Son of executed political activist speaks to University students

Amy Hackbarth

Ken Wiwa Jr. sometimes feels like he and his deceased father are melded into one person.

“There are no points between where you end and your parents begin,” Wiwa said. “My father lives in me.”

As the son of executed political and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Wiwa experienced pressure to follow in his father’s activist footsteps. In a discussion with University students on Wednesday, Wiwa spoke about his new book “In the Shadow of a Saint,” which chronicles his relationship with his father.

“A parent always has to decide whether they should make the world safe for your child or make your child safe for the world,” Wiwa said.

Wiwa said his father decided to make the world safe for his children, fighting the Nigerian military regime and the Shell Oil conglomerate, writing books and taking part in grassroots political organizations.

“His father was one of the legendary human rights figures,” said Joe Kirchhof, co-chair of the University Amnesty International student group. “He’s not tremendously well remembered to the general public, but he really accomplished quite a bit.”

While his father led the activist movement in Nigeria, Wiwa said he remained “apolitical,” resisting his father’s causes. When Saro-Wiwa was arrested in 1994, however, Wiwa gave up his job as a journalist to fight for Saro-Wiwa’s cause and help free his father.

“I gave up my life to save my father’s life, that’s how I put it at the time,” Wiwa said. “Now I know I tried to save my father’s life so I could make something of my life.”

To save his father from execution, Wiwa met with leaders of other countries such as Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa. Although authorities expressed sympathy, they refused to publicly condemn Saro-Wiwa’s execution. The experience left him disenchanted with global politics.

“I found myself being shuttled from one photo opportunity to another,” he said. “Behind closed doors there was a lot of nodding but then people would ignore what I said later.”

Despite Wiwa’s efforts, his father was executed in November 1995. Now the eldest male in his family, Wiwa found others expecting him to fill his father’s role as a political activist.

“When people saw me they didn’t see Ken Jr., they saw Ken Wiwa,” he said. “As his firstborn son and namesake, suddenly I was thrust on to this world stage. I was expected to be my father.”

Wiwa said he has worked to develop his own stance as a writer and activist. Born in Nigeria and educated in England, Wiwa said he has a unique advantage of understanding issues from both African and European viewpoints.

Some solutions world leaders feel are appropriate for Third World countries just won’t work, he said. He can see that from an African perspective.

Wiwa said poverty is the greatest problem currently plaguing Nigeria. He likened its effects in Nigeria to the riots in Afghanistan.

“In Afghanistan you see people dancing in the streets celebrating the latest of bin Laden’s advances,” Wiwa said. “Poverty around the world breeds anger, worry and frustration.”

Wiwa said he worries about a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement in northern Nigeria. Authorities are using feelings of despair to start a religious movement, he said.

“Right now the situation in Nigeria is one of the top 10 focuses for human rights and environment programs,” Kirchhof said. “The activists trying to fight injustices in Nigeria are enduring a lot of persecution.”

Wiwa returns to Nigeria every three months. He said the conditions he sees there motivate him to continue his work both as an activist and the son of Saro-Wiwa.

“Every time I go back to Nigeria I’m haunted by what I see,” Wiwa said. “My father died to stop this and now it’s even worse.”