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Saro-Wiwa Jr: Still in the shadow of a saint

When the news filtered in late Tuesday night that Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., the son of Nigeria’s environmental and human rights activist of renown, Ken Saro-Wiwa, had died many Nigerians had already gone to bed that day.

By morning, the news of the demise of the former journalist and former presidential adviser had spread across the length and breadth of the nation, nay the world.

In its report on Saro-Wiwa Jr.’s demise, Noo Saro-Wiwa, sister of the late journalist, told the BBC: “It is with great sadness that we announce that Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr passed away suddenly. His family are devastated and request privacy at this difficult time.”

Though he worked with the Federal Government of Nigeria when he was first appointed by former president Olusegun Obasanjo in 2006 as special adviser on peace and conflict resolution, he was no less concerned than his father was over the plight of the Ogoni people as it concerns their environment.

Using his journalistic skills he penned an article which was published The Guardian newspaper of the UK. In the article titled, “Finally it seems as if Ken Saro-Wiwa, my father, may not have died in vain,” he wrote:

“My father went to the gallows an innocent man. He loved his country but refused to remain silent while his land and his people were being exploited. His real “crime” was in exposing the double standards of Shell, who had been quietly drilling oil for years in Nigeria, earning good profits for its shareholders but leaving the host community wallowing in levels of pollution that he described unflinchingly as “devastation”, pointing out that the operations in Ogoniland betrayed Shell’s own global standards.

“If my father were alive today he would be dismayed that Ogoniland still looks like the devastated region that spurred him to action. There is little evidence to show that it sits on one of the world’s richest deposits of oil and gas.”

Another paragraph in the article reads: “In the past 10 years the Ogoni have registered landmark victories in court cases against Shell in New York and London. I am sure my father will be looking down and chuckling that activists who cut their teeth on the Ogoni case were part of the coalition that last week pushed President Obama to reject the controversial Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline. At the same time Exxon is facing the possibility of legal action over claims that it lied about climate change risks, which Exxon denies. We may finally be arriving at a tipping point in the carbon economy, and perhaps one day my father’s story will be more than a footnote in that history.”

Such was the man’s passion for his father’s legacy and the people of Ogoni.

When his father was killed, Saro-Wiwa Jr. was in New Zealand at a Commonwealth summit, with the aim of persuading Commonwealth nations to take stronger action against Nigeria to deter it from executing his father and the other Ogoni activists. Instead the summit chose a policy of “constructive engagement” with Nigeria, and the executions went ahead.

Saro-Wiwa Jr. had his education in Nigeria and the United Kingdom. He migrated to Canada in 1999 where he became a writer-in-residence at Massey College in the University of Toronto. There he wrote features and columns for The Globe and Mail and was twice nominated for a National Newspaper Award as a result of his excellent writing on Canadian subjects.

In 2002, he was nominated for a story in which he followed the path of Yonge Street nearly 1,900 kilometres from the shores of Lake Ontario to the U.S. border at Rainy River, Ontario. He was nominated again in 2003 for a feature story.

He wrote for many other international media, including The Guardian as mentioned earlier and the New York Times. He produced and narrated radio and television documentaries for CBC and BBC.

He was a Saul Rae Fellow at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto.

His exceptional leadership skills were recognised when he was chosen as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2005.

Mr. Wiwa returned to Nigeria in 2005 before joining the Obasanjo presidency in 2006 as special adviser on peace and conflict resolution. He would go on to serve two more presidents.

Literary works flowed in his blood: his father was a newspaper columnist and author as well as a political activist. In one of his last letters to his son, Saro-Wiwa Sr. encouraged his son to write. Little wonder a simple letter like this inspired the young man to become an author.

Saro-Wiwa Jr.’s memoir, “In the Shadow of a Saint,” examined the tensions between fathers and sons, and between exile and home.

A review on this memoir by Africa Confidential reads, “In a sense In the Shadow of a Saint is, on the one hand, the age-old tale of a rebellious son who does not live up to his father’s expectations and and he knows he never will. On the other, it describes a man’s obsessive commitment to a particular cause, and at times his own pivotal role in it, to the detriment of his own family.

“During those months and weeks leading to that moment, when Ken Saro-Wiwa was languishing in a Port Harcourt jail, Ken Jr. reached somewhat of a reconciliation with his father through an exchange of letters.

“Although he could never completely forget his father’s constant infidelity to his long-suffering mother Nene and the years of emotional neglect of himself, of his brothers and sisters, Ken Jr. began to understand and to communicate with his father.

“The death sentence hanging over Ken Saro-Wiwa forced Ken Jr. to take up the mantle he never wanted to assume and travel to the Commonwealth Summit in Auckland, New Zealand, to convince the international community to take action against Abacha’s government before it was too late. Although Ken Jr. was able to plead his father’s case with the high and mighty, Abacha had him executed anyway in what the then British Prime Minister John Major famously termed judicial murder. There was bitter irony in that Saro-Wiwa had considered Abacha a personal friend.

“Saro-Wiwa’s death by hanging brought the sheer brutality of the Abacha dictatorship to the forefront of international politics and prompted the Commonwealth to suspend Nigeria from its ranks. The policy of constructive engagement pursued by African leaders who should have known better, such as Nelson Mandela, lay in tatters.

“Less than three years later, Abacha died in the arms of Indian prostitutes and Nigeria was set on a course to return to civilian rule. For the first time in 16 years. Ken Jr. travelled to South Africa, where he met the children of Steve Biko, the murdered black consciousness leader, and of Mandela himself, and to Burma to speak with Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader whose own father was assassinated in 1947.

“But it was to Ogoni, the land of his father, that he finally returned in April 2000 to bury his father.”

Soon after the announcement of his death at the age of 47 in a London hospital after suffering stroke, accolades began to pour in.

One of the first responders was former president Goodluck Jonathan to whom the late Saro-Wiwa was Senior Special Assistant on Civil Society and International Media. He said via his twitter handle, “A bright star has been prematurely plucked from the Nigerian firmament. Ken Wiwa, like his father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was a patriot. My prayers are with the family he left behind. Adieu great son of Nigeria.”

In a statement released Tuesday night, Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike expressed shock over the death, saying it was a major loss to Rivers State, Nigeria and humanity.