Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor
Ken Saro-Wiwa: A writer on trial for his life


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A writer on trial for his life. Anthony Daniels recalls his last meeting with Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian author and activist accused of treason and murder.

   THE LAST time I was on my way to visit the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa - who is now on trial for his life - at his office on the Aba Road in Port Harcourt, an appeal was broadcast over the radio for the authorities to remove the naked corpse which had lain in the Aba Road for the last few days and was now swelling and smelling horribly. When I arrived at his office, a hundred yards away from the corpse, we talked of the cornucopia of subject- matter which presented itself every day to writers in Nigeria. For example, a scandal had just broken which might one day provide Saro-Wiwa with a theme for a novel: a confidence trickster had announced to the public that he would pay fabulous monthly interest to those who deposited money with him and, for the first few months, kept to his word: using new deposits to pay interest on the old. When his scheme collapsed, as it was inevitable that it should, everyone - from market women to state governors - was found to have believed in his promises of quick wealth. As a metaphor for the get-quick-rich ethos of Africa's most populous country, it could scarcely be bettered. Alas, Saro-Wiwa felt there were more important matters than literature in hand. He was born in Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta, whose fishing creeks and farmland have been polluted beyond recognition by Royal Dutch Shell's extraction of oil.

The federal Nigerian government returned none of the revenues it derived from this oil to Ogoniland, which is deeply impoverished, without proper schools or medical facilities. In 1990 Saro-Wiwa, the son of an Ogoni Chief, started a protest movement - both for a share of the oil-revenues and against environmental degradation - which culminated in a peaceful demonstration of 300,000 (or 60 per cent) of the Ogoni. Saro-Wiwa was an extremely dangerous opponent for the military regime because oil is Nigeria's largest export and oil revenues are all-important to the economy. Indisputably non-violent, Saro-Wiwa argued the Ogoni case with logic and passion but - most dangerous of all - without ever losing his sense of humour. A small man, he has a basso profundo laugh, which somehow forces even his bitterest opponents to join in; and I shall never forget the way he shook with laughter as he described how Ogoni money (as he called it) was diverted into building extravagant presidential and ministerial palaces in Nigeria's new federal capital, Abuja. But the fact that the soldiers were unable to answer Saro-Wiwa's arguments was, as he very well knew, very risky for him. They were likely to reply in the only way they knew: they framed him. When a mob of his supporters then killed four alleged opponents of Saro-Wiwa's movement, Saro-Wiwa was arrested (for the second time) and charged with treason, incitement to murder and murder itself. Saro-Wiwa has been held for nine months in solitary confinement and is currently undergoing trial. If found guilty by the military tribunal, he could be shot. Though it is doubtful whether the regime would do anything so foolish as to execute Saro-Wiwa, it might just feel that it needed to do so to demonstrate its determination to survive and its independence of world opinion. Saro-Wiwa is a remarkable man. Born in 1941, he was educated at Umuahia Government College (the school also attended by the novelists Chinua Achebe and Elechi Amadi and the poet Christopher Okigbo) and then at University College, Ibadan, from which he graduated in English. His experience of a traditional British education gave him a deep respect for it (he sent both his sons to Eton), now all but lost in its country of origin. In 1970 he submitted a radio play to the BBC which was accepted. But his literary ambitions were thwarted for a time, first by the Nigerian civil war (in which he served on the federal side) and then by the need to earn a living to support his family. He became a grocer for a while, and it is typical of him that he talks of this period of his life not with embarrassment or shame, as many writers would surely do, but with affection and humour. He says - surely with reason - that there is a great deal to be learnt about human nature by providing people with their groceries. In the 1980s, however, he devoted himself to literature. In 1985, he published his first novel himself, setting up a company to do so (it has just been reissued by Heinemann in their African Writers' series). Entitled Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece of African literature. A Bildungsroman, it is the story of a quarter-educated village boy who enters the civil war because his young wife Agnes thinks that military uniforms look smart and manly. He ends up fighting on both sides without ever knowing what the fight was about, and in the process loses everyone dear to him. What is remarkable about this book is that it is told through the eyes of a village boy in language which is half-pidgin and half-English without a trace of condescension on the part of the author. The language is both poetic and accessible; both romantic and credible. It could only have been invented by a man with a deep love of the English language (which Saro-Wiwa acknowledges) and a genuine sympathy for people less educated than himself. The book reaches a moving conclusion: "And as I was going, I was just thinking how the war have spoiled my town Dukana . . . killed my mama and my wife Agnes, my beautiful new wife Agnes . . . and now it have made me like person wey get leprosy because I have no town again.
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And I was thinking how I was prouding before to go to soza [soldier] and call myself Sozaboy. But now if anybody say anything about war or even fight, I will just run and run and run and run and run. Believe me yours sincerely." After Sozaboy Saro-Wiwa created and wrote the most popular series on African television called Basi and Company, raising money for the production himself. Thirty million people watched the series, for which he wrote 50 episodes. Its protagonist, Basi, is a typical Lagos ne'er-do-well, who will resort to anything - except work - to obtain money. His chief aim in life is to avoid paying rent to the aggressive landlady of his single room, Madam the Madam. The series, though very funny, had a serious point: that Basi's typically Nigerian belief, which he had printed as a slogan on the front and back of his T-shirt, was deficient both for individuals and for society as a whole: "To Be A Millionaire You Have To Think Like A Millionaire." In all, Saro-Wiwa has written 23 books in 10 years: novels, essays, plays, short stories and collections of Ogoni myths. I know few people as irrepressible as he, and it is said that he has written two novels while imprisoned. I find it hard to believe that he will not emerge from his ordeal laughing, with an urgent desire to make the world laugh at his military oppressors - the worst punishment that can be devised for them.

Reported by Anthony Daniels in Sunday Telegraph March 5, 1995.

Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

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Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor