Omowunmi Segun has revealed how the 1995 judicial murder of writer and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa by the late General Sani Abacha junta, almost truncated her writing career.
Omowunmi, daughter of the matriarch of Nigerian literature, Mabel Segun and an eminent writer in her own rights, spoke at one of the symposia of the recently held 21st Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) themed ‘Emerge: Breaking into the New’.
In her opening remarks during the symposium with the broad theme of ‘The Long Drought and the New Harvest’ and the specific subject, ‘How we wangled through-The Collapse of the Book Industry, the Poetry of Hunger and the Jackboots of the military dictator’, Segun disclosed, for the first time, the devastating effect of Wiwa’s death on her writing.
Asked by moderator, Molara Wood to give her opening comments before the deep dive into the topic, Segun, author of works including ‘Ibadan Mesiogo: a Celebration of a City, its History and People’, ‘Eniitan, Daughter of Destiny’ and ‘The Third Dimple’ explained that she started writing at a tough time.
“It was not just the collapse of the book industry; it was a period of turmoil. There was dictatorship; the issue of the Ogoni Nine and a friend who was imprisoned. There was also the Liberian crisis in the region, and all these affected my writing deeply. Still, I didn’t realise,” she recalled.
Segun added that when her manuscript, ‘The Third Dimple’ won the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prose Prize in 1991, she had never met Saro-Wiwa who signed her certificate. They later met in 1992 when Ken walked up to her at the Ibadan Post Office. “He was easy to talk to,” she said and expressed a wish to publish the award-winning manuscript
“He didn’t publish the book because I decided to give it to an established publisher, Heinemann,” Segun disclosed, adding that they met again later. Still, Wiwa didn’t feel slighted by her snub.
“Ken’s first imprisonment was around 1992, and I was then part of Amnesty International; I was the Urgent Action Officer. Ken came out of prison briefly before he was rearrested for alleged murder,” she continued.
During the trial, she found herself in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital for a meeting that had been fixed a year before but which security agencies cleverly aborted. The security agencies “‘invited’ and ‘advised us to leave,” Segun said and that the 1995 ANA convention, which happened shortly after Wiwa’s murder, “was awful.”
The co-editor of ‘Breaking the Silence: an Anthology of Short Stories by the Women Writers of Nigeria’ who at this point was overcome by emotion at the painful recall, paused to gather herself.
“I have never spoken about it until now,” she continued after gathering her composure. ‘We failed them’. That was what I said to the Chairperson of Amnesty International after the execution. I was referring to the human rights community. He then said, ‘what we can do now is to write to ensure no one becomes a dictator’ He came up with the idea that we do children series; stories for children that would ensure we don’t breed dictators. I don’t think we succeeded.”
Other panel members at the symposium were writers Toni Kan, Chuma Nwokolo and veteran actress, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett.