Looking Shell in the eye: Ken Saro-Wiwa's last writings

Ogoni villagers survey destroyed canoes at Kaa, 5th January 1994. Photo: Sr. Majella McCarron, NUI Maynooth Ken Saro-Wiwa archive.
Ogoni villagers survey destroyed canoes at Kaa, 5th January 1994. Photo: Sr. Majella McCarron, NUI Maynooth Ken Saro-Wiwa archive.
Author Ken Saro-Wiwa spear-headed the resistance of the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta against environmental devastation from oil drilling and ruptured oil pipelines. He was executed in 1995. Dr Laurence Cox introduces his last letters.
When I undertook to confront Shell & the Nigerian establishment, I signed my death warrant, so to speak. At 52, I think I've served my time and, come to face it, I've lived a charmed life.

The Ogoni of the Niger Delta are a small, indigenous population of fishers and farmers (perhaps half a million in the 1990s) who had the misfortune to stand in the way of the oil and gas multinationals and their links with the then Nigerian military dictatorship.

The well-known author and public figure Ken Saro-Wiwa, himself an Ogoni, co-founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) to challenge the massive pollution of the water and soil on which the Ogoni depended for their traditional livelihood, and the human rights abuses of the state.

In 1993, mobilising perhaps 60% of the population on a single day, the Ogoni declared Shell persona non grata in Ogoniland. The response was the military occupation of the territory by a specially constituted 'Internal Security Task Force', with widespread killings and the destruction of villages.

In mid-1994, Saro-Wiwa and 8 other Ogoni activists were arrested on trumped-up charges of the killing of 4 Ogoni chiefs (although Saro-Wiwa had been prevented from entering Ogoni territory on the day in question).

A report by Michael Birnbaum QC for the human rights NGO Article 19 noted that the two chief witnesses admitted to having been bribed to give false evidence. Despite an international outcry, the military tribunal condemned the defendants to death and they were executed on 10 November 1995.

The extraordinary letters published in Silence would be treason: last writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa were smuggled out of military detention in food baskets and sent to Irish nun and solidarity activist, Sr Majella McCarron.

They show Saro-Wiwa reflecting on his own life in the face of a court he knew was likely to condemn him; discussing Shell's role in the environmental destruction of the Delta; considering the situation of the Ogoni movement and the prospects for an end to dictatorship; and directing the campaign to save his own life and those of his fellow activists.

They are now being published for the first time.



Letter to Majella McCarron, summer 1994 (undated)

Dear Sr. Majella,

Greetings in God's name. Well, you know the whole story. They are getting closer to me - Shell and the Nigerian establishment that is. I'm not particularly protected, although I have great faith in God, in the justness of my cause & in the belief in eventual VICTORY. But the pain which we all have to endure! Would to God it had been lighter!

My current detention is sheer torture. I'm a private prisoner of the Lt-Col Komo and his Internal Security Task Force. This is a lawless situation. I'm not being held under Decree 2 for all I know, and if I were being held under the Criminal Code over the homicide of the 4 Ogoni men, I should be in the hands of the Police. (UNHRC have a mandate on the condition of prisoners. Can the rep in Lagos do something about me?)

Now here I am, in a private house, denied access to lawyer, doctor, family, other visitors and not allowed to have the special diet which I have been on. I am not allowed to read newspapers, listen to radio or read books. It's mental torture.

When I undertook to confront Shell & the Nigerian establishment, I signed my death warrant, so to speak. At 52, I think I've served my time and, come to face it, I've lived a charmed life.

The living condition is okay - there is electricity & air conditioning, but I'm alone with two armed guards, 24 hours a day. I've asked Bishop Makozi [Catholic Bishop of the Port Harcourt Diocese] to intervene with the Governor so I'm properly fed & taken to hospital. No dice.

You should see me. I've lost weight! For the first 10 days here, I was on bread, water & bananas alone. But I'm in good spirit, undaunted, as convinced of my cause as ever. My real worry is the devastation of Ogoni villages, the destabilization of the area & the harassment & killing of the people.

With MOSOP Steering Committee members on the run or under arrest, the Ogoni are not protected at all. And the international scene is quiet, taken up with Abiola [who won the 1993 election, annulled by the military]. Only Divine intervention can help the Ogoni.

I'm not worried for myself. When I undertook to confront Shell & the Nigerian establishment, I signed my death warrant, so to speak. At 52, I think I've served my time and, come to face it, I've lived a charmed life. A few more books, maybe, & the opportunity to assist others would have been welcome. But it's okay.

