This memoir, by writer and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, is an account of his one month and a day in detention (21 June – 22 July 1993) during the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. Ironically, after Babangida seized power from a coup in 1985, he appointed Saro-Wiwa in 1987 (who had then returned to the political scene) to assist in aiding the country’s transition to democracy. When Saro-Wiwa realized the sham of Babangida’s policies and foresaw that he had no actual intention of actually relieving his rule and handing back democratic power to a civilian government, he resigned this post and eventually became an outspoken critic of the self-appointed military ruler.
Saro-Wiwa started and championed the cause of MOSOP: Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People which fought for the rights of the Ogoni, an ethnic minority in the Rivers Delta region of Nigeria. The case being that the petroleum company Shell was devastating the lands and environment of the Ogoni, where a bulk of oil reserves were located in the Niger Delta, without adequate care for its people, their livelihood or the environment.
I should stress that Shell either completely and deliberately misunderstands my intentions, or puts a wrong construction on them for its own mischievous purposes. Let me state here, for the avoidance of all doubt, that my overall concern is for the fragile ecosystem of the Niger Delta – one of the richest areas on earth. I am appalled that this rich company, with the abundance of knowledge and material resources available to it, should treat the area with such callous indifference. I consider the loss of the Niger Delta a loss to all mankind and therefore regard Shell’s despoliation of the area as a crime to all humanity.
You can read more about Saro-Wiwa and his struggles on behalf of MOSOP in my review
of Genocide in Nigeria.
A Detention Diary
This book provides insight to Saro-Wiwa’s thoughts and observations on how and why he was detained. But the memoir is not a day to day journal of being in captivity or exclusively about being in prison. Instead, we see how Saro-Wiwa’s human rights activities, his writings and petitions, and his criticism of the military rule landed him inevitably in prison after all his connections and contacts were exhausted. We also see, albeit a little, the inner workings of the Babangida regime’s coy tactics and dirty politics where the law is subverted and the police are used as dispensable pawns to uphold the reign of terror on citizens.
Those few chapters devoted to when Saro-Wiwa was in jail provide a sketch of his ailing health, the mistreatment imposed on him by Babangida’s cronies and the abject prison he is held in. One cannot but feel pity for a person placed in such cruel circumstances. Yet throughout his ordeal Saro-Wiwa never gives up – neither in fighting for his health nor for his beliefs. A month and a day later, he is released from captivity.
It is not the leaking roof
Nor the singing mosquitos
In the damp wretched cell.
It is not the clank of the key
As the warder locks you in.
It is not the measly rations
Unfit for man or beast
Nor yet the emptiness of day
Dipping into the blankness of night
It is not
It is not
It is not
It is the lies that have been drummed
Into your ears for one generation.
It is the security agent running amok
Executing callous calamitous orders
In exchange for a wretched meal a day
The magistrate writing in her book
Punishment she knows is undeserved
The moral decreptitude
Lending dictatorship spurious legitimacy
Cowardice masking as obedience
Lurking in our denigrated souls.
It is fear damping trousers
We dare not wash off our urine
It is this
It is this
It is this
Dear friend, turns our free world
Into a dreary prison
- The True Prison by Ken Saro-Wiwa
The book itself suffers from sloppy copyediting and could have used an editor applying more cohesion to the narrative. Saro-Wiwa moves back and forth between events and between his present dire situations and his recollections. This back and forth in what would have been better organized as a chronologically event-based text did make it difficult to keep tabs on the unfolding events and their setting.
There is a foreword by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and at the end of the book, there is a collection of letters Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote while in prison, a collection of poems and tribute by distinguished writers such as Chinua Achebe and Salman Rushdie, and letters written by Ken Wiwa (Saro-Wiwa’s son) – one addressing his father five years after his death and the other, ten years thereafter. All in all, quite a collection of material.
Being prepared for the worst is always one thing; confronting its stark actualization is another … how does one erase the image of a friend and comrade, suspended in the immense loneliness of a prison yard?
The Sad End
Although not part of this memoir, was his arrest again shortly thereafter by the even more brutal military junta of Sani Abacha. Saro-Wiwa was tried by a military tribunal and after a year in prison was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging along with eight other Ogoni activists. On 10 November 1995, they were hung by military personnel. International pleas and threat of world wide economic sanctions fell on deaf ears.
Ultimately, oil was more important than human life or environmental degradation, and the revenues derived therefrom were more important to Abacha than the well being of an ethnic minority.