South Africans betrayed me
By Frank Chike
Ozzidi exponent, Evangelist Francis Sonny Okosuns died on May 24, 2008 at the age of 64, but with a pain in his heart. It was the agony of a man betrayed and despised by those he considered to be his ‘African brothers’ and as a result had committed most of his time and musical works to their liberation.
Doing all he can to conceal the pains he was battling with that morning, as his health had begun to deteriorate, Okosuns still managed to reveal to this reporter, who was then gathering material for his biography, that the South Africans did not show any iota of appreciation to him after the end of apartheid in 1994 despite his huge contribution to their liberation struggle.
The Edo-born reggae turned-gospel musician was still waiting for an official invitation from the South African government when the cold hands of death snatched him away. It was vintage Okosuns in this exclusive but interesting encounter. Enjoy it.
Not long ago, while you were out of the country, the issue of United States of Africa under one leadership or president resurfaced at the African Union meeting. The Libyan strongman, Col. Muammar Gaddafi was the advocate. As a Pan Africanist, what is your opinion on this issue?
I think I started it after President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, I must say glory be to God for giving me the foresight. Remember many years back, I recorded a song on that which I titled ‘Now or Never’ and in the video I displayed a placard with a message, ‘The United States of Africa’ where I wore a military camouflage. I raised my hands like Col. Gaddafi always does, and everybody knew I was mimicking him, and the song was a hit. I think Col. Gaddafi watched the video and that’s where he must have gotten the idea for the United States of Africa. It’s very right to nurse the idea of United States of Africa, but it must be well planned and well organised so that one country would not dominate the other. I’m saying this because I have travelled all over Africa and I know how Nigerians are badly treated by people of other countries in the continent. They are very much afraid of us, may be because we are well ahead of them on our level of understanding and business consciousness, and I know many of these countries once they see our citizens at their airports or borders, they would begin to panic and do all sort of things to harass you.
Have you ever been treated shabbily in any Africa country?
Yes, of course. I remember during Namibia’s independence in the ‘80s, I went there to perform and I saw a poster in their airport warning people to beware of Nigerians. When I saw it, I was disappointed because their president then and their freedom fighters lived here in Nigeria (Lagos) for many years when we were helping them to liberate their country. I mean Mr. Sam Nujoma, the same thing with South African President Thabo Mbeki. They were all here in Nigeria those days and I remember on one occasion when I performed before them here in Lagos, Mr. Sam Nujoma wept. Then he was not yet a president. In short, that poster at Namibia Airport till date is still a source of worry to me; because I don’t know why the people we struggled to liberate could do such a thing to us.
Can you still remember some of the things they wrote in the public notice?
Yes of course. Some of the few I can remember state: “Every woman that is a Nigerian uses bottom power”. “Every young man from Nigeria who is a businessman is a 419ner (fraudster)”. “Every Nigerian solider is a coup plotter”. Every Nigerian student is a campus cult member”. And “Every young man from Nigeria is a drug courier”. There were many other bad things written warning their people why they should not allow Nigerians into their country. Then General Ibrahim Babangida was our president.
But I learnt that you were so close to some presidents in that region like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe?
Yes, you are correct, that was why I named my second son, Mugabe. You know, I was also very close to his wife, Sally Mugabe, and I know what they were saying about Nigerians. Most of them didn’t like Nigerians because many Nigerians then were supporting Joshua Nkomo, Mugabe’s political rival. So, when Mugabe became Zimbabwe’s president, he named some streets in his country after some African countries without including Nigeria.
Back to the issue of United States of Africa, do you think our former colonial masters will like to see this plan come true?
I know they will fight against it but if we Africans are serious, we are bound to overcome the challenges. Let me tell you a story. One day, I was travelling through Kenya, we were at the border when their immigration officers stopped us for searching, and this is a country I know that I was very popular. So, while we were waiting at the post, some white men passed without anybody stopping them. And when it got to my turn, the security agents took my passport and said they wanted to search me. I protested and asked them why they didn’t search the white men. I also asked them if they didn’t know me, if they didn’t know how I contributed to their freedom struggle. Even at that, they didn’t listen until one of them ordered them to allow me to pass. In fact, most of these people are ingrates. They have never appreciated our contributions to their liberation from apartheid.
For all these, have you at any point in time regretted being part of their liberation struggles?
To be frank with you, at times I feel ashamed. You know, I’m a human being but on the other hand, I think some of them don’t like Nigerians. You know, we are always our brother’s keeper, but some of them see it as if Nigerians are coming to pocket them, which is not true. I think most of them have greatly been brain washed by some European countries to hate Nigerians.
Now let’s talk about your friend, Zimbabwe president, Robert Mugabe. It’s like the man believes that without him the country will collapse and the way he’s been handling opposition parties in the country is nothing to write home about. Why have you not advised him to be more tolerant?
