20 Years After Fela: Yesterday’s Message As Today’s Reality (2), By Lanre Arogundade

Our purpose in embarking on this exercise is fundamentally the same – for us not to forget. And also to encourage those genuinely concerned about the future of Nigeria, especially working class elements and the oppressed masses, to do something and not leave our destiny in the hands of leaders whose character Fela lyrically portrayed…

Just Like That

The second issue of contemporary agitation and concern Fela touched upon in “Just Like That” and which will engage our attention here is that relating to the unresolved character of Nigeria’s nationhood or, put more concretely, the national question.

After the question of post-independence lack of electricity and after the usual call-and-answer refrain of “orooyan, akuuba, orooyan, akuuba”, Fela tackled that of nationhood with a tone of sarcasm this way:

‘In 1966 civil war start to keep Nigeria one
I remember the slogan to keep Nigeria one the task that must be done
Dem kill plenty Ibos before the war and more during the war
Our leaders start dem show Gowon divide am into 12
Muritala and Obasanjo dem come divide am into 19
Shagari and Awolowo dem wan divide am into more
Just Like That’.

The question that obviously agitated Fela here was the paradox of waging a so-called war of unity only for the same nation to start getting broken down in pieces thereafter.

But it is not such a paradox if one realises that at the root for agitations for states was the whole question of marginalisation, especially on the part of the minority nationalities in the country.

The governments that Fela mentioned above might have been responsible for the creation of additional states but the obvious truism is that pressures came from below, although the state boundaries that usually emerged were never based on consultations with the people to determine where they exactly wanted to belong. Politicians had long been adept at manipulating the genuine desires for an end to marginalisation to create enclaves where they would be political lords. Fela therefore might also have been accusing the regimes he mentioned of creating the states for political or selfish ends.

The reality today however is that from the nineteen states that Fela sang about when he released “Just Like That” in the early ’80s, the number of states now stands at thirty six, with demands for more still being put on the table.

It has been argued for example that the creation of an additional state in the South-East would be one of the steps towards addressing the Igbo marginalisation question in Nigeria, while in other regions that are supposed to have been favoured, there are agitations for more. Thus in the South-West, the Ijebus, the Ibadans and the Oke-Oguns are still pushing for their own states, yet as Fela sang, “in 1966 civil war start to keep Nigeria one.”

It must be borne in mind however that Fela was not a passive observer while the civil war, which he referenced in “Just Like That” lasted for three years from 1967 to 1970. Peeved by the gruesome killings of fellow brothers and sisters that claimed millions of lives of the then easterners, Fela had in 1969 composed and released the album Viva Nigeria in which he appealed for peace this way:

This is brother Fela Ransome Kuti
This is one time I would like to say a few things
Men are born Kings are made
Treatys are signed Wars are fought
Every country has its own problems
So has Nigeria, so has Africa
Let us bind our wounds and live together in peace
Nigeria, one nation indivisible
Long live Nigeria, Viva Africa
The history of mankind
Is full of obvious turning points and significant events
Though tongue and tribe my differ, We are all Nigerians
We are all Africans, War is not the answer
It has never been the answer
And it will never be the answer fighting amongst each other
Let’s live together in peace
Nigeria one Nation Indivisible
Long live Nigeria, Viva Africa.

As could be deduced from the above lyrics, Fela’s obvious preference was for an indivisible Nigeria. But before those currently insisting that Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable jump up and say even Fela said so, let us quickly point out that Fela in the same “Viva Nigeria” outlined the features of such a united Nigeria, which to my mind speaks to the need to democratically negotiate the political entity called Nigeria, this way:

‘Let’s eat together like we used to eat
Let’s plan together like we used to plan
Sing together like we used to sing
Dance together like we used to dance
United we stand, divided we fall
You know what I mean
I hope you do’?

