Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The Fictions, The Truths, The Songs of Empire

"My client, a petty criminal, was accused of involvement in a jewellers’ robbery. For once, he had a cast-iron alibi, but presenting the truth in court would jeopardise British national security. You see, on the night in question, he was in Nairobi, not London. He had gone on His Majesty’s service, with a sack full British Pounds. His mission was to recruit willing Kenyans to testify against one Jomo Kenyatta, implicating him in being a leader in the Mau Mau."

This scenario is described by Tunji Sowande, a Nigerian barrister in London, referring to his most memorable case, from 1954.

Actually, it’s fiction. Most - well, some of it. The fictional parts are the character of the petty criminal, the robbery and the impending court case. The first of the two “truths” is that the British Government of the day indeed manufactured evidence against the man who eventually became the first President of independent Kenya. They bribed Kenyans to present this “purchased evidence” in court, and Kenyatta was thrown in jail for seven years. The seeds had been sewn in the British psyche that the Mau Mau (or the Kenya Land and Freedom Army to use the name they gave themselves) – the movement resisting the occupation of their land by White settlers were not freedom fighters but terrorists wantonly massacring innocent people who had the misfortune of belonging to a race that went to spread civilisation, Christianity and farming knowledge to this part of “the Dark Continent.” The fact that the climate was particularly favourable, and the land extremely fertile and rich in precious minerals was “purely coincidental, your Honour.”

Evidence that Kenyatta and his “co-conspirators” presented in their defence probably included that of a man who claimed to have had his nails and buttocks pierced with a sharp pin, been suspended upside down with his hands and legs tied together, and had his testicles crushed with parallel metallic rods - by White British officers. The circumstances were extraordinary of course, because as we all know, the British are otherwise kind, decent chaps.  The victim, on the other hand, has a lot to answer for: had he not evaded capture for so long, a Trump Presidency would be the product of an overly-fertile imagination.

Let me explain: castration was a weapon by Whites against Blacks (and others) – in Africa, the Caribbean, the United States and elsewhere. If that victim had been successfully castrated, say just ten years earlier, he wouldn’t have fathered the boy who would eventually travel to America and impregnate the White woman who would then give birth to one Barack Hussein Obama. I rest my case...

The second “truth” is the fact that Tunji Sowande really did exist. Born in colonial Nigeria in 1912, he chose a different path to Kenyatta, studying law in London and staying. Overcoming the predictable racism of the time, he became a barrister, later Britain’s first Black Head of Chambers and eventually first Black judge.  He also loved cricket, and in 1978 became a full member of a club you practically have to be born into – the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), whose ground is Lord’s, and whose committee used to select England Test sides.

How more “Establishment” could a Nigerian become in England? Once “in” however, Sowande revealed his revolutionary side, and opened doors for others. Long before the word became part of liberal parlance, his chambers was the epitome of diversity – by race, gender and even sexuality. This according to one of his protégés - a woman who before meeting him had struggled for long to get a tenancy because her father was Sri Lankan. Kim Hollis, Britain’s first ever minority female QC is now Director of Public Prosecutions in the British Virgin Islands.
Outside of law and cricket, Sowande travelled Europe and the UK as a musician, equally at home in jazz clubs as a drummer and saxophonist as he was singing in nursing homes or the Temple Church in London’s Inns of Court.

Never seen in public without a fine jacket and bow tie, this dapper, quiet, unassuming man was apparently not a political animal. However, one assumes that he observed the events of the day – the jailing of that well-known terrorist, Nelson Mandela; the Vietnam war; King’s assassination; anti-colonial struggles and civil wars in Africa – with considerable interest, even if not with as much passion as cricket.

One can only speculate what he would make of today’s world, but I humbly submit that beyond reasonable doubt, even the most strident of “little-Englanders” would accept and welcome Tunji Sowande as “a good immigrant.”

Just An Ordinary Lawyer. A play, with songs, written and performed by Tayo Aluko is at Theatro Technis, 38 Crowndale Road, London NW1 1TT between 11 and 28 January, at Theatre Royal, Bath on 16 January 2017, and touring.    