Some western countries are causing the problem in Zimbabwe. The same people who are now calling Mugabe devil also painted Idi Amin black. But remember that any time the whites are supporting the opposition they will help and make his voice louder. In short, my advice is that Zimbabweans should try to have an understanding with Mugabe because he doesn’t want to take order from Britain, their former colonial master. You know, he fought the war of liberation of Zimbabwe and they won. Now Britain is intervening in Zimbabwe’s internal politics, trying to impose a puppet government. So for me, I don’t like that and I will never live to see it happen in any African country. I wish other Africans should try to dialogue with Mugabe and understand what he is trying to do, because he means well for his country, that’s my opinion.
Back to your role in the struggle to liberate South Africa, how did it all start?
It’s through the grace of God that I was able to contribute my little quota to the anti-apartheid struggle and liberation of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia and other Africa countries. The liberation struggle was a challenge to me. I got to know about South Africa through a girl who came to Nigeria for her scholarship programme in 1965. She was from Zimbabwe. Her name is Florence Kululere. After meeting with her and learning about the political happenings there, I went into further research, and as a musician, I decided to start writing songs to express my concern about things going on there, by way of reflecting them in my music as protest songs. So, when I joined the struggle, I first released a song titled ‘Let My People Go’, in 1976. Later, I recorded another major hit titled ‘Papa’s Land, followed by another monster hits ‘Fire in Soweto’, ‘Holy War’ (1977/1978), and then in 1979, I did ‘Power To The People’. After that, I released ‘Third World’, ‘No More Wars’ and other hits all about the South African liberation struggle.
In those days what kind of support were you getting from the freedom fighters?
I remember in 1984 during my visit to Detroit (USA), Zenani, Chief Buthelezi’s wife came to watch me perform in a concert, and she came and thanked me for my contributions. I gave her some of my albums. Later, Oliver Thambo of South Africa came to Nigeria and I gave him some of my albums. Months after, during a National Conference on Zimbabwe in London, I met with Abel Muzorewa and I gave him copies of my albums too. In fact, during the liberation struggle, I performed nearly in all the fund raising and awareness concerts and programmes to set South Africa free. On one occasion, I remember how Mr. Sam Nujoma wept openly while I was performing one of my songs, ‘Fire in Soweto’. But could you believe that all my anti-apartheid albums were not allowed to be sold in South Africa like that of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and many other big musicians?
Were you ever invited to perform in South Africa?
No, never, because their government branded me a rebel. They banned me from coming to the country, but I did not give up the struggle. I made a vow that when God sets them free and Mandela is freed, I will become a Christian and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. Also, here in Nigeria, I held ‘free Mandela shows’ many times in Lagos, Benin, Enugu and Kaduna.
When did you meet Nelson Mandela face to face?
That is when he was freed from prison. He came to Nigeria and we met briefly at Obasanjo’s farm in Otta. By band later performed to welcome him at the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos, and that was all.
After he became the president, did he invite you to South Africa?
No, he didn’t and till date, I have not been officially invited to South Africa. I don’t even know Soweto, Pretoria or Johannesburg. Could you believe that Miriam Makeba once thought that I was a Jamaican? Many other people even thought that I was a South African in exile. It was just of recent that I told former President Olusegun Obasanjo about this, and he was very, very annoyed and surprised. Another reason why I am not happy with South Africans particularly Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki was that they have never deemed it worthy to invite me to their country. The other time they celebrated Mandela’s birthday in South Africa, it was Michael Jackson and other American musicians that they invited. And these musicians never sang anything about Mandela or black South Africans or even the liberation struggle.
Did your participation in the liberation struggle in any way affect your business as a musician?
Yes it did, because it was very risky fighting an evil government of such influence. But thank God that He led me and kept me safe throughout the struggle. Then I had many offers from recording companies that I should stop singing protest songs. They promised me that if I agreed they would make me a world music star. Some even promised me millions of dollars if I could abandon the anti-apartheid struggle. But I told them no, that God created me to do what I was doing. Another tempting offer came from some white men when I was in London recording my album, ‘African Soldier’, but I turned them it because I wanted to be on the side of the people. At a stage, some people were hired to kill me in Europe, but I thank God that they failed.
When was the highpoint in your liberation struggle for South Africa?
I can say that it was the day I performed ‘Fire in Soweto’ to all African diplomas in Apollo Theatre (USA). That was in 1984. Then EMI Records that was releasing my songs played some tricks. They didn’t want to release the song on their label, so they hid their identity. They quickly formed another label called Radic Records and used it to release the album and my other works like ‘Papa’s Land’ and ‘Fire in Soweto’. A different version produced by Eddy Grant made the album to enter South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana where it sold very well too. But when their governments discovered that my albums had entered their countries, they placed an official order banning people from buying and playing my songs.
Aside using your songs to fight apartheid, was there any point in time you considered taking up arms?
Yes, I nearly did, but because I found out that my music was a great weapon, stronger than guns, jet fighters and bombs, I decided to continue with it. But if the struggle had lasted more, I would have taken up arms, because I was really, really, ready to fight the evil regime. However, I maintained my stand on the struggle for 15 years with 15 albums, protesting about the in-human regime in South Africa.