Ken Saro-Wiwa, Grant Awarded 1995
Environmental activism against oil companies may sound like a familiar story today. But 20 years ago – and under a military dictatorship in Nigeria – it was new and astonishingly brave. Ken Saro-Wiwa, a novelist, diarist, and highly successful television producer, was nearly 50 when he helped to found the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, and to challenge Royal Dutch Shell over the devastation of his homeland in the fertile waterways of the Niger Delta.In November 1995, in his final statement before execution by hanging together with eight other activists who had been tried on trumped-up charges, Saro-Wiwa pronounced himself “appalled by the denigrating poverty of my people who live on a richly endowed land, distressed by their political marginalization and economic strangulation, [and] angered by the devastation of their land.” His killing made headlines around the world. But 14 years later, Shell paid out $15.5 million to settle a legal action brought by ten Nigerians, mostly relatives of the executed men, in a federal court in New York. I hoped, after meeting Shell executives a few days later, that this might be a turning point in the company’s approach to human rights, rather than an accounting blip to make a serious problem go away. Shell earns billions in Nigeria.
Six years before his own execution, Saro-Wiwa published a short story, “Africa Kills Her Sun,” whose narrator is writing a last letter to an old flame before facing the firing squad in the morning. Saro-Wiwa’s body, like the narrator’s, was dumped in an unmarked grave.
“The men who shall have eased us out of life will then untie our bodies and dump them into a lorry and thence to some open general grave. That must be a most distasteful task. I’d not do it for a million dollars. Yet some miserable fellows will do it for a miserable salary at the end of the month. A salary which will not feed them and their families till the next payday. A salary which they will have to augment with a bribe, if they are to keep body and soul together. I say, I do feel sorry for them…To die the way I’m going to die in the next hour or two is really nothing to worry about. I’m in excellent company. I should find myself recorded in the annals of our history. A history of violence, of murder, of disregard for life. Pleasure in inflicting pain – sadism. Is that the word for it? It’s a world I should be pleased to leave. But not without an epitaph.
I recall, many years ago as a young child, reading in a newspaper of an African leader who stood on the grave of a dead lieutenant and through his tears said: ‘Africa kills her sons.’ I don’t know what he meant by that, and though I’ve thought about it long enough, I’ve not been able to unravel the full mystery of those words. Now, today, this moment, they came flooding back to me. And I want to borrow from him. I’d like you to put this on my gravestone, as my epitaph: ‘Africa Kills Her Sun.’ A good epitaph, eh? Cryptic. Definite. A stroke of genius, I should say. I’m sure you’ll agree with me. ‘Africa Kills Her Sun!’”
Arvind Ganesan is the Business and Human Rights director at Human Rights Watch.