[This commentary is based on talk I gave at the first annual University of California, Los Angeles Habesha Student Association Networking Night event held at Ackerman Union on May 14, 2011.]
I have been asked to comment on youth political apathy and how to transform apathy into constructive action. That is a very tall order, but I am glad to be able to share with you my views on a subject that has defied and puzzled political scientists and pundits for generations.
The general allegation is that young people are uninterested, unconcerned and indifferent about matters of politics and government. Political apathy (crudely defined as lack of interest and involvement in the political process and general passivity and indifference to political and social phenomena in one’s environment) among youth is said to be the product of many factors including lack of political awareness and knowledge, absence of civic institutions that cultivate youth political action and involvement and the prevailing cultural imperatives of consumerism and the media. Simply stated, young people are said to be self-absorbed, short attention-spanned and preoccupied and distracted by popular culture, social networking, leisurely activities and the ordinary demands of daily life to pay serious attention to politics.
Longitudinal studies of youth political apathy in the U.S. suggest that many young people are politically disengaged because they believe politics is about “money and lying and they don’t want to involve themselves in it.” Many young Americans complain that politicians ignore young people and have little youth-oriented communication. They accuse politicians of being in the back pockets of big money and that their votes are inconsequential in determining the outcome of any significant issues in society. Feeling powerless, they retreat to cynicism and apathy.
In contrast, in the 1960s, young Americans led the “counter-culture revolution” and were the tips of the spear of the Civil Rights Movement. The Free Speech Movement which began at the University of California, Berkeley was transformed from student protests for expressive and academic freedom on campus to a powerful nationwide anti-war movement on American college campuses and in the streets. Young African Americans advanced the cause of the Civil Rights Movement by employing the powerful tools and techniques of civil disobedience staging sit-ins and boycotts to desegregate lunch counters and other public accommodations. On May 4, 1961, fifty years to the month today, young inter-racial Freedom Riders set out to challenge local laws and customs that enforced segregation in public transportation in the American South, and succeeded in eliminating racial segregation in public transportation at considerable personal risk. Young people in the Black Power Movement in the late 1960s demanded racial equality dignity, economic and political self-sufficiency and advocated black nationalism.
A similar pattern of youth activism is evident for African youths. In many African countries, students and other young people have been in the vanguard of social forces demanding political changes. University students in Ethiopia agitated and mobilized for the revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1974. It is ironic that the very individuals who hold the reins of power in Ethiopia today were among those university students who fought and died for democracy and human rights in the early 1970s. In 2005, these former university students ordered a massacre which resulted in the killing of at least 193 unarmed largely youth protesters and the wounding of 763 others. In 1976 in South Africa, 176 students and other young people protesting apartheid were killed in Soweto. In recent months we have seen young people leading nonviolent uprising in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries to remove decades-old dictatorships. In Uganda today, the young followers of Kizza Besigye, (Museveni’s challenger in the recent elections) are at the center of the Walk to Work civil disobedience campaign protesting economic hardships and a quarter century of Museveni’s dictatorship.
The African Youth Charter
Africa has been described as the “youngest region of the world”. The African youth population is estimated to be 70 percent of the total population (nearly 50 percent of them under age 15). Virtually 100 percent of the top political leadership in Africa belongs to the “over-the-hill” gang. Robert Mugabe still clings to power in Zimbabwe at age 86. It is manifestly hard to demand higher levels of political participation and involvement among African youths when they come of age in societies controlled and stifled by dictators long in the tooth. But there is no question that youth apathy is the greatest threat to the institution and consolidation of democracy in Africa.
There may be a glimmer of hope for African youths in the African Union’s “Youth Charter”, which provides comprehensive protections for Africa’s young people. Article 11 (“Youth Participation”) is of special significance. It requires signatory states to ensure “every young person” has the “right to participate in all spheres of society.” This requires state parties to “guarantee the participation of youth in parliament and other decision-making bodies”, access to “decision-making at local, national, regional, and continental levels of governance” and requires “youth advocacy and volunteerism” and peer-to-peer programmes for marginalised youth”. States are required to “provide access to information such that young people become aware of their rights and of opportunities to participate in decision-making and civic life”. Africa’s youths should hold their doddering dictators accountable under the Charter.
