Uncovering the truth, urging awareness

“In troubled times I am fearless -first son of Wiwa.” This is the English translation of Ken Wiwa's given name—Kenule Bornale Tsaro-Wiwa.

Six years ago, this fearless Nigerian's life and the lives of thousands of other Nigerians changed. The name Ken Saro-Wiwa – Wiwa's father – has become a potent symbol of the struggle between a traditional way of life and overpowering global commercial interests. Saro-Wiwa was an author and an environmentalist who led thousands of people in protest against Western oil companies. The Nigerian government and one oil company, Shell Oil, didn't like what he had to say.

“[Saro-Wiwa] opposed the Nigerian Federal Government who conspired with Shell Oil's to exploit and devastate the Ogoni people's ancient lands, and was legally murdered by the central government as a result,” said Chris Strube, who is a student at University of Alaska Anchorage and president of Amnesty. “This happened in broad daylight, and all our human-rights activist's, environmentalist's and humanitarian's horrified screams to the contrary were to no avail.”

Courtesy of statewide Amnesty support and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club, Wiwa came to bend the ear of the Anchorage community. Saturday's gathering in the Wilda Marston Theatre at the Loussac Public Library came to hear a reading and engage in discussion of Wiwa's book, “In the Shadow of a Saint: A son's journey to understand his father's legacy.”

Strube says Wiwa's presentation was an effort to broaden people's awareness of injustice on an international level. Organizations like Amnesty and Sierra Club don't want to see what happened to Wiwa's father happen again, anywhere.

“It's important for people to understand that the injustice we hear about in foreign countries does not happen in a vacuum,” Strube said.

“Every time we go to the gas station to fill up our tanks we are to some extent responsible for what's going on [in other countries]. But if we can help people realize the severity of what's happening on a global level under the hands of American big business, ignorance can no longer be an excuse.”

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Strube is just one person Wiwa has inspired.

It took Wiwa three years to write his book that explores his relationship with his father and the role he has to fulfill to finish out his father's work. “I often say it took 85 years, since I had to relive my father's 54 years and my own 31 to unravel the riddles of his legacy,” Wiwa said.

Wiwa says his relationship with his father was so difficult that he one day felt compelled him to change his name. After his father's death, memories of him became clearer, and Wiwa knew he had to do something to keep himself from going mad.

“In August 1997 I started having vivid nightmares about my father's last moments on the gallows. It was then that I realized I was on the verge of some kind of nervous breakdown,” Wiwa said. “I decided it was time to face up to all the things I had been trying to run away from since my father's death. A nagging little voice told me that I should be avenging his murder, or at least trying to keep his memory alive instead of trying to forget.”

Wiwa has fulfilled roles other than that of an acclaimed author. He is a journalist and human rights activist, contributing to newspapers throughout Europe, North America and Africa. He currently lives in Toronto, where he writes for the Toronto Globe and Mail and is a senior resident writer at Massey College in the University of Toronto.

Since his father's death, Wiwa has been active in keeping his father's memory alive through advocacy. He speaks on behalf of Nigerian people and championing their claims and rights in the debate about the effects of globalization on the nation-state in Africa, on cultural diversity, ethnic identity and the environment.

Wiwa has not only been fearless in his endeavors, he has been relentless.

Amid Wiwa's busy schedule, he and his family have filed a complaint under the Alien Tort Claims Act, hoping the suit will allow the truth to surface about Saro-Wiwa's death and the injustices against Nigerian people.

“The lawsuit will not only vindicate my father, but clear his name and bring psychological relief to the many Ogoni who still feel victimized and marginalized in Nigeria as well,” Wiwa said.

“We hope that a fair and unbiased court of law will consider our claims that an unholy alliance between Shell and the power elite in Nigeria conspired to deny and murder the legitimate aspirations of a people.”

Wiwa says he believes that no matter the outcome, winning the suit will send a message to multinationals in Nigeria and around the world— as the concept of a global economy strengthens, the actions of international business should be open to and subject to public scrutiny and accountability in any jurisdiction.

Wiwa travels to Nigeria several times a year, and is currently working toward the establishment of the Ken Saro-Wiwa Foundation, an organization that will set up secondary school in Ogoni, offer scholarships to Ogoni children and maintain his father's gravesite.