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Festac at 45: Black Sopranos in Handwoven Clothes

by Akin Adesokan
(Photograph: Ta-coumba T. Aiken)

Less than a quarter of a mile separated Abalti Barracks, the headquarters of the Ordinance Corps of the Nigerian Army in Surulere, Lagos, from the Empire Hotel junction at Mosalaṣi, the neighbourhood where Afrobeat legend, Fẹlá Aníkúlápó-Kútì, lived and worked in the 1970s. A typical Lagosian neighbourhood vibrant with colour and motion at any time of day, and more of it on those nights when the Africa ’70 band performed at the house nightclub. The day is for drama, however, and on the afternoon of February 18, 1977, this stretch of road past the point where Western Avenue veered leftward to Agege Motor Road was sealed off as soldiers from the barracks laid a siege on the musician’s residence with massive force. For the remainder of that afternoon, bedlam reigned in the neighbourhood. Having forcefully entered the compound on 14A Agege Motor Road, the soldiers started knocking down doors, beating the residents, vandalizing property, and setting fire to those that they could not smash. The “operation” did not spare the musician’s mother, the legendary feminist and anti-colonial activist Funmilayọ Ransome-Kútì, who was thrown out of a window by soldiers. It is widely believed that she died from injuries sustained from that attack. The siege on “Kalakuta Republic” lasted five hours, according to family testimonies, and residents in surrounding houses felt victim as well.

The pretext for the assault was a quarrel involving Fẹlá’s followers and soldiers from the barracks over traffic violation, but there was more than the eye could see. The incident took place only days after the conclusion of the Second Festival of African Art and Culture, FESTAC, the transcontinental cultural fiesta bringing black artists, activists, cultural workers, and bureaucrats to Nigeria from all over the world. The musician, fiery, boisterous, and well-liked, hosted many international guests, including musicians, to nights of “yabis,” his accustomed verbal skewering of public figures or official policies related to the cultural event, converting the sessions at the Afrikan Shrine to what observers at the time termed “Counter-FESTAC”. Starting in 1971, Fẹla carved out his public persona as an implacable foe of the political establishment in Nigeria, both for his fully-politicized music and the transgressions of his personal habits. He had endured incarceration and massive beating on several occasions, and returned home on each occasion with a song fashioned out of the ordeal. From the point of view of protocol during FESTAC, those “yabis” sessions made the Nigerian military government look considerably bad to foreigners, never mind its status as the generous host of the global black family. In an admirable passage in Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, the musicologist Michael Veal highlights this spectacularly violent episode with an ironic historical echo: the mask Queen Idia, symbol of FESTAC, remained withheld at the British Museum during the festival, despite the request by the Nigerian government for its return (on loan, no less) for this ceremonial use, although the “possession” itself was a direct result of the Punitive Expedition on Benin Kingdom in 1897, now replayed with a postcolonial twist on the Lagos street, exactly eighty years to the day of the assault on Benin.

The context is larger.

A month before the attack on the Shrine, the weekly newsmagazine Afriscope, since defunct, published a FESTAC special, with essays by journalists and scholars, including Lindsay Barrett, Kọ́lé Ọmọ́tọ́ṣọ̀, Fẹ́mi Ọ̀ṣọ́fisan, Bíọ́dún Jeyifo, and Abdias do Nascimento, the last-named a Brazilian dissident about whom more will be said in due course.  The dominant tone of these interventions was critical, indicated in the general title of the edition: “FESTAC: A Forum for Whom?” None of the contributors to the special edition viewed the festival with approval. The cultural imperative for Africans and their dispersed siblings across the world, according to Jeyifo, is “that human labor, so abundant yet so shackled, so underemployed in Africa, must be liberated from exploitation and from religio-cultural mystifications, to confront the massive tasks of reconstructing our human environment and repossessing our natural resources…[which] calls for a revolutionary social and political program which the present African ruling classes have neither the will nor the inclination to carry out.” Ọmọ́tọ́ṣọ̀ sounded a similar note of criticism, arguing that much of what counted as the continent’s cultural heritage would cave in under the new demands on contemporary society and must necessarily end up in museums.

