…the kernel of my argument: that we will not have a good society if we don’t wake up to our obligations as citizens by getting ourselves organised in our communities for good causes. To my mind, that is one effective way to check those who sit on the throne only to enjoy political power without responsibility.
The former Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Lagos State, Mr. Olasupo Shasore; our sister, Mrs. Ayo Obe; my brother, Dr. Chidi Odinkalu and our very special guest, Sandra, I feel honoured to be in your good company on this stage this afternoon in the name of Fela. Distinguished audience, I greet you all. When I was collecting my thoughts last night for this presentation, I decided to watch again the 1978 Fela and Africa 70 concert in Berlin. It was, characteristically, a spell-binding show. Most riveting, for me, was the outstanding performance of the song “Pansa Pansa”. Fela was totally in his element when he swore in that song that, as long as there were injustice, hunger and repression in Africa, he would not stop crusading against all the antagonists of progress. He promised that he would continue to give them pansa pansa — a tongue lashing that could be permanently painful when it is inflicted by a popular artist. He did not betray the cause till the very end, when he died at 59.
Fela argued passionately against the wide gulf between the prince and the beggar, between the leader and the led; the gulf between the elite and the masses. Although, he was a member of the elite himself, he was not a snob. His thoughts open several windows of possibilities in our minds — possibilities of freedom from the shackles of the Thought Police, freedom from the chains of religion, freedom from the shackles of fear. When you unpack his songs, his music, you have all sorts of inspiring stuff coming out. He was the kind of marvellous artist that filled the gap in our political and historical knowledge. Fela was a strange man but his strangeness was familiar because it was the strangeness of visionaries and prophets. To be sure, he was not a saint but a special priest who preached to millions of black people about how to remove jagajaga on their roads to modernity. I pay profound respect to this gifted pathfinder.
There is a sense in which this section supports the logic of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti in Beasts of No Nation. What is that logic? That you should not wait for tyrants, dictators and corrupt leaders to dash you human rights. He describes these people as “animals in human skin” and “vagabonds in power”, who are just incapable of comprehending the humanism in the humanist statement of rights popularly called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I pay tribute to this true progressive, argumentative, irreverent, playful and courageous man, who has gone before us to join the pantheon of our great ancestors. I draw inspiration for my contribution to this symposium from Article 29, section 1 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It states that “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible”. There is a sense in which this section supports the logic of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti in Beasts of No Nation. What is that logic? That you should not wait for tyrants, dictators and corrupt leaders to dash you human rights. He describes these people as “animals in human skin” and “vagabonds in power”, who are just incapable of comprehending the humanism in the humanist statement of rights popularly called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Fela’s argument is that because we own the rights, we must nurture them, give expression to them in order to dignify our humanity. And one of way of doing that is through community organising. Which is why the title of this talk is Community Organising As Propeller of Human Rights.
The British academic, cleric and author of The Politics of Hope, Jonathan Sacks describes community as society with a human face. He argues that “it is where problems are best understood and solved, where individuals not otherwise politically engaged can be enlisted in the service of others.” Sacks goes further to say that the neighbourhood, the parish, the congregation, the youth club, the town union, the professional body etc, etc, are where people experience directly and immediately the power of working together to achieve what none of us can do alone. In the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, community organising is taken seriously as a capacity building process from the bottom-up. In those countries, as you all know, loyalties to their communities, sport clubs, schools, hospitals, bookstores, among others cultural and political institutions, are always on full display. Since 1880, the history of community organising has gone through many significant phases. From organising immigrant neighbourhoods in urban centres through civil rights movements, anti-war movements, anti-apartheid movements, women’s movement, feminist movements, the Arab spring movement, Occupy-Wall Street movement, Bring Back Our Girls movement, down to Black Lives Matter movement.
Citizens UK, for instance, has been promoting community organising in the United Kingdom since 1989. It is a reputable alliance of community organisers and leaders. Citizens UK recognises that communities can empower themselves when they come together to compel public authorities and businesses to respond to the needs of ordinary people. The following are the objectives of Citizens UK: Our experience of practicing broad based community organising across the UK has confirmed for us that the threads that once connected, the individuals to the family, the family to their community and the community to the wider society are fraying and in danger of breaking altogether. We believe these strands, connections and alliances are vital for a healthy democracy and should be the building blocks of any vibrant civil society.
More so: We believe in building for power which is fundamentally reciprocal, where both parties are influenced by each other and mutual respect develops. The power and influence that we seek is tempered by our religious teachings and moral values and is exercised in the fluid and ever changing relationship with our fellow leaders, allies and adversaries. We value and seek to operate in the public sphere. We believe that UK public life should be occupied not just by a few celebrities and politicians – but also by the people themselves seeking a part of the action.
