In early November 1995, the Nigerian authorities hastily constructed gallows and delivered nine coffins to Port Harcourt prison in the Niger Delta region. There hadn’t been an execution in the town in 35 years, but Sani Abacha’s military regime was determined to expedite the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his fellow environmental activists, convicted of murder after a sham trial.

Just 10 days later — in the face of international appeals for a stay of execution — the nine were hanged. Saro-Wiwa died only on the fifth attempt...

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