If Jeyifo and Ọmọ́tọ́ṣọ̀ came across as earnestly critical, Ọ̀ṣọ́fisan pitched in with the gently ironic turn of style that would come to define his expository writing. His beef in the contribution titled “Literacy as Suicide,” was with the general lack of interest in African literary production, and much of that production being close in essence to the lowliest of foreign literature, epitomized in the James Hadley Chase paperbacks. Ọ̀ṣọ́fisan characterized this tendency as self-despise and struck a hortatory pose: “Beyond FESTAC, regenerative seeds must be planted. The community must be persuaded out of its headlong course of self-destruction. And when he accepts this responsibility, the writer will find suddenly that he could not have been given a better age to live in.” Toward the end of “Black World’s Challenge,” the long essay that opened the special edition, Barrett adopted a more conciliatory tone than the three others. This is due more to the stylistic status of the essay as the “lead” than to Barrett’s status as a twice-transplanted African. “The Pan-African movement must be a conglomerate movement,” he writes, “in which the arts, the sciences, and the political disciplines all subordinate themselves to the cultural principles of unity and self-determination.”

There was nothing surprising about the critical tone of these interventions. They were a sample of the general attitude toward the festival, within and outside of Nigeria, and from people of different ideological backgrounds. . If anything, the tone reflected the defining feature of contemporary black life that converged around FESTAC, especially in the realm of ideas. In general, this feature manifested itself in the contention between intellectual and governmental preferences. The intellectual refers to the understanding of the role of ideas in the constitution of global black identities, and the governmental captures the spirit of L’ Etat, the protocols of rule through which modern sovereignty functions. The intellectual position has been most forcefully advanced in two complementary tendencies. On the one hand, there are writers like the Trinidadian thinker CLR James, Wọlé Ṣóyínká, the Nigerian playwright, and Carlos Moore, the dissident Cuban activist, who argue from the position that the convocation of any event to do with the black world ought to be an all-comers’ affair.

Recognizing this minimum requirement but surprised at the failure of governments to adhere to it, James stayed away from the Sixth Pan-African Congress in Tanzania in 1974, although he was one of the main organizing figures behind the event. Ṣóyínká writes in You Must Set Forth At Dawn (2006) that it was at the Tanzanian congress that the idea of Pan-African community as an ‘admit-all’ gathering was definitively buried. The ultimate aim of the intellectual positions that these figures put forward was to turn political ideas into material transformation for the people, and the interventions in Afriscope hewed very close to this preference. However, a pragmatic understanding of politics – that is, politics from below – saturates the second aspect of contemporary black life. People living on the quick, scraping a bare life off the edges of existence, view material gains in instrumentalist and personal terms. This paradox was at play before and during FESTAC, and has become even more entrenched in the years since.

There is another, more scrupulous intellectual tendency, to be found in the work of writers such as Jamaica Kincaid and Ayi Kwei Armah. This holds that the very idea of culture as something to be periodically celebrated reflects a flawed understanding of cultural processes. Kincaid famously writes in A Small Place (1988) that it is only in countries where there is no culture that they have ministries of culture. Together, these intellectuals project an idea of cultural identity that is markedly opposed to that countenanced by governments – that is, the demands that realpolitik places on former activists, such as Julius Nyerere, Ahmed Sekou Touré, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, who have come to wield actual political powers invested in the state. (There are differentiations even within this camp of politicians. For instance, Eric Williams, prime minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago, visiting Senegal in 1964 at the invitation of Senghor, disagreed with his host’s idea about the essential cultural values common to black people, preferring the kind of cooperation that political and economic alignment could foster. Senghor, on the other hand, provided much-needed refuge to Moore, despite the Cuban dissident’s often hostile attitude toward symbols of state power, and perhaps toward Senghor’s conservative political outlook.)

Politics can be defined negatively as the practice of not acting on the basis of what benefits the greatest number of people, even if this is the declared legal justification for said practice. The scholar Tẹjúmọ́lá Ọláníyan has attempted to characterize this tension between intellectuals and politicians somewhat differently. As Ọláníyan sees it in “Thinking Afro-Futures: A Preamble to an Epistemic History”, a short commentary on Africana cultural politics published in 2009, the tension is between the ‘political paradigm’ and the ‘cultural paradigm’. The one is an investment in “accelerated Western education, secularism in outlook, ultimate faith in science, rapid industrialization, and above all, the dominance of a strong and stable central state over the ‘nation’”.  In contrast, the other, the cultural paradigm, represents “a unique way of life surviving across space and time in more or less discernible ways; a composite, contingent manner of meaning making, distribution, and consumption created by particular African and African diaspora populations wherever they live; and the production and circulation of aesthetic forms and practices”. The exemplary figure that Ọláníyan presents as embodying this tension is the African-American writer Richard Wright who, though a cultural worker, preferred to view black experience from a primarily political perspective.