Friday, 22 January 2016

Paul Robeson: 40 Years Dead

“'Kill the N****r Commie.' One of the placards said that. There were dozens of them, but that’s the only one I recall (I was only seven). And they were all screaming and shouting, those white men and women. Then he started to sing, with this impressive, commanding, deep voice. By the time the second song started, the placards had all come down, and they were all listening.  I thought then that if music can do this, I want to play music.”

77-year-old retired drummer and plumber Roger Blank related this story last Sunday, after a Martin Luther King Day musical celebration at a Baptist Church in Brooklyn which included excerpts from a play about Paul Robeson. That encounter of his with Robeson had taken place in New Rochelle in 1946, at a rally in support of Henry Wallace’s unsuccessful campaign for President under the Progressive Party ticket.

Three years later however, another mob was less susceptible to Robeson’s artistry, and the outdoor concert resulted in what would become the infamous Peeksill riots - arguably one of the lowest points in modern American history, and an episode that lurks too dangerously in the subconscious, given its contemporary resonances.

Robeson, apart from being probably the most famous American artist in the 1930s as a singer of hundreds of songs and spirituals (Ol’ Man River being his most famous), and as a stage and screen actor, was also a forerunner of the civil rights movement. He was referred to as “The Tallest Tree in Our Forest” by Blacks at the height of his fame. It seems something of an injustice that he remains largely hidden from public consciousness when compared to Dr. King, or even Malcolm X, who was himself assassinated days before a scheduled meeting with Robeson – requested by the young minister in recognition of the older man’s pioneering activism and personal sacrifice.

Today, most young activists (and even many middle-aged ones) of any complexion would struggle to recognize Robeson’s name, despite the fact that many of his sayings in the first half of the twentieth century can be applied to today’s national and international situation. Which supporter of the Black Lives Matter Movement would argue with such dramatic action as leading a delegation to the United Nations in 1951 to lay a charge of genocide against Black people by their own country – not just through police and civilian brutality and violence, but through wide economic and health disadvantage? And for those who stress that ALL lives matter, he wrote of his personal “belief in the oneness of humankind, about which I have often spoken in concerts and elsewhere, [which] has existed within me side by side with my deep attachment to the cause of my own race ... There is truly a kinship among us all, a basis for mutual respect and brotherly love.” And peace campaigners today would surely agree with his 1946 speech in which he declared that The absence of peace in the world today is due precisely to the efforts of the British, American and other imperialist powers to retain their control over the peoples of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.”

The sudden and dramatic slide in his popularity began in April 1949 when he made a speech at the World Peace Congress in Paris suggesting that African Americans would not fight against the Soviet Union because they remained second-class citizens in their own country. Such a stance continues to land people in trouble decades later (most notably Muhammed Ali), illustrating how far ahead of his time he was. His mass appeal as an entertainer, when combined with his love for the Soviet Union, his socialism and internationalism, transformed him into one of the most dangerous people in the country in the establishment’s eyes, and the campaign to discredit and denounce him went into full gear immediately after that Paris speech. Those efforts to suppress his story have been largely successful, and in fact, it can be said that his character, career and reputation were assassinated and buried years before he actually died forty years ago - on January 23, 1976.

Despite whichever of his views can be considered to have been mistaken (particularly his unrelenting support for Stalin, some argue), or the phenomenon of Barack Obama, the fact that Robeson’s words ring so true today suggest that he needs to at least be part of the national conversation. He embodied the truth that through art, people’s hearts, minds and souls could be transformed. The 7-year-old Roger Blank would grow up to tour the country and the world with great artists like Sun Ra, Clark Terry and Sonny Rollins, not to make money, he says, but to “spread peace and be part of changing the rhythm of people’s lives, their spirit.”

Mr. Blank would agree with the beautiful words of the playwright Marc Connelly, who wrote this in tribute to Robeson on the occasion of his 44th birthday: “I suppose by that dreary instrument, the calendar, it can be contended that you are the contemporary of your friends. But by more important standards of time measurement, you really represent a highly desirable tomorrow which, by some lucky accident, we are privileged to appreciate today.” 
He would also agree that even though it would be pure fantasy hope for a day for Robeson in the national calendar, the fortieth anniversary of his death should not go unmarked today.

Tayo Aluko is the British-Nigerian writer and performer of the award-winning play Call Mr. Robeson. 

Some 40th anniversary events: 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

EXCULSIVE: The World's Most Famous Political Prisoner Isn't Dead After All.

He was convicted of terrorism and treason. According to the trial judge, the death sentence was an option, but in what some probably regarded as the greatest error of judgement in modern legal and political history, he passed a life sentence instead, probably calculating that the accused would be forgotten in time as he languished in jail for the remainder of his days. Nelson Mandela eventually became the most famous political prisoner in the world., and the South African government came to realise the extent of his appeal when a 70th birthday tribute to him at Wembley Stadium in June 1988 reached a global audience of hundreds of millions, and hastened his release.

Now that Madiba has joined the ancestors, it is interesting to consider who has inherited that dubious title of the world’s most famous political prisoner. A number of people come readily to mind: Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning, who is currently serving a 37-year sentence in a US military jail for leaking thousands of highly embarrassing US documents, for one. Many believe he too was lucky to escape the death sentence. The same sentence has also been demanded by many American patriots for Julian Assange, head of WilkiLeaks, now sheltering under the protection of the Ecaudorian Embassy in London, for publishing those documents. These two individuals are, as many have secretly hoped, only rarely in the news these days. Not quite so with Edward Snowden, who would also face the death sentence were he to return to the US, as many pundits have also declared him guilty of high treason for leaking information on US mass surveillance on its own citizens and on millions of people around the world. He isn’t in jail either, but continues to cause damaging embarrassment to his country from his exile in that enemy state, Russia.

For me, there is no question that the most famous of all contemporary political prisoners is a man who is entering his sixty-first year in the State Correctional Institution in Mahanoy, Pennsylvania. It would be a pleasant surprise if the forthcoming sixtieth birthday of Mumia Abu Jamal makes it onto mainstream media the way Mandela’s did, for Abu Jamal’s supporters are convinced that the media are complicit in consigning  this remarkable activist to the dark, shadowy margins of world consciousness.

Who is Mumia? Instead of the “terrorist” label that was placed on Mandela’s head, Mumia is known as a “cop killer”, period. According to his supporters, he was framed for the murder of a policeman and sentenced to death, way back in 1982. His real crime? Speaking truth to power, first as a member of the Black Panther Party and later as a radio journalist who bravely used his popular broadcasts to highlight police brutality against Blacks in Philadelphia and around the USA. It is not at all surprising that 32 whole years after his imprisonment, the Fraternal Order of Police are at the forefront of moves to keep him demonised in the American psyche. When in 2012 the NAACP Legal Defence Fund finally won a decades-long battle to have Mumia taken off death row (where he had spent thirty years) and his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, the FOP must have been very displeased. It seems they got their revenge when a few months ago, they led a successful campaign for the Senate to reject President Obama’s nomination for Chief of the US Justice Department’s  Civil Rights Division, as Debo Adegbile had for a time been acting head of the LDF as Mumia’s appeal was being prepared.  Some would say that Adegbile’s nomination was a presidential error of judgement too. The coverage of this episode in Democracy Now! is quite instructive, as that show’s guests touch on the history of Mumia’s case as well as the implications of the nominee’s rejection on the practice of civil rights law in the USA.

A cursory listen to any of Mumia’s broadcasts from prison will reveal why he is so reviled by many influential entities in the United States. In his quest to speak truth to power, few of the world’s most powerful individuals and interest groups have escaped his incredibly wise and incisive analysis and criticism. Few would have heard his radio commentary last December, tilled “Mandela Sanitised”, where he paid his own tribute to the great man, but reminded the world that South African independence ... opened the door to elective office but closed the door to South Africa’s vast wealth by putting it in private hands. Dr. Nelson Mandela was hired to consolidate this state of affairs”. If Mandela’s worshipers couldn’t be spared this “inconvenient truth” about their hero, and if Abu Jamal is brave enough to buck the lionising trend in such a public way (as with for example his recent commentary on the current crisis in Ukraine), it is little wonder that the powers-that-be in the US want him confined to the obscurity of prison for the remainder of his days.