Of course, I & MOSOP had nothing to do with the death of the 4 gentlemen [Saro-Wiwa and the 8 other executed Ogoni activists were charged with the murders of 4 Ogoni chiefs, despite the fact that the security forces had prevented him from entering Ogoniland on the day of their deaths]. We are struggling for justice, not for power and, in any case, they were of little consequence in a highly mobilized and conscious Ogoni population. They were no threat in any way at all.

Komo has just succeeded in masking the government's role in the unfortunate & brutal deaths. And the Orages were my in-laws. My children are cousins of the Orages. Elizabeth is from Bane & is the elder sister of my estranged wife, Maria. And I did have a lot in common with Edward Kobani. We continued to discuss & chat even in recent times. We always got together again after he'd have strayed to his heart's content.

Well, Sr., I hope you do get this letter. I hope I'll get another opportunity to write you. I'm spending my time writing short stories - I lock my door & do not allow my gaolers to see me at it.

If we meet again, we'll smile. Till then, it's good luck & God bless you.



In 2009 Shell settled out of court with the relatives of those executed for over US$15 million. Court documents showed their funding of military operations in the Delta, while Wikileaks cables highlighted their links with Nigerian government department.



Excerpt from letter to Majella McCarron, 21 March 1995

I have never really felt I was in danger. The sure knowledge of my innocence gave me that feeling. I thought that I'd remain in captivity until God should have used that fact to make the Ogoni cause better known and pave the way for solving some of the many problems which confront the Ogoni people and similar groups in Nigeria, if not the African continent. Big thought. Big assignment. But I have not wavered in my belief. Now, seeing how things are going, I'm even stronger in my belief and in my faith in the ultimate success of my dreams.

It would appear that the British and the Americans are at last waking up to the danger posed by [military dictator' Abacha and his men. Really, Nigeria has not had it so bad. The denigration of the people is unimaginable. We have to be thankful that Wole Soyinka and his friends went abroad to alert the rest of the world. And that people like you are also out there to bear testimony independently. Ogoni bells.

I'm in good shape. A touch of the flu now and again but otherwise, nothing serious on the health side which is a good thing. The "trial" is on, although no one is in doubt that the judgement has been written. What will ruin their plan is the fall of the Abacha regime, although one has to be careful then what Shell does next. I did let you know that Shell are represented by Counsel holding a "watching brief" at the trial. When that got embarrassing, they got the Counsel who is also Chairman of the Rivers State branch of the Nigerian Bar Association to publicly withdraw from the Tribunal while secretly representing them through the Bar Association which can legitimately be at the Tribunal.



The international campaign to force Shell to clean up the environmental devastation of the Niger Delta continues; earlier this month Amnesty International and the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development accused the company of manipulating its investigations into oil spills in Nigeria. Images donated by Sr McCarron to the Ken Saro-Wiwa archive at NUI Maynooth highlight both the natural beauty of Ogoni and the devastation caused by the oil industry and military reprisals.



Poem, undated

Ogoni! Ogoni!

Ogoni is the land
The people, Ogoni
The agony of trees dying
In ancestral farmlands
Streams polluted weeping
Filth into murky rivers
It is the poisoned air
Coursing the luckless lungs
Of dying children
Ogoni is the dream
Breaking the looping chain
Around the drooping neck of a shell-shocked land.



Donated by Sr McCarron to the National University of Ireland Maynooth, the letters have been edited for accessibility and published in paperback by Deputy Librarian Helen Fallon, African specialist Íde Corley and social movements researcher Laurence Cox with a foreword by Nnimmo Bassey, coordinator of Oilwatch International and previously director of Friends of the Earth International.

The book is designed to be suitable for use in campaigns and education; it is also a gripping and powerful read, the record of a man on trial for his life. Proceeds from online sales will go towards the production and distribution of cheap copies in Africa.

Silence would be treason: last writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa is edited by Helen Fallon, Íde Corley and Laurence Cox with a foreword by Nnimmo Bassey. Dakar / Bangalore: Daraja / CODESRIA / Action Aid, 2013. 198pp + illustrations, paperback $14.95; available from Create Space.

Dr Laurence Cox co-directs the MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism at the National University of Ireland Maynooth. He is co-founder of the online social movements journal Interface and has published widely on social movements, including the campaign against Shell's gas pipeline in NW Ireland.