Giving Up is not an Option
“Some dey follow follow dem close dem eye
Some dey follow, follow dem close dem mouth
Some dey follow, follow dem close dem sense
If you dey follow, make you open eye, open ear, open mouth, open sense”.
– Fela Kuti
One of the greatest musicians in history, the romantically-rough voiced Louis Armstrong once said, “Music is life itself”. Music is also a stimulant of memoirs, a recap of aspirations and a therapist rolled in one.
A few days ago, I ceaselessly played songs by one of Africa’s greatest musical royalty, the incomparable Olufela Olusegun Ransome-Kuti (May his soul rest in peace). I should confess, from the onset that (personally) music is my weakness – music always brings life to my universe. When I’ve departed these shores, I’d be honoured if my descendants would play music whenever they missed me. This week, music made me re-live a memorable period in my student days.
“Republic of Kalakuta”
Kuti led and was a face that represented his views. He was not some individual claiming to be a revolutionary when s/he is faceless. The costume of revolutionaries was his size – not oversize. He was honest and with views that were unqualified. I suspect that could be the reason his songs can be quite long compared to normal comparatives – so if you listen to his music you may have to set aside anything from 12 to 30 minutes (just for 1 song).
This man believed in real comradeship and could have made a godfather to the African tertiary students’ group of our times and I’m sure even beyond. He built a commune on 14 Agege Street in Lagos, Nigeria, where he housed his family (including his mother), his band members and his studio. He called the commune the “Republic of Kalakuta”. The camaraderie in “Kalakuta” was so strong and visible that he, assisted by Kuti’s brother who was a Medical Doctor, established the commune’s own medical centre. Clearly, everyone’s health was a priority for all residents in the compound.
As students, we also had our “Kalakuta” character – esprit de corps was our best source of therapy, enthusiasm and devotion to one another’s well-being. When one student was between a rock and a hard place, we (the student body) also were. Our views were not a secret and our leaders were not faceless despite the potential risks that sat on their lives as we constantly came face-to-face with authorities.
“Botha…Thatcher and Regan…dem want dash us human rights” Kuti
Kuti produced beautiful music but he also used his artistry to preach the truth. He informed the authorities when they messed up and applauded when they did well. One of my ‘political uncles’, who owns a copy of each of Kuti’s musical albums, confirmed this when he told me that Ian Smith’s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa’s Apartheid machineries banned his music because he tended to “say it like it was’.
In a song, “Beast of no Nation”, he told the United States’ former President Ronald Reagan, the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the former South African Prime Minister PW Botha, “Botha na friends to Thatcher and Regan…Together, dem want dash us Human Rights.”
As students, we also undertook to tell it like it was. That approach was always married to pain. So if you told the truth, the authorities made your ride exceptionally bumpy.
In 1976, Kuti released an album called ‘Zombies’. This complicated his young life as government authorities sent all their might against him as though there was a semblance of a military character to the commune. “Zombies no go walk unless you tell ‘em to walk (Zombies won’t walk unless commanded)”, says Kuti in song. With this album, Kuti embarrassed the military regime of his own country Nigeria, among others. He also attacked corruption, racism, lacklustre leadership, incompetence and bad governance across Africa.
As students, our view was that education was a basic human right and any obstruction to it was a disservice to the politically and economically oppressed group of deserving and intelligent African students. We wanted all deserving students to register – everything else must be negotiated whilst they are attending classes. We insisted that anything less than that was equivalent to being punished for being poor. We, consequently, became regular customers to the police. We were not scared to fight against the use of the students’ financial wherewithal to exclude them from registration.
On one of the early protest days (in this long and protracted campaign), we marched across campus – and I happened to be in a row that was easily accessible to the cops. One cop pushed me with a baton straight on my neck and I couldn’t help but sneeze with pain (I know it sounds strange but there is no simpler way to explain the type of pain). I stepped aside as it was impossible to ignore. Later that night I sat with myself in my room nursing the pain and cursing the irresponsible cop. Strangely, some of them (cops) were students and in actual fact classmates whose ‘interests’ we were representing as some attended evening classes. What is even worse is that some used to attend our mass meetings. I am confident that, secretly, the same Nigerian soldiers were dancing to Kuti’s music when they were not under the authorities’ surveillance.
