Kenule Beeson “Ken” Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian writer, television producer, and environmental activist.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people. An ethnic minority in Nigeria whose homeland, Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta, targeted for crude oil extraction since the 1950s and has suffered extreme environmental damage from decades of indiscriminate petroleum waste dumping.
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Initially as a spokesperson, and then as the president, of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Saro-Wiwa led a nonviolent campaign against environmental degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland by the operations of the multinational petroleum industry, especially the Royal Dutch Shell company.
He criticized the Nigerian government for its reluctance to enforce environmental regulations on the foreign petroleum companies operating in the area.
At the peak of his non-violent campaign, he was tried by a special military tribunal
for allegedly masterminding the murder of Ogoni chiefs at a pro-government meeting, and hanged in 1995 by the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha.
His execution provoked international outrage and resulted in Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations for over three years.
In January 1993, Saro-Wiwa gathered 300,000 Ogoni to march peacefully to demand a share in oil revenues and some form of political autonomy. MOSOP also asked the oil companies to begin environmental remediation and pay compensation for past damage.
In May 1994, Saro-Wiwa, who had been briefly imprisoned several times before, was abducted from his home and jailed along with other MOSOP leaders in connection with the murder of four Ogoni leaders. Amnesty International adopted Saro-Wiwa, a staunch advocate of non-violence, as a prisoner of conscience. Meanwhile, the Nigerian military took control of Ogoniland subjecting people to mass arrest, rape, execution, and the burning and looting of their villages.
In October 1995, A military tribunal tried and convicted Saro-Wiwa of murder. Governments and citizens’ organizations worldwide condemned the trial as fraudulent, and urged the Nigerian dictator to spare Saro-Wiwa’s life. They also called upon Shell to intervene.
November 10, 1995
On November 10, 1995, Saro-Wiwa and his eight co-defendants hanged. The only crime he they committed was to demand sound environmental practices and to ask for compensation for devastation of Ogoni territories.
The Ogoni cause taken up by other Ogoni living in exile including Ken’s son, Ken Wiwa and his younger brother, Owens, a medical doctor. Despite the sudden death of Nigerian Dictator General Sani Abacha in 1998. The Ogoni region also remains heavily militarized and the government has yet to agree to allow an independent environmental assessment to conduct to determine the total extent of Shell’s pollution in the Niger Delta.
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life has provided a legacy of great inspiration for human rights and environmental activists around the world.