Conflict Poetry |2| Kenule Saro-Wiwa

Kenule Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian poet and member of the Ogoni, an inidgenous people of Nigeria. Saro-Wiwa by all accounts was an outspoken political activist. Otherwise known for his work in television, he gained a kind of international notoriety for his activism in defence of the Ogoni people and their resources. Their universe was turned in on itself once it was discovered that there was a whole mess of oil under their feet. Saro-Wiwa’s efforts would lead to his detainment and eventual execution at the age of fifty-four. Like so many before him he would be buried in an unmarked mass grave. The ultimate of final insults. This year is the twentieth anniversary of his execution.

Thankfully, Saro-Wiwa had a correspondance with an Irish Sister situated in Fermanagh. Her name is Majella McCarron. Their correspondance is preserved between an archive at Maynooth University and a wonderful publication titled Silence Would Be Treason. Otherwise illusive enough, a selection of Saro-Wiwa’s poetry can be found in this book. These pieces were penned in a jail cell during the year or so Saro-Wiwa awaited his execution for his activism.

Nelson Mandela was outraged by the execution

Shell, a well known international terror, had something of an interest in the crude oil of the Ogoni and Nigerian land. To ensure they’d secure these lucrative resources for themselves, Shell bought out the relevant Nigerian authorities. It seems this was no difficult task. No doubt large sums of money secretly changed hands frequently during these times. Now bedfellows with Shell, the Nigerian government of the time saw to eradicating the problem that the outspoken Saro-Wiwa presented. His work, both on and off the page, called for a kind of self representation that threatened the authority of Nigeria’s then leader Sani Abacha – just as much as it threatened Shell’s chance at all that oil. Abacha ran something of a dictatorship. A bunch of fishy charges were cooked up against Saro-Wiwa. It was alleged and concluded that he had orchestrated the murder of several pro-government Ogoni members. Saro-Wiwa maintained his innocence. He was nonetheless imprisoned, held for the guts of a year and ultimately hanged.

Saro-Wiwa’s detention really served to shed some well needed light on his cause. Naturally, seeing as people hate big business, everyone was outraged. A whole bunch of whimpering was done. Saro-Wiwa was hanged anyway. Not much difference was made. Nelson Mandela (amongst many others) expressed his outrage at the execution. Everyone agreed. Nigeria was kicked out of the Commonwealth. But just for a little while. Just to teach them a lesson.


Some years after these shameful events Shell agreed to pay a fairly hefty sum of money out to quell the sounds of Saro-Wiwa’s successors – all while maintaining their innocence.

At first it might be hard to see this as a powerful display of protest poetry. Before us we have a multi-billion dollar company paying out a relatively small amount with respect to the quite large amounts they made from these peoples’ resources. [pullquote]We have a poet cut down before he could give us very much poetry really.[/pullquote] We have a poet cut down before he could give us very much poetry really. Some even argue whether Saro-Wiwa should be celebrated for his poetic works. If considered alongside his life though, there is an unquestionable importance to Saro-Wiwa’s work. If for no other reason than this, Saro-Wiwa’s poetry is worth some time. It’s not hyper-experimental and it won’t change the course of poetry anytime soon. But it is exactly the type of simplicity that is needed when addressing contemporary relevant issues through art. Otherwise no one could identify with your cause because they’d have no idea what it was!

Part of the anti-shell protests
Part of the anti-shell protests

In a way this whole exchange worked out better for the bad guys. But at least more people are now aware of the lowdown cutthroat shamelessness that drives a company like Shell. Still though, the capitalist world turns and not much, really, changes.

I’ll end with this piece, as taken from Silence Would Be Treason. It is titled ‘Prison Song’. Some uncomfortable imagery to further drive home the injustice that this person and his cause came to meet.

Bedbugs, fleas and insects/The howl of deranged suspects/The dark night bisect/Rudely breaking my nightmare/And now widely awake/I’m reminded of this crude place/Shared with unusual inmates.