The news from earlier this week that Ken Wiwa, the son of the Nigerian activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, has died at the young age of forty seven, is a devastating shock to anyone who knew him.
Ken Junior, as he was affectionately called, died in London after a suffering a stroke and suspected heart attack. His sister, Noo, told the BBC: “It is with great sadness that we announce that Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr passed away suddenly. His family are devastated and request privacy at this difficult time.”
I first met Ken’s father, the elder Saro-Wiwa, in the early nineties as he was drumming up support for the Ogoni in their campaign against Shell’s environmental destruction of the Niger Delta.
Saro-Wiwa had just written a book Genocide in Nigeria that accused Shell of being complicit in the genocide of the Ogoni people.
It was a predictably bold book which laid down a gauntlet to the oil giant that Saro-Wiwa was not a man to be taken lightly. Not many people dared to accuse Big Oil of genocide.
But Ken Saro-Wiwa did.
Before Saro-Wiwa’s campaign, the issue of Shell’s environmental destruction of Ogoni was not on the international map. As I would later write in the book The Next Gulf, “Saro-Wiwa was drumming up support for the Ogoni, a people no one had ever heard of from as far-away Delta that Ken would bring a little closer on every visit”. At the time he told me: “Its just going to get worse, unless the international community intervenes”.
Also at the time I remember wondering why Ken Junior was not more involved in his father’s campaign for social and environmental justice. But it’s a question that he brilliantly explored in the critically acclaimed book: “In the Shadow of a Saint.”
The book starts by stating:
“My father. Where does he end and I begin? I seem to have spent my whole life chasing his shadow, trying to answer the questions that so many fathers pose to their sons. Is my life predetermined by his? My future defined by his past?”
In the book, which was published in 2000, some five years after his father’s murder at the hands of the Nigerian military, he explored the complex relationship he had with his Dad:
“I had a difficult and trouble relationship with my father, and although he was rarely around, I grew up in awe of him, intimidated by his achievements and haunted by the passions he stirred in both men and women”.
It was that passion that would help Ken Senior turn the Ogoni campaign against Shell from a Nigerian issue to an international crisis for the oil company. It was also this passion that would ultimately lead to Ken Senior’s death, as he was framed by the Nigerian military for his campaign against Shell.
For Ken Junior, not only dealing with a highly complex and sometimes troubled relationship with his father and then dealing with his father’s death – which made international headlines around the world – must have been totally and utterly beyond what most of us can understand.
As Ken Senior’s death sent shockwaves around the world, Ken Junior was hurled into the media spotlight even more.
In a Shadow of a Saint he wrote: “I was 26 years old and found myself on a world stage, blinking in the spotlight and bewildered by the strength of the forces and passions that my father’s death had unleashed”.
Ten years after his father’s death. Ken Junior told me: “When it happened it didn’t sink in. It was funny hearing about someone you know die in the news without seeing the body. Even now it seems like a bubble, like a dream”.
Ken did manage to step out of his father’s shadow with dignity, finally breaking the shackles of Ken Senior’s legacy. He became a journalist in his own right having moved to Canada, twice being nominated for a National Newspaper Awards. He also wrote for the Guardian and the New York Times, and produced and narrated radio and television documentaries for CBC and BBC.
He also advised three Nigerian Presidents, returning to the country in 2005, a decade after his father’s death. As an obituary in the Globe and Mail said this week: “Much of his work focused on the Niger Delta, still plagued by the environmental disasters that his father had tried to prevent.”
But anyone who follows the complex petro-politics of the Niger Delta knows that change comes all too painfully slowly. The vortex of pollution, poverty and violence has spun for decades and is hard to slow down, let alone stop.
Last year, on the 20th Anniversary of his father’s death, Junior wrote in the Guardian that he was still determined to ensure that his father’s “death must not be in vain”.
But progress has been slow: “If my father were alive today he would be dismayed that Ogoniland still looks like the devastated region that spurred him to action. There is little evidence to show that it sits on one of the world’s richest deposits of oil and gas.”
He wrote of the hope that the recommendations from UNEP on cleaning up Ogoniland should be implemented. It is a theme Ken Junior returned to in one of the last articles he wrote, which was published for Index on Censorship this week.
Although he noted that UNEP’s recommendation’s had “not yet been implemented, the federal government has accepted the report and we live and continue to work in hope that Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life and death will one day be honoured.”
It would be a fitting first step for the legacy of both Ken Senior and Ken Junior that the recommendations of the report are implemented in full as soon as possible.
But that will only be a first step.
As Junior wrote in his book: “My story, his story, our story will continue beyond this book. But there is story here, with a beginning, a middle and an end”.
Since his death the President of Nigeria has said: “Wiwa was an ardent believer in the unity, progress and stability of his community. I urge family, friends and associates to honour his memory by making his dream of an environmentally safe, secured and prosperous Ogoniland a reality”.
But a true lasting legacy should not just be for Ogoni, but for the Niger Delta as a whole. We all need to work towards helping the Delta end the destructive petrochemical age and move into a newer brighter, cleaner and fairer future.
How long that will take remains to be seen, but in the meantime I know that for Junior, there are no shadows any more. He can finally walk free. It is for the rest of us to continue the struggle. It is for the rest of us to continue writing the story.