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6 September 2007

The socialist review

Fela Kuti- for the masses

Ten years after the death of Fela Kuti, the resonating messages of a revolutionary musician are still all too relevant.

Lanre Arogundade & Segun Sango

"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"

From Confusion-Break-Bone

Characteristic of Fela's Afrobeat which he perfected from African highlife, rhythm, percussion and jazz these lyrics connect with contemporary events in Nigeria. Ten years after his death working-class people still love his music, laced with political messages.

Despite a middle-class background he opted for political activism and called his un-registered political party Movement of the People (MOP), showing he understood the necessity of mass action.

Today the vast majority of the working masses, and some middle-class people, see privatisation as fundamentally incompatible with general wellbeing. Significantly, Fela had, about twenty years ago in his unreleased album, 'Government of Crooks', denounced privatisation as stealing by another name.

So if NITEL (Nigerian Telecoms) Nigerian Airways, refineries, the Daily Times etc are being sold for peanuts to prominent politicians in power and their cronies, it confirms the "stealing by another name".

Fela 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 concluded:

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

Fela warned against stealing presidents. In Nigeria today, such are the corruption levels, there are also stealing governors and indeed stealing Inspectors General of Police (IG). In 'Overtake Don Overtake Overtake' he sang:

"Police station don turn to bank
IG na Managing Director"

The on-going trials and convictions of prominent members of past administrations have only confirmed Fela's proposition that it is the system that is rotten, not just individuals.

Unlike liberal critics who blame corruption and social decay on individual leaders, Fela went to the heart of the system. Capitalist intellectuals are only now arriving at some of the conclusions drawn by Fela a long time ago.

In the Nigerian Guardian of 29 July 2007, Jean Herskovits said that "Electricity is scarce and clean water is rare. Despite vast sums supposedly spent on Federal roads, those roads have continued to deteriorate. 70% of Nigerians must get by on $1 a day.

"In the course of Obasanjo's eight-year tenure, Nigeria earned $233 billion, 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 different people. He was abused 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. Inks will run dry on reliving his different dimensions - women, marijuana, orthodox religions etc. But no serious critic could deny his constant and consistent quest for a better life for the masses, hence his sobriquet 'Eleniyan' (for the masses).

For us, the greatest monument to his memory is for the present generation of youth and working-class activists to draw the necessary political and organisational conclusions from Fela's inexhaustible armoury of revolutionarily inspired lyrics.

Lanre Arogundade is Coordinator, International Press Centre and Segun Sango, General Secretary of the Democratic Socialist Movement in Nigeria