14 Agege Motor Road, Idi-Oro, Mushin: the Kalakuta Republic! January 18, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
The Kalakuta Republic appears as part of our longstanding Forgotten Kingdoms tag. Kalakuta was the brain child of one of the most significant African musicians of the post-war period, Fela Kuti. Kuti, for those who don’t know the name, was a Nigerian with both talent and attitude. He spent formative years outside his home country living in the UK and later the US, where he came into contact with the Black Panthers. He, then, returned to Nigeria determined to bring Africanism, socialism and good music to the masses. Instead, he ended up in ‘Calcutta’, a prison cell in 1974, for possession of marajuana and ‘corruption of minors’. The name of that cell proved important for when FK left prison he formed a commune that he named Kalakuta (in tribute to his confinement and himself) and later, when he unilatereally declared independence from the Nigerian State, this became the Kalakuta Republic. For a taste of Fela Kuti in preaching mode enjoy this video: the man had charisma.
But why declare independence from Nigeria in 1974? Well, Nigeria has had plenty of stable and semi-stable government since its independence in 1960. But it has always lacked a transparent honest administration and it was, at the time, under a military dictatorship. There have been worse military dictatorships in the history of the world, but there was something uniquely petty, arrogant and unimaginitive about the Nigerian junta of the mid-late 1970s: the closest western equivalent are perhaps the Greek colonels in the same decade. Fela Kuti, a born rebel, was, in any case, irritated by these uniformed tyrants – he talked of Nigerian colonialism – and the military was, in turn, irritated by Kuti seeing him, his community and his Afrobeat music as an affront to their hope for a well-ordered Nigeria. It was just a matter of time before the soldiers and the maverick butted heads.
Before we get to the trouble though: what was Kalakuta like? Well, it was the home for Fela and his family, his dozen odd band members and a score plus of dancing women and many, many hangers on. The number of citizens sometimes floated under a hundred and sometimes climbed towards three hundred. Fela’s political philosophy was a raggle taggle of borrowed strands, but the key was Africanism or at least FK’s perception of Africanism. Dope-smoking was practically obligatory in the compound because that is what, FK believed, Africans had traditionally done. Men had multiple female partners because traditional African society had encouraged polygamy. Justice was meted out by a chief figure – guess who – and this chief also mediated in disputes between parties: beatings were sometimes given. Then, in the background, on the terrace, in the night and the day, there was music, always music. Whatever you make of FK’s lifestyle there is no question that he was an outstandingly talented band-leader.
The Republic was finally destroyed in a particularly nasty episode in 1977. FK’s relations with the military authorities had plumetted when he had released a best-selling record entitled Zombie, dedicated to conscripts who mindlessly followed orders. Then in February of that year an already difficult situation was made still worse when two Kalakutans got in a fight with a military official. Army representatives came to pick them up and FK pointed out, reasonably enough, that Kalakuta was not Nigerian territory and that the military should remove themselves from his porch forthwith. He then prepared for a siege and when the electricity was cut he turned on a generator in the grounds and electrified a fence. (There was something of the American survivalist in FK.) The army was by now infuriated and machine guns and mortars appeared: some were even fired. With a thousand plus soldiers and after a sixteen hour siege, they burnt the generator with kerosene and then beat many of the Kalakutans unconscious, raping others. FK’s mother was thrown from a window and eventually died of the injuries sustained in that fall. FK, who was also thrown from a window, claimed that he had almost been killed in a subsequent beating.
By the end of the day Kuti and his supporters were in hospital or prison and Kalakuta was a smouldering wreck. The military was given no blame in a subsequent inquiry and so FK took his mother’s coffin (with his mother inside?) and dropped it off at the Dodan military barracks: this, of course, became the subject of a song. Kuti then rather ostentatiously married twenty-seven of the girls from the compound, his backing singers, who now that they lacked the electric fence of Kalakuta needed, he claimed, to be properly protected. Western moralists don’t worry though, Fela only had marital relations with twelve (on a rota basis).
And the lesson of the Republic? States, good and bad, will always have gadflies. But it rarely makes sense to thrash out against them. FK had already been famous before the attack. After he became, even after forced exile in Ghana, a national institution. When the great man died (of Aids in 1997) a million Nigerians lined his funeral route.