Case Study: Ken Saro-Wiwa

The case of Ken Saro Wiwa was one of PEN’s most high-profile and one of its most distressing.

Saro Wiwa was a Nigerian writer, television producer and environmental activist who was executed on 10 November 1995.

He had been instrumental in defending the land of the Ogoni, a minority people in Nigeria of whom he was a key member, from the environmental destruction caused by the excavation of crude oil by the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company.

Royal Dutch Shell had struck oil on the Ogoni land in 1958 and since then an estimated $30bn worth has been extracted, but there has been no formal compensation of the Ogoni for the loss of their land or livelihoods.

The landscape has been devastated by spills, waste and acid rain, harming wildlife and making farming impossible.

After decades of poor treatment the MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) was founded with Saro Wiwa as the President.

On 23 January 1993, Saro Wiwa gathered 300,000 Ogoni to take part in a peaceful protest to demand some compensation from the oil companies for the loss of their livelihoods and to help them to begin to clean up their land.

This marked Saro Wiwa out, leading to repeated spells of imprisonment until, on 27th May 1994, armed police came for him during the night and abducted him from his home.

Several other MOSOP leaders were taken at the same time, accused of the murder of several Ogoni leaders.

The Nigerian government then took control of Ogoni lands, terrorising villages and subjecting the people to mass arrest, rape and summary executions.

PEN, who had maintained a relationship with Saro-Wiwa throughout his earlier imprisonments, were on high alert and they worked with other organisations including Index on Censorship, Amnesty and even the Body Shop to try to secure his release.

PEN Rapid Action Network fax from the PEN international Archive. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

That day, the PEN Rapid Action Network informed its members of by fax  Saro Wiwa’s latest arrest and its circumstances:

‘The Writers in Prison Committee calls on the Nigerian authorities to clarify the reasons for the arrest of Ken Saro-Wiwa and to ensure that he be given immediate access to his family, a lawyer and any necessary medical care and that he be held in humane conditions.’ 

On the 2ndJune Mandy Garner Chair of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee wrote to Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji, Nigerian High Commissioner in London asking for a meeting to discuss Saro-Wiwa’s arrest. 

In a letter to the Times of London days later, PEN International President Ronald Harwood raises concerns that Saro-Wiwa, a PEN member, ‘is reported to be held incommunicado in leg irons and handcuffs. He is said to have been denied access to the medication that he needs to control his high blood pressure.’

A further R.A.N. update on 17 June describes that ‘[t]he [PEN] Writers in Prison  Committee believes that Ken Saro-Wiwa, a long-time and internationally-known advocate of peaceful protest, is detained because of his non-violent campaign on minority rights and environmental pollution, in violation of his right to freedom of expression, as laid down in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. 

Whilst Saro-Wiwa had been in good health until his repeated imprisonments and the mistreatment that accompanied them, the stress and physical hardship was taking a toll on his body. He suffered a heart attack whilst in prison.

In June 1994 PEN negotiated with the Nigerian government for a doctor to visit him and a report on his health was sent to the English PEN office in London. It made grave reading. 

P.E.N. continue to write to the Nigerian government and its representatives. Members of PEN branches from across the world wrote to Saro-Wiwa in prison, pledging their support.

In August, English PEN received a letter from Saro Wiwa himself advising that they contact Shell International in London and its employees because ‘if Shell wants me released tomorrow, it will happen.’ 

PEN immediately stepped up its efforts on Saro Wiwa’s behalf, contacting Shell and the British government in September to make Saro-Wiwa’s case. Their protests and those of many others both within Nigeria and across the world, fell on deaf ears.

By October of that year, Saro-Wiwa was on hunger strike. However, as his letters indicate, even he himself believed that he would eventually be released. In one letter, smuggled out of jail in 21stFebruary 1995, he expresses his thanks to International PEN for its work on his behalf, saying that he is ‘in good spirits’ and that he hopes that ‘with your support I’ll survive my travails.’

Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were formally charged in January 1995. But human rights organisations around the world were deeply troubled by the legal process afforded to Saro Wiwa and his co-defendents. Article 19, the Law Society and the Bar Human Rights Committee reported in June 1995 that it was clear that ‘the trial is fundamentally flawed and there is grave reason to fear that its continuation will represent a gross injustice and an abuse of human rights. It went on that: ‘The tribunal established to hear the case is neither independent nor impartial.’

PEN Rapid Action Network fax from the PEN international Archive. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

In October 1995 Saro Wiwa and his colleagues were found guilty of murder. They were hanged on 10thNovember 1995.

The British Prime Minister John Major described the case as ‘judicial murder’. 

PEN continues to appeal to have the conviction over-turned. Shell continues to operate in the Niger Delta, organisations like Amnesty continue to lobby them to take responsibility for the environmental damage in the area.

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