The man was originally called Fela Ransome Kuti. To validate his cultural roots as an African original, he changed his name to Fela Anikulapo Kuti. But those who loved him and those who didn’t love him knew him simply as Fela. He had grown through his liberation music and his “yabis” into the nemesis of scoundrels and a global icon for whom a second name was unnecessary and a surname was a luxury. He lived an iconoclastic life, marrying 27 wives in one day. It was debatable whether a man with such a spare frame was able to do his husbandly duties to all of his 27 women regularly. He smoked Indian hemp at his club even though he knew it was a forbidden item in Nigeria. When his mother, Funmilayo, an activist herself, died presumably from rough-handling by government officials in the 1970s, Fela took an empty casket to Dodan Barracks, the seat of the Federal Government then, for donation to the Olusegun Obasanjo government, but the donation was rejected.
In his later years as a musician, Fela wore nothing on stage except his skimpy underwear. No Nigerian musician before him had dared to come out in public with something close to Adam’s birthday suit. Now the girl actresses and musicians are flaunting their underwear and buttocks. When social media activists challenged singer Tiwa Savage, for exposing her buttocks bit by bit in her tattered bump shorts, she retorted: “you aint seen nothing yet.” My comment: “pretty girl, show us more.”
Fela called his house Kalakuta Republic and most people thought it was chic. But Obasanjo’s military junta did not think so. In February 1977, that government did the unthinkable: it burnt down Fela’s Kalakuta Republic and then they sought to kill the story. Yakubu Mohammed, a medium-sized man, has the huge heart of a professional journalist. As the associate editor of the New Nigerian in Lagos, he was on duty on that fateful day in February 1977 when the story of the burning of Kalakuta Republic broke. He despatched his reporters and photographers to cover the story. Later that day, he got a call from Dodan Barracks ordering him not to publish what happened at Fela’s house. Yakubu told the voice at the other end of the phone that he does not take instructions from Dodan Barracks. He called the managing director of the New Nigerian (NN) in Kaduna, Mr. Turi Muhammadu, to report what transpired. Muhammadu told him to write the report by himself without any sensationalism and get it published. At 7pm an official of the National Security Organisation (NSO) arrived at Yakubu’s office telling him that the government would issue a statement on the matter, so he should not publish anything on it. Yakubu told him he would publish the government’s statement along with the report of the incident. Most of the newspapers chickened out but the New Nigerian, a federal government-owned newspaper, published the story. Government eventually said that the Kalakuta Republic was burnt down by an “unknown soldier.” For the various governments in Nigeria, Fela was a persona non grata, a pariah, an untouchable rebel, touchable only with the fist of iron. That is the man that the President of France, a major world power, Mr. Emmanuel Macron, was honouring with his esteemed presence at the New Afrika Shrine, owned by Fela’s son, Femi, also a musician of note. Mr. Macron sat at the Shrine listening to Nigeria’s leading musicians as they sang their songs into the ears of the morning.
What Mr. Macron said about African culture, youth and the need for them to be involved in producing the future of their dream is important but just being there at the Shrine was even more important. I know of no Nigerian President who has ever identified with Fela despite his global acclaim. For those who saw Fela as a rebel who needed to be disciplined and destroyed, Macron’s visit to the Shrine is an inconsolable stabbing in the heart. He tore up the rule book. Femi and Seun have done well to keep their father’s legacy alive. From their father’s fame they have got the gift of derivative dignity and coupled with their own exertions they have both gained substantive significance. For the Fela family, what has happened with the Macron visit is pleasant revanchism. Fela’s opponents will continue to rub their eyes in disbelief.