In response to growing demands for training, Citizen UK set up in 2010 the Institute for Community Organising as part of its Centre for Civil Society. In the same year, it held a General Election Assembly at the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, with 2,500 people from member institutions. The event was three days before the election. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown, as the leaders of the three main political parties, were present. Each candidate for Prime Minister was questioned on stage concerning his willingness to work with Citizens UK if elected. Each agreed to work with Citizens UK and come to future assemblies to give account of work achieved. When London announced it would bid to be the host city for Olympic Games in 2012, Citizens UK swung into action to ask for things of benefit to Londoners if the bid was successful. It demanded affordable homes for local people; that money from the Olympic development should be set aside to improve local schools and the health service; that at least 30 percent of jobs should be set aside for local people; that the Olympic Delivery Authority, the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games and the Olympic Legacy Company work with Citizens UK to ensure that these promises are delivered.
The Abeokuta Women’s Union gave us a very inspiring example of community organising. Founded in 1946, its first president was Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Members of its executive committee included Mrs. F.W. Fagbemi, Mrs. Eniola Soyinka, Mrs. Victoria Soleye and Mrs. S.F. Adeyinka. About 20,000 women were financial members but the union had over 100,000 women in Abeokuta alone as its sympathisers.
Those who have read Barack Obama’s carefully written memoir, Dream From My Father: A Story Of Race and Inheritance, will recall that when the then 22-year old Obama finished his first degree in Political Science and International Relations at the Columbia University in New York, he worked as a community organiser in Chicago. He worked with other organisers at Developing Communities Project between June 1985 and May 1988. They helped to fix run-down schools, parks and black housing estates. They also helped to stop gang wars by black youths. It was tough but they persisted. The experience would stand him in good stead as a law student in Harvard University where he became the first African-American to edit that university’s prestigious Law Review – he also was the first African-American to become the president of the same law journal. The experience helped him during his campaigns for senatorial seat in Chicago. It helped him immensely during the campaigns for the presidency of America. Obama is still very proud of his community organising experience. When some Republican candidates during the presidential campaigns for his first term in office mocked his community organising days, his own campaign outfit retorted that Jesus Christ himself was a community organiser! And they proved it. Obama was merely building on the great traditions of community organising of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, Steve Biko of the Black Consciousness Movement, among others.
It is to the credit of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People that they drew on the inspiring examples of the non-violent community organising strategies of some of the famous civil rights movements when they launched their justified campaign against the maltreatment of Ogoni by the Federal Government and the oil companies in the Niger Delta. With a very articulate leadership whose robust arguments were unassailable, the cause of Ogoni was immeasurably served. The Ogoni Bill of Rights was sent to the international community. All the accused in that bill of rights had to explain themselves. The genocide that Saro-Wiwa and the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People pointed out may not have been completely redressed but they managed to bring to the attention of the world the injustice of an oil bearing community that was getting virtually nothing in return. Ken Saro-Wiwa and other compatriots paid the ultimate price in the course of doing that. They paid the ultimate price in the same way that Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Steve Biko did. But their murderers could not kill the big idea they represented. Great ideas don’t die — they multiply.
The Abeokuta Women’s Union gave us a very inspiring example of community organising. Founded in 1946, its first president was Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Members of its executive committee included Mrs. F.W. Fagbemi, Mrs. Eniola Soyinka, Mrs. Victoria Soleye and Mrs. S.F. Adeyinka. About 20,000 women were financial members but the union had over 100,000 women in Abeokuta alone as its sympathisers. There were members too from nearby towns and villages. It was a fusion of educated and illiterate women. Following the good advice of Reverend A.O. Ransome-Kuti, who was the then principal of Abeokuta Grammar School, where their meetings took place, those illiterate market women were taught how to read and write; they were taken through basic knowledge of hygiene, community development, self-help programmes. The educated ones shared with the regular market women their knowledge of community pricing and family matters. On April 28, 1948, the Union carried out a five-hour march through the streets of Abeokuta in protest against unfair taxation and the heavy handedness of the Parakoyi and Ajele in their various markets. They argued with abundant evidence that women contributed so much to the income of their husbands which was already overtaxed. The protest culminated in the abdication of the then Alake of Abeokuta, Oba Ademola, and the formation of Egba Interim Council. All taxation was abolished for women and the Egba Native Authority Council was expanded to include few women. In other words, community organising yielded immediate and far-reaching results. The union which used a very modern accounting system for its income and expenditure donated generously to the Egba Council in 1949 for development in the town.
