Writer and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian military government on 10 November 1995 after being charged with the murder of four tribal leaders. His execution was widely condemned across the world and helped turn Nigeria into a 'pariah' state.
Who was Ken Saro-Wiwa?
Ken Saro-Wiwa, born in Ogoniland (part of Nigeria's River States) in 1941, was well known in Nigeria as a writer, television producer, and entrepreneur, before coming to world's attention as the principal founder of Mosop (Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People).
What was Ken Saro-Wiwa trying to achieve in Nigeria?
In the 1980s Saro-Wiwa became embroiled in the plight of his home Ogoniland (400 square miles, population of 500,000) which was the fifth largest oil producing area in Nigeria. Despite decades of oil exploitation, the majority of the Ogonis lived in poverty, not seeing any benefit from the oil. Saro-Wiwa held the Nigerian military government and international oil companies, especially the Anglo-Dutch company Shell, responsible. He outlined his views in a newspaper article, The Coming War in the Delta", published in the Nigerian Sunday Times in 1990 and demanded oil money be used to improve conditions for the Ogoni.
What was the role of Mosop (Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People)?
In 1990, Mosop published a manifesto, The Ogoni Bill of Rights, which demanded political autonomy for Ogoniland. Mosop had the backing of the five major traditional Ogoni chiefdoms. The demands were dismissed by Nigeria's military government. Mosop, however, found a willing audience in the international community outside Nigeria.
What was the Nigerian Military Government's response?
In 1992, Mosop wrote to Shell, Chevron, and the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (which were the main operators in Ogoniland) demanding a payment of $6 billion for 40 years of oil exploitation. They threatened mass action within 30 days if the demand wasn't met. The Nigerian military government responded by sending in troops and declaring that demands for self-determination and the disruption of oil production would be considered treason, and punishable by death.
Mosop defied the government and organised mass rallies. Saro-Wiwa called upon the international community to come to their aid. When rioting occurred, the traditional chiefs reneged on their support for Mosop, and issued a public apology. They then threw themselves behind the government's stand against Mosop, calling for a crack-down. The government, meanwhile, stirred up tribal disagreements between the Ogonis and their neighbours the Andonis, which resulted in armed conflict. 1,000 Ogonis were killed and many thousands left homeless.
Why was Ken Saro-Wiwa arrested?
In May 1994 four Ogoni leaders were killed at a political rally in Gokana. Saro-Wiwa was arrested and held incommunicado for nine months before being charged with the murders. Despite his denial of the charge, and a lack of credible evidence, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were found guilty and sentenced to death. Eight days after the sentence, on 10 November 1995, to international shock and condemnation, Saro-Wiwa and his co-accused were executed.
Ken Saro-Wiwa's execution was just one of many deaths amongst critics of the military government in Nigeria during the mid-1990s. It was not until the death of General Sani Abacha, Nigeria's head of state, on 8 June 1998 that the situation changed and human rights abuses were curtailed.