There will be no Wembley-style celebration of Mumia’s birthday in the UK. There will be some celebrations in the US. Certainly, Mr. Obama is unlikely to even mention Mumia’s name – that would be an error of judgement too far. However, as Obama so happily accepted his role as star turn at the global media circus that was Mr. Mandela’s memorial service, one cannot help but be struck by the appropriateness of the words that he so eloquently used at Madiba’s send-off if they were to be applied to a Mumia tribute on his birthday:

“... He accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price.”

“He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper's bullet.”

“Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love. That is happening today.”

“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with [his] struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”

The last person to speak at Mandela’s funeral ceremony (Obama and thousands had left the stadium by then) was the venerable Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His contribution to the event is nowhere near as memorable as Mr. Obama’s but what does exist elsewhere (on the website in fact) is a video which some might consider to be a most venerable, most reverend error of judgement: a demand for the release of Mumia Abu Jamal.

If it's good enough for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it's good enough for me.

Sixtieth Birthday Greetings to Mumia Abu Jamal for April 24, 2014.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Let's Criminalise The Gays

Just over a year ago, I wrote an article which was published (though edited somewhat unfavourably) in a Nigerian newspaper, and I was subjected to much online abuse as a result. I was also told by people close to me that it was very ill-advised. One friend even said that it was good that I was leaving home at the end of a holiday from the UK the day it was published!

The recent decision of the Nigerian president to sign an anti-gay bill into law, and the myriad wicked comments one reads in condemnation of gays and those who dare to support them makes me want to share the article afresh. 

People keep saying we deserve better leadership. I wonder if they're right after all?

I post the original article (published accurately on a Ghanaian website) after this new poem. 

Let's Criminalise the Gays

Mr. Mandela made us proud again
Made us walk straight and tall
Look good in the whole world’s eyes
Now let’s criminalise the gays

He and others went before
Fought so we could be free
Accepted hardship, prison, even death
But let’s criminalise the gays

They have passed us the baton
It slips from our oily hands
We lose it in polluted waters
Still, we’ll criminalise the gays

Our leaders are raping our nations
Selling our bodies and our wealth
Stealing our children’s future
Heck - let’s criminalise the gays

We who are holier than they
Have nothing to declare or hide
We’re not major or minor sinners
If we criminalise the gays

Our God is a merciful God
He said "Blessed are the meek"
He will be the one to judge
But we’ll criminalise the gays

When we criminalise the gays
Then look in the mirror and smile
Truth stares back unacknowledged:
We are UGLIER than the gays

Wouldn’t it be funny
If when we meet our maker
He sends us “the wrong way”
'Cos we criminalised the gays?

©Tayo Aluko, January 2014

Modern Ghana, December 27, 2013

Monday, 31 December 2012

Chickens Coming Home to Roost Over Cosmopolitan Housing?

I understand that Liverpool's Cosmopolitan Housing Group have “experienced significant challenges” recently, so much so that they may only be rescued by a takeover by Riverside - another Registered Social Landlord (RSL), though this takeover is in itself now doubtful (see Inside Housing 7 December, 2012) . 

I believe that a certain Bill Snell recently resigned as Chair “for personal reasons”. I happen to have a letter from him which included a threat of legal action if I didn’t desist from making “spurious and false” allegations about impropriety in Cosmo, and suggesting that their board were less than perfect in their duty of scrutinising the staff’s activities. I had written to Mr. Snell in the hope that he as a new broom would sweep cleaner than his predecessors who had refused to deal with a complaint I had brought to them several years earlier. Their imperviousness had caused me to write a blog in frustration in 2009, one line of which now seems prescient: “...With scrutiny of this level of intensity, would it be unreasonable to fear that if one searches behind Marybone House's clean facades, one might find festering there much more malignant malpractice?“ I had written to every member of the board individually, suggesting that “ and your Board colleagues may want to satisfy yourselves that CHA’s “normal procedure” does not consist of intentionally sabotaging - without justification - the innocent and best intentioned efforts of ordinary professionals to provide decent affordable housing to the people of Sefton, while earning a decent return in the process.” I know the board never discussed the matter, and I never once received a response, until Mr. Snell’s dismissive letter, several years later.

