The Nigerian writer and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa published his short story “Africa Kills Her Sun” in 1989, foreshadowing his own eventual death six years later, when he was jailed and then hanged by Nigeria’s military regime for his political activism on behalf of his native Ogoni people. Written in the form of a letter to an old girlfriend from a prisoner on the night before his execution, “Africa Kills Her Sun” is a pitch black satire on the corruption, amorality, and lawlessness overtaking all levels of Nigerian society. Saro-Wiwa blames these corrosive social trends for the increasing difficulties African people face when trying to live a productive and happy life. Although the story is fictional, it references many real-life cases of corruption, brutality, and other abuses of power, name-checking leaders like Uganda’s Idi Amin or Central African Republic’s Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a self-proclaimed emperor who was deposed after being accused of eating murdered children.
The story is set in an unnamed Nigerian prison in the 1990s, from where the protagonist and narrator Bana writes his letter. The letter is addressed to Zole, a former girlfriend whom he hasn’t seen in ten years. But as Bana says goodbye to a world filled with pain, he tells Zole that he has often been helped to cope by thinking about their pure, carefree, and unconsummated love. All he wants is to ask Zole a small favor.
Bana knows that the letter will get to Zole because “the prison guard’s been heavily bribed to deliver it.” Because of his corruptibility, this guard should also face the firing squad in the morning, but of course, nothing will ever happen to him.
Bana has been imprisoned with two other men, Sazan and Jimba, and all three are celebrating their last night on earth rather than mourning their future deaths. In their death sentences for theft they have pulled an unforgettable trick on “the other thief, the High Court Judge” who was floored to see accused people admit their guilt and immediately demand the highest possible sentence. The three men decided to do this on purpose. This way, they’d avoid the spectacle of lawyers lying and courts dispensing unbalanced and unfair justice. Instead, by confessing to being armed robbers, “We were being honest to ourselves, to our vocation, to our country and to mankind.” By denying the judge the ability to rule, they made him a prisoner of their words.
Bana now explains why he became a bandit. After meeting a prostitute who explains that she has chosen this line of work, same as a nurse or secretary would, Bana is impressed by her cool honesty. He decides to leave the Merchant Navy and take a job at the Ministry of Defense. There, he “came face-to-face with the open looting of the national treasury,” and when he tried to report what he saw, he was fired. Instead of trying to again rejoin a part of society that robs covertly, Bana decided to live openly – to become a thief and bandit outright rather than simply skirting laws and bending rules like those around him.
As Bana considers Sazan and Jimba sleeping on the floor next to him, he says that each would make an excellent second-in-command to the kinds of warlords running and ruining African countries now. Before joining Bana’s gang, Sazan used to be a Sergeant in the army, while Jimba was a police Corporal. To Bana, their bravery and heroism is clearly reflected in the fact that they are deeply asleep even though in the morning they will die. But of course, his country being what it is, courage isn’t celebrated but instead squashed.
In any case, the three men aren’t actually guilty of the crime they are being executed for. They robbed, but never killed – and for everything they did, they had the full cooperation of the police and its Superintendent. This time, however, something went wrong in the planning, and a policeman was killed while the robbery was occurring. Instead of letting the lower-tier members of their gang take the blame, Bana, Sazan, and Jimba stepped forward. In general, Bana writes, “we didn’t see any basic difference between what we were doing and what most others are doing throughout the land today” – no matter the profession, its main activity is theft.
The prison is easily escapable, but the men have no wish to do so. Instead, it is death that will make them free, while the living are trapped in a prison of their own making.
Bana then speculates at length about the execution about to happen. Will their bodies be thrown in the ocean to be useful as food for fish and then, through the food chain, eventually for other people? No, they will be made a spectacle of in the stadium. A hypocritical priest will offer them comfort, which they will throw back in his face. The audience in the stands will react to what they’ve seen with the same base excitement as they would to a soccer game. Afterwards, people pathetic enough to have the job of disposing the men’s bodies will dump them in an unmarked mass grave. Newspapers will record what happened.
Now we find out what Bana’s small favor request is. He would like Zole to find a newspaper photograph of himself after the execution. Then, “Give it to a sculptor and ask him to make a stone sculpture of me as I appear in the photograph. He must make as faithful a representation of me as possible.”
Sazan and Jimba wake up and are suspicious that Bana has been writing a love letter to a mysterious girlfriend all night. But when he convinces them that this was a fitting way to spend his last night on earth, Sazan decides to also write down his thoughts. But it is too late, and they don’t have enough paper anyway.
Bana returns to the topic of his statue, which should mark his grave. And as for an epitaph, the only thing that will do is something truly cryptic. Borrowing a line from a newspaper story about an African leader mourning a favorite lieutenant by saying “Africa kills her sons,” Bana decides that to make the mystery of the phrase even more confusing, he would like his own gravestone to read, “Africa Kills Her Sun.” In a final rueful joke before saying goodbye, Bana jokes: “A good epitaph, eh? Cryptic. Definite. A stroke of genius, I should say. I’m sure you’ll agree with me. ‘Africa Kills Her Sun!’ That’s why she’d been described as the Dark Continent? Yes?”