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Public Culture 13.1 (2001) 97-112

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Ken Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy:
The Politics of "Rotten English"

Michael North

Translation seems by definition an international issue, and the translatability of a text seems to be relevant only when that text travels outside the national boundaries within which it was created. But these assumptions depend on a national model for which there are virtually no pure examples in the contemporary world, because even the most homogeneous societies have significant minority languages. In many countries where there is no true majority language at all, the very existence of a national literary medium depends on the possibility of translation, so that translatability is not an incidental characteristic of a writer's work but an implicit feature of it from the beginning. Implicitly or explicitly, literary works in countries such as India or Nigeria must always confront internal limits to their intelligibility; in so doing, they also raise larger questions about national self-representation.

No writer exemplifies this situation more poignantly than Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed in 1995 by a government apparently determined to end his political career at any cost. For several years, Saro-Wiwa had been the most prominent spokesman of the Ogoni, a small Nigerian minority group whose territory in the Niger River delta happens to cover oil reserves developed by Royal/Dutch Shell Group. The Ogoni, according to Saro-Wiwa, have suffered all the devastation brought by the drilling and transportation of oil, without gaining any of the economic benefits, primarily because they have never been powerful enough to figure in the ethnic spoils system by which Nigeria has been governed since its civil war in the 1960s. Saro-Wiwa was leading a campaign against Shell [End Page 97] and the Nigerian regime when four Ogoni elders were killed in the course of a demonstration. Though Saro-Wiwa was not present at the demonstration, and though there was never any convincing proof of his complicity in the murders, which were widely attributed to the government itself, he was arrested, held without bail, tried by a special military tribunal, and finally hanged, despite worldwide protests. 1

Saro-Wiwa had been a very popular writer, creator of a successful television series, and an unremitting satirical scourge of successive Nigerian governments, but he was not executed because of his writings. The struggle leading to his death and the outrage following it centered on ecology and oil politics rather than on literature, and in the years since his execution, relatively little attention has been paid to a body of writing that includes the television plays collected as Basi and Company, the satirical works Prisoners of Jebs and Pita Dumbrok's Prison, a novel, several volumes of poems and folk tales, and a series of journalistic reports on "anomic Nigeria." 2 This inattention represents a missed opportunity for postcolonial literary studies in the United States, which would seem to have a particular stake in the work of an Anglophone writer who was also an international spokesman for minority rights, but it also tends to impoverish political analysis of Saro-Wiwa's campaign and his fate. Together, Saro-Wiwa's writing and his activism raised questions about Nigerian national self-representation that have [End Page 98] yet to be answered, despite recent changes in the Nigerian government. As he was led away from the third of the four botched attempts to hang him, Saro-Wiwa cried out, "What sort of a nation is this?" Wole Soyinka insists that this is a question that Saro-Wiwa's case poses in quite a literal sense, for the act of judicial murder that took his life was coincident with the loss of national self-determination, even national identity, suffered as the electoral system in Nigeria was frustrated by governmental fiat. 3 More generally, though, Saro-Wiwa's campaign on behalf of minority rights demanded a reexamination of the ways in which Nigeria had imagined itself as a nation. Showing how the Ogoni had been left out of the oil boom, had in fact been impoverished by it...


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pp. 97-112
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Archived 2004
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