Transforming Youth Apathy Into Youth Action?
I have no ready prescriptions to convert youth apathy into youth action. My view of the issue is very simple. The word apathy has roots in a Greek word “apathea” denoting lack of emotion. Young people in America, Africa or elsewhere are apathetic because they are “not fired up and raring to go.” They lack that “fire in the belly”. They find themselves in a state of political paralysis unable to act. So, how can African youth escape the political doldrums of apathy on a sea of cynicism, pessimism, negativism and disillusionment? The short answer is that they need to find the issues in society they care about and pursue them passionately. The long answer revolves around a few basic principles:
Be idealistic. Robert Kennedy said, “There are those who look at things and ask why. I dream of things and ask why not.” Nelson Mandela said, “I dream of an Africa at peace with itself.” Bob Marley said, there will be no peace until “the philosophy which hold one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned”, “there no longer are first class and second class citizens of any nation” and “basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all.” Young Africas should dream of an Africa free from the bondage of ethnic politics, scourge of dictatorship, debilitating poverty and flagrant human rights violations. Why are these youthful dreams not possible? As Gandhi said, when you are idealistic, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Examine your lives. When Socrates was put on trial for encouraging his young students to question authority and accepted beliefs, he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It is important for Africa’s young people to question their beliefs and actions. If they are indifferent to the suffering of their people, they should question themselves. Part of that self-examination is knowing if one is doing the right or wrong thing, and making corrections when mistakes are made. Unless we question our values and actions, we end up doing things mechanically, impulsively and blindly.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Gandhi said these simple but powerful words. The revolution we want to see in the world begins with us when we strive to relate to others on the basis of high moral and ethical standards. If we want to see a just, fair and compassionate world, we must begin by practicing those values ourselves. I want to congratulate the UCLA Habesha Student Association for bringing together young Ethiopians and Eritreans in one organizational setting to work cooperatively and harmoniously on issues of common interest and concern. Such collaboration sets an extraordinary example for all young people in the Horn of Africa to follow because the UCLA students have been able to relate with each other at the most fundamental human level instead of as members of opposing camps nursing historical enmities. It is a great mindset to be able to see beyond ethnicity and national boundaries; and most importantly not to be sucked into the vortex of historical grievances kept alive by the older generation.
Be independent thinkers and empower yourselves. Always ask questions and follow-up questions. One of the things those of us in the older generation do not do well is ask the right questions. Often we do not base our opinions on facts. Africa’s young people should think for themselves and creatively. The Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” It is easy and comfortable for others to do the thinking for us. The alternative is for the older generation to do the thinking for the youth. Do Africa’s youths want that? To think independently means to keep an open mind and tolerate opposing viewpoints. Africa’s dictators fear young independent thinkers because the young trumpet the truth.
Stand for Something. Rosa Parks, the great icon of the American Civil Rights Movement, is credited for modifying the old adage by saying: “Stand for something or you will fall for anything. Today’s mighty oak is yesterday’s nut that held its ground.” Young people of courage, character and determination today are the seeds of great leaders tomorrow. Africa’s young people need to take a stand for human rights, democracy, freedom and peace. They also need to take a stand against all forms of violence, ethnic politics and the politics of intolerance, hate and fear.
Network with other young people and learn techniques of grassroots organizing. The UCLA HSA is committed to self-help through networking. That is important and very useful. But networking can be used for political activism and advocacy as well. Using technology and social media, young people can create effective virtual and actual communities to enhance their political participation and be more actively engaged in the political process. Grassroots organizing is the most elementary and one of the most effective methods of youth political action. Youth grassroots organizing won the day during the Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago, and it won the day in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria.
Become a voice for the voiceless. There are hundreds of millions of Africans whose voices are stolen at the ballot box every year and remain forgotten as political prisoners in the jails of Africa’s dictators. Corruption, abuse of power, lack of accountability and transparency are the hallmarks of many contemporary African states. Young Africans must raise their voices and be heard on these issues. The great international human rights organizations are today the voices of the voiceless in Africa. They investigate the criminality of African regimes and present their findings to the world. Africa’s youths must take over part of the heavy lifting from these organizations. It is not fair to expect international human rights organizations to be the voice boxes of Africa’s masses.
