of the presiding tribunal members was an active officer in the armed forces, and defense lawyers were often threatened or denied access to the defendants.

Saro-Wiwa and eight others were executed on November 10, 1995, despite the frantic efforts of Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Wiwa, who lobbied Commonwealth leaders meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, and despite last-minute pleas for clemency from international leaders. The executions, which were filmed, were carried out in such a way that the deaths were prolonged; many felt that the executions were filmed for the sadistic enjoyment of the military leaders.


World reaction to the executions of Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues was almost immediate, fueled by the embarrassment of governments who had assumed that their efforts at “quiet diplomacy” with the Nigerian rulers were being taken seriously. A coalition of members of TransAfrica, Greenpeace, labor organizations, and many other groups formed to organize an international boycott of Royal Dutch/Shell. British prime minister John Major Major, John called the hangings “judicial murder,” and South African president Nelson Mandela Mandela, Nelson called them “a heinous act.” The World Bank canceled its support for a $100 million gas development loan to Nigeria, and many powerful countries, including the United States, withdrew their ambassadors in protest. Nigeria was eventually suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations.

The Nigerian dictatorship was nonrepentant, however; the government banned mourning for the executed prisoners and continued its repressive policies at home while conducting a public relations campaign abroad, claiming that Saro-Wiwa and the other activists were indeed guilty of murder. Royal Dutch/Shell also insisted that the allegations about its role in the deaths were false.

A year after the executions, Ken Wiwa Wiwa, Ken took advantage of a U.S. law that allows aliens to bring suits in the United States for alleged violations of customary international law. In a petition to a New York court, he accused Royal Dutch/Shell of colluding with Nigeria’s military government and of polluting and destroying the Ogoniland ecosystem. Shell requested that Judge Kimba Wood Wood, Kimba declare the petition illegal, but in February, 2002, the U.S. district court for the Southern District of New York held that most of the allegations were substantial enough to allow attorneys to interview the defendants, including Brian Anderson, who was managing director of the Nigerian branch of the oil company during the time of the persecutions and hangings, and to review documents in the case.

While these legal proceedings continued, Saro-Wiwa and his companions became international heroes for the global environmental movement, and foundations were established in Saro-Wiwa’s name. In Nigeria, a more reasonable government assumed power and the dialogue continued, while a new generation discovered and treasured Saro-Wiwa’s writings. Many people noticed that the plight of the Ogoni closely paralleled situations in other countries. “Globalization” became identified as an insidious worldwide phenomenon that threatened the well-being of indigenous peoples, environments, and local economies all over the world. Executions;Ken Saro-Wiwa[Saro Wiwa]
Nigeria;human rights abuses
Human rights abuses;Nigeria

Further Reading

  • McLuckie, Craig W., and Aubrey McPhail, eds. Ken Saro-Wiwa: Writer and Political Activist. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2000. Collection of essays is an excellent resource providing diverse information about and perspectives on Saro-Wiwa and his writings. Includes comprehensive bibliography.
  • Maja-Pearce, Adewale. Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Other Essays. Surulere, Lagos, Nigeria: New Gong, 2005. Delves into the myths surrounding Saro-Wiwa and critically examines his life.
  • Na’Allah, Abdul-Rasheed, ed. Ogoni’s Agonies: Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Crisis in Nigeria. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1998. Explores Saro-Wiwa’s work as an author, activist, and politician, and examines the context of that work. Includes literary criticism and political perspectives from a diverse group of prominent authors.
  • Ojo-Ade, Femi. Ken Saro-Wiwa: A Bio-critical Study. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Africana Legacy Press, 1999. Work by a Nigerian exile focuses on national politics, specifically Saro-Wiwa’s part in the Nigerian Civil War. Proposes that Saro-Wiwa’s former northern Nigerian federalist allies were responsible for his death.
  • Okome, Onookome, ed. Before I Am Hanged: Ken Saro-Wiwa—Literature, Politics, and Dissent. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1999. Collection of essays interprets the sociopolitical dimensions of Saro-Wiwa’s writings. Includes discussions of Nigerian nationhood, power politics, dissent, and the new political literature.
  • Saro-Wiwa, Ken. A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. The diary Saro-Wiwa began during his first imprisonment, from June 21 to July 22, 1993, and revised during his second imprisonment. Although his own imprisonment is the starting point for the work, it focuses on the political, economic, and environmental abuses that led to the conflict.
  • _______. Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English. New York: Longman, 1994. First-person narrative of a young villager who goes to be a “sozaboy” (soldier boy) but does not understand why he is fighting. Poignant antiwar story is written in a form of speaking popular among semieducated West Africans: a beautiful mixture of Nigerian pidgin English, broken English, and formal English.
  • Wiwa, Ken. In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son’s Journey to Understand His Father’s Legacy. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2001. Personal memoir by Saro-Wiwa’s eldest son, who candidly describes his childhood and difficult relationship with his famous and controversial father as well as his efforts to save his father from execution. Also explores the conflicts among traditional Nigerian life, politics, and foreign corporate interests.

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