An HCA official is quoted as suggesting that poor governance may have a part to play in Cosmo’s current troubles. I felt a long-overdue vindication for my lonely campaign when I read that, because it had long been clear to me that governance appeared to be a problem within the organisation. It is however also troubling to see how far this appears to extend beyond Cosmo into the regulatory sector. Having had no satisfaction from Cosmopolitan’s board, I appealed to the Housing Corporation and found them wanting. They were replaced by the Tenant Services Authority who were no more helpful. I am doubtful about at least certain sections and/or individuals within the current regulator, the Homes and Communities Agency, because as recently as this August, despite the proverbial brown matter hitting the fan at Cosmopolitan, someone from their regulatory department could write to me stating with apparent confidence that “... there was no evidence of a breach of regulatory standards in relation to the matters raised...”

This suggests that today, all these years later, there are several individuals and organisations who may have serious questions to answer about how effectively they have been regulating Cosmopolitan, and probably other RSLs. We have enough recent examples of victims of crime and malpractice being ignored by those whose duty is to protect the public and ensure justice for the maligned, oppressed and abused – the Hillsborough Disaster and Jimmy Savile Scandal revelations are just two. My own cries for help fell on deaf ears, and I now feel that I was a potential proverbial canary in the coal mine that was ignored right from the start. 

Thankfully, I lived to tell the tale and sing a different song, but I still consider it a shame that we are now watching the chickens coming home to roost for Cosmopolitan, when good governance within the group and in the regulatory system could have prevented this. I also read somewhere the HCA’s director of regulation is quoted as referring to Cosmpolitan’s troubles as a “one-off”. Let’s hope, for the sake of the social housing sector and their tenants in Merseyside and elsewhere, that he is right. 

Update: Podcast of BBC Radio 4 Programme, File on 4, "What Price Social Housing?" Broadcast 27 October. Puts Cosmopolitan's demise in a very worrying, larger context.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Ontario: A Safe Haven for All?

Passing through Ontario briefly recently, I was particularly pleased and proud to have made small headline news with the success of my play, Call Mr. Robeson at the London Fringe. I understand that positive stories about Africans are relatively rare front page items in Canadian papers, so I will always have good memories of Ontario.

Talking of recent stories of foreigners on these shores, people will be more aware of the Toronto Eaton Centre shooting from early June involving members of East African and Guyanese immigrant families, or, if we go further afield geographically and racially, of the gruesome murder of a Chinese student in Montreal, and the subsequent mailing of his dismembered body parts around the country by his killer.

Whilst the colour of the murder victim should be irrelevant to any discussion, these examples of White-on-Yellow or Black-on-Black violence are rightly front-page news. In the short time I have been here, there have been no reports, thankfully, of a White person being killed by a Black person, so I am pretty sure that hasn’t happened, for it would almost certainly be national news too. As for a White person killing a Black person, we need to cross the border and head all the way down to Florida to find such a well known case – the slaying of Black teenager Trayvon Martin by a white man. What brought that case to the eyes and ears of the world was the fact that the killer was known to the police, but was not even arrested, and was able to enjoy liberty until protests all over America and elsewhere (including one by Black Law Students at University of Windsor) shamed the Florida authorities into arresting and locking him up.