Given that Wright never controlled state power, unlike Touré or Nyerere, the hypothesis that suits the current essay better is the one that puts intellectuals at odds with those that Fẹlá Aníkúlápó-Kútì would call ‘government people’, minor or major. This tension had been present before the era of independence resulted in the emergence of black presidents, but it was escalated because of the fiscal resources – and the control of the means of violence – that being in power conferred on that first generation of African leaders. FESTAC, above all, was a cultural-cum-intellectual feast funded principally by the military government of Nigeria. For this reason, it is important to highlight the general political climate of the world in the mid-1970s, as it played a role in the choices that the managers of the Nigerian state had to make in bringing about this unprecedented cultural event.

Nigeria had recently emerged from a destructive civil war in which over two million citizens perished, with seemingly irreparable damage to its corporate existence. The country was also the owner of incredible amounts of oil, which would soon become the basis of its incomparable wealth within the comity of African nations. This economic status was no mean factor. In a statement for the ages, the head of state General Yakubu Gowon, circa 1972, proclaimed that the country’s problem was not money but what to spend it on. There were, furthermore, powerful but diversely articulated currents of historical awareness in the second decade of continental political independence. These bolstered Nigeria’s international profile as the ‘pan-African nation’, in the phrasing of the cultural anthropologist Andrew Apter. Even more crucial was the country’s international profile in the politics of nonalignment. As the political scientist Jean Herskovits put it, quoting the US ambassador at the time, “nonalignment means just what it connotes; neither West nor East has a preferred position, a special relationship. Good relationships are sought with East and West, but preferences are given exclusively to African concerns and African nations”.

Thus, Nigeria’s dramatic foreign policy initiative of 1975, in which support for the liberation movements in southern Africa was the major position, has to be understood in relation to internal dynamics. FESTAC followed the pattern of the large-scale ‘nation-building’, literal and metaphorical, that followed the civil war. The 1974 All-African Games were the pretext for the construction of the National Stadium and the Games Village, as FESTAC was to be for the National Theatre and Festival Town, all in Lagos. The withdrawal of African and Arab nations from the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal came in reaction to US-Israeli antics over the Entebbe airport incident in Uganda that same year. The disagreement between Nigeria and Senegal that almost marred the fiesta was one result of this tension. FESTAC grew out of the ideals planted with Senegal’s hosting of the first World Festival of Negro Arts (FESMAN) in 1966, but the political muscle-flexing of an oil-rich country tried to shift the grounds of harvest. Yet it is only one result, and there are other pieces at play, as we will see. It fell to an intellectual figure such as Ṣóyínká to mediate successfully in the disagreement. However, even during and especially after the festival, he was one of the most critical voices against the conception and execution of the event, as shown in the interview he gave to Afriscope shortly after his initial resignation from the Festival Committee. Given his role as a reluctant consultant, Ṣóyínká’s views certainly merit further elaboration, especially since – unlike James, Armah or Kincaid – he was not averse to getting his hands dirty, and was involved in some aspects of the festival.

At the time that Ṣóyínká rejoined FESTAC as a consultant (alongside Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu), negotiations were ongoing over the recalcitrant pose of the government of Senegal regarding the participation of North African contingents in different aspects of the festival. The inaugural event that President Senghor had convened in 1966 in Dakar was in the spirit of his fond ideas about Negritude. This was largely a cultural affair, memorably captured in a fine documentary by the African-American producer William Greaves. A feast of unforgettable images, the sentimental auras of global blackness in ascent: Langston Hughes walks the beach in Dakar, chatting with fishermen. Marpessa Dawn and Duke Ellington, richly deserving of kinship and attention, admiring masks in a festival exhibition. Youngish Ṣóyínká, glamorous in dark glasses, award-winning writer and director of the iconoclastic Kongi’s Harvest (1965), only weeks after the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah. Slightly older Ousmane Sembène, with close-cropped hair and smoking a pipe, perhaps buoyed by a positive reception of La Noire de… (1966), his latest film, shown at the festival. A captivating Diatta Seck, in his lead role in Aimé Césaire’s La tragédie du Roi Christophe (1963). Negritude in motion. Blackness was colourful, worldly and chic.

