What do you get when you combine 11 years of military rule and an eager military head of state holding a grudge, with a disenfranchised people and an eccentric, amoral musician who has a knack for speaking truth to power and has built a commune of like-minded individuals?
What you get is a series of arrests that culminates on February 18, 1997, with an attack by over 1000 soldiers on Kalakuta, home to Fela Anikulapo Kuti, his mother, the activist and matriarch of the Kuti clan, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, his children and his band of misfits.
On that day, 41 years ago today, Nigerians, Lagos to a larger extent and the residents of Kalakuta Republic, in particular, got front row seats to the carnage, disregard for life and destruction with which the Nigerian military’s participation in government is associated till this day.
Born to an Anglican minister and school headmaster and a civil rights leader with such a fierce-some reputation that she was known as the Lion of Lisabi, Fela’s transition from model young man to the anomalous voice of the masses remains the subject of conversation and study.
His remarkable switch in interests in university is common knowledge, more so to highlight his audacity in choosing an unlikely path.
He was sent to London to study Medicine but, clearly aware it was no his way, as we say, enrolled in the Trinity College of Music instead. Even then, Fela seemed a ‘good boy’ by certain standards.
According to JK Braimah, one of his best childhood friends, “[He] was a nice guy, a really beautiful guy. But as square, as they come. He didn’t smoke cigarettes, let alone grass. He was afraid to fuck! We had to take his prick by hand, hold it and put it in for him, I swear!”
"My music is a weapon"
10 years later, Fela was holding concerts at his bar and performance arena, Afro-Spot. His music, which he and Tony Allen had christened “Afrobeat” was a manifesto; a statement of the troubles that Nigerians and Africans faced, the state of the nation and a way out.
A large part of this featured attacks on Nigerian politicians, businessmen and the military rulers of the time who Fela accused of treating the people like lesser beings and mortgaging the nation’s future to foreign interests.
As one would expect, they paid attention, but it came to a head when, in 1977, Fela released “Zombie”, a mordant, unsparing attack on the Nigerian military and the culture that the institution had built and inculcated into its soldiers.
Using the zombie as a metaphor, Fela described Nigerian soldiers as a bunch of robots with no spine, waiting on orders from above as they marched like toy soldiers.
In 12 minutes and 24 seconds of saxophone and percussion-driven pummeling, Fela ridiculed the Nigerian military, making fun of everything from their “zombie-like” obedience to the music they marched to.
The song was one of Fela’s most instant hits but from early on, it was clear that the Nigerian army was not a fan of it.
There are reports that soldiers would flog and punish record stores found playing the song in the loud manner that Lagos-based stores would do at the time.
On the 18th of February 1977, over 1000 soldiers gathered at Kalakuta, Fela’s abode at No. 14A Agege Motor Raod, Idi-Oro, Mushin.
There are varying reports of what had instigated this visit.
The soldiers claimed that they had come in search of one of Fela’s boys who had fought a Lance Corporal over a traffic violation and then fled into the commune.
Mabinuori Kayode Idowu, a member of Fela’s Young African Pioneers and the author of “Fela: Why Blackman Carry Shit” wrote in his book, “ In reality, the soldiers had come for deeper vengeance; Fela’s refusal to participate in FESTAC, the publication of the YAP News condemning the introduction on our roads of an army horsewhip culture, and the uncompromising views as expressed in his (Fela) lyrics were the reasons behind the attack on Kalakuta Republic.”
"Them kill my mama"
Either way, after they were refused entry into the compound, the soldiers pulled down the gates and went on a rampage.
They set about chasing and flogging everyone in sight, destroying property, including recording and performing equipment, stashes of recorded music and valuable records.
In a matter of hours, soldiers had ravaged the entire building to the ground. Some of Fela’s wives would allege that they had been raped.
Many would carry the scars of blows till their death. But in the most inhumane of their many competing actions, some of the soldiers climbed up to the second story room where Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, an Amazon if there ever was one, was living.
No one knows what transpired but as Yeni Kuti would later tell, they were in shock when they saw the Lion of Lisabi thrown out of a second-story window. She would later die from her wounds.
Members of Fela’s entourage were detained in prison where, for some, the torture continued. Eventually, nearly everyone regained their freedom.
The government's attitude to the event was evident from the next morning. State-owned media avoided reporting the issue like a plague. Soldiers could be seen seizing and destroying copies of Punch and other newspapers which reported the incident.
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For a pariah whose morals had limited his immediate influence to little more than a cult following, the attack on Kalakuta Republic won Fela public sympathy and support.
The question was simple; why would the army attack him if he wasn’t speaking the truth?
The Kutis did not let the matter pass like a cool evening breeze. Claiming 25 million Naira, a suit was instituted against the army through the family’s lawyer, Mr Tunji Braithwaite.
He would push the matter as hard as he could but he would eventually lose the case.
"Justice only ever serves the living"
Pained and slighted, Fela, with his entourage in tandem, carried a replica of his mother’s coffin to Dodan Barracks, then the government’s seat of power. After they were refused entry by armed soldiers, the coffin was left at the gate, a message for Obasanjo and Yarádua.
Obasanjo would establish a commission of Inquiry to investigate the case. After weeks of considering evidence, it returned that “unknown soldiers” were responsible for the attack.
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The blows to Fela’s livelihood and family life had now been met with government-sanctioned contempt.
He found release for his pain, the only way he knew how, in music. Weeks after, he put out two more songs, “Coffin for Head of State” describing his trip to Dodan Barracks, and “Unknown Soldier”, per the commission’s verdict.
Fela would continue his evangelism, till his death two decades later. But many say he was never the same after that day in Kalakuta.
His attempts to establish a connection to his mother led him deep into the occult. Believing he could not die, he refused to take medication when he began to develop welts on his skin, ultimately dying of aids months later.
But perhaps what is more worthy of note is that no one, civilian or military faced any form of sanction for the attack on Kalakuta.
One wonders what the man would think; that we do not care at all or that we have resigned to the same fate he fought with his life to warn us against?
41 years after, the question is still far easier than the answer.