It would be good to assume that this wouldn’t happen in Ontario. That wouldn’t be accurate, however, for on a visit to my Nigerian cousin in Kitchener/Waterloo, I heard of the sad story of Jany James Ruach, a 19-year-old boy from an immigrant Sudanese family, knifed to death by a White Kitchener resident. Admittedly, I have heard only one side of the story, but there are disturbing similarities between what I have heard and read in this case, and the Trayvon Martin one. First, the killer is free to walk the streets:  he was granted $2500 bail (with few conditions) the day after the killing. Second, what little press coverage there has been repeatedly mentions the victim’s criminal record (he apparently spent six months in jail for punching a hole in a wall during an argument with his girlfriend – seriously!) Third, the confessed killer’s protestation of self-defence has been accepted as reason enough for him not to be seen as posing a threat to anybody else.

Where the similarity ends, sadly, is in the fact that this case is not receiving the coverage that other killings have received. Protests by the local African community in Kitchener are being dismissed as playing the race card (again) and the white youths who come out in support of the victim’s family are being labelled as gang members. It is as though the taking of the life of a promising, ambitious young man is not serious enough, and the central issue here. It is conceivable that the story would be very different if the white boy had been killed by the African (if his six-month sentence for damaging a wall is anything to go by) but we all know that this should not be the case.

The existence of thousands of Canadians of African descent is testament to the kindness and bravery of hundreds of strangers (black and white) who conducted their forebears along the Underground Railroad to the safety of Ontario and other parts of Canada a few centuries ago. Their descendants, including those who have arrived here directly from the Mother Continent, whether passing through briefly or not, would like to be assured that Ontario remains a place of safety for all. A demonstrably transparent, fair and accountable justice system is one requirement for this. So are the interest of the general public and their outrage in the face of perceived injustices on their doorstep.

Facebook Page: Justice for Jany James

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Who Wanted Troy Davis Dead, And Why?

I looked up the Georgia Pardons and Paroles Board the other day and was a little surprised and disturbed by what I saw. I then looked at the U.S. Supreme Court website, and found the same thing. Members of these two bodies were Black! So much for my simple, convenient explanation that the failure, or refusal to halt Troy Davis's execution was down to these institutions being the preserve of racist white men.

How then does one explain their decision to overlook clear evidence that showed that Troy Davis DID NOT commit the murder for which he was wrongfully convicted in 1989? Why did they ignore the appeals of hundreds of thousands of people in America and all over the world, including distinguished religious and political leaders from all over the world, and human rights organisations to do what was right, and not bring international shame and disrepute on themselves and their country?

I decided to make my own enquiries. A few calls, and the answers started to emerge. It turns out that among the membership of these bodies, one or two might have had an interest in seeing Troy dead.

Here is the evidence:
According to a source known to one of my informants, one member is believed to be a director of an munitions company who sold arms to Gaddafi and other Middle East dictators. Another is rumoured to be very close to a corrupt, murdering Russian oil oligarch, and their families were once photographed holidaying together in Saudi Arabia, although those photographs were allegedly burned in a mysterious fire at a fashionable London address. A third has a name which is incredibly similar to someone who has had allegations of child sexual abuse leveled against them (a thin disguise, surely?) And the name of one prominent member was apparently once glimpsed on a list of major shareholders of a company that builds prisons in Georgia and other states, and also supplies guards to these jails. More damning, irrefutable evidence is likely to come to light, but I think I have enough already.

Now, as you can imagine, I need to protect my source, especially as his/her recovery from drug addiction is likely to be set back if he/she is exposed. Suffice it to say that (s)he tells me that his/her source heard directly from a fellow prisoner sometime around 1997, that someone passed all this information to Troy, and this information might have come out if he was freed. Indeed, that former prisoner is known in the criminal underworld to be the current or recent lover of one of the individuals in question.

Using the Davis case as a benchmark for the quality and admissibility of evidence to be relied upon at any serious trial, I am satisfied beyond doubt that these individuals are totally guilty of the charges leveled, are unfit to continue in their positions, and should be immediately dismissed. They should be tried before a jury made up of representatives of the Davis and other executed Death Row inmates' families, and summarily punished, with no recourse to legal representation.

The verdict reached shall be binding and final, and the form of punishment shall be at the discretion of the members of the jury, whose verdict will be seen as totally unbiased.

So shall justice in the land of the free be seen to be done.

Click on link to read programme note from a recent performance of Call Mr. Robeson on the case.