In 1992, eminent historian, Professor Bolanle Awe, wrote profoundly in a collection of essays titled Nigerian Women in Historical Perspective on the example of Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti as a community organiser. But the drama of the protest, turmoil, strife and discontent is captured movingly in Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood published in 1983. Soyinka, who, along with Dolupo and Koye, ran errands for the women, devotes substantial parts of the last three chapters of his densely textured and meticulous childhood memoirs to these fascinating and exquisite episodes of Egba history. The high point of the protest for me was not when one of the women gave birth to a baby girl in the open even though it was significantly symbolic of the eventual triumph of those heroic Egba women. The high point was when the white district officer came to the palace and thought the colonial arrogance was what the situation demanded instead of wisdom. As soon as he entered the palace, he turned to Mrs. Ransome-Kuti and told her to ask all the murmuring women to shut up. There was a pause as Mrs. Kuti blinked through her glasses upward at the man, then inquired, “Excuse me, were you talking to me?” “Yes, of course, I am. Shut up your women.”
The sanctity of human life in our country is constantly and recklessly violated. The inequality in our country is so pronounced now as a tiny few have cornered the wealth meant for the majority. So many citizens are now allenated, living like slaves in their homeland.
Soyinka further tells us that Mrs. Kuti’s angry reply rang through the hush: “You may have been born, you were not bred. Could you speak to your mother like that?” For weeks afterwards in Abeokuta, Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was celebrated as one woman who used stinging words to wrestle a white man to the ground. The courage that we all bring to bear on our lives matters a lot. We can account for that history. But we cannot account for the number of people who must have been inspired, and who will still be inspired, to greatness by the Kuti temerity. That is how a great society is built. When the simple but graceful Funmilayo died in 1978, Abeokuta rose magnificently to give her a grand funeral largely because she worked for the public good, not just for herself and members of her family. Are there, or are there not, some useful lessons for us in all these? We all can be positive forces of history and agents of true change.
There is no country without its own share of problems. The so-called civilised countries of the world have their own uncivilised conducts. The difference between those countries and our country is that while we generally spend our energy agonising over our problems, they spend theirs to find solution to their problems. While we tend to settle for make-shift arrangements, they prefer lasting solutions. In those societies, an older generation believes that it owes the next generation a key to the future. Here the older generation stupidly creates more problems for the new. If families and communities are raised on a diet of vices, we should not expect the country at large to be virtuous. We should not expect leaders thrown up by such communities to have any sense of obligation to the country. In our various communities, in our neighbourhoods, we experience insecurity, failed infrastructure, epileptic power supply, bad schools, bad hospitals, kidnapping, unemployment, and lack of faith in the country. We have laws but we obey them selectively, if we are not outrightly breaching them. Our country must be the only oil bearing country in the world where its people pay through the nose for fuel and suffer periodically for its scarcity and hoarding and adulteration. The sanctity of human life in our country is constantly and recklessly violated. The inequality in our country is so pronounced now as a tiny few have cornered the wealth meant for the majority. So many citizens are now allenated, living like slaves in their homeland.
The roads in your neighbourhoods are bad. Instead of organising to compel the government to fix them, you prefer to buy more sports utility vehicles for yourself and family members to absorb the shocks on the roads. Schools in your communities are bad. Instead of joining others for mass action to fix them, you prefer to steal to send your children to schools abroad. We complain that many young Nigerians are scornful of books. But where are the public libraries in our communities? Where are the great bookstores? We are so good at wailing and lamenting. When light is taken in our neighbourhoods we hear the shout NEPA! And it all ends there. When we can’t complete the calls for which we are charged, we will just say ‘network failure’ as if that will put an end to the rip-off by the GSM service providers. Avoidable tanker accidents occur on our roads, burnt down people and their vehicles, and the rest of us resign to fate and say, it’s their destiny. Just like that! We move on as if nothing has happened.
If we were to have audiologists examine 50 members of this audience the likehood is that 25 out of them would have hearing problems of different degrees. We don’t worry wisely about the noise from our churches, our mosques, our motor parks, our generating sets, etc, etc. Our country is underdeveloped not because we don’t have brilliant, very talented people within and outside the country, not because Nigeria does not have abundant material resources, but because we hardly use the potent power of the collective to transform ourselves from obedient subjects to responsible citizens. If we don’t take ourselves serioursly, why do we expect the rest of the world to treat us decently?
Finally, let me reiterate the kernel of my argument: that we will not have a good society if we don’t wake up to our obligations as citizens by getting ourselves organised in our communities for good causes. To my mind, that is one effective way to check those who sit on the throne only to enjoy political power without responsibility.
Kunle Ajibade is Executive Editor/Director of TheNEWS/P.M.NEWS.
This talk was given at the 2015 Fela Debates held in Lagos on 12 October on the theme “Human Rights As My Property”.