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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 November 1995.
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 the process.'
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 own family.
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 of letters.
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 in tatters.
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.