However, in due course, Nigeria, ‘honoured nation and special guest’ at the Dakar festival, came with a political update. The new military government had its face set on the continental appeal of a new hospitality, one that oil money could buy, especially as it pertained to the diplomatic manoeuvring among members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). A sizeable number of these countries were in the Middle East region, and, together with the Arab League, constituted a strong power bloc in the calculations of Nigerian bureaucrats. According to this logic, FESTAC would be both a cultural (Black) and a political (African) affair.

There was a standoff. Ṣóyínká, who had recently returned to Nigeria from years of exile, reappeared in the picture. He was friendly with Senghor; the ‘tigritude’ tiff was long behind both parties. As a matter of fact, he had been a leading participant at a symposium that Senghor had organized in Dakar earlier in 1976. This was a talkfest, the turf of intellectuals, the conference that provided the occasion for the writing of “Toward the Seventh PAC”, the great polemic by CLR James on the history and prospects of the Pan-African movement. At the time, Ṣóyínká moved around the world for events of this kind in his capacity as the secretary-general of the Union of Writers of the African Peoples (UWAP), and editor of the journal Transition/Ch’Indaba. One of the images from the symposium shows him and James posing together with a scholar from Guinea. Another features Bíọ́dún Jeyifo and sociologist Omafume Onoge in the company of Tchicaya U Tam’si, the Congolese poet.

As his contribution to the Colloquium that opened FESTAC in January 1977, Ṣóyínká read a fulsome essay titled “The Scholar in African Society”, in which he offered useful hints concerning other possible reasons for the disagreement between Nigeria and Senegal. Shortly before the symposium mentioned above, a major meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) had convened in Dakar. The item was the war in Angola, and in the course of the deliberations, Nigeria and Senegal took opposing stances: one supported the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (MPLA), while the other voted for UNITA, the main rival movement. To heighten the tension, during the symposium all of the writers and scholars gathered for the plenary session in the National Assembly in Dakar voted in support of the MPLA. Considering that the host, Senghor, had stated his country’s preference for UNITA during the OAU meeting, this vote seemed like a slap in the face. In his FESTAC Colloquium lecture, Ṣóyínká recalled, “I am certain that this was not palatable to Senghor as a politician but – and this is the real compliment I wish to pay him – he swallowed it as a scholar.” One up for the intellectual.

Nevertheless, using diplomatic skills he had perfected in his relatively short career, he successfully mediated in the quarrel between Nigeria and Senegal, and brought Senghor back into the party. The resolution was that North African countries could send contingents to perform at the festival, but they could not participate in the Colloquium. Shortly after this, the monthly newsletter published by the international FESTAC headquarters included a group picture of O.P. Fingesi, chairman of FESTAC, Alioune Diop (founder of the Paris-based journal Présence Africaine and a Senghor supporter), the artist Ben Enwonwu and Ṣóyínká. We still do not know the details of that diplomatic episode. In sum, however, Ṣóyínká later explained the situation in an interview: those who viewed the African continent as the world of black peoples and those who thought of it as the world of all peoples were equally correct. Toward the end of his speech at the Colloquium, he also engaged in a spot of self-deprecation: “I appear, without intending it, to have done a balancing act,” he said. “It is a most unusual situation to find myself, paying compliments right and left to governments.” He ended by “congratulating both patron governments of the festival, Nigeria and Senegal, not only for displaying the maturity required to resolve the deadlock which, a few months ago, nearly wrecked the festival, but for setting the example to other African governments in providing a forum for free discussion for our scholars.”

