Ken Saro-Wiwa, an honorary member of American PEN with close ties to the American West branch, was the first of our #PEN100Members to need the organisation’s help when he was imprisoned for his environmental campaigning.
Many of Saro-Wiwa’s 1970s and 1980s works, most prominently his play Transistor Radio and his novel Sozaboy, which dealt with the Biafran War, were political. By the early 1990s he had begun to focus his politics into direct environmental and civil rights activism, particularly the defence of the land of the minority Ogoni people of Nigeria, of whom he was a key member. Their land needed protection from the environmental destruction caused by the excavation of crude oil by the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company, which had struck oil on the Ogoni land in 1958 and since then extracted an estimated $30bn worth of oil, with no formal compensation of the Ogoni for the loss of their land or livelihoods.
Because Saro-Wiwa’s international profile as a writer meant that his protests had global reach, he was seen as particularly troublesome by the Nigerian government and he endured several spells of imprisonment as a result of his activism.
In May 1994 Saro-Wiwa and several fellow activists were arrested, accused of murder by the Nigerian government.
PEN, as well as trying to support Saro Wiwa through statements and letters to the press, also developed its strategy of getting members to write to him in prison to keep his spirits up. Writing to prisoners remains a key part of the organisation’s work, with prisoners often commenting on how important such contact can be. Saro-Wiwa even managed to have several letters smuggled out of the prison thanking them for their efforts and writing that with their support he would survive his unjust imprisonment.
In this typed-up version of a letter he had 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.’
PEN and other organisations such as Amnesty International and Article 19 lobbied governments across the world for Saro-Wiwa’s release, including Sani Abacha’s Nigerian government. They even approached Shell for support but their protests fell on deaf ears.
On 10 November 1995, Saro-Wiwa and several other Ogoni leaders were executed after a short trial. British Prime Minister John Major described the case as ‘judicial murder’.
Our Case Study, compiled from information held in the PEN International Archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, tells the story in greater detail.
PEN continues to appeal to the Nigerian government to overturn the murder conviction.
Most importantly, Saro-Wiwa’s tragic case became symbolic of the plight of writers and activists in prison across the world.
In mid-November every year PEN’s international community come together to focus their thoughts and efforts on writers in prison around the world. They call it day of the Imprisoned Writer (15th Nov). Its proximity to the anniversary of Ken’s execution makes it all the more poignant. Read more about PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee here.