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20 Oct 2017

Fela: Time for Posthumous National Award

We are obviously certain that the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti (just like the late Gani Fawehinmi!) if alive today would have rejected any proposed state award given to him. More so that the Nigerian state has progressively degenerated over the years from the bad (he painfully lived) to the worse (he foresaw) in most important critical success and nation-building factors.

Certainly not with the perennial crisis of governance since independence manifesting in serial revelations of Authority Stealing and shortages of “water, light and food” Fela bemoaned with his legendary saxophone.  As a matter of fact, Fela once banned his music being played on federal radio stations (what many artists would see as a badge of honour) in protests against the non-payment of copyrights fees, sheer brutality and oppression of the “military sergeant majors” in the military regimes who ruled (sorry ruined!) the Federal Republic! Very few could be so singularly audacious in damning a perceived oppressive and exploitative state.

Our comradely demand is not just   an “honour” for Fela; he never asked for “honour” which he definitely honourably loathed while alive. On the contrary, the demand to genuinely   honour Fela is to test our collective claim to good governance, anti-corruption which the Abami Eda gallantly fought against through his artistic patriotism and Pan Africanism. “Blessed are the dead, for they will never be suspected, so declared BM Themba, the great South African poet.

The iconic musician courageously decried corruption and bad governance at a time it was not fashionable to do so. For sure, Fela would never be suspected of any indifference and silence at times that mattered. That in itself was a rare honour. The burden is on those of us living who still lay claim to good governance to walk the great songs of the legend. And one bold step would be to honour a like mind. Our call here is an acid test for those who still believe in the Nigerian project. Fela posthumously truly puts to test our sincerity to build a new Nigeria just as he did while alive.

It is timely and commendable that the Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode unveiled a statue in memory of the iconic musician as part of the weeklong activities marking his 79th posthumous birthday and the 20th anniversary of his death in Lagos at the weekend. Abuja could as well take a cue from Lagos.

President Muhammed Buhari parades three themes: anti-corruption, national security and economic recovery. Nobody had foreseen the current national mess like the   Anikulapo- Kuti (The One Who Carries Death in his Quiver!) did. And nobody would be taken seriously who refuses to recognise the great contributions of the legendary Fela to good governance and anti-corruption. He was a workingman who truly lived on his sweat in spite of fashionable sleaze combined with official military terror in Nigeria of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Fela symbolised dignity of labour in a country in which a few members elite thrived on corruption, “authority stealing” and captured Nigerian state’s resources. Fela sang for change, change and change ad infinitum. Nigeria’s search for a desired change remains thematically elusive until Fela’s works are officially recognised. He was truly a global actor in the great traditions of similar artists like South Africa’s Mariam Makeba, Bob Marley, Huge Masakela and Senegal’s Yusuf Ndour among great other artists long recognised by their respective countries. In fact, the reputations of those artists are treated as national moral assets by their nations.

Fela  acted locally (downtown Ikeja!) but his thoughts and messages  are global in that they resonate in Cape Town, Cairo, New York and London etc.! Even today, 20 years after his death, Fela inspired hope for a strong united Nigeria and economic recovery. In 1974, at the time, it was not fashionable to patronise Africa and even more fashionable to ape Europe and America, Fela’s Buy Africa album rightly warned that prosperity would elude Africa without patronage of its products and ideas by Africans themselves. It was time for government to walk the patriotic songs of Fela through targeted budgetary spending to buy goods that must be produced at home in order to create sustainable jobs for the millions of youths.

We commend Vice President Yemi Osinbajo for signing the Executive Bills compelling the federal ministries and departments to buy made in Nigeria. Over 30 years after Fela created that song Nigeria and indeed Africa had uncritically enlisted in the World Trade Organization (WTO), a club of trading nations, without products to sell but with multiple dumped products to buy. The result today is that Nigeria has become a huge market for dumped products from Europe and China leading to factory closures, unemployment and poverty true to Fela’s foresight and danceable warnings. But Fela in the 70s sang against the background of a productive Nigeria with manufacturing contributing as much as 35 per cent of the industrial manufacturing! Currently it’s business unusual in a cargo/container/smuggler consumptive economy fuelled by oil receipts with manufacturing contributing less than 4% to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Will Nigeria (and indeed Africa!) remake and reproduce again, such that we can “buy Nigeria” and “buy Africa” as Fela had prophetically envisioned?

Fela’s Tears, Sorrow and Blood in the late 70s was a danceable lyric which aptly summed up his tragic first-hand “treatment” in the hands of the military tormentors.  In retrospect, we could see that singular track as a powerful reminder of the legacy (regular trademark!) of military dictatorship in particular and dictatorships in general including the civilian prototypes. It is far from being over. Just as Fela sang in that historic ode to dictatorship, his people (Nigerians!) are still in “fear to fight for justice, freedom and liberty” such that we were under the heels of majority thieving governors. Sorrow, tears and blood remain regular trademarks from the trails of armed and unarmed robberies to the official and street kidnappers. Follow-Follow is a classical warning against dependency and neo-colonialism. Fela urged that we open “sense, open eye and open brain” as we are susceptible to received wisdom. He observed that in the books of received wisdoms lie “termites, cockroaches and rats” as distinct from the promised sweet outcomes of the salesmen and women of received ideas.

Today, three decades after Fela’s prophetic warning, Nigeria is spell -bound with received ideas from the books of Bretton Woods Institutions namely the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The theme of the 2006 UNDP Report was Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and Global Water Crisis. The Report, we recall, showed that water and access to water by majority of people is indispensable to any serious effort at meeting the moribund Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which Nigeria never met, anyway. Yet that was what Fela had pointed out in his evergreen Water No Get Enemy album. The sad commentary is that in spite of the indispensability of water to life, it has “enemies” in Nigeria which include all of us who unacceptably rely on boreholes; truck-pushing water vendors and rain fall to drink water. Precisely because Nigeria cannot make clean water available for its citizens or make its citizens “enemies” of water contrary to Fela’s universally acclaimed insight that water “no get enemy,” is precisely why we must honour Fela for reminding us of the common sense increasingly becoming uncommon here.

In sum, Fela’s brilliant and prodigious works constitute a definitive narrative of the Nigerian condition. His art and politics were anti-poverty and pro-development. His essence was the advancement of human progress. In the making and unmaking of Nigeria, Fela’s name would, on a positive note, remain prominent in the category of makers of Nigeria. Some of the names in the Nigeria’s roll of honour have actually contributed to the unmaking of Nigeria; as a negation the nation would, therefore, be inspiring millions of other makers of Nigeria by honouring the memory of a historical figure such as Fela.

Aremu is a member of the National Institute; Falana is Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Komolafe is the Deputy Managing Director of THISDAY Newspapers Group.

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