To me, eating together is about equitable and where necessary proportional sharing of the common wealth, while planning together is about sitting down to discuss the basis, terms, character and nature of relationships between the peoples of Nigeria. It is also about using the instrumentality of a sovereign national conference whose members are elected based on the aggregate of interest groups in the society to determine the type of political and economic system that would be more suitable for the country, among others. I, for one, have never hidden my preference for the parliamentary system of government wherein no one can become president or prime minister and minister without first being elected in his or her constituency. In a parliamentary system, everyone, including the executives, are members of the parliament and always available to answer questions on the floor. There is nothing like the drama of summoning a minister and the minister refusing to appear; he or she is right there on the floor. The parliamentary system is also less costly to run and manage, and the adoption of such would mean the automatic elimination of the retinue of special advisers and special assistants that currently constitute a drain on our resources at state and federal levels.

Also in “Just Like That”, our main focus here, Fela’s obvious preference is for a united Nigeria but twenty years after his death, secessionist agitations have returned in the same eastern region by way of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and MASSOB before it. Still on the same issue of civil war, the people of Asaba and the government of Delta State recently marked the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Asaba Massacre’ at the onset of the civil war in 1967, at which the likes of Professor Wole Soyinka made a case for restitution to ensure the healing of wounds.

There are many other wounds needing to be healed in this country and I dare repeat that not to recognise the need for genuine discussions around such is to continue to play the ostrich and surrender the political space to political opportunists and ethnic jingoists seeking regional enclaves where they would become warlords and replicate the unitarism that is currently being kicked against at the federal level of our government. Indeed, this later group needs to be reminded that there were minority agitations even under the regional governments of the first republic, especially by the people of the middle belt, the Midwest, the Ogoja, etc, following which the mid-western region was created. Those who present the restructuring argument along these lines should therefore be told that a return to the regions might not, after all, constitute the automatic magic wand that would abruptly end ethnic-based or ethnic-motivated agitations.

Still, there is a strong case for democratic discussion on the way forward for Nigeria and I put the matter this way in this extract of my Facebook post of July 1, this year titled ‘Nigeria and Restructuring: Stopping war mongers and false prophets’: “We differ and stress again that Nigeria’s unity must be democratically negotiated by her peoples and not taken for granted. From Adaka Boro’s declaration of Niger Delta republic to Ojukwu’s proclamation of Biafra; from the western Nigeria political turmoil to the first military and subsequent army coups; from the Middle Belt revolt to Zangon Kataf riots to the continuing southern Kaduna agitations; from the civil war to the creation of states and demands for more even when existing ones are failing; from the Ogoni uprising to Odua movement of all shades, the Egbesu movement, Niger Delta militancy to renewed Biafran agitations; from Boko Haram to killer herdsmen, etc, it would amount to playing the silly Ostrich to pretend that all is well with Nigeria.

We do indeed need the instrumentally of a democratically (not handpicked) elected sovereign national conference to discuss the type of Nigeria that we the people want and can work for us including but not limited to the type of political and economic system, the types of government, resource management etc.

The labour movement, the trade unions, the working class and their allies in the socialist, youth and students movements; the professionals, the media, etc must start playing a frontal role in this demand giving the diverse nature of their membership and the fact that they can rightly claim a pan-Nigerian mandate.”

“The reason I wan sing dis song; make you know forget about dis things; make you do something about these things”, Fela explained in the introductory lyrics of “Just Like That”. Our purpose in embarking on this exercise is fundamentally the same – for us not to forget. And also to encourage those genuinely concerned about the future of Nigeria, especially working class elements and the oppressed masses, to do something and not leave our destiny in the hands of leaders whose character Fela lyrically portrayed this way in the concluding part of the album under reference:

“After all the things we don talk
And the things wey you see yourself
I get some questions to ask
Se our leaders dem like us or dem like themselves – first question
Se dem be good leaders or shadow criminals – second question
Se all na plan or no be plan – third question
I get my own answer
Dem be original criminal – just like that
All na plan o. – just like that
Yes, dem be like demselves – just like that ….Just like that, just like that.”

Lanre Arogundade is the director of the International Press Centre, Lagos.

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