For Ken Saro-Wiwa


Mala Pandurang

Dr. B. M. N. College/SNDT Women's University, Mumbai, India

Copyright © 2001 by Mala Pandurang, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Before I am Hanged. Ed. Onookome Okome. Africa World Press, Inc. Trenton, NJ. 2000.

  1. Kenule Saro-Wiwa was hanged along with eight other Ogoni human rights and environmental activists on November 10th 1995, by the then Nigerian military government of General Sani Abachi. Saro-Wiwo's 'judicial murder' provoked international outrage at this merciless suppression of the democratic right to freedom of expression. Ken Saro-Wiwo was an Ogoni, and he drew special attention to marginalisation of ethnic minority communities in the oil-rich Niger Delta area. He had made serious accusations against the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell of abetting corrupt government officials in the gradual degradation of aquatic life, on which the rural fishing communities in the delta area were dependent. Onookome Okome (as also a number of other contributors to the volume) is of the firm belief that Saro-Wiwo paid with his life for challenging the complicity between Shell and the majority ethnic community in the exploitation of regional minorities. Okome cites examples of Saro-Wiwo repeatedly pointing out the problems created by "a group of self-seeking pseudo-patriots" who "dubiously redefined what the idea of nation means in their own image, social and economic aspirations" (204).

  2. Before I am Hanged is a collection of fifteen essays on the life and work of a prolific writer and political activist. This is perhaps one of the first full-length attempts to examine, in retrospect, the literary works of an enigmatic writer who generated so much debate both in life and in death. All the contributors are located from within Nigeria, and this allows for an insider's view to the painful economic and political situation in this West African nation-state, which to date, is "still floating aimlessly on the sea of ethnic tension" (xix). Nigeria has suffered an endless transition of military dictatorships since its independence from the British in 1960; a major civil war; and economic bankruptcy in spite of being an oil-rich nation. Chinua Achebe attributes this unhappy situation to "squarely a failure of leadership." Okome explains that the primary objective of this volume of essays is to re-examine how Saro-Wiwo's death, in a sense, represents "the height of the nation's moral aberration" Okome adds that only "a divine intervention," which led to the death of General Abacha, spared Nigeria "the spectre of disintegration" (199).

  3. Among Saro-Wiwo's corpus of work are his two novels (Sozaboy, a novel in 'rotten English,' and Prisoners of Jeb,); collections of short stories (Adaku and Other Stories and A Forest of Flowers); and his political philosophy in On a Darkling Plain: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War as well as the posthumously published A Month and A Day: A Detention Diary. The Nigerian nation-state was an artificial creation in the course of British colonial occupation, and the idea of nation and nationhood has been a subject of debate since independence from the British in 1960. Discussing Prisoners of Jeb as "a Political Discourse," Amen Ahunuwangho explains that Saro-Wiwo's denouncement of the complacency of leadership is in line with other Nigerian intellectual-dissident-artists over the past three decades: Festus Iyayi, Gabriel Okara and Wole Soyinka for instance. Issues of ethnic representation lead to debates on the survival of the plural nation-state. Luckily, the contributors do not indulge in mere intellectual/academic theorizing on the discourses of the nation. They are more concerned with an urgent need to arrive at something meaningful "in the slippery space devised by the discourse of ethnic minority/majority debate and the disbursement of a nation's wealth."

  4. Essays in the volume can be divided into those that introduce different dimensions of Saro-Wiwo's literary work, and those that attempt a more rigorous and theoretical analysis of his political ideology. Innocent Eginnaya discusses Saro-Wiwo's war poetry and personal involvement in the 'darksome' days of the Biafran civil war; Grace Okereke explores the use of the female consciousness in A Forest of Flowers; and Diri Telilanyo examines the utilitarian function of Saro-Wiwo's journalistic fiction. Obododimma Oha traces his literary output from prison ("the pain of imprisonment flowing through the barrel of the pen"), and points out that the major struggle that any artist faces in prison is to preserve the mind and to continue to assert "the right to write." Oha reads Saro-Wiwo as moving from the alienation occasioned by his being "an artist-prisoner" to becoming "a (secular) prison artist." He cites Saro-Wiwo from A Month and A Day: "You can tell the state of a nation by the way it keeps its prisons" ( 224).

