In the Shadow of a Saint
A son's journey to understand his father's legacy - by Ken Wiwa
Published 2000 by Doubleday pp 261 ISBN 0385601859
To make the world safe for their children, Ken Wiwa writes
in his moving book about his troubled relationship with his father,
the late Ogoni rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, martyrs must
sacrifice their children.
Ken Wiwa feels that his family made that sacrifice for the greater
cause of the Ogoni people, the half a million or so souls living
on a tiny parcel of the Niger River delta whom Saro-Wiwa championed
against Nigeria's corrupt military governments and the
multinational oil company, Royal Dutch Shell, until the
late dictator, General Sani Abacha, had him executed in
In the Shadow of a Saint is an often sad but refreshingly honest
book that provides a unique insight into the personal and political
life of one of Nigeria's most dynamic and controversial figures.
Ken Wiwa does not attempt to portray his father as a saint. There
were obvious flaws, but in the end he is convinced that Saro-Wiwa
was completely committed to the Ogoni cause. The backdrop to this
story is the widening campaign in southeastern Nigeria by the
Ogonis and other indigenous communities to demand a fair share
of the massive oil wealth that enriched Nigeria's rulers and the
big Western oil companies in business with them.
There is fresh insight too into what exactly Ken Saro-Wiwa intended
with his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop),
whether it was a means to demand simply a better deal for his
people within a united Nigeria, as his supporters maintained,
or whether, as his detractors argued, he hoped to break up Nigeria.
There is some evidence for both arguments, though by the end Saro-Wiwa
seemed to be leaning, from sheer exasperation, towards the latter.
'If I can pull this off,' he wrote to his son from jail in December
1994, 'I should have started a revolutionary trend in Africa which
may in fact be what the continent has needed. We have to destroy
Berlin of 1884, and remake Africa according to our traditional
lines, smashing the oppression of the past and the present in
To describe Ken Junior's relationship with his father as stormy
would be an understatement. While Ken Senior wanted his first-born
son to follow him into business, perhaps politics, but certainly
back to Nigeria to use his privileged British public school education,
Ken Jr. seethed with resentment, longing for his own space to
do his own things in his own time.
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
The book is haunted by the ghost of Tedum, Ken Wiwa's younger,
stronger, more courageous brother who was able to stand up to
their father but who died of a heart ailment while playing sports
at Eton. Ken Jr. calls Tedum's death a turning point in his life,
bringing a realisation that his younger brother was the spirit
child who had been his guardian angel.
Ken Jr. was increasingly thrust into a political role in 1994
when the Ogoni campaign reached a dramatic climax with the murders
of four prominent Ogonis by a mob. The killings left deep divisive
scars on both the people of the region and Saro-Wiwa's own extended
family. The Abacha government arrested Saro-Wiwa and other Mosop
activists and conducted a trial in a kangaroo court that had one
outcome: the execution of Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists
on 10 November 1995 (AC Vol 36 No 23, Hangman).
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
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
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. Ken Jr.'s return was welcomed
by thousands, but in even in death Ken Saro-Wiwa was the subject
of controversy, with competing factions of Mosop literally fighting
over his body. A funeral was celebrated but the bones of Saro-Wiwa
and the eight other Ogonis have not yet been returned to their
families, nor have the remains of the four Ogonis killed in mob
violence in 1994. As Ken Jr. flew away from Nigeria for his new
home in Canada, he just wished he had had private moment
to say goodbye to his father.