Never give up. It is important for young people to appreciate and practice the virtues of tenacity, courage, determination and perseverance. In 1941, Winston Churchill speaking to young people at a school inspired them with these timeless words: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Churchill’s words ring true for every generation of young people everywhere. For Africa’s youth, the message is simple: “Never yield to force.”
Cause looking for Rebels
If I have any words of wisdom, it is that young Africans must rebel against apathy itself through a process of self-examination. I believe a successful rebellion against one’s own apathy will be the defining moment in the pursuit of the greatest cause of this generation, the struggle for human rights. The cause of human rights in Africa and elsewhere needs armies of young rebels to stand up in defense of human dignity, the rule of law and liberty and against tyranny and despotism. To stand up for free and fair elections is to stand up for human rights. To fight for women’s rights is to fight for human rights. To defend children’s rights is to defend human rights. To uphold human rights is to uphold ethnic rights, religious rights, linguistic rights, free press rights, individual rights….
Ralph Nader, the implacable American consumer advocate warned: “To the youth of America, I say, beware of being trivialized by the commercial culture that tempts you daily. I hear you saying often that you’re not turned on to politics. If you do not turn on to politics, politics will turn on you.” That can be said equally of African youths. I say defend human rights, speak truth to power!
Think global, act local. Think local, act global.
 The HSA “aims to bring together people of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent (a/k/a Habeshas) at UCLA “by jointly organizing and sponsoring “cultural events, college workshops and community activities that promote the success of Habeshas at UCLA and the surrounding community.” It also aims to provide a “forum to discuss issues, share ideas and simply connect on a peer-to-peer level.” I thank the UCLA-HSA for the opportunity to dialogue with them.]
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
Alemayehu G. Mariam
Sudan’s Best and Worst of Times
It is the best of times in the Sudan. It is the worst of times in the Sudan. It is the happiest day in the Sudan. It is the saddest day in the Sudan. It is referendum for the Sudan. It is requiem for Africa.
South Sudan just finished voting in a referendum, part of a deal made in 2005 to end a civil war that dates back over one-half century. The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) says the final results will be announced on February 14; but no one really believes there will be one united Sudan by July 2011. By then, South Sudan will be Africa’s newest state.
In a recent speech at Khartoum University, Thabo Mbeki, former South African president and Chairperson of the African Union High-level Implementation Panel on Sudan, alluded to the causes of the current breakup of the Sudan: “As all of us know, a year ahead of your independence, in 1955, a rebellion broke out in Southern Sudan. The essential reason for the rebellion was that your compatriots in the South saw the impending independence as a threat to them, which they elected to oppose by resorting to the weapons of war.” There is a lot more to the South Sudanese “rebellion” than a delayed rendezvous with the legacy of British colonialism. In some ways it could be argued that the “imperfect” decolonization of the Sudan, which did not necessarily follow the boundaries of ethnic and linguistic group settlement, led to decades of conflict and civil wars and the current breakup.
Many of the problems leading to the referendum are also rooted in post-independence Sudanese history — irreconcilable religious differences, economic exploitation and discrimination. The central Sudanese government’s imposition of “Arabism” and “Islamism” (sharia law) on the South Sudanese and rampant discrimination against them are said to be a sustaining cause of the civil war. South Sudan is believed to hold much of the potential wealth of the Sudan including oil. Yet the majority of South Sudanese people languished in abject poverty for decades, while their northern compatriots benefitted disproportionately.
Whether the people of South Sudan will secede and form their own state is a question only they can decide. They certainly have the legal right under international law to self-determination, a principle enshrined in the U.N. Charter. Their vote will be the final word on the issue. The focus now is on what is likely to happen after South Sudan becomes independent. Those who seem to be in the know sound optimistic. Mbeki says, “Both the Government of Sudan and the SPLM have made the solemn and vitally important commitment that should the people of South Sudan vote for secession, they will work to ensure the emergence and peaceful coexistence of two viable states.” The tea leaves readers and pundits are predicting doom and gloom. They say the Sudan will be transformed into a hardline theocratic state ruled under sharia law. There will be renewed violence in Darfur, South Kurdofan and Eastern Sudan. There will be endless civil wars that will cause more deaths and destruction according to the modern day seers.