  5. David Eka and Amen Ahunuwangho analyze Saro-Wiwo's use of a sub-variety of English (rotten English) in Sozaboy to capture a kind of reality impossible to portray through the use of standard 'educated' English. Harry Garuba in his essay on Sozaboy and 'the logic of Minority Discourse' explains that Saro-Wiwo's mission was to give voice to a marginalised minority, erased from national and international consciousness. Saro-Wiwo understood the power of the narrative to achieve this mission. Garuba suggests that Saro-Wiwo was well aware that "in the post-modern world of Multinational Corporations, communications and commodities, reality is often processed for us through the images and narratives which we receive. Facts, in a sense are always discursively packaged, like commodities, for the consumption of markets and audiences" (26-27). Saro-Wiwo challenged this "regrettable amnesia about the concrete, historical struggles of the minorities in their unending battle." Garuba warns that "the post-Saussaurean separation of signs from their signifiers and referents has led to the valorization of language over reality, the privileging of culture over and about the material practices which create these cultures. As a consequence, "minorities seemingly offered by critical theory the voice to break their imposed silence find themselves unwittingly decentered from their own real, historical experiences "(27). According to Garuba, Saro-Wiwo's achievement as a political writer and activist was in his ability "to re-inscribe the concrete and historical into the linguistic world." Saro-Wiwo believed in the materiality of discourse and "he seemed to have lived his life, in his last days, just to prove that point." He could take "literature into the streets," and "the streets into literature," and this, according to Garuba, was his ultimate triumph against those who sought to silence him.

  6. Through a judicious selection of essays, Okome does not allow Saro-Wiwo to be martyred. Rather, Saro-Wiwo is presented as the controversial figure that he was from within Nigeria -- an Ogoni who provoked acerbic debates on the stance on "micro-minorities" in a plural nation state dominated by three ethnic majorities, the Yoruba, the Igbo and the Hausa/ Fulani. A courageous move on Okome's part is to include a forthright essay by Azubike Ileoje, wherein Ileoje describes Saro-Wiwo's emphasis on his own Ogoni tribe as selfish and parochial. Okome's own essay counter-argues that the life of the activist proved otherwise. Oneke discusses Saro-Wiwo's theory of domestic colonialism as propounded through his political writing in On a Darkling Plain. Saro-Wiwo was aware of the precarious position of minority activists and knew that it would be nearly impossible to win a physical battle against state aggression. Saro-Wiwo therefore turned to the power of his literary skills to present the problems of the area in a very eloquent manner so as to befriend the national and international press, and win allies to the cause of ethnic and civil rights movements.

  7. Okome explains how Saro-Wiwo constructed the "literature of commitment in expressly environmental terms" (Nixon cited in Okome 203). Saro-Wiwo is presented as " a philosopher-fighter who waged two kinds of war" -- the philosophical war in which he attempts to come to terms with the wretched conditions of existence in the oil-rich region of which he was part, and the domestic colonialism of the people of the Niger Delta. Felix Akpan chronicles how the international backlash to Saro-Wiwo's death has placed the issue of environmental degradation by oil companies "on the front burner of national and international politics." Saro-Wiwo challenged the unwritten domination of the oil-producing companies over the communities in the regions in which they operate; he demanded to know as to under whose laws these companies operate : "Is a nation a nation when its laws are recklessly disobeyed by multi-nationals?"

  8. Almost all the contributors touch upon the importance of dissent in daily life, the important role that unfettered expression can play in a plural nation-state like Nigeria, and the severe consequences of suppressing dissent. As Adepitan puts it, Saro-Wiwo's writing will endure because his writings are an expression "of faith in literature's boundless humanist possibilities." Adepitan also suggests that where third world writers like Saro-Wiwo score over their contemporaries in the West, is in "the enduring salience of their concerns and the force of their moral authority" (177).

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