Follow-Follow Par Excellence
Fela Kuti, in his Zombies album, provides clarity to this and does not see it as a co-incidence. He, through one of his songs, implies that we should forgive some armed forces (I include the police) as they are just follow-following. The mark that I had on my neck (then) was a product of a Mr Follow-Follow trapped in a cop’s attire. Mr Follo-Follow is shouted at, “Attention!!” and he gives a standard response. So, almost like a robot, he complies. ‘Mr Follow Follow’ was the song. You can try to ignore it but your feet will defy you and start tapping in response to the irreplaceable rhythm by this African prince of melody. Read Hugh Masekela’s biography, “Still grazing”, and you will realise how high a regard he held of him. Some of Kuti’s music is getting sampled by global artists like Kelly Rowland from the United States of America (USA).
In another instance on campus, a police officer shot me on my knee with a rubber-bullet. I could not drag my leg forward anymore. I knew that they were going to pick me up, throw me into one of their vans and give me a free ride ending up with free accommodation at one of their not-so-cosy jailhouses. Clad in an extremely busy outfit, with sprays and other devices across his chest, a Godzilla came towards me (that victory-walk) with his well-armed peers walking next to him. I told myself that ‘these cowards’ were going to assault the fortitude out of my skull. I wasn’t afraid but I psyched myself in anticipation. To my surprise, Godzilla knelt next to me and, with a hospital voice said, “Are you okay?”. I looked at him angrily – “How can you shoot me and ask me that?” An observer would have seen rage across my face whilst the cop was a St Godzilla performing First-Aid on my knee. I continued to tell him that he had no right to do what he had done with his gun. He said, “I’m just doing my job”.
St Godzilla, if you read this piece let me confess to you, “You left me wondering if you were a Mr Follow-Follow, a Leader and a Follower wrapped in one. Odd mix, hey!!”.
“Ndoda (My brother)! Let’s sit down!”
They didn’t manage to suppress the mass action. On another day we took a similar march across campus with police watching us like scare-crows. They used their loudspeakers demanding that we disperse but we decided to hand ourselves over en masse for arrest. Their vehicles were full to capacity. The majority, which I was a part of (600 or so – I could be exaggerating or understating) were still out singing. The police changed tact – now they started chasing us and beating us with their painful batons. We ran helter-skelter. I was a soccer player at the time, so the big bellied police Godzillas were no match to my sprinting capacity. But a friend, along who I was running got tired and shouted, “Ndoda (My brother)! Let’s sit down!”. I didn’t grasp the wisdom behind this – but he was doing LLB so there must be something he knew that I didn’t know. I was dumbfounded when the big bellied police just ran past us chasing those who had opted to run. I still re-play that episode in mind even today – it never made sense. My former varsity-mate knows what informed that wisdom. Chasing runners whilst letting those who sit to just chill. Ola! Mr Follow-Follow.
“Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense” Kuti
Another song from Kuti that goes hand in hand with ‘Mr Follow Follow’ is ‘Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense’. If the police arrest you in a lawful mass action, you must not become their plaything – take them on when this comes to court. Go to court and defend your rights against those who want to impose lawlessness on you and the masses that you are comrades with.
So we were in a space where we had to tell our educated authorities – Management, don’t teach us nonsense. We had one hell of an intelligent lawyer, who represented the students for free (his teachers obviously did an excellent job here as he went on to become a Judge).
The evening of that arrest (I know it sounds strange that a court would sit after hours but that is what I discovered that day/night), court sat to consider the arrested protestors’ bail. We attended – the accused and those who had not been arrested (I was in the latter group). Another strange sequence of events took place. Even today, I still giggle as I try to make sense of it. It seems many students (at different intervals) just left individually during the proceedings with no one stopping them. Mr Follow-Follow can also misread the teacher’s instruction.
Feedback that came from the students that were not arrested was awe-inspiring. They collected donations from across the city and cooked for their arrested colleagues. If you were part of this group – I salute you!!
1,000 Nigerian Army Force Members
Following the release of the Zombie album in 1976, Kuti’s compound was burnt down by the country’s army. According to one source, over 1,000 Nigerian Army force members were in operation at the compound. Just to attack civilians? These Mr Follow-follows must be ashamed. This episode has left an unending taste of bitterness from Kuti’s fans as they feel that he, his family, band members and everyone living in the commune were maltreated.
In our case, as students, when the police were struggling to contain our mass action, the army was called in. Let me confess – I was shocked when I saw soldiers lying on their stomachs behind some long grass and on top of buildings on campus.
