Human rights activist Ken Saro Wiwa’s letters donated to NUI Maynooth
A Nigerian human rights activist executed for opposing oil exploration in his homeland took comfort from the Northern Ireland peace process, his death row letters have revealed.
Nobel Peace Prize nominee Ken Saro Wiwa secretly wrote to Fermanagh-born missionary nun Sister Majella McCarron in the months before he was hanged along with eight others 16 years ago today.
The 30 letters smuggled out by bribing prison guards have been donated to a special library collection in NUI Maynooth.
Sr Majella, retired but an active social justice campaigner, said she offered the collection, which includes 27 poems and seven video cassettes, to keep the Saro Wiwa story of peaceful struggle alive.
"It would be seen as a pledge of loyalty, to tell the story," she said.
"Intuitively I kept these letters very carefully. And I'm aware that the present generation may not know who Ken Saro Wiwa was - he sacrificed himself."
Sr Majella, from Derrylin and a missionary for 30 years, befriended the activist in the early 1990s as she monitored western oil firms operating in his Ogoni tribal homeland in the Niger delta.
The letters document Saro Wiwa's forced shift from environmental and human rights activist to political prisoner under a military regime.
On September 16 1994 he wrote from death row: "In the month since you left, I see the situation in N Ireland has improved tremendously. The possibility of peace is so comforting, I hope it happens. 25 years is a long time to be fighting, surely. God grant that it works.
"Nigeria has progressively gone down the drains to its worst possible nadir. With all sensible newspapers banned, a lot of people in detention & laws which establish that the dictatorship cannot be challenged in court, we are in real trouble, to say the least."
Saro Wiwa had been a writer on one of the most popular television shows in Nigeria which satirized the country's growing get-rich-quick mentality.
He took up the cause of his Ogoni people over energy giant Shell's oil exploration. He fought to stop massive pollution, expose corruption and secure some oil revenue for the local economy.
Saro Wiwa was arrested and tried by a special tribunal set up by the military regime of General Sani Abacha.
Shell, which was forced out of Ogoniland in 1994, faces a clean-up bill of hundreds of millions over two massive oil spills in the region which some experts say match the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.
Sr Majella said the letters would be a source for research students.
"There was a resignation at moments of down, but he never really believed that he was going to be hanged," she said.
A €15m settlement was secured in a US court by the Saro Wiwa family over the execution.
Professor Philip Nolan, president of NUI Maynooth, said the collection will cast a human eye on one of the late 20th century's most troubling geopolitical issues.
"It is through first-hand account that academics and the public gain real perspective on contemporaneous matters," Prof Nolan said.
In a letter dated October 1 1994, he reflected the struggle of the Ogoni people to secure basic rights.
"Even what is happening now is, and please don't think me sadistic, helpful. For one, they are able to see me battling from prison - from the very jaws of the lion... I have a sense that the Ogoni people are holding out bravely," he wrote.
"They are not fighting - because I did not ever prepare them for physical combat - but they are holding out psychologically."