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Nigerian Activist’s Last Words: ‘The Struggle Continues’

November 12, 1995

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) _ Blindfolded and dangling from a rope, Nigerian playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa spoke eight final words before his body went limp: ``Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues.″

Because of faulty equipment, it took five attempts to hang the anti-government activist in Port Harcourt on Friday morning.

At one point, according to the daily newspaper AM News, Saro-Wiwa asked his executioners: ``Why are you people treating me like this? Which type of country is this?″

The 54-year-old playwright was one of nine Ogoni ethnic minority activists hanged Friday in the southern oil port; several papers reported Sunday that Saro-Wiwa was hanged first.

A secret tribunal convicted Saro-Wiwa on Oct. 31 of ordering the murders of four political rivals who were shot at a 1994 political rally. A military ruling council upheld the sentences Wednesday.

The government apparently wanted the hangings to take place immediately, but had to wait 48 hours for Port Harcourt to build a makeshift gallows. The city had not had a hanging in 35 years, since Nigeria’s independence from Britain.

Saro-Wiwa insisted he was framed because of his opposition to military ruler Gen. Sani Abacha and the oil industry, which accounts for about 80 percent of Nigeria’s foreign income.

He campaigned on behalf of the 500,000 Ogoni people who live in the oil-rich southern states and who say their land and water are being destroyed by oil industry pollution.

Saro-Wiwa’s son said he would endorse an international boycott of Nigerian oil, saying that it was not enough to emphasize human rights protests or reduce business cooperation.

``Nigerian oil is what sustains the Nigerian military dictators, enabling them to survive,″ Ken Wiwa said Sunday in London.

The executions provoked an international outcry. At least eight countries, including the United States, recalled their ambassadors from Nigeria. Pope John Paul II said Sunday he was praying that God would inspire Nigeria’s leaders to guide their nation with ``acts in favor of respectful dialogue and justice.″

The Commonwealth of Britain and its former colonies suspended Nigeria’s membership and said Sunday that Nigeria would face expulsion if it did not end its military dictatorship and restore democracy within two years.

Nigerian government legal adviser Hawalu Yadudu called the Commonwealth suspension unfair meddling in the internal affairs of the West African nation. ``Suspending Nigeria is not appropriate,″ he told the official News Agency of Nigeria.

Saro-Wiwa, leader of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, was arrested last year in connection with the murders of four Ogoni candidates who challenged him in a May 1994 election of delegates to a constitutional conference.

According to Yadudu, Saro-Wiwa and the eight others executed had identified 14 Ogoni leaders to be killed, including the four men who were murdered. ``Surely the rest of the world should be able to know a gruesome murder,″ he said.

Yadudu also defended the court proceedings, saying they were not conducted by a military tribunal but by two judges and one military officer. He said the defendants had private attorneys.

Several newspapers reported Sunday that as soon as the court upheld the death sentences on Wednesday, the government moved swiftly to set the executions in motion.

Within hours, nine coffins were moved to the Port Harcourt prison. The executioners were flown to Port Harcourt on Thursday from the northern city of Sokoto. They checked into a hotel and awaited their task.

At 3 a.m. Friday, soldiers went to the home of the prison director and ordered him to get to work. Two hours later, Saro-Wiwa and the eight others were roused from their cells at the army camp where they had been held since their convictions.

The soldiers told them they were being taken to the Port Harcourt prison, claiming there was reason to suspect the army camp might be attacked by Ogoni youths. Once at the prison, the nine men were herded into one room and shackled at wrist and ankle.

They were then led out in a line. Saro-Wiwa was first.

After the executions, armed guards took the bodies to the public cemetery around 3:15 p.m.

Thousands of troops and anti-riot police have been sent to the Niger Delta region in the southeast. The Port Harcourt cemetery has been surrounded by soldiers and tanks; relatives have not been allowed to visit the graves.

Members of the Ogoni community are demanding that the bodies of the men be returned to their families for proper burial.

``He was not guilty of the offense for which they killed him,″ Saro-Wiwa’s lead defense attorney Gani Fawehinmi tearfully told a rally of 3,000 supporters in Lagos on Saturday.

However, two Nigerian men claiming to be the sons of two of the murdered Ogonis told reporters Sunday that Saro-Wiwa was guilty.

Kenneth Kobani, a London-based lawyer, and Desmond Orage, an insurance agent from Los Angeles, said they traveled to the Commonwealth meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, to set the record straight. They insisted they did not represent the Nigerian government, which they agreed needed democratic reform.

``I do accept that Nigeria has some flaws,″ Kobani said. ``However, even an unpopular government can sometimes be right. I believe the verdict of guilt is a justified one.″

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