I had never touched a gun in my life. The presence of armed forces, carrying huge rifles, taking strategic positions and looking like one of the Rambo films can be strange (and, between you and me: very fearful). The challenge for the forces was that in a campus, students can think and knew the policeman was not an opponent but were follow-following and therefore stayed resolute and upright on their righteous path. We were fearful about a potential loss of life but not scared. On those few days, it became difficult to even congregate, but students continued protesting by staying away from classes. The Mr Follow-Follows were left scratching their heads.
“You can cage the singer but not the song” – Harry Belafonte
In ‘Kalakuta’, there was a life lost. The soldiers threw Kuti’s mother out of the second floor of the residence and she died, after spending two months in a coma. Kuti was beaten and almost died, as well.
Harry Belafonte insists that, “you can cage the singer but not the song”. Follow-follow (the song) kept inspiring the multitudes that had access to Kuti’s music. In our case as students, members of the community became our family and started getting involved. I remember mass meetings that we held on campus and city hall with members of the community that had begun to get involved. I remember, there was also a soccer player who plied his trade with one of the professional soccer teams (who was a student) and led the mass action. This was a ‘people’s war’.
Kuti bemoaned the death of his mother. What made it even more painful was that the military junta of Nigeria (who had one or more of their force members had his hands soaking with Kuti’s mother’s blood) were refusing to take responsibility. A defiant Kuti delivered his mother’s coffin to the main army barracks in Nigeria protesting against the heartless manner in which they took her life. He, also, wrote two songs “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown soldier” (because the army was refusing to name the criminal/s). Obviously the loss of her life became Kuti’s permanent scar.
As students, we could still draw inspiration from him because national government instructed the defence force to get out of campus and the students’ mass action continued from where it left off. Goodbye Mr Follow Follow.
Later, we had to present our figurative coffin to the Minister of Education in a meeting he led. In our case, the Minister vindicated us on most of our positions, the registration process was re-opened for all. The minister, a leader, heeded to our leadership.
A tough ride, it was.
The leader in you
As Africans, are we follow-follow people? Let me rephrase – Are you a follow-follower or a follower? Please don’t tell me you are the former.
Notwithstanding the fear posed by the might that your opponents possess, don’t betray yourself by becoming a Mr or Ms Follower-Follower. As you follow, so implies Kuti, you must lead yourself by opening your eyes, ears, reason and using your judgement. Don’t just close your mouth even when you need to express a view. If the one you follow expects you to kill people you should know that you are a Mr/s Follow Follow who is wearing blinkers as you would have compromised your intelligence.
If you have the lame excuse of “I’m just doing my job”, then you are Mr or Ms follow-follow par excellence.
Please do not confuse being at the back with being a follow-follow. It is true that “You can lead from the back”. For decades, Winnie Mandela led from the back. So don’t accuse yourself of being a follow-follow because you are being led. We cannot all be Presidents or Prime Ministers or Secretaries. Show your leadership by contributing. You can lead from your wheelchair, your hospital bed, your state of being unemployed, your state of success – basically everyone is a leader. Essentially, it doesn’t matter where you are on the ladder, to be a leader you must commit to principles and the truth. The scoundrels that use force to exercise authority do not have the wherewithal to survive and are just on a lost cause – forgive them. I must emphasise, however, that not all police personnel or soldiers are follow-follow – I was choosy in my narration.
You may be in a corner and remain a leader. In fact, Stevie Wonder simplifies it when he says, “Just because I lack the use of my eyes does not mean I do not have a vision”.
Africa can still rise
I agree that this is Africa’s time if we fully use the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) maximally. Don’t stand with your arms positioned akimbo. Do it. Education is one of the stimulants going into the 4th Industrial Revolution. Refusing education to a human being is like depriving them of oxygen. So to African governments, universities and all places of learning – the renewal of Africa is in your hands.
I dedicate this week’s edition to all the students that stand up comradely as they forcefully negotiate their paths to being participants in creating a brighter future for themselves and our continent. Not to forget African communities, from who students always draw strength.
I also dedicate this copy to Ms Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who remained a towering figure in front of intimidating follow-follows.
Lastly, my respect goes to you Mr Fela Anikulapo Kuti – a revolutionary, a pioneer of AfroBeat, a personification of excellence, an addict of scrupulousness, a necessary irritant to the authorities and a great son of Africa. I am listening to your music as I write this piece. You remain an inspiration, albeit almost half-a-century later. This is your edition, my leader!
Enjoy your weekend.
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