Fela's Music Galvanise Protests Against Fuel Subsidy Removal In Nigeria

Even in death, Fela

Anikulapo-Kuti was larger than life. “I

no be gentleman at all oh. I no be gentleman at all oh,” sang an angry wave

of protesters among tens of thousands at the Gani Fawehinmi Park, Ojota, Lagos,

as they swung to the beats of a musical prophet. This was far from being the

Broadway musical. But Fela’s music provided an almost perfect soundtrack to

express national outrage over the removal of fuel subsidy by the administration

of President Goodluck Jonathan on January 1, 2012. Since then, the grandeur of

economic illusions was shattered like windowpanes as many Nigerians hurt from

the pain of harsh realities inflicted by the removal of fuel subsidy. Beyond

the fact that Nigeria

is Africa’s largest oil producer and ranks as the fifth-largest

exporter of crude oil to the U.S, the anger of most stemmed from the knowledge of the monumental

corruption and wastage in government.

“You be thief (I no be thief). You be rogue (I no be rogue). You

dey steal (I no dey steal). You be robber (I no be robber) You be armed robber

(I no be armed robber)…,” the Afrobeat legend’s classic song titled ‘Authority Stealing’

blared from the loud speakers mounted on stage at the park, venue of the January

9 – 13 protest rally in Lagos organized by the Save Nigeria Group (SNG), a

coalition of civil societies and human rights groups and following the strike

called by the National Labour Congress (NLC).

“Dem leave sorrows, tears and blood, dem regular trademark. Dem

regular trademark. Dem regular trademark,” another of Fela’s classic “Sorrows,

Tears and Blood” resonated across the park. The protesters agreed with him, having heard the

news that Ademola Aderinde, was shot by a trigger happy policeman

in cold blood at Ogba, a suburb in Ikeja, the Lagos capital, on January 9. Although the police commissioner had issued

orders for the arrest of Segun Fabunmi, the police officer who pulled the

trigger that killed Ademola. Then, most Nigerians see the deployment of

soldiers to strategic protests centres in Lagos, including the Fawehinmi Park,

on Monday January 16; as proof of the same highhandedness that was prevalent

among Nigerian security forces, including the constantly criticized police

force, during many decades of military dictatorship.

Tens of thousands at the park –

rechristened by some as Freedom Park gyrated to Fela’s heavy percussion beats

and sang along lyrics laced in deep socially conscious messages. “Remove

corruption Not Subsidy,” read one of the many placards dotting the landscape of

the protests venue. Many have argued that the government is wasteful, should

reduce its cost of governance as well as its bogus salaries and allowances to

officials instead of removing fuel subsidy it claims could bankrupt the

country’s economy. However, the federal government has argued that it would

build new refineries while resuscitating the old ones, as well as reinvest the

fuel subsidy money to improve other sectors. “Argument, argument! Argument, argument, argue. Them argue. Everybody

dem argue Them dem dem argue,” Fela sang through the speakers. His spirit

was resurrected among a thousand voices rising to a crescendo. It was a synergy

of rage and a million decibels in sound that could not be ignored. Every day at

the rally venue, since January 9, Fela, who once declared his interest to

become president of Nigeria but had his candidacy refused, had a revolutionary

effect on the surging crowd through his evergreen songs. “As time dey go. Things just dey bad. They bad more and more. Poor man

dey cry. Rich man dey mess. Demo-crazy. Crazy demo. Demonstration of craze.

Crazy demonstration,” Fela sang from another classic ‘Teacher don’t’ Teach

me Nonsense”. Like the timeless lyrics of another of his songs said, many who

were gathered at this venue and in other protests venues across Nigeria, were

tired of Suffering and Smiling.

Suffering

and Smiling. But not anymore!” read an inscription on one yellow commercial

tricycle, popularly known as Keke NAPEP, as some rough looking protesters

alighted later that afternoon. The first three words were borrowed from the

title of one of Fela’s songs, which was played hours ago. They looked evidently angry, probably with

the Jonathan administration. Just then, Fela’s“When Trouble sleep, Yanga go wake am, Wetin him dey find,” “Palaver,

he dey find. Palaver, he go get-e o,” boomed through the speakers. They screamed

back excitedly as they joined the crowd to sing along the chorus. Throughout

the duration of the rally, Fela’s songs was the unofficial soundtrack of the

protest as his timeless classics blared intermittently from the speakers, in

between speeches by labour leaders, activists, celebrities, and performance by

various artistes.

Beyond fuelling the sounds of

revolution, Fela’s music also highlighted the lyrical poverty of today’s

contemporary Nigeria music, which was left exposed like a naked woman in the

market square by the Afrobeat’s legend’s decades-old classics. Only a handful

of artistes that performed at the rally ground had the same powerful effect on

the crowd the way Fela’s music did, as none of their songs really had deep

socially conscious or political lyrics that could serve as a catch to the

crowd. Despite their

popularity, Tuface, D’banj or WizKid’s music would most likely have been out of

place in a setting like this,” someone in the crowd noted. He may be right. Many of the artistes present performed

songs that scored high on entertainment value rather than for its political or

social message. The essence of their music and lyrics seem to be lost like a

handful of sand in the ocean that was Fela’s music as it swept through the

surging crowd like tidal waves.

Although a few came up with poor remixes

to suit the occasion, the last dance and encore belonged to the Afrobeat

legend. “I go many places. I go business

places. And I see, see, see. All the bad, bad, bad things. Dem dey do, do, do.

Call corruption… I say I waka waka waka. I see, see see…. Waka Waka Waka,”

Thousands in the crowd sang along with Fela’s backup singers. This superseded

the Broadway musical. “That’s my elder brother singing,” screamed one

protester, lost in the musical rapture. Like their father’s, the music and

performance of Grammy Award nominee Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti also had the same

effect, as their songs were also laced with socially conscious lyrics and

political messages. Until his death in August 1997, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was a

social commentator and vocal campaigner for human rights and good governance,

which were reflected in most of his songs. Revered by his Afrika Shrine faithful

as Abami Eda – meaning ‘a mysterious creature or the weird one’, the five-day Lagos protests have

shown that, with his evergreen tunes, the spirit of the Afrobeat genius was very

much alive in his motherland.

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