A Nigerian martyr for his people’s cause

Silence Would Be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa, ed. by Ide Corley, Helen Fallon and Laurence Coc (The Council for Social Science Research in Africa / Daraja Press, £9.70)

Peter Hegarty
Ken Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian environmentalist executed in 1995 by the country’s kleptocratic military junta after a show trial.

His offence was to bring international attention to the environmental degradation of the oil-rich Niger Delta, the homeland of the Ogoni people.

There is ample evidence that the main polluter of the delta, Shell, was complicit in his persecution.

Saro-Wiwa was clearly a menace to venal officers and corporate profiteers: he was a man of means, principle and influence. These letters, his extant correspondence with an Irish nun and environmental activist, Sr Majella McCarron, also reveal his erudition and tenderness.

In them he yearns for release, longs for home and loved ones, finally acknowledging that his struggle was over.



The letters, smuggled out of his detention centre in bread baskets, document the writer’s painful transition from political activist to political prisoner, his courageous efforts to protect the Niger Delta, and an enduring friendship with Sr Majella. 

The letters also address the growing political instability in Nigeria, the writer’s hopes for peace in Northern Ireland, and his passion for peace and justice throughout the world.

The letters were donated by Sr Majella to the university two years ago, as a result of the involvement of sociology students at NUI Maynooth in environmental campaigning. The book was edited by Dr Íde Corley and Dr Laurence Cox of NUI Maynooth, and Helen Fallon, known to The Irish Catholic readers for her reviews of books on Africa.

Accompanying essays by Ken Saro-Wiwa put his ordeal in its historical context: Nigeria is a made-up country, a creation of British colonialism, a land of minorities dominated by the numerous Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba peoples.

The state was and is weak and corrupt, unable to defend ‘microminorities’, such as the Ogoni people against exploiters, domestic and foreign.

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s letters describe a particular time and place, but their message is universally applicable: in the absence of regulation and oversight corporations will pollute the environment, exploit labour and even – as we well know here – imperil entire economies, in their hunger for profit.



Saro-Wiwa advocated sustainable extraction of oil and socially responsible investment of the profits derived from it.

The editors argue convincingly that countries can only fully benefit from their natural resources when the state dominates the process of extraction and sale, relegating private companies to the role of junior partners.

They cite the example of Norway, where public servants – many some of them battle-hardened fighters against fascist occupation – ensured that after the drilling began the profits from oil flowed into national coffers. Their foresight explains why the national wealth fund of Norway now amounts to over €700 billion.



How pleasant it would have been to close this review by noting that conditions in the Niger Delta have changed for the better. But they haven’t, or at least not by much. The streams are still sludged, the air still poisoned, and Shell continues to conceal the real extent of oil spills, according to a damning report released by Amnesty International in November 2013.

Maynooth now houses The Ken Saro-Wiwa Audio Archive which can be consulted in the John Paul II Library. The audio archive, a joint initiative between NUI Maynooth Library and Kairos Communications, features a collection of recordings including extensive interviews with Sr Majella, speaking of her Irish childhood her religious life, her work working in Nigeria, her friendship with Ken Saro-Wiwa, and her efforts to save his life and the lives of the Ogoni Nine.