The pendulum of realpolitik does swing, however, in the other direction with an extreme quickness incommensurate to its time-counting purposes. The post-FESTAC brutal attack by soldiers on Kalakuta Republic would not surprise anyone who paid attention to one of the most heedless, barely hushed-up incidents on the sidelines of the Colloquium. The FESTAC Colloquium, the intellectual heart of the festival, the nerve-ending in the standoff between Nigeria and Senegal, was also the battleground of a different drama. Abdias do Nascimento, the political dissident from Brazil, was its protagonist. Working the diplomatic strings with Nigerian officials, bureaucrats at the Brazilian embassy in Lagos stood in his way. A visiting professor in the department of Modern European Languages at what was then the University of Ife during the festival, Nascimento was a long-standing champion of Afro-Brazilian culture through his work with the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN), or Black Experimental Theatre, in São Paolo. Politically, he was a critic of the concept of ‘racial democracy’ in Brazil, the idea that the cultural and religious heritages of the racially diverse society would advance the democratic potentials of the country and free it of racial discrimination. The bureaucratic name for this in Brazilian society was ‘acculturation’, a term Nascimento frowned upon. The theatre group and similar organizations were excluded from Brazil’s contingent to the festival in Dakar ‘66, but in an open letter sent to the festival, Nascimento dismissed the official versions of black Brazilian culture that “exist in Capoeira, Samba and to cook food from Bahia. In other words, an Upgraded Slave Quarter”.

As fate would have it, FESTAC found Nascimento in Nigeria. Ilé-Ifẹ̀, site of the university where he was based, was just over an hour’s drive from Lagos, and nothing was going to stop him from making his case about racism and black culture in Brazil at the Colloquium. But the hand of the state is a many-tentacled thing. In Sitiado em Lagos (1981), a telling of his travails during FESTAC, Nascimento has set down his version of the episode in unflattering detail. It was the whole might of the Brazilian state, then in the hands of the military dictatorship, against this man. His attitude was right: the Colloquium was part of the festival, but it was designed as an autonomous gathering, overseen by UNESCO and less beholden to the sentiments of states and their delegations. This argument accords with that of the Senghor/Diop camp about the status of North African countries in the Colloquium.

Nascimento received encouragement from the Colloquium chairman, Ugandan scholar Pio Zirimu, to prepare his contribution to the cluster of symposia that made up the big talkfest, and he worked hard at a paper. At the same time, however, named individuals that Nascimento perceived to be of the Brazilian government – including the ambassador to Nigeria – were making subterranean efforts to stop him from participating in the Colloquium. There were fears that he would use the forum to deflate the narrative about Brazil as a ‘racial democracy’. As preparations for the massive drama of FESTAC heated up on several levels, this small drama also unfolded at a steady pace and Nascimento, feeling persecuted, clearly saw the hands of the state in the actors’ movement about the stage. One day, in either October or November 1976, as the Senegal-Nigeria debacle healed, Zirimu invited Nascimento and his wife to lunch in Lagos. The guests had apprehensions. Agents of the government had been seen lurking around the venue of some of the preparatory events for the Colloquium. According to Nascimento’s account, “Zirimu was very uncertain about the entire organization of the Colloquium,” and told him to wait for the outcome of a meeting that “he, as the Colloquium chairman, would have with the FESTAC chairperson, Commander Fingesi, and the ambassador of Brazil in Lagos, Geraldo Heráclito Lima”.  The sad omens soured the lunch. On 15 December, Nascimento received a letter from Zirimu which confirmed that his paper was not approved for the Colloquium.

Zirimu died of a heart attack on 30 December.

That was the beginning of the matter, not the end.

Returning to Ile-Ife, Nascimento stirred up his own dust. Nigerian newspapers like Daily Sketch and Sunday Times took up his case, and figures like the filmmaker Ọlá Balógun and Ṣóyínká rallied to his support, working on alternative ways of making his voice heard. The head of the department to which he was affiliated decided to publish his rejected paper, with Ṣóyínká penning a preface. In his interview with Afriscope, Ṣóyínká spoke about names that “have been rejected on the grounds of complaint by governments – through their spokesman at the International Secretariat – that such individuals are their enemies or are simply undesirable”. He clearly had Nascimento’s case in mind. And being Ṣóyínká, however, a magazine interview would not be enough. The Colloquium lecture became another opportunity to make the case public. With explicit references to the monograph that Nascimento published once the Colloquium was closed to him, Ṣóyínká spoke strongly in favour of the persecuted. He stated that “there are occasions when the artist and the scholar should and must take the initiative, the control, when the thinking individual must be liberated from the petty, parochial politics of the power systems of his own nation.”

Nascimento’s activism at the Colloquium scored one diplomatic victory: a special Working Group IV proposed the creation of a permanent commission to investigate racism in Brazil. Of the seven member-states in this Working Group, only Zaire supported Brazil’s opposition to such a commission. However, Fingesi, the chairman of FESTAC, later contacted his superior, Colonel Ahmadu Ali, to stop the recommendation being tabled at the plenary session of the Colloquium. The pretext was that the recommendation had “political connotation” and so was not ideal for the Colloquium environment. The victory was short-lived, and Zirimu’s letter should have served as enough warning.

