Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Raising A Toast to Nigeria on Her 50th

Patricia, grandmother of two, is “dead proud” of her mug. It is almost as old as she is. She was one of five children in her family when they each got one, and hers has survived intact, with the inscription as clear and proud as it ever was: “NIGERIA. INDEPENDENCE. 1ST OCTOBER 1960."

The Black Tie affair was held at the Federation Club, a building purchased and run collectively by Liverpool’s Africans; an establishment so respectable that one had to dress formally to go there. They welcomed whites too, despite the fact that the courtesy was hardly ever reciprocated elsewhere in the city. That evening, Black and White rose together to toast the future of Africa’s newest and most promising nation.

Well, the nation born that day has grown up into quite a dysfunctional 50-year-old. The most widely touted and accepted reason for this is said to be the serial corruption of its leaders. Of course, there is no corruption anywhere else – certainly not in Britain: not in the House of Lords, not in the House of Commons, in Local Government, anywhere. Ministerial office (and certainly that of Prime Minister) has never been, and never will be used as a vehicle for personal enrichment, during office or afterwards. No corruption in America either – not in the Senate, the House of Representatives, or the White House. The Presidency is always attained by transparently free and fair elections, and nobody ever needs a well-placed relative to help swing an election, or needs to break into opponents’ offices for any reason whatsoever. And Presidential resignations will of course be seen as a high, honourable standard to which future Nigerian Presidents should aspire once in a while.

And talking of election rigging, it has never been proven that the outgoing British Administration engineered the rigging of the elections in 1956 which prevented the man regarded by many as easily the best candidate from becoming the first Prime Minister of Independent Nigeria. Many wonder what might have happened if Obafemi Awolowo had assumed office, just as they wonder what might have happened in Congo if Patrice Lumumba had not been assassinated with the compliance of Belgium and the CIA, eventually ushering in Mobutu Sese Seiko.

But of course, we must move forward, not dwell on the past, or blame others for our problems. All Nigeria’s ills are definitely Nigerians’ fault after all. All that oil and foreign aid, and the money ends up being stolen and spent abroad. The British and other European bankers gladly take all this loot for safe-keeping: better to use it to “create wealth” in Western “casino banks” than to provide health in Nigerian clinics. The European and other oil companies that make billions while leaving nothing but pollution behind them do so because it is Westerners’ God-given right to have as much oil as they want for their cars. Look closely enough in the Bible, and you might find the justification, just as justification was somehow found there for the enslavement of Africans.

This historical landmark will hopefully make us take a hard, honest look in the mirror. By “us” I don’t mean just Nigerians. When for example we see Cadbury’s - that great, previously British institution which gets much of its raw material from Nigeria - sold to an American company with the loss of hundreds of British jobs (not to America but to Poland), we are reminded of how closely connected we remain, and how it is in all our interests to solve Nigeria’s and Africa's problems together, by recognising and tackling greed and corruption everywhere, and promoting fair trade, everywhere.

So, how to mark this anniversary in Liverpool? The Federation Club is long gone, and Africans have lost all the buildings they once owned that were big enough to hold a celebration of the size held in 1960. Not that anything remotely similar could be successfully organised, for the solidarity and fraternity between Nigerians and other Africans in Liverpool has, like in the Motherland and elsewhere, dissolved somewhat. Besides, they would probably need Local Authority funding for such an event now, and that is in desperately short supply these days.

In the solitude of her living room, Patricia pours some palm wine into her fifty-year-old mug and raises a toast to Nigeria’s future. She hopes the survival of the mug is a good omen. It reminds her of something the “Yoruba aunties” would say to console a woman who had suffered a miscarriage. They said the rough translation was, “Take heart. The water may have spilt, but the calabash remains unbroken.” In other words, as long as you remain fertile, more (healthy) children will come. Nigeria’s fertility is without question. Among her children at home and spread all over the world, there is an abundance of talent, industriousness, resourcefulness and imagination. To that list we must add hope and optimism that, in the words of the National Anthem, “The labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain”.

Friday, 9 April 2010


Paul Robeson was born 112 years ago today, 9th April, and it seems fitting for me to publish this, my fourth blog in almost a year, on this day, even though I never set out to always or only write about Mr. Robeson. It is clear however that even though my first blog was inspired by what I saw as a grave injustice on me personally, that and subsequent blogs have mentioned him, so I’ll just have to admit that I am an addict. A fanatic. But better to be a Robeson fanatic than any other kind, in my view. And better to blog only occasionally and sparingly, than to contribute too much to cyber-pollution by writing thousands of meaningless words every week.

Often, a lot of beauty and meaning can be contained in the briefest of texts. Take this tribute to Robeson on the occasion of his 44th birthday by the playwright, Marc Connelly for example, “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.”

When I grow up, I want to be able to write like that! But I’m already four years older than Robeson was when those words were written about him, so maybe I never will. Still, I can take some satisfaction in generating beautiful words from others, such as the gentleman from Charlottesville, Virginia, who wrote after seeing my performance there, “I have wished my whole life (64 years) that I could see and hear Paul Robeson. Now I feel almost as if I have. Thank you”

That was last month, at the very end of my longest tour to date performing my play, Call Mr. Robeson: Lagos, Seattle, Vancouver BC, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, Charlotte NC, Charlottesville VA. Six and a half weeks during which I introduced, or reintroduced hundreds of people aged from about 9 to about 90, to Robeson. From boys in my old secondary school in Lagos, Nigeria (at an event sponsored by the US Consulate - representing the same State Department that cancelled Robeson’s passport in 1950) to students at University of Charlotte, North Carolina (where for a week I assumed the esteemed title of “The Distinguished Artist in Residence” at the Africana Studies Department!) to a 90-odd-year-old woman who made a day trip and traveled some sixty miles on her own by ferry, bus and train from The Sunshine Coast to see the play in Vancouver. She wrote saying how much she enjoyed it, and by the way, that her mother had once accompanied Robeson on piano!

I am pleased to say that thanks to some great friends, I did manage to get quite a bit of publicity for Paul Robeson too – a TV interview and much national newspaper coverage in Lagos, a few radio interviews in Vancouver and Charlotte (on NPR too!), but the most amazing and unexpected was a TV appearance in Charlotte. I remember putting the phone down at the end of a conversation with the publicist at the Harvey B. Gantt African American Center, wondering if I had really agreed to what I thought I had just agreed to? To go and talk about Paul Robeson on FOX TV??? Was this a trap? A live on-air lynching fist thing in the morning? Would Big Paul not turn in his grave? Well, I went ahead with it, and FOX Charlotte turned out to be nothing like the FOX TV that makes progressives, liberals or socialists squirm, and as a result of that broadcast, quite a few people came to the performance at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Centre to contribute to my largest audience in America to date – just under 300.

So, now back in the UK where I dream of generating that kind of publicity, especially in the run up to the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, I will end this essay by giving the last word to Mr. Robeson himself. Words he uttered on behalf of Spanish Republicans in London in 1937, dreaming that yesterday of a better tomorrow which we still await today. Words that have adorned his grave since he was laid to rest in New York State in 1976, in the peace denied him most of his life – in peace which hopefully was not disturbed by my Fox TV appearance:

“The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”