The legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa at Maynooth University: Irish Times

The legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa at Maynooth University

The publisher of the Nigerian writer and activist’s last writings and the nun who smuggled them out spoke at a recent seminar

On Thursday, November 15th, Maynooth University Library held the annual Ken Saro-Wiwa seminar. Kenyan-born Firoze Manji presented a guest lecture entitled The centrality of culture in the struggle for a new world: Amilcar Cabral and Ken Saro-Wiwa. Manji has more than 40 years’ experience in international development, health, human rights and political organising. He directed Amnesty International’s Africa programme and has worked with the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa. He currently heads Daraja Press, the publisher of Silence Would be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Following Manji’s lecture, the second edition of the book was launched by university librarian Cathal McCauley.

The Ogoni Struggle
In 2011 Fermanagh-born Sister Majella McCarron (OLA) donated the death row correspondence she received from Saro-Wiwa, smuggled out of military detention in breadbaskets, to Maynooth University. Sister Majella had worked with Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria and internationally, to highlight the plight of the Ogoni people, an indigenous group living in the Niger Delta region of southeastern Nigeria, who were, and continue to be, adversely impacted by the activities of Royal Dutch Shell in their homeland. Back in Ireland, Sister Majella was to campaign in 1994/1995 to save the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight colleagues (the “Ogoni 9”), put on trial by the then military dictatorship. Sadly, the campaign supported by Ogoni Solidarity Ireland, Trócaire, AfrI and other bodies was unsuccessful. The nine were executed, following a sham trial, on the orders of President Abacha, on November 10th, 1995.

Ken Saro-Wiwa
Ken Saro-Wiwa was one of Nigeria’s and indeed Africa’s, leading literary figures. The author of children’s books, novels, plays, poetry and articles/books on political and environmental issues, he produced and directed Basi and Company, a ground-breaking sitcom that ran from 1985 to 1995 on Nigerian television and was later syndicated across Africa.

Silence Would be Treason
The letters he wrote to Sister Majella from military detention are published in Silence Would be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa alongside poems by Saro-Wiwa and contextual essays by the three Maynooth University editors (Íde Corley, Helen Fallon and Laurence Cox). Proceeds from the sale of the book will continue to fund a Maynooth University bursary in Saro-Wiwa’s name. The first recipient, Graham Kay, a PhD student in the Maynooth University History Department, describes in his chapter how he used the funding to visit archival collections in Germany, while researching the historic links between governments and the international petrochemical industry. In another chapter, Anne O’Brien and Helen Fallon describe the creation of the Ken Saro-Wiwa audio archive, a collection of recordings of people connected with Ken Saro-Wiwa, including his daughter, the renowned travel writer Noo Saro-Wiwa, and his brother Dr Owens Wiwa, West and Central Africa director for the Clinton Health Access Initiative.

Sister Majella addresses the annual Ken Saro-Wiwa seminar in Maynooth. Photograph: Alan Monahan

Indigenous, ecological and human rights concerns
In the 28 letters, Saro-Wiwa writes about family, the Ogoni struggle against Royal Dutch Shell, his writing and the conditions of his captivity.

Commenting on the collection, co-editor Dr Laurence Cox, senior lecturer in sociology at Maynooth said: “This collection shows a fine mind on trial for his life. Mussolini’s prosecutor said of Antonio Gramsci ‘We must stop this brain from working for twenty years’; Saro-Wiwa’s brain kept on working until the very last minute, organising, discussing, campaigning. Like Gramsci’s Prison Letters, Saro-Wiwa’s last letters are a fine introduction to a lifetime’s work. As a writer and statesman seeking to define and shape what it meant to be Nigerian after empire, we can easily imagine parallels from Irish history. At the same time his emphasis on indigenous, ecological and human rights concerns is very much of the present.

“Our publisher, Dr Firoze Manji is one of Africa’s leading social justice publishers. His book Claim No Easy Victories: the Legacy of Amilcar Cabral sees writers from Angela Davis to Samir Amin grapple with the legacy of the great west African poet, revolutionary and philosopher. The end of empire, affecting most of the world’s population in the twentieth century, asked people to combine a vision of the new cultural horizons that became possible with the practical struggle for a different world. Saro-Wiwa and Cabral sit together in this transformative and unfinished space, asking questions that remain important in Ireland as in Africa.”

Governments beholden to corporations
“There are two events in my life which have had a profound effect on my thinking and my politics. One was the assassination of Amilcar Cabral on January 20th, 1973.The other was the assassination of Ken Saro-Wiwa on November 10 th, 1995,” said Firoze Manji, keynote speaker at the 2018 seminar. When Cabral was assassinated, I was at university in England and active in the solidarity movement in support of the liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies. Cabral’s writings were to transform my thinking about the nature of colonialism and what it means to struggle for emancipation and freedom. And when the Abacha regime hanged Saro-Wiwa and his comrades, I was the Africa director for Amnesty international. I remember how completely helpless and outraged I felt – here I was at the head of the world’s largest human rights organisation and yet we had failed to prevent this crime. That experience was to transform my understanding of the meaning of neocolonialism, the complicity of transnational corporations and the degree to which our governments have become increasingly beholden to the corporations.

“You can imagine my delight, therefore, when Maynooth University approached me about publishing Silence Would be Treason, exactly at the same time as I was editing the book on Cabral!”

Access for All
Maynooth University has been an advocate for Open Access since it established Ireland’s first university institutional repository. There are many advantages to Open Access but it is particularly important in allowing people, from all parts of the globe, access to publication such as this. In keeping with this, the full text electronic version of Silence Would be Treason: Last Writings has been deposited in MURAL (Maynooth University Research Archive Library) and is available online, free of charge at
Helen Fallon is deputy university librarian at Maynooth University