The episode was a clear demonstration of the tension at the heart of FESTAC, a gathering of black peoples, mainly intellectuals, that governments made possible. It went farther back, to previous meetings, such as the historic 1945 Pan African Congress in Manchester, England, where ‘intellectuals’ such as George Padmore took the emergent Nigerian ‘politician’ Obafemi Awolowo to task for his anti-internationalist position on African politics. Intellectuals had the wind behind their sails at the time, and Padmore was mentor to Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, Nnamdi Azikiwe and several others. The power-wielding elites operated according to the logic of the state, in which bureaucratic concepts like force majeure, lèse-majesté, raison d’état and so on, exert a powerful force on the social course of affairs. By this logic, and as pertaining to the Nascimento case, the Nigerian bureaucrats would listen first to their counterparts from Brazil, and act on the basis of the diplomatic overtures of a fellow state, with which Nigeria had a relationship on the level of protocol. There are also the domestic factors, ones that were not always easy to reduce to the provision of amenities. At a given time, a government in power, however popular, would face pockets of political opposition, and few Africa governments of the time were at all popular. They were governed by despots, adept masterminds of the one-party form of rule. The point is that these two major exactions ensured that the political states pursued the social struggle (the provision of the needs of the majority of their people) with less attentiveness, and their conflicts with the intellectual elite rose principally from this dilemma of rule.

And what about the politics of the people, the moral community over which both the intellectuals and the politicians do their battle? What did the people think? What did they make of FESTAC, this sudden, massive swarm of black relations from all over the world, about whom most of the Nigerian hosts, as primary spectators, had only vague notions before the fiesta? Obviously, the people carried on with their lives irrespective of what these contending forces did or said. But they were not oblivious to events such as FESTAC as something about which to do business. Much has been written about how the Nigerian people were systematically and contemptuously kept away from FESTAC, and indeed scared away because of the terrifying tactics of the Nigerian military at the time: whipping people on the streets, punitive raids on markets, the ‘operations’ to instil discipline through the control of traffic and street trading. Journalist Charlie Cobb, working for the American public radio, NPR, who spoke of “how the soldiers and police responded to the crowd,” noting that “there was a considerable amount of brutality,” leading to actual deaths. Contemporary Nigerian witnesses also noted that common people attended other programs and events at the National Stadium without molestation. Yet the mistreatment handed out to Fẹlá is proof enough of how remorselessly the military staged its power-show.

In my short story titled “FESTAC ’77”, published in Chimurenga 12/13 (2008), a man goes raiding private shrines for figurines and carvings to sell to those coordinating Nigeria’s exhibit at FESTAC, and he narrowly escapes being struck by thunder. This story is an imaginative attempt at capturing the cynicism of the masses; and it does other things as well. Anyone who lived in Lagos in the period leading up to the festival can recall that buying and selling festival emblems was a form of business. There were newspaper advertisements on a daily basis asking people to purchase the emblems, especially the miniature glazed-ivory copies of Queen Idia, the symbol of FESTAC. This was a curious business in the sense that the people, as citizens of Nigeria, already felt excluded from the event in an institutional manner, going by the stated principle that FESTAC was a festival of governments and not of black and African peoples. This connection can be stretched to the unacceptably disgraceful penury and neglect in which the artist Joseph Alufa Igbinovia, who carved the official replica used for the festival, now lives in Benin City. Queen Idia was a sixteenth-century ivory mask stolen from Benin, and for which the British Museum demanded insurance secured in millions of dollars before it could loan it to the festival. As we’ve seen, the British ‘possession’ of the mask was a direct result of the Punitive Expedition on the Benin Kingdom in 1897, replayed with a postcolonial twist on Fẹlá’s Kalakuta Republic exactly eighty years to the day of the assault, allegedly for staging a Counter-FESTAC.