To some extent, the pessimism over Sudan’s future may have some merit. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s told the New York Times recently about his post-secession plans: “We’ll change the Constitution. Shariah and Islam will be the main source for the Constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.” Bashir’s plan goes beyond establishing a theocratic state. There will be no tolerance of diversity of any kind in Bashir’s “new Sudan”. He says, “If South Sudan secedes, we will change the Constitution, and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity.” Bashir’s warning is not only shocking but deeply troubling. The message undoubtedly will cause great alarm among secularists, Southern Sudanese living in the north who voted for unity and Sudanese of different faiths, viewpoints, beliefs and ideologies. In post-secession Sudan, diversity, tolerance, compromise and reconciliation will be crimes against the state. It is all eerily reminiscent of the ideas of another guy who 70 years ago talked about “organic unity” and the “common welfare of the Volk”. Sudanese opposition leaders are issuing their own ultimata. Sadiq al-Mahdi, leader of the Umma Party, issued a demand for a new constitution and elections; in the alternative, he promised to work for the overthrow of Bashir’s regime. Other opposition leaders seem to be following along the same line. There is a rocky road ahead for the Sudan, both south and north.
From Pan-Africanism to Afro-Fascism?
The outcome of the South Sudanese referendum is not in doubt, but where Africa is headed in the second decade of the 21st Century is very much in doubt. Last week, Tunisian dictator Ben Ali packed up and left after 23 years of corrupt dictatorial rule. President Obama “applauded the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people” in driving out the dictator. Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo is still holed up in Abidjan taunting U.N. peacekeepers and playing round-robin with various African leaders. Over in the Horn of Africa, Meles Zenawi is carting off businessmen and merchants to jail for allegedly price-gouging the public and economic sabotage. What in the world is happening to Africa?
When African countries cast off the yoke of colonialism, their future seemed bright and limitless. Independence leaders thought in terms of Pan-Africanism and the political and economic unification of native Africans and those of African heritage into a “global African community”. Pan-Africanism represented a return to African values and traditions in the struggle against neo-colonialism, imperialism, racism and the rest of it. Its core value was the unity of all African peoples.
The founding fathers of post-independence Africa all believed in the dream of African unity. Ethiopia’s H.I.M. Haile Selassie, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser were all declared Pan-Africanists. On the occasion of the establishment of the permanent headquarters of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa on May 25, 1963, H.I.M. Haile Selassie made the most compelling case for African unity:
We look to the vision of an Africa not merely free but united. In facing this new challenge, we can take comfort and encouragement from the lessons of the past. We know that there are differences among us. Africans enjoy different cultures, distinctive values, special attributes. But we also know that unity can be and has been attained among men of the most disparate origins, that differences of race, of religion, of culture, of tradition, are no insuperable obstacle to the coming together of peoples. History teaches us that unity is strength, and cautions us to submerge and overcome our differences in the quest for common goals, to strive, with all our combined strength, for the path to true African brotherhood and unity…. Our efforts as free men must be to establish new relationships, devoid of any resentment and hostility, restored to our belief and faith in ourselves as individuals, dealing on a basis of equality with other equally free peoples.
Pan-Africanism is dead. A new ideology today is sweeping over Africa. Africa’s home grown dictators are furiously beating the drums of “tribal nationalism” all over the continent to cling to power. In many parts of Africa today ideologies of “ethnic identity”, “ethnic purity,” “ethnic homelands”, ethnic cleansing and tribal chauvinism have become fashionable. In Ivory Coast, an ideological war has been waged over ‘Ivoirité (‘Ivorian-ness’) since the 1990s. Proponents of this perverted ideology argue that the country’s problems are rooted in the contamination of genuine Ivorian identity by outsiders who have been allowed to freely immigrate into the country. Immigrants, even those who have been there for generations, and refugees from the neighboring countries including Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Liberia are singled out and blamed for the country’s problems and persecuted. Professor Gbagbo even tried to tar and feather the winner of the recent election Alassane Ouattara (whose father is allegedly Burkinabe) as a not having true Ivorian identity. Gbagbo has used religion to divide Ivorians regionally into north and south.