The persons who fought Fela had a stiff, humourless military mentality. A military general told me many years ago that it was an insult for Fela to call his house Kalakuta Republic. “You can’t have a republic within a republic,” he said. I said to him: “in that case you have to shut down all the eateries that are called Chicken Republic.” He had no answer to that. Similarly, when I was president of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), I had gone to Aso Villa to ask for an appointment for the association to meet with President Obasanjo. When I introduced myself as the president of the NPAN, the man, a retired Major General, who was the Chief of Staff, said, “President with a small p.” I couldn’t laugh, I didn’t laugh, I didn’t want to laugh because he could block us from seeing the President. My anger and my laughter stayed in my stomach despite the provocation of this authoritarian potentate. That military mindset has survived till this day. The other day, the Minister of Defence, Mansur Dan Ali, a retired army officer, said that the anti-grazing laws enacted in some states of the federation should be suspended. That is clearly anomalous in a democracy but it is legit in a dictatorship. Once a coup is successful, the Constitution is suspended; the courts have their hands tied behind their backs; parliament does not even have the chance to bow and go. It is despatched to the gallows. Everything else is suspended: fairness, equity, justice. Only military justice stands on its feet, straight like a flag pole. That military mentality persists till this day.
However, many years ago, a nightclub owner, Mr. Ken Olumese, proprietor of Niteshift Coliseum, was able to bring Chief MKO Abiola and Mr. Babagana Kingibe, presidential and vice presidential candidates of the Social Democratic Party, to his nightclub in Ikeja. In fact, the Vice President, Mr. Atiku Abubakar, also appeared there at an interactive session called Grand House Reception. To cap it all, Mr. Olumese was able to entice Mr. J.J. Rawlings, Ghana’s former President, to an evening of entertainment and stocktaking. Before it was shut down after 25 years of operation, Mr. Olumese had turned the club into an iconic place for infotainment, where the aficionado had a rendezvous with many movers and shakers in a feast of information sharing. In Nigeria’s setting, that was unusual. So was Macron’s visit to the Shrine.
Macron surprised us some more. He gave France’s highest honour to a Nigerian businessman, Dr. Mike Adenuga Jnr, the founder of Globacom telecommunications company. This was in recognition of what the man, fondly called The Guru, has done in the global business arena, including a number of English and French-speaking countries in Africa. A few years ago, President Goodluck Jonathan gave Dr. Adenuga and Mr. Aliko Dangote, Nigeria’s second highest honour. In Nigeria, only MKO Abiola, a non-President has been given the country’s highest honour outside the ranks of Presidents or Heads of State. The reason is basically because honours, especially the highest ones, are given here for official positions and not necessarily for accomplishments. Why should people like Dr. Adenuga, Mr. Aliko Dangote, Mr. Tony Elumelu, Mr. Jim Ovia and Professor Wole Soyinka not wear proudly the nation’s highest honour? Each of them has contributed as much as, if not more than, some of the heads of governments, living or dead, that have run the affairs of Nigeria. Mr. Dangote has built cement factories in several states in Nigeria and Africa, tarred roads that governments have not been able to tar and is currently building a mega refinery. His philanthropy is phenomenal. Mr. Elumelu, as managing director, and now chairman of United Bank for Africa, has expanded the bank’s network of branches astronomically in Africa. By his Tony Elumelu Foundation, he has empowered thousands of young entrepreneurs in the continent. When Macron came visiting, Mr. Elumelu assembled them for a conversation with the French leader. Mr. Ovia, a consummate banker and educationalist has a large network of financial institutions with the original brand name of Zenith. He now has a world class secondary school called James Hope College in Agbor, Delta State. This school, which has both expatriate and Nigerian staff, has state-of-the-art technological equipment and processes. But it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to send children there because education there is substantially subsidized. The founder calls it “affordable excellence.” In a July 6, 2004, article in Newswatch, I had described Professor Wole Soyinka as the “conscience of our community and the lion of our land.” Without him Nigeria would probably have broken into bits as the mafia blocked Dr. Jonathan from acting as President when President Umaru Yar’Adua was seriously sick some years ago. Soyinka led a group of people on a protest mission to the National Assembly under the banner of “Enough is Enough.” That protest produced the Doctrine of Necessity, which eased Jonathan into the job and pulled Nigeria back from the brink. Soyinka only got a national honour in 1986 after the Nobel Committee recognized him as the Nobel Laurette in Literature. So, now that Macron has shown us that even a Nigerian can get France’s highest honour, why can’t Nigeria give its own highest honour to those Nigerians who have brought pleasure to Nigerians and positivity to its image globally such as the ones I have mentioned above? Why?