Another legendary artist-intellectual, the South African musician Miriam Makeba, had earlier suffered a more benign kind of censorship in Dakar, for a similar affront on the Senegalese state. According to a contemporary diplomatic source, the Dakar branch of the Society for African Culture had, in February 1972, invited Makeba to “perform several concerts at both the Sorano Theatre for the elite, the expatriate community and tourists, and in the capital’s main stadium at a rate accessible to the people”. Once on stage at the Sorano, Makeba surrendered to the Muse. After expressing her joy at finally bringing her voice to the people of Senegal, she sang a song in honour of President Touré of Guinea. This gesture, repeated at a second concert, was perceived by the bureaucrats as an attempt to escalate the hostilities between Senghor and Touré. The much-publicized ‘Cultural Fortnight’ had run aground. Alioune Sene, the minister of culture, issued a statement that said, “Before the one-upmanship of the singer Miriam Makeba and her disrespectful attitude towards our country on stage at the Sorano Theatre on Saturday 26 and Tuesday 29 February, the Ministry of Culture, to its great regret, sees itself obliged to suspend the rest of the Fortnight.” Makeba had been a main feature at the 1969 Pan-African Festival in Algiers, a major take-down of Senghorian negritude. Although Senegal had a contingent like other African countries, the dominant spirit in the festival was of the politically engaged revolutionaries like Amílcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto, and Sarah Maldoror.

Years later, in a lecture titled “Twice Bitten: The Fate of Africa’s Culture Producers” (1990), Ṣóyínká returned to the question of missed opportunity, specifically calling for a rejection of the concept of culture manifested in FESTAC: “For, in the main, our people were offered a narrowed-down, reductionist aspect of culture in a gargantuan orgy of ill-organized spectacles. … What Nigeria exhibited was Culture as a sum, not even of parts, but of spectacular parts”.

A situation thus emerged in which global-black civilization was being celebrated in a context of widespread brutality – physical, gratuitous and systemic – and my point is that the treatment of Fẹlá and Nascimento in Nigeria was symptomatic of how the African or Nigerian elite treated the same constituencies that underwrite its legitimacy. The irony runs the risk of being lost, but it is that FESTAC was executed in the military fashion integral to everyday life in post-civil war Nigeria – the ‘immediate effect’ syndrome, routine police actions and fiat. It seemed that the soldiers only waited for the international guests to depart before descending on Fẹlá’s house. We have it on record that Ṣóyínká, the providential mediator, had earlier broken his ties with the organization in part because of the declaration by Fingesi, the chairman of FESTAC, that he would overrule the decision of the committees. This was what happened with the defeat of the committee-level recommendation of a commission to report on racism in Brazil. In 1977, both Nigeria and Brazil groaned under military dictatorships.

Nigerians, Africans and blacks in the diaspora have come to regard military rule as an aberration in governance. Yet there is a sense in which culture is at work in what, for want of a better phrase, I choose to call the useable accident of the military incursions. How come that in the early 1970s, after the civil war, the worship of Ògún, the patron-god of ironworkers, proliferated in many Nigerian cities among drivers and other denizens of the motor-park? And Ògún, also the patron-god of soldiers, was himself a legendary warrior! In his writings, the late historian Basil Davidson often reserved a great deal of enthusiasm for young soldiers in power, such as Siad Barre and Ibrahim Babangida. It is likely that being a historical materialist, with an ideological interest in things that are, Davidson saw the forest for the trees. After all, Thomas Sankara, like Gamal Abdel Nasser was a soldier too.

Just as Africans have come to view military rule dismissively as an aberration, critics of FESTAC also mostly dismiss it as a cultural jamboree, a waste. Yet how else would calypsonian Mighty Sparrow and painter Bruce Onobrakpeya have had the chance to meet in person? Trumpeter Lester Bowie felt adrift in Lagos until someone suggested he go to see Fẹlá. Yesterday’s waste is now an archive. Potentially, Africans can lay a stronger claim to this recent past that is FESTAC than to the one about forced mass transfer of African populations out into the world, from which the continent can be said to have gained anything only in the sense that its modern political consciousness arose out of the activism of the scattered communities of black people.

There is hardly a tidy resolution of the drama between the politician/bureaucrat and the intellectual.

And so what?

