On Wednesday, the 26th of September, 1984 in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s most famous musician and Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was dragged before the court. The venue of the music star’s trial was the Foreign Exchange (Anti-Sabotage) Tribunal, Port Harcourt Zone. 1984 was a year of absolute dictatorial rule in Nigeria with the military strongman Muhammadu Buhari and his stoic deputy, Babatunde Idiagbon, ruthlessly dealing with all forms of opposition in addition to waging what was described as a savage war against corruption. Decrees upon decrees were reeled out and the unstoppable Fela was accused of going against one of them.
THE DAY IN COURT
On that fateful day, a large crowd of Nigerian youths gathered at the court. Fela was a massively popular figure, one whose image competed and at the same time contrasted with the nation’s hard-faced military rulers. Thus, his appearances before the tribunal were always charged with vibrant youths and supporters who defied military orders to show support for their idol. So on that particular day as usual, the youths had thronged the venue. They were so fanatical about their support for Fela that as early as 7:00am, his fans in Lagos had gathered at the Race Course bus stop and stayed there until 5:45 pm when the tribunal rose, demanding his release all day long.
Back to Port Harcourt where the tribunal was in session, the crowd of youths surged towards the venue with energy and vigour. They chanted ‘all we are saying, give us Fela’. In a regime where people lived and cowered in fear of the armed forces, that was a show of total defiance. As expected, one of the soldiers on station at the venue became enraged. He was armed with Soviet selective-fire assault rifle called the Avtomat-Kalashnikova 1947 (AK-47), a long-term symbol of the perennial oppression Nigerians had to face and endure in the hands of stone-hearted military despots. In the split of a second, the soldier cocked his weapon and rushed towards the crowd of chanting youths with his muscles ripping under his army uniform, a reviled toga of brutality. He was ready to shoot the unarmed protesters calling for the freedom of their star. A tragedy was about to unfold.
Then, something happened. An eagle-eyed police chief, a chief superintendent of the police who was the head of security at the former Code of Conduct Bureau office venue of the tribunal approached the soldier and blurted out the words:
‘Do not try anything funny.’
Like cold water poured on burning coals, the soldier regained his senses and stopped his bloody pursuit. The police chief then ordered the policemen and other soldiers to disperse the crowd but warned them again not to try ‘anything funny’. And that was what saved the lives of many Nigerians that day. Although they were very well aware of the risk they were thinking, the Nigerians of that time must have felt a greater sense of adoration for Fela than the sense of fear they had for the military junta.
INSIDE THE TRIBUNAL
Meanwhile, Fela was inside the tribunal with his lawyers and he was not aware the scores of his fans outside had just escaped being massacred in cold blood by a crazy soldier.’ While the crowd kept chanting in his support outside the venue, Fela’s lawyer, Mr. Kanmi Ishola-Osobu was locked in a legal battle with the prosecution counsel, Mr. Philip Okala, for Fela’s bail. The arguments went to and fro and were eventually postponed till the 4th of October after the tribunal chairman Mr. Justice Gregory Okoro-Idogu had turned down the application for bail for Fela. Osobu had argued that the police had been very cooperative but he had not been provided sufficient time to confer with his client.
When the application for bail collapsed, the prosecution opened its case by calling four witnesses to testify against Fela. The first person to testify was Yadawi Tarfa, an assistant commissioner of police in charge of fraud at Force Criminal Investigation Department, Alagbon Close, Lagos. Tarfa told the tribunal under cross examination by Mr. Osobu, that two custom officials, who took Fela’s case to the Federal High Court, had been detained.
SO WHAT WAS FELA’S OFFENCE?
Money. It had to with money. According to Tarfa, he was detailed by a superior officer to investigate a case of ‘exporting and failing to declare £1,600’ involving Fela. Tarfa said that at 2:30 pm on September 8, he went to Fela’s house at 1, Atinuke Olubanjo Street, Ikeja, where he arrested the musician. Thereafter, he bundled Fela to Alagbon Close where he cautioned him in English and asked Fela to give a statement but he flatly refused.
Tarfa further told the tribunal that he later went to the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Ikeja where he recovered some documents including Fela’s passport and the £1, 600 from custom officials. The cash, passport and other documents were accepted by the tribunal as exhibits. Tarfa said he also took the notes to the Central Bank of Nigeria where they were examined by an official of the Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Company and reported back that they were genuine.
Mr. Ogunleyi Fatai, a customs exchange officer at the Murtala Muhammed Airport and prosecuting witness, said he did not know who Fela was when he arrived his counter on September 4 carrying a winter coat in his left arm.
‘I asked him what was contained in the coat and Fela replied: ‘Nothing’ , Mr. Fatai said’
After a search, he says he found the sum of £1,600 tucked away in the inside pocket of the coat and Fela was subsequently arrested and dragged before a superior officer who asked that the money be tabulated. Two other customs officials who manned the currency declaration told the tribunal that Fela did not declare the money with them. Fela, aged 48, looked older than his age and from time to time, he rose from the dock to whisper something to his lawyer. He appeared weak and unkempt with a gray beard and thick moustache. But present to give him solid support at the tribunal were leader of the Ozzidi band, Mr. Sunny Okosun, Mr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s younger brother, Mr. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, his elder brother and an elder sister named Dola.
OVERWHELMING SUPPORT FOR FELA
Fela suffered greatly under the Buhari regime but his ordeals did not in any reduce the support he got from the people and neither did his popularity dwindle. Lagos was probably the epicenter of his support. At musical shops in Tafawa Balewa Shopping Complex in Lagos, loudspeakers unrepentantly blasted Fela’s music and posters of Fela, some of which depicted his previous clashes with the government and their draconian laws were on sale to enthusiastic buyers. Some of the other posters showed Fela with his late mother and many minibuses had them pasted on their sides. At the Race Course Bus Stop, buses and cars that conveyed some of Fela’s ‘queens’ and members of his Egypt 80 band all screamed with posters of Fela. One could feel the vibrant energy pulsating through the city despite being the commercial nerve center of a country under the grips of dictators. Buhari would later be overthrown but Fela would not stop his criticism of tyranny until he died in August 1997. I leave you with one of his most defiant songs and one my favourites, titled Zombie:
- Abdul Oroh, 4 Testify Against Fela At Tribunal, The Guardian, September 28, 1984.