He was a writer with a fluid prose and an eye for details. A human-rights activist. An adviser to three presidents in his native Nigeria. And he was also a man whose life and career were marked by the murder of his famous father two decades ago. Ken Wiwa was a successful journalist in his own right who, while in his 20s, was suddenly thrust into the global spotlight after his father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was jailed and then executed by Nigeria’s military junta for campaigning against oil development.
Born in Nigeria but living abroad, the son was torn between his loyalty to his father and a desire to find his own path, at a distance from his tumultuous native land. Mr. Wiwa died Oct. 18 of a stroke in London, his family said. He was 47. His life was shaped as much by his English private-school education and his years working in Britain and Canada, as it was by events in the creeks and mangroves of the Niger Delta, where his people, the Ogoni minority, had the misfortune of standing in the way of oil drilling.
Both Mr. Wiwa and his father were writers endowed with charisma and wit. The difference, said Toronto documentary maker Mark Johnston, who was friends with both, was that the father became an activist willing to die for his beliefs. “That made him completely different from everyone, including his son,” Mr. Johnston said in an interview.
The son, who wanted to be a sports writer, struggled to define himself. After a decade back in Nigeria working in government, he had recently returned to London to pen another book. “Part of the tragedy was that he was about to move on to another stage of writing. He had done enough to satisfy the political legacy of his father,” Mr. Johnston said. Between those chapters in his life was a six-year interlude in Canada during which Mr. Wiwa was a Saul Rae Fellow and senior resident at Massey College at the University of Toronto.
It was while in Toronto, where he was a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail, that he finished writing ‘In The Shadow of A Saint’, an autobiography that was lauded for its candid look at his relationship with his father and his struggle to reconcile his personal needs with the demands of his family name. In a eulogy delivered Oct. 23 at Massey College, Louise Dennys, executive vice-president at Penguin Random House Canada, said Mr. Wiwa had written “a remarkable memoir that remains a classic in its field ….”
The eldest of the five children of Ken and Maria Saro-Wiwa, he was born on Nov. 28, 1968, in Lagos. He was given the same name as his father, Kenule Bornale Tsaro-Wiwa, and was known in the family as Junior. His multifaceted father had been a state official, businessman, writer and television producer. Growing up, Junior fancied becoming a professional athlete but, as he recalled in his memoir, his father told him that “the best black minds had no business playing sport for a living.”
Instead, Junior and one of his brothers were enrolled in a British boarding school, the only Africans out of 150 boys. They endured the teasing, the mispronouncing of their names and a curriculum that “took it for granted that England was the centre of the universe,” he said in his memoir. This bicultural upbringing led to a double life, he wrote: “At school I saw myself as English, but at home I was African.”
This led to frictions with his father, who was busy campaigning for the rights of the Ogoni people, whose land was polluted by spills and gas flaring from oil exploitations by companies like Shell.
Mr. Wiwa recalled how, when he was 14, his father took him and his brother, Gian, on a trip to the United States. “I’m training you,” he told the boys one day when they only had one meal. The father also insisted that they read a book every night. Junior pushed back and it ended in a row. The next day, however, his father was smiling.
Years later, he learned that his father had met exiled Nigerian activists that day and discussed the challenges of fighting the military junta. In his memoir, he recalled that Mr. Saro-Wiwa told the exiles that “it was just like challenging your father. Your father is too strong, so you have to outwit him with your brains.”
In 1990, Mr. Saro-Wiwa founded MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. The same year, his son graduated from London University. While his father urged him to return to Nigeria to help MOSOP, the son remained in Britain and tried to break into journalism. He married a British woman, Olivia Burnett. He changed his name to the shorter Ken Wiwa. “He was one of the lads; a good laugh, most notably passionate about sport … Not being particularly politically aware,” British journalist Jojo Moyes, who met Mr. Wiwa in 1992, recalled in an article in The Independent.
In Nigeria, General Sani Abacha seized power in November, 1993. Within months, a systemic crackdown against the Ogoni people began. Mr. Saro-Wiwa was arrested, purportedly in connection with the killing of four Ogoni chieftains. “Ken Jr. became the lightning rod for the campaign to free his father and the other MOSOP leaders who had been imprisoned with him on trumped up charges. He worked tirelessly and passionately,” Mr. Johnston recalled in a eulogy he delivered at Massey College. After 18 months criss-crossing the world, an exhausted Mr. Wiwa was in New Zealand to meet heads of governments gathered at a Commonwealth summit when his father and nine colleagues were executed.
Mr. Wiwa’s grief was mixed with anger at politicians who met him for photo opportunities but had little concrete to offer. “I wanted my innocence back. I went back to London and tried to pick up the pieces of my life,” he said in his memoirs. But he found that he was pigeonholed as Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son. “I had no clear concept of where home was or to whom or to what I owed my allegiance. I was rootless, deracinated and adrift in the world,” he recalled in a 2001 Globe article.
He decided to move to Canada. He was grateful for the support he had received from the Canadian literary community. Away from his past obligations, he basked in Toronto’s more gentle cosmopolitan scene, said John Fraser, former master of Massey College. “He was allowed to be Ken Wiwa here.” It took Mr. Wiwa three years to complete ‘In The Shadow of a Saint’, Ms. Dennys said. “Through the process of the writing itself he had come to understand and love the father who had cast such a shadow.”
He also wrote for The Globe. In 2002, he was nominated for a National Newspaper Award for a Globe feature about travelling the full length of Yonge Street and Highway 11, from Minnesota to downtown Toronto. Waiting for a bus in Hearst, he met a teenage girl yearning to leave her dreary small-town life. “I could identify with her need to belong while, at the same time, wanting to escape,” he wrote.
The following year, he was nominated again, for a sports article about the Calgary Flames star forward Jarome Iginla. He was intrigued by Mr. Iginla who, like Mr. Wiwa’s children, is half-Nigerian.
In Nigeria, civilian rule followed the death of Gen. Abacha. Mr. Wiwa returned in 2005 and became a special assistant to then-president Olusegun Obasanjo. “He was ready to go home to Nigeria and try to help continue his father’s legacy. Some of us were worried. He hadn’t grown up in Nigeria and thought that he would be swallowed whole by the governments there that wanted his help. But he found a way,” Mr. Johnston said.
Alkasim Abdulkadir, a Nigerian journalist and friend, said that during a decade as a presidential adviser, Mr. Wiwa did “a lot of quiet work” and was able to have behind-the-scenes impact. He credited Mr. Wiwa with a key role in getting the United Nations Environment Program to conduct an independent assessment of the impacts of oil contamination in Ogoniland. A cleanup program has since started to follow up on the UNEP recommendations.
Mr. Wiwa and relatives of other victims of the military regime were also involved in a lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell, alleging that the oil company had urged the Nigerian military to silence Mr. Saro-Wiwa and other critics. Shell settled the suit in 2009, paying $15.5-million (U.S.) while denying any wrongdoing.
In May 2015, Mr. Wiwa left government to spend more time in London, working on a book. “He had some unfulfilled dreams,” Mr. Abdulkadir said. Mr. Wiwa leaves his wife, Olivia Burnett, and their two sons, Felix and Suanu.
•Tu Thanh Ha contributed this Obituary for The Globe and Mail of Canada
NOTE: Olusegun Adeniyi’s Verdict will be back next week.