Isn’t it more imaginative to proceed on the basis of the various contexts from which the ideas of African and black identities that informed the organization of FESTAC were developed? While the dichotomies and tensions are often real and rest on practices of exclusion that never go away, their contents are not always stable. They shift in emphasis over time. On the contrary, there is a history, a vast archive still unexplored and in fragments, and the smaller history of FESTAC has its own archive which can tell us a wide variety of things, including the true status of the dichotomies in that moment of history when FESTAC attempted to say something specific about the black world. The drama between Nascimento and the Brazilian government remains instructive. Had this steadfast champion of Afro-Brazilian culture not thrown up the dust, most Nigerians would not have known as much they did about racism in Brazil. Yet this dramatic encounter between a military government of a powerful South American country and a political dissident played itself out on a stage provided by FESTAC. It all seems so accidental, but so, in retrospect, does the fable that Èṣù showed the British the way to Nigeria.

FESTAC was exhausting. It took place on a scale so high and wide that a second act became impossible to enact. In psychic terms, it drew its fatiguing inspiration from those periodic festivals in West Africa of old, when bounteous harvests begot large-scale feasts. “If someone has grown a great deal of rice,” Cabral once said of the view that the Balanta of Guinea-Bissau hold of social decorum, “he must hold a great feast, to use it up”. Those were surpluses used up in ostentatious expenditure of food and, just as spectacularly, of disposable humans. For Nigeria, the surplus was money earned selling crude oil.

FESTAC was an affair of black hosts, without European oversight. It was messy, like oil. Its aura was of an uncompleted building, paint hardly dry on the walls of the room in Festival Town where the exiled poet Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile unpacked his bag after a transcontinental flight from an undisclosed destination. But the party went on. In Lagos, Nigeria. This option did not exist in the late-colonial period, and so to Paris and Rome did writers and artists of the black world go in 1956 and 1959. The festival anthem was fashioned out of a poem by an African-American writer, Margaret Walker. Singing the anthem during the opening ceremony was a group of trained black sopranos, elegantly attired in handwoven clothes, with Akin Euba accompanying them behind the piano. The Nigeria musician, King Sunny Adé, master of juju, composed an evergreen song to welcome all international guests, ladies and gentlemen, to Nigeria. The events featured self-assured black troupes, musicians, artists, writers and filmmakers, light years away from an era when the authorship of Camara Laye’s work was not guaranteed, and the critical reception of Amos Tutuọla’s writing depended largely on Dylan Thomas’s idiosyncratic judgment.

One could go further. A lot changed between 1966 and 1977 across the continent. Biafra rose and fell, with millions of lives disappearing into the dark hole. Nkrumah, the extraordinary Pan-Africanist, and Cabral, that rare blend of the philosopher and the king, died within a year of each other. A major coup failed to upstage Touré in Guinea. Another, in Ethiopia, succeeded, ending the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. The liberation wars in the Portuguese colonies brought battle-hardened comrades to power, and sent António de Oliveira Salazar packing to the shrunken metropole. Joseph Mobutu whipped the Congo to an uneasy order, using the constabulary baton and bayonet. At least six congresses and festivals took place at multiple sites during this period. The 1969 Pan African Festival in Algiers followed in the wake of Dakar, and was followed in turn by the festival in Kinshasa in 1974, the same year as the Sixth Pan-African Congress in Dar es Salaam. Two years later, Senegal hosted the colloquium that gave the floor to some of the intellectual figures, such as CLR James, who had rejected the exclusionary premise in Tanzania. These events within eleven years each lasted several days or, in the case of FESTAC, weeks. They were all paid for by the governments of the hosting countries, which suggests a level of bureaucratic interest in responding to intellectual pressures. The flood dried up in the 1980s, however. By now, strictly bureaucratic gatherings like the Lagos Plan of Action (1980) had become the trend. It was hard to miss these memos announcing the world-historical implosion of the Fanonist, ideal African revolution. One can be wise in viewing these fitful instances of cultural and political decolonization as important milestones in Africa’s continuing encounter with itself throughout the ages, without losing sight of the human toll. Neither the dramatic maltreatment of dissidents like Fẹlá, Makeba and Nascimento and the less dramatic ones like the unrelieved immiseration of Nigerians whose commonwealth funded FESTAC have received their due accounting, in spite of the uncompromising fury of the songs “Zombie” and “Unknown Soldier”. And whether inspired by religious faith or not, the final sentence of the letter that Pio Zirimu sent to Nascimento sets its sight on the future: “I hope the forces of history will work and continue to work to bring to light what you have clearly stated in your work.”

This piece features in the FESTAC ’77 publication. To purchase in print head to our online shop.

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