The late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Black President, and King of Afrobeat, is almost immortal in modern Nigeria. The legend is best known for his musical genius, but equally for a brand of political activism that was as captivating as it was offensive. Fela reached into the depths of the Nigerian politician's soul with songs like "Coffin for Head of State", "Vagabonds in Power", and "Zombie". At a time when it was life-threatening to publicly oppose the government, Fela taunted all politicians in his way.
He was by no means perfect. In fact, his controversy came as a double edged sword. For instance, Fela was no feminist. He referred to women as 'mattresses' and rejected the use of condoms because AIDS was a 'white man's disease'. Equally flawed and celebrated, one thing stands out with Fela: he understood the Nigerian government.
Fela was well schooled in Nigerian politics, having been so brutally assaulted by it. In all his lyrics, criticism and taunting of the Nigerian state, the man seemed to pick up on a simple truth which rang out in his music. Nicholas Shaxson put it succinctly when he said Fela understood that:
"[Nigerian] rulers do not need their citizens for their tax revenues since they have the oil money instead. Millions of Nigerians might as well fall off the map."
The 1970s live on in 2017
Politicians need their citizens for two primary reasons; votes and taxes. Democracy is strongest when these are necessary. The saying goes "no taxation without representation". Put simply, the people will not pay their taxes or obey the laws unless they are represented in the state. But you see, the subtle assumption here is that politicians need the taxes or obedience of its citizens. Can you imagine a country where the politicians live off oil rent, do not need the taxes of its citizens, and can buy those it needs?
Nigerians frequently lament the poor treatment dished out by the police, soldiers, local leaders and federal politicians. The feeling is that Nigerian lives just do not matter to the state. The unfortunate truth is that this may reflect a dark reality about the Nigerian state. Nobody bites the hand that feeds them, but Nigerians do not feed their state. The state does not need them and has little incentive to protect them. Ideally, Nigerian nationalism should fill this gap and give leaders a reason to serve and protect, but that is yet to come.
As a survival mechanism, the people have become self-sufficient. They "bring their own infrastructure" by providing their own electricity, medical services, education and private security.
But once in a while, this state of affairs is threatened by individuals who wield such influence that they threaten the state. Sometimes, they are influential characters, either with international or local clout. Internationally, there are the Wole Soyinka's and Chimamanda's whose international acclaim sets them apart. Then there are the locals who command the presence of crowds and whose popularity cannot be matched by the state. For instance, when the Guinean leader Sekou Toure visited Lagos, he is claimed to have made this comment to Obasanjo regarding Fela:
"I have such people in my country, but long ago I realised that they are very dangerous opponents."
The same sentiment was repeated by a Nigerian policeman who said,
"Even though I was chief of police, I realised that Fela was the one person who could come out with a demonstration and block the two entrances to Lagos and stop everything."
Incidentally, these two statements do not refer to the mere popularity of these figures, but their ability to shape and control the affairs of others. Such people, neither constrained by the need to win votes or raise revenue, ardently pursue their agenda and threaten the order that the politicians have come to enjoy. These people matter to the state. They are unlike the average Nigerian. The state needs them or at least needs to work with them.
In 2004, the trend repeated itself when Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, Ateke Tom and their band of militants triggered the uprising in the Niger Delta. This time around, the state listened, not just because of their influence, but their ability to hit the state where it hurt them most – oil rent. Without a revenue base reliant on citizens – and we know that Nigerians do not pay taxes – the state had no option but to negotiate for its source of revenue.
Today, the lesson is that to be passive is to be forgotten. To be tolerant is to be unrepresented. Boko Haram's full force came to bear when Chibok girls threatened the government's relationship with its international audience, in contrast to the issues in the middle belt and Southern Kaduna. These are events that do not touch the state where it matters most, and so, these people might as well fall off the map. Nigeria does not need them.
It's your vote, stupid!
Nigerians' only other respite are national elections. Arguably, this is when Nigerian democracy is strongest. It is when politicians – assuming they do not just rely on rigging – need their citizens again, and therefore do everything to please them. This is when politicians bend over backwards, visit local constituencies, 'share' the money, engage in stomach infrastructure, and 'mobilise the youths'. It is the only time Nigerians will be listened to not because politicians care, but because the politicians now need them. Conservative leaders will put on suits to impress, others will share rice. It matters not the tactic.
At the same time, it is a short-lived ceremony, quickly rounded up as soon as the ballot is cast. At this point, the passive Nigerian is the friend of the government. The Nigerian who chooses to struggle, survive, and manage is the truest democrat, not those who decide to react.
Fela learnt very early on that Nigeria did not need its citizens then, for the same reason that it barely needs them now. It is no surprise that the life of one Nigerian does not seem to count. As the Nigerian state rumbles on, this much is clear: tomorrow like yesterday, as long as the state does not need you, it will have very little incentive to ever protect you.