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  • Introduction:Ken Saro-Wiwa as Public Intellectual
  • Stephanie Newell

More than twenty years after his unnecessary death, Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-95) continues to receive global recognition as an iconic figure, a "hero for our times" in the struggle for minority people's environmental and political rights (Brittain 5). Human rights agencies continue to cite his name in reports about the combined, ongoing failures of oil companies and the national government of Nigeria to decontaminate the poisoned farmlands in the Niger Delta region (Amnesty International, "A Criminal Enterprise?"). Campaign groups for minority rights worldwide continue to regard him as an iconic martyr. In other words, the tragedy of Saro-Wiwa's end continues to be narrated and to inspire literary and political activism.

Saro-Wiwa's numerous printed interventions on the topic of minority rights parallel, and draw on, a century of literary activity in Nigeria and West Africa in which local intellectuals intervened in public debates about politics and society and in so doing risked the consequences of offending formidable political antagonists.1 Preeminent twentieth-century intellectuals in West Africa, such as I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson (1894-1965), Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904-96), Fela Kuti (1938-97), Chinua Achebe (1930-2013), and Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), among many others, made use of existing public spaces, or created new spaces of their own, for the articulation of political opinion and the provocation of debate. Particularly through the use of print and newspapers, but also through other popular media such as music, their interventions held fellow public figures to account for particular policy decisions and for failures of leadership. All too often, in spite of their celebrity status, these oppositional figures got in trouble with their targets, suffering censorship, fines, harassment, imprisonment, or worse: Wallace-Johnson, for example, was considered so dangerous to the British war effort in the late 1930s that he was imprisoned on Sherboro Island for a large portion of the Second World War (Spitzer and Denzer); Azikiwe was regularly ordered to appear before the colonial courts on charges of libel and defamation and was the subject of extensive British government surveillance; in postcolonial Nigeria, Fela Kuti's human rights activism and outspoken political critiques led to repeated military brutality against himself, his family, and members of his commune between the 1970s and 1990s; and Soyinka had to flee [End Page vii] for his life on at least one occasion under threat from the military authorities (Jeyifo).

The surveillance of public intellectual spaces by government agencies was as invasive in 1990s Nigeria as it was in the decades before decolonization.2 As with Azikiwe and other prominent anticolonial newspapermen in the fiery anticolonial 1930s and 1940s, Saro-Wiwa's status as a public intellectual was closely monitored by government officials, who worked in a parallel "official sphere," behind the scenes of the public sphere, to produce their own account of his intentions and motivations. When Saro-Wiwa submitted a provocative and prescient article entitled "The Coming War in the Niger Delta" to his regular Nigerian Sunday Times column in November 1990, for example, in which he "warn[ed] that the delta would erupt in violence if western oil companies and the state failed to meet local people's reasonable demands," the editor was forced to pull the text prior to publication after censorship by the government (Okonta).

The parallels between Nigeria in the years of military rule and the late colonial period do not stop there, for just as post-1945 colonial governments in West Africa embarked on costly public relations campaigns to counter nationalist demands for accelerated decolonization, so too, according to Saro-Wiwa's son Ken Wiwa, the Nigerian government responded to the international condemnation of the Ogoni leaders' executions in November 1995 with a $10 million public relations offensive, employing media professionals to smear Saro-Wiwa's reputation and to shore up the damaged international credibility of the regime (In the Shadow 3). Simultaneously, the oil companies launched environmentally "green" advertising and public relations campaigns to highlight their efforts to clean up the devastated land in the delta region (Amnesty International, "Shell").

In the spirit of West African traditions of holding public figures to account...


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