Review: In the Shadow of a Saint

Ken Wiwa (author)

By John Bacher (reviewer) | 2001-04-01 12:00:00

"That was the final straw for me. I realized that the politicians didn't care that my father was dead. All the moral indignation in the world wasn't going to change the fact that Ken Saro-Wiwa was, to them, a minor detail in a bigger picture. He was expendable as long as the oil continued to flow in the right direction and at the right price, as long as the system worked to the advantage of the multinational oil companies and their hired thugs in the various military regimes. If rich and influential nations continued to enjoy cheap fuel and a good standard of living, and their people slept soundly in their beds, then what did it matter that the human rights of millions of nameless and voiceless people were being trampled on? What did it matter that one man had been hanged after a dubious trial? Why rock the boat or change the system for that?"

In the Shadow of a Saint

Ken Wiwa's remarkable book, In the Shadow of a Saint, eloquently expresses a son's outrage over the judicial murder of his father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, to expedite the flow of oil. The book gives rare insight from the son of one of the bravest and most eloquent foes of dictatorship in recent years. The author is awed by his father's accomplishments and at the same time terrified that he may face demands for a similar sacrifice in the cause of freedom.

In the Shadow of a Saint is unusual, complex and sometimes overwhelming in its description of a son's relationship with his father combined with the realities of the vast cultural differences between Great Britain and West Africa. However, Wiwa's elucidation of his bond with his father provides insights into Ken Saro-Wiwa's role as a martyr in the remarkable rebirth of Nigerian democracy. This emerges vividly in Ken Wiwa's exposé of the efforts of the Nigerian dictatorship to discredit his father by portraying him as an advocate of armed struggle. In this discussion, Ken Wiwa points out how an official vilification campaign of outright lies - echoed in the British press as well as in an expensive American public relations campaign financed by the Nigerian government - was essential to the legitimation of his father's murder. The most important accusations, and the ones which ultimately resulted in his execution, were cooked-up charges that held Ken Saro-Wiwa responsible for the organization of a riot during which four Ogoni chiefs were killed.

In response to the Nigerian government's slanders, Ken Wiwa notes his father's close family ties to one of the victims - most notably, his uncle, Sam Orage. He records the efforts of Ken Saro-Wiwa's brother, Owens, to have police intervene to stop the riots. He also carefully explains how his father was not present at the scene of the riots and had long challenged misguided individuals who advocated armed struggle.

Ken Wiwa also shows that people who had given false testimony under the promise of government contracts could not correct their own mis-statements despite their brave willingness to come to his father's defence in his trial. This evidence was not deemed admissible by petrotyrant Sani Abacha's kangaroo court. He also points out that his father "studied how Gandhi's satyagraha had moved the Indian people and how Martin Luther King had used non-violent protest to draw attention to the civil rights movement in the United States."

Even Ken Saro-Wiwa's most eloquent conventional champions could not come up with the powerful evidence for his innocence that is detailed by his son. Ken Saro Wiwa's notions of non-violence emerged from his participation in a strategy session that opponents of the Abacha dictatorship held in exile. In the midst of an intense discussion over the appropriateness of nonviolence as a tactic in extreme circumstances, one exile remembered that Ken Saro-Wiwa had pointed out that nonviolence was "just like challenging your father. Your father is too strong, so you have to outwit him with your brains."

Readers of In The Shadow of the Saint, will find rich paradoxes which will surprise them. The one political leader at the Commonwealth summit who did attempt to take strong action to save Ken Saro-Wiwa's life was actually the prime minister of Canada, Jean Chrétien. Not even Nelson Mandela, basking in the glow of his new glory as South Africa's president, took actions as bold as Canada's political leadership. Much of the book concerns Ken Wiwa's unsuccessful efforts to see Mandela, years after his father's execution. Ken Saro-Wiwa was not able to interview the African leader, even after Mandela's retirement, and despite efforts on his behalf by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the most moving chapters of In the Shadow of a Saint, concerns Ken Wiwa's trip to Burma in 1998 to support its nonviolent democracy movement, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. What is astonishing about reading this chapter is noting how much of Burma's tyranny escapes coverage in the mainstream press. How many people are aware, for instance, that in 1996 a British businessman, Leo Nichols, was found guilty of passing faxes to Aung San Suu Kyi and sentenced to three years of hard labor? Nichols subsequently died in prison after being subjected to torture.

Nichols's case was especially worrisome to Ken Wiwa since it illustrated what could happen to him as an outcome of his journey to Burma in support of Amnesty International's campaign to free two Burmese comedians, U Pa Pa Ley and U Lu Zaw. They were sentenced to seven years' imprisonment at hard labor for telling jokes. Only a week after his visit to Burma, a British student in Rangoon was arrested and later sentenced to two years in prison, on the absurd charge of being a "human rights terrorist."

Ken Wiwa gives a full account of the economic props to dictatorships, noting for instance, that Burma is a tyranny financed by oil, timber, and the international heroin trade. He also applauds Aung San Suu Kyi's call for tougher sanctions against the repressive regime - a plea that he videotaped at the risk of life-threatening imprisonment.

Upon reading In The Shadow of a Saint, many readers will wonder why more publications are not produced to illustrate the greatest problem facing the earth at the start of the new millennium - the persistence of tyranny. Maybe readers will also ponder why Hollywood has not made a great cinematic epic to celebrate the lives of one of the greatest heroes of our age, killed by the economic forces responsible for the global warming so threatening to life on our planet. It is to be hoped that readers will take up the cause of extending democracy around the world, especially in the political parties, environmental groups, and social movements they are engaged in.

Reviewed by John Bacher, an activist living in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2001

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2001, page 29. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by John Bacher here

Peace Magazine homepage