In Ethiopia, tribal politics has been repackaged in a fancy wrapper called “ethnic federalism.” Zenawi has segregated the Ethiopian people by ethno-tribal classification like cattle in grotesque regional political units called “kilils” (reservations) or glorified apartheid-style Bantustans or tribal homelands. This sinister perversion of the concept of federalism has enabled a few cunning dictators to oppress, divide and rule some 80 million people for nearly two decades. South of the border in Kenya, in the aftermath of the 2007 elections, over 600 thousand Kenyans were displaced as a result of ethnic motivated hatred and violence. Over 1,500 were massacred. Kenya continues to arrest and detain untold numbers of Ethiopian refugees that have fled the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi. What more can be said about Rwanda that has not already been said.
It is not only the worst-governed African countries that are having problems with “Africanity”. South Africa has been skating on the slippery slope of xenophobia. Immigrants from Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia have been attacked by mobs. According to a study by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP): “The ANC government – in its attempts to overcome the divides of the past and build new forms of social cohesion… embarked on an aggressive and inclusive nation-building project. One unanticipated by-product of this project has been a growth in intolerance towards outsiders… Violence against foreign citizens and African refugees has become increasingly common and communities are divided by hostility and suspicion.” Among the member countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), South Africans expressed the harshest and most punitive anti-foreigner sentiments in the study. How ironic for a country that was under apartheid less than two decades ago.
Whether it is the “kilil” ideology practiced in Ethiopia or the “Ivorite” of Ivory Coast, the central aim of these weird ideologies is to enable power hungry and bloodthirsty African dictators to cling to power by dividing Africans along ethnic, linguistic, tribal, racial and religious lines. Fellow Africans are foreigners to be arrested, jailed, displaced, deported and blamed for whatever goes wrong under the watch of the dictators. The old Pan-African ideas of common African history, suffering, struggle, heritage and legacy are gone. There is no unifying sense African brotherhood or sisterhood. Africa’s contemporary leaders, or more appropriately, hyenas in designer suits and uniforms, have made Africans strangers to each other and rendered Africa a “dog-eat-dog” continent.
In 2009, in Accra, Ghana, President Obama blasted identity politics as a canker in the African body politics:
We all have many identities – of tribe and ethnicity; of religion and nationality. But defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe, or who worships a different prophet, has no place in the 21st century…. In my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many.
For what little it is worth, for the last few years I have preached from my cyber soapbox against those in Africa who have used the politics of ethnicity to cling to power. I firmly believe that our humanity is more important than our ethnicity, nationality, sovereignty or even Africanity! As an unreformed Pan-Africanist, I also believe that Africans are not prisoners to be kept behind tribal walls, ethnic enclaves, Ivorite, kilils, Bantustans, apartheid or whatever divisive and repressive ideology is manufactured by dictators, but free men and women who are captains of their destines in one un-walled Africa that belongs to all equally. “Tear down the walls of tribalism and ethnicity in Africa,” I say.
It is necessary to come up with a counter-ideology to withstand the rising tide of Afro-Fascism. Perhaps we can learn from Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s ideas of “Ubuntu”, the essence of being human. Tutu explained: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.” I believe “Ubuntu” provides a sound philosophical basis for the development of a human rights culture for the African continent based on a common African belief of “belonging to a greater whole.” To this end, Tutu taught, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” More specifically, Africa.
“Afri-Cans” and “Afri-Cannots”
As for South Sudan, the future holds many dangers and opportunities. Africans have fought their way out of colonialism and become independent. Some have seceded from the post-independence states, but it is questionable if they have succeeded. How many African countries are better off today than they were prior to independence? Before secession? As the old saying goes: “Be careful what you wish for. You may receive it.” We wish the people of South and North Sudan a future of hope, peace, prosperity and reconciliation.
