Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Ken Wiwa and the Death of the Father

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Ken Wiwa and the Death of the Father

Article excerpt

I was conscious that there were many more experienced and more
knowledgeable Nigerians in exile, yet I was the name and the face that
the world's media came to for analysis of the situation there. Was I
going to remain in exile forever, adrift from home and the rest of my
family? Was I going to spend the rest of my life talking about a
country that was receding further and further into the depths of my
memory?--Ken Wiwa, In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son's Journey to
Understanding his Father's Legacy

On 10 November 1995, the Nigerian military government executed nine men who subsequently became known as the Ogoni Nine: Baribo Bera, Saturday Dbee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbokoo, Barinem Kiobel, John Kpuinen, Paul Levura, Felix Nwate, and Ken Saro-Wiwa. In the ensuing weeks, the expressions of outrage that emerged collated around the name and face of the writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Five years later, Ken Wiwa, the son of the activist, reviewed that outpouring as a "canonization" of his father in public opinion: "My father's death was front-page news around the world [and a] man whom few had heard of twenty-four hours earlier was suddenly invested with a mythic quality, and his campaign against Shell Oil and a ruthless military regime was being touted as a morality tale for the twentieth century" (Son's 2). Canonization, as Wiwa describes it, summarizes converging complex processes of mediation. Wiwa's "mythic quality" circumscribes the resulting transfiguration constituted through public demonstrations and media campaigns. The "lightning rod" effect of Saro-Wiwa's transfiguration provided transnational conduits for witnessing to a wide range of political disaffection with the Nigerian military government, the struggle for a transition to democratic civil rule, the environmental cause that Ken Saro-Wiwa fought for, and a worldwide opposition to Shell BP's business practices in Nigeria. Just as the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa "stands in" for the death of the Ogoni Nine, Saro-Wiwa's specific death is embedded in an extensive system of symbolization through multiple claims to his symbolic legacy. Transfiguration, in this case, functions as a mode of claiming the mediated aftermath of the execution as a vector through which to articulate ever-emerging complex subjectivities related to the wider discursive nature of the event.

While recognizing the affective reactions to these deaths, commentators on the circulation of narratives about Ken Saro-Wiwa underline how the execution and the hasty secret burial have been used as prisms through which to narrativize tangible political issues. Ato Quayson, for example, considers the events around Saro-Wiwa's "activism and death [...] nodal thresholds for the analysis of a range of levels, including the historical, the political, and the literary/aesthetic, with the literary/aesthetic being used as the interstitial prism through which the other levels are refracted for discussion" (57). While Quayson's emphasis on the literary/aesthetic resonates specifically with my intentions in this paper, attention should also be given to other modes of refraction with which literature is in dialogue. In her examination of public demonstrations and Internet web sites as alternative modes of refraction, Misty L. Bastian suggests that Wiwa's missing body and person became even more potent as they passed into the realm of "imagination and advertising," creating an "omnipresent absence" constituted by an absent body but provoking a surplus of representation (133). Andrew Apter extends that insight by reading the discourse of the missing body as part of a circulation of Nigerian mythology that explains the provenance of illicit wealth and the decay of the Nigerian moral economy (141). While Bastian and Apter acknowledge the significance of symbolic economies in adding communal girth to narratives, these critics emphasize the divergent spheres of articulation, reception, and interaction. …

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