“There is a higher law than the law of government. That’s the law of conscience.” – Stokley Carmicheal.
Few people in history of Nigeria have had the power to expose the innate, unrelenting and abiding corruption in the marrow of Nigerian leaders as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Fela—who needs no introduction, no reference, no subtext—lives on in the psyche of the people, in their fashion, in their musical aspirations, in their poetry, in their anger, in their hope. This week, Felabration begins, marking its nineteenth year celebrating the life, legacy, and significance of Fela.
When we look at the essence of Fela—his defiance, his energy, his love for the people, his disdain for corruption and its fatal effects on a nation grappling with post colonial daze—we see how deeply he sensed the desire of few to enrich themselves, the sorrow, tears and blood of the masses. Fela saw the gamut of Nigerians; Nigerians who may or may not be from Cameroon. Nigerians who are Cameroonians because of arbitrary borderlines; Nigerians with Lebanese names. Nigerians with Indian grandmothers. Nigerians who speak Arabic. Nigerians with British accents; so well read, they couldn’t understand the common man. Nigerians whose ancestors have always sold dry fish at Opobo market. Nigerians who never saw a book in their lives; who live in arid land, rear cattle and do not bother with rainment. Nigerians without limbs amputated for stealing bread. Nigerians who live in Ikoyi, blind to their fellow Nigerians. Nigerians who were born with melanin but are now plagued with Yellow Fever. Nigerians who love religion so much, they deny themselves and Follow-follow their pastor or imam. Nigerians who are hungry, who are slick. Nigerians who believe in jungle justice, whose lives depend on oil reserves, who have never known a day without power cuts, who are sick and tired. Nigerians who love Expensive Shit, who are VIPs, who love to Open and Close their eyes to corruption, who are nothing but beasts of No Nation. Fela saw them all and made music for and about them all.
Celebrating Fela is akin to breathing. It is the hope and significance of truth that is amaranthine, even after the body dies. We were told that Fela’s body died on August 2, 1997. But truth does not die. This knowledge is not exclusive to anyone who has ever been privy to truth. However, it takes on a powerful significance for Nigerians, who, for decades, have endured the same issues Fela sang about. It has powerful significance for Nigerians who continue to live with Authority stealing, whose leaders still lose billions of dollars in oil money (this magical oil money that has disappeared consistently over decades of recycled leaders), whose brother was given a necklace of rubber and set ablaze by the misplaced anger of a hungry market square. Corruption is not this abstract thing, this nepotism, this ‘na turn by turn’ life; one day you sef go hammer. This corruption is the virus that has our youth stark raving mad in the streets because the elders have made off in private jets with their inheritance. It is the 18-year-old girl coerced into sexual relationships with professors too dumb to teach, only brilliant in selling grades for sex and money. It is your 87 year old grandfather, who worked dutifully as a civil servant for 52 years, who served colonial masters, who loves twilight, who sits on his verandah night after night wondering when his pension will come in. It is your cousin, who has applied for 726 jobs to be precise, who has received 0 calls for interviews, who has no godfather, no connection, no source of livelihood.
Fela was both a prince and a prophet. A timeless voice, often persecuted, never silenced. You can hear his music everywhere in the world; in Soweto, in Harlem, in Kyoto, in Birmingham, in Brazil, in Korea, in Ikeja, in your heart. He knew that truth was the only thing he had and he yelled it from the rooftops, the rancor of his voice, the gleam in his eyes, the fervor in his music. Fela is Nigerian, his tenacity, his resilience. He is an ephemeral being, one we will never fully know; yet he lives in the depths of our psyche, his voice a clarion call. He is a collective metaphor for the average Nigerian—beaten, cheated, betrayed, deceived yet still standing. Always standing.
Emalohi Iruobe is an Attorney and Artist.