I am no longer sure if Afri-Cans are able to “unite for the benefit of their people”, as Bob Marley pleaded. But I am sure that Afri-Cannot continue to have tribal wars, ethnic domination, corruption, inflation and repression as Fela Kuti warned, and expect to be viable in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century. In 1963, H.I.M. Haile Selassie reminded his colleagues:
Today, Africa has emerged from this dark passage [of colonialism]. Our Armageddon is past. Africa has been reborn as a free continent and Africans have been reborn as free men…. Those men who refused to accept the judgment passed upon them by the colonisers, who held unswervingly through the darkest hours to a vision of an Africa emancipated from political, economic, and spiritual domination, will be remembered and revered wherever Africans meet…. Their deeds are written in history.
It is said that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. I am afraid Africa’s Armageddon is yet to come. Africa has been re-enslaved by home grown dictators, and Africans have become prisoners of thugs, criminals, gangsters, fugitives and outlaws who have seized and cling to power like parasitic ticks on a milk cow. Cry for the beloved continent!
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Music as a Weapon of Protest
It is said that “music is a universal language.” Using a few notes and inspiring lyrics, musicians and song writers have waged relentless battles against the perpetrators of tyranny, oppression, inequality and injustice. Music is a divine language that can pierce through the stony walls of hatred in the heart, the irrationality and fallacies of the mind and the darkness of the spirit. Musicians and songwriters have used their lyrics and melodies to defend and uplift the downtrodden, the exploited, the oppressed, the needy, the persecuted and subjugated. They have pumped up the volume against colonialism, racism, tribalism, imperialism, capitalism, communism, socialism, fascism, totalitarianism, individualism, militarism, sexism, adventurism, fatalism, hedonism, materialism, nihilism, pessimism, statism, corporatism and whatever else is left out. Where have Bob Marely, Fela Kuti,…. gone?
Protest songs have served as potent weapons of political dissent and nonviolent resistance in American history. There were “protest” and “freedom” songs that championed civil rights, women’s rights, labor rights, and human rights and challenged slavery, injustice, inequality, war and brutality. The ultimate American freedom and protest songs were disguised in the Negro spirituals, consisting of religious songs created by enslaved African people in America to protest their oppression, degradation and exploitation on the plantation. They sang about escape from slavery: “Wade in the water./Wade in the water children./Wade in the water./God’s gonna trouble the water./”, was the coded message for fugitive slaves to elude their captors and make it safely to freedom. They sang about slipping the slave master’s grip by hopping on the “underground railroad”: “Swing low, sweet chariot/Coming for to carry me home,/…/ If I get there before you do,/ I’ll cut a hole and pull you through.” They even described the map of the escape route in song: “When the sun comes back,/and the first Quail calls,/Follow the drinking gourd,/For the old man is waiting/for to carry you to freedom/…/ The river ends between two hills,/Follow the drinking gourd,/…/”
In the 1960s, freedom and protest songs provided the spiritual force for the civil rights and nonviolence movement. “We Shall Overcome” became the signature protest song of the U.S. civil rights movement: “Oh, deep in my heart/I do believe/We shall overcome some day/We’ll walk hand in hand some day/We shall all be free some day.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said the protest songs of the day “invigorated and gave unity to the movement in a most significant way”.
Political protest and social activism were promoted in American pop music. The Soul music of James Brown electrified African American youth in the 1960s and 70s. “Say It Loud– I’m Black and I’m Proud” was Brown’s signature song. The “Godfather of Soul” used his lyrics and fame to speak out not only against prejudice and bigotry towards blacks in America, but also to inspire pride, self-reliance and empowerment among black people everywhere. Proudly defiant, Brown declared: “One thing more I got to say right here/ Now, we’re people/ Just like the birds and the bees/ We rather die on our feet, Than keep living on our knees.” The “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” followed up with “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I’ll Get It Myself)”, emphasizing self-reliance and self-confidence among African Americans: “Don’t give me sorrow/I want equal opportunity/To live tomorrow.” Marvin Gaye asked, “What’s Going on?” in Vietnam. “Brother, brother, brother/There’s far too many of you dying/You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today.”
