Democratic Socialist Movement

For Struggle, Solidarity and Socialism in Nigeria

By - DSM



By Lanre Arogundade and Segun Sango

At one point in time, it became necessary for Fela to reply critiques who felt that his lyrics were over-laced with doomsday chants.

“If something good I go sing about
Nothing good self to sing about
If I sing say water no dey
Na old news be that
If I sing say light no dey
Na old news be that
If I sing say stealing by government
Na old news be dat”

That was his answer in Confusion-Break-Bone (CBB), one of the mid-1980s hit series that also included the Beast-of-No-Nation (BONN).

Lyrics like the above were characteristic of Fela’s Afrobeat which he originated and perfected from African highlife, rhythm, percussion and jazz. They make him connect with contemporary events in Nigeria that it becomes understandable why working class elements continue to clamor for his music laced with penetrating political messages.

Despite coming from a middle class background he opted for revolutionary political activism and called his un-registered political party, Movement of the People (MOP) – an act which seriously underscored the necessity of a conscious mass revolt against a system that puts the wealth of the society in few private pockets.

That revolutionary path naturally led him into collision with the ruling classes on so many issues including corruption. So if not too long ago, former President Olusegun Obasanjo made cacophonic noises about fighting corruption, it should be recalled that Fela had significantly harped on it about twenty one years earlier in CBB.

“Dem say President Shagari im steal
She Shagari alone dem go hold
How about the other president’s too?”

Today, there are not only other stealing presidents, but other stealing Governors and indeed other stealing Inspectors General of Police (IG) which even reminds us that in ‘Overtake Don Overtake Overtake’ (ODOO) he had also sang.

“Police station don turn to bank
IG na Managing Director”

In this context the on-going trials and convictions of some prominent players in the past administration has only confirmed Fela’s proposition that it is the entire system that is rotten, not just an individual president, governor, legislator, judge etc.

Unlike liberal critics that solely situate the problem of corruption and social decay within the context of individual leaders, Fela would dig deep into the heart of the system. Today, privatization is justly being seen by a vast majority of the working masses, and even certain layers of the middle classes, as being fundamentally incompatible with the well being of the people and the over all growth of the economy. But most significantly, Fela had about two decades earlier, in his yet to be released album tilled ‘Government of Crooks (GOC)’, denounced privatization as nothing more than stealing by another name. So if NITEL, NICON, Nigerian Airways, Refineries, Daily Times etc are being sold for peanuts to prominent politicians in power and their cronies, it confirms the “stealing by another name”

What therefore is to be done? Fela in many of his recorded albums outlined the way forward for the masses. In ODOO for instance he categorically asserted that the interest of the working masses cannot be satisfactorily met under the prevailing system which only favors a privileged few when he sang about a typical worker who wanted to buy an electric fan, and continuously saved for that purpose:

“He saved and saved everywhere
Under pillow
Under cooking pot
Inside socks
Inside cupboard”

He never made it because the price kept rising due to the unruly ‘forces of the market’. In exasperation, Fela therefore concluded:

“Na now him come understand his life
Enjoyment can never come him way
His life just dey go reverse”

But just how can the working masses tame this proverbial market forces? Fela again seemed to have provided the answer in one of his evergreens titled ‘Original Suffer Head’ where he urged the masses to be prepared for collective struggle to have guaranteed access to the basic needs of life:

“Before before we jefa (enjoy) head o
We must be ready to struggle for am o”

For his uncompromising revolutionary views, it was natural that Fela was hated and combated with an unsurpassed passion by successive neo-colonial capitalist elites that held sway in Nigerian society since independence. However, the truth now seems to be catching up with these past-masters in corruption and repression such that representatives of bourgeois intellectuals are now arriving at the some of the conclusions drawn by Fela long time ago.

In the Guardian of July 29, 2007 reprinted an article, ‘Nigeria’s Rigged Democracy’, written by a US government advisor, Professor Jean Herskovits that the following to say “Basic living conditions have also worsened. Electricity is scarce and clean water is rare. Despite vast sums supposedly spent on Federal roads, those roads have continued to deteriorate. Some 70 per cent of Nigerians must get by on $1 a day. The UN development program’s 2006 Human Development Report ranked Nigeria 159th out of 177 countries studies … in the course of Obasanjo’s eight-year tenure, Nigeria earned $233billion, two and half times the amount earned over the previous eight years. But thanks to kleptocracy and rampant graft, much of the money has not gone where it should have…”

Fela had a larger than life image and meant different things to many people. He was incessantly brutalized by many governments for supposedly being a deviant. For many however, one of Fela’s major sources of attraction was and is the rhythmic, melodious and danceable form of his renditions which made him a constant audience toast wherever he performed personally or his music was played.

So naturally, his life, philosophy and music would be x-rayed during this anniversary of his passage to the great beyond from different dimensions. Inks will almost dry on reliving Fela and women, Fela and marijuana, Fela and orthodox religions, Fela and traditional medicine etc. But what no serious critic/analyst would deny him was his constant and consistent quest for better life for the masses, hence his sobriquet ‘Eleniyan’ (for the masses). Who else but an ‘Eleniyan’ would always leave the doors of his house open just to anybody that chose to stay in his self-styled ‘KalaKuta Republic’?

For us therefore, the greatest monument that can be erected in his memory is for the present generation of youths and working class activists to draw necessary political and organizational conclusions from Fela’s inexhaustible armory of revolutionarily inspired lyrics and messages.

(Lanre Arogundade is Coordinator, International Press Centre (IPC) and Segun Sango, General-Secretary of Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM))