The Echoes of Fela’s Dirge – By Tochukwu Ezukanma



One of the many things that that tireless nonconformist, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, did for Nigerian music was to change it from merely a medium for praising and ingratiating the rich and mouthing romantic platitudes to a medium for mass enlightenment and crusading against bad leadership and social injustice. With his raw and coarse vocals and poignant and defiant lyrics, laced with jazzy melody and heavy percussions, his songs expressed the pains and frustration, and sometimes, hopes and aspirations of the Nigerian masses.

Then, as Fela sang, Nigeria, for the most part, was under military despotism. Nigerians were dismayed by the military’s heavy-handedness, bungled governance, irresponsible policies, arbitrariness and brutality. His songs reflected the mood of the people, especially their exasperation with the pervading social injustice and the excesses of the military power elite. So, they were censorious, and sometimes, mournful. In one of his dirges, he sang: suffer dey African kpakparakpa, and we dey suffer kpakparakpa. In another, he sang about: everybody run, run, run; everybody scatter, scatter; police dey come, army dey come; somebody nearly died, somebody just died; ten minutes later, police don go away, army don disappear; They leave sorrow, tears and blood.

However, as Nigerians chafed under military dictators, they found consolation in that, by training and orientation, the soldiers were ill-equipped for political leadership. Secondly, military rule was an aberration expected to be short lived. So, Nigerians were hopeful. In their optimism, they imagined a post-military rule future. They expected that an end to the worst form of government, military dictatorship, and the advent of democracy, supposedly, the best form of government, will usher in a new era. An epoch marked by a curb on corruption (which had taken a disgusting, nauseating twist under military rule), more responsible and benign government policies, confinement of the military to the barracks and an end to police (and other government agents) brutality and an overall conspicuously palpable improvement in the quality of lives of the generality of Nigerians.

After all, history has furnished the incontrovertible evidence that democracy is a fount of political stability, social justice, rule of law, principled distribution of the national wealth and over all societal advancement. In addition, it had improved the standards of political morality, elevated societal ethics and refined the value system in many other countries of the world.

But in the vast scene of confusion and the intractable anomaly that is our beloved country, democracy disappointed the expectations of the people. Therefore, many years after Fela sang his mournful songs and fourteen years into Nigerian democracy, official corruption, mass poverty, police brutality, lawlessness, violence, electoral fraud, theft of public funds, etc remain the defining elements of the Nigerian society.

Suffer still dey Nigeria kpakparakpa, and we still dey suffer kpakparakpa. The level of poverty remains disturbing very high; some estimates have it that 70% of Nigerians live below the poverty level. A staggering proportion of Nigerians urban dwellers live in dirty, festering oozing slums in over crowded and decrepit houses. The social structure and the institutions of government remain skewed against the legitimate aspirations of the masses. The Nigerian system continues to pander to the inordinate wealth of an elite few at the economic detriment of the people.

We still dey run, run, run and still scatter, scatter because police dey come and army dey come. And they still leave sorrow, tears and blood in their wake. Although technically, confined to barracks, soldiers, still periodically, foray into civilian centers and harass and kill civilians. The Nigerian Police Force remains world renowned for its brutality and extra-judicial killings. The police power is an indispensible tool of governance. And the behavior of the police is a powerful indicator of the attitude of the governing towards the governed. The Nigerian police behave as though it is beholden to an occupation power because the Nigerian power elite behave like an occupation power. An occupation power has no emotional and sentimental attachment to the occupied country. Therefore, it is disposed, at the total disregard of the people and the future of the country, to remorselessly exploit the system and ruthlessly loot the public treasury.

Fela’s dirges continue to echo. Unfortunately, they echo, not as an anachronism which is only relevant as an index of how far Nigeria has progressed over the years (from oppression to freedom, social injustice to social justice, police brutality to police respect for the individual worth, etc), but as a true expression of the Nigerian reality. As such, his songs continue to strike a profound chord in the minds of their listeners not just because of the splendor of their melody, but also the pertinence of their message.

The problem of Nigerian democracy is that it was hijacked by an evil oligarchy. It is this evil oligarchy, unsurpassed its catalogue of lawlessness, contempt for the Nigerian masses, irresponsible and anti-people policies, misappropriation of public funds and extravagant lifestyle, that made life for the average Nigerian unsurpassed in its poverty, frustration and misery.

Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos Nigeria

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