There were countless other musicians and songwriters who delivered their political messages of protest, peace, racial harmony, tolerance and reconciliation. The long list of the great ones includes Paul Robeson (“No more auction block for me”), Pete Seeger/Lee Hays (If I had a hammer), Bob Dylan (“Blowin’ in the Wind”), John Lennon (“Give Peace a Chance”), Nina Simone (“Hound dogs on my trail/School children sitting in jail”) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (“Now That the Buffalo is Gone”) who wrote songs about the plight and suffering of Native American peoples. Even Elvis Presley, the apolitical “King of Rock and Roll”, told the gut-wrenching story of American poverty and crime “In the Ghetto”: “On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’/ A poor little baby child is born/In the ghetto/And his mama cries…/it’s another hungry mouth to feed/…/ People, don’t you understand/the child needs a helping hand/or he’ll grow to be an angry young man some day/…/
Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and Pan-African Protest Music
Jamaican Bob Marley used reggae music not just for entertainment, but to teach, preach and reach people’s minds, hearts and spirits the world over. He used his music and lyrics to promote love, understanding and tolerance while confronting racism, inequality and injustice with a defiant message. Marley sang about the struggles of black people in Babylon (The West) and the need for Pan-African unity to overcome oppression. As a member of the Rastafari movement, he deified H.I. M. Haile Selassie and saw Africa as “Zion”, the place of unity, peace and freedom. His message for Africans was unmistakable: “Africa, Unite/’Cause we’re moving right out of Babylon/And we’re going to our father’s land/…/ So, Africa, Unite, Africa, Unite/Unite for the benefit of your people/…/. He urged those suffering oppression to “Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!/…/Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!/…/Most people think,/Great god will come from the skies,/Take away everything/And make everybody feel high./But if you know what life is worth,/You will look for yours on earth:/And now you see the light,/You stand up for your rights. jah!” African liberation from colonialism and Western exploitation was Marley’s foremost concern: “Zimbabwe./Every man gotta right/To decide his own destiny/…/So arm in arms, with arms/We will fight this little struggle/’Cause that’s the only way/We can overcome our little trouble/ Brother you’re right, you’re right/You’re right, you’re right, you’re so right/We gonna fight, we’ll have to fight/We gonna fight, fight for our rights/Natty dread it ina Zimbabwe/Set it up… Mash it up ina Zimbabwe/Africans a liberate Zimbabwe.” (If Bob Marley knew what Bob Mugabe had done to Zimbabwe today, he’d spin in his grave.)
Marley took part of a 1963 speech by H.I.M. Haile Selassie and made it a powerful song against war: “Until the philosophy which hold one race/Superior and another inferior/Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned/Everywhere is war, me say war/That until there are no longer first class/And second class citizens of any nation/Until the colour of a man’s skin/Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes/Me say war/That until the basic human rights are equally/Guaranteed to all, without regard to race/Dis a war/That until that day/The dream of lasting peace, world citizenship/Rule of international morality/Will remain in but a fleeting illusion/To be pursued, but never attained/Now everywhere is war, war/…/ Marley understood the daily struggle of the poor to find enough food to eat: “Them belly full but we hungry./A hungry mob is a angry mob./A rain a-fall but the dirt it tough;/A pot a-cook but the food no ‘nough./You’re gonna dance to JAH music, dance./…/ Cost of living get so high,/Rich and poor, they start a cry./Now the weak must get strong./They say, “Oh, what a tribulation.” In “Who the Cap Fit”, Marley warned against hypocrisy and duplicity in everyday relations: “Man to man is so unjust, children/You don’t know who to trust/Your worst enemy could be your best friend/And your best friend your worst enemy/Some will eat and drink with you/Then behind them su-su ‘pon you/Only your friend know your secrets/So only he could reveal it/And who the cap fit, let them wear it/…/Some will hate you,/Pretend they love you now/Then behind they try to eliminate you/But who Jah bless,/No one curse/Thank God we’re past the worse.”
Nigerian songwriter, singer and musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti was an equally talented and inspiring musical innovator and political advocate. He was inspired by the protest songs and political upheavals in the U.S. in the 1960s. For three decades, Fela became the musical voice of Nigeria’s poor, downtrodden, unemployed and marginalized. He sang about the abject conditions of existence in one of the richest African countries. His “Afrobeat” music was a combination of blues, funk, jazz and African rhythms. His lyrics are in pidgin English (“broken English”) and local languages. He relentlessly criticized government corruption, multi-national corporations, and police brutality in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. He used music as a weapon to promote human rights, good governance, accountability and transparency in Nigeria and the rest of Africa.
