Ken Saro-Wiwa’s “The True Prison” (Poem)

It is not the leaking roof
Nor the singing mosquitoes
In the damp, wretched cell
It is not the clank of the key
As the warden locks you in
It is not the measly rations
Unfit for beast or man
Nor yet the emptiness of day
Dipping into the blankness of night
It is not
It is not
It is not

It is the lies that have been drummed
Into your ears for a generation
It is the security agent running amok
Executing callous calamitous orders
In exchange for a wretched meal a day
The magistrate writing into her book
A punishment she knows is undeserved
The moral decrepitude
The mental ineptitude
The meat of dictators
Cowardice masking as obedience
Lurking in our denigrated souls
It is fear damping trousers
That we dare not wash
It is this
It is this
It is this
Dear friend, turns our free world
Into a dreary prison


Kenule “Ken” Beeson Saro-Wiwa, born October 10, 1941, was a Nigerian author, TV producer, and environmental activist. He was the winner of the Right Livelihood Award, and the Goldman Environmentl Prize for his advocacy on behalf of the Ogoni people, whose homeland (Ogoniland) has been exploited for crude oil extraction since the 1950s. This exploitation resulted in extreme environmental damage including, but not limited to, contaminated soil and water due to petroleum waste dumping. Saro-Wiwa served as Spokesman, and later President of the Movement for the Survival od the Ogoni People (MOSOP), leading a non-violent campaign against the environmental degradation of Ogoniland’s land and water at the hands of multinational petroleum corporations- most particularly, Shell. He was also vocally critical of the Nigerian government for its failure to regulate these multinational corporations and protect indigenous land rights.

In 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested and hastily tried by a special military tribunal. He was hanged along with 8 other MOSOP leaders on November 10, 1995, by the military government of General Sani Abacha on political charges.

This poem succinctly identifies fear as society’s true prison. This is especially true in the context of the British government’s decision to monitor, censor and use social media as part of their policing after the riots in Tottenham. Fear is the most pervasive prison, even as the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) authorities in California mimic the rhetoric of a Syrian dictator as they cut off cell phone reception in train stations, in order to prevent protests against police brutality.

Fear causes us to self-censor. “Don’t talk about that. They’ll hear you.” Fear causes us to unwittingly become that Panopticon that Jeremy Bentham, and later Michel Foucault would examine critically. A climate of fear legitimates the politics of fear. Reactionary voters become swayed by the words of fearful bigots, whose precarious position in society is only supported by generations of oppressive, reactionary, and piecemeal socio-legal structures.

Thing is, a government that derives its legitimacy from fear relies on misinformation, half-truths and strategic omissions. Take away the illusions, shine a light, and what need do we have for a surveilling state? What need do we have for paramilitary forces dressed as policement? What happens then, is that our attention is redirected to the “next” fear. Whether it be Communism, drugs, poverty,
welfare queens” or terrorists, the “next” fear will be very expensive and similarly pervasive.

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