In “Zombie”, Fela criticized Nigeria’s military as a bunch of mindless brutes who follow orders to shoot, kill and plunder: “Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go/Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop/…unless you tell am to turn/… unless you tell am to think/… Go and kill!/Go and die!../Joro, jaro, joro../ (Zombie)”. In “Authority Stealing”, Fela compared the Nigerian kleptocrats to armed robbers for stealing the nation’s resources to enrich themselves using their “magic pens”. “Authority people them go dey steal/Public contribute plenty money/…/Authority man no dey pickpocket/…/Armed robber him need gun/Authority man him need pen/Authority man in charge of money/Him no need gun, him need pen/Pen got power gun no get/If gun steal eighty thousand naira/Pen go steal two billion naira/Thief, thief, thief!”
In “I.T.T.”, Fela satirized the multinational corporation International Telephone and Telegraph and condemned foreign companies for sucking dry the Nigerian economy and spreading confusion, corruption and inflation: “Many foreign companies dey Africa carry all our money go/…/ Them call him name na I.T.T./ Them go dey cause confusion (Confusion!)/Cause corruption (Corruption!)/Cause oppression (Oppression!)/Cause inflation (Inflation!)/Oppression, corruption, inflation/…/Them go pick one African man/A man with low mentality/Them go give am million naira breads/To become of high position here/Him go bribe some thousand naira bread/To become one useless chief…/ Like Obasanjo and Abiola.”
After travelling the world, in “Upside Down”, Fela sang that things are organized and planned well everywhere except in Africa where there are villages, but no roads, land, but no food or housing. Africans don’t even have knowledge of African culture: “Open that book dem call dictionary/…/Upside down na there dey proper/Dem recognize the word for sure, yes/…/People no know their African name/People no dey think African style/People no know Africa way/For Africa man house, I don’t see/…/Communication Disorganize /…/Agriculture Disorganize/Electric Disorganize/ Everything Upside Down” in Africa. In “Beasts of No Nation”, Fela criticizes corrupt leaders in Africa and elsewhere and focuses on how certain governments have helped apartheid thrive in South Africa for so long: “Many leaders as you see dem/…/Animals in human skin/Animal-I put-U tie-oh/ Animal-I wear agbada (traditional Nigerian robe)/Animal-I put-U suit-u.” In the must-see documentary “Fela: Music Is the Weapon,” Fela said “the situation here [Nigeria] is worse than in South Africa.”
In retaliation for his songs, in 1977 one thousand of General Obasanjo’s “zombie” soldiers attacked Fela’s compound (“Kalakuta Republic” established to protest military rule), beat him to a pulp, and burned his house and everything in it. The soldiers literally threw out his 82-year-old mother, one of the notable anti-colonial figures in Nigeria, from a second-story window. She died from her injuries a few months later. Fela launched his own political party (Movement of the People) and ran twice for the presidency. His confrontational messages always got him on the wrong side of the military dictators who tried to find reasons to put him in jail. Fela also had his eccentric side including marrying over two dozen women at one time.
Music as a Weapon Against Dictatorship and for Human Rights
Fela titled his 1998 album “Music is the Weapon of the Future”. I believe African musicians could play a pivotal frontline role in the struggle for human rights, the rule of law, accountability and transparency in the continent with their lyrics and music. Africans today need new sounds against home grown dictators and tyrants who cling to power like barnacles to a sunken ship. In the mid-1980s, Fela sang about leaders who are “animals in human skin”. In the second decade of the Twenty First Century we know the actual physical form of the “animals” Fela was talking about. They are hyenas that sip on the blood of Africans like wine and dine on their flesh and bones everyday. Shakespeare wrote, “If music be the food of life, play on”. If music be the weapon of the future, I say sing on until we chase the greedy and corrupt scavengers out of the continent. Africa needs a new generation of Marleys, Felas, Makebas… to give them a new message hope, faith and charity; and Africa’s youth need new battle songs and hymns to fight the hyenas in designer suits and uniforms.