Fela’s stories: Coffin for Head of State

Old lion Binda Ngazolo returns to his breviary: The words of Fela. A pivotal reference for him, knowing that the king of Afrobeat has saved him from many wrong turns, and other pains in life. Today, he visits “Coffin for Head of State” (1981).

It all started that day when a younger brother – and a real gangster at that – burst into my “entrer-coucher” (literally “enter-and-lay-on-the-bed”, a house literally only big enough to place a bed). We’re somewhere in an unpopular neighborhood of Abidjan. This man is dressed in such a way that would drive his fellow sophisticated “sapeurs” insane. I had lost sight of him for a long time, and I am literally taken aback by his new style. Like a true British lord, but not as orthodox. Protestant, in this case – of the evangelical church –, as he would confirm later: “Old father! Do you know that Jesus loves you?”, to which I answered, “Huh? In which occasion, little brother, huh? Who sent you?” And he tells me, in all seriousness, that it was Jesus himself who asked him to come and tell me this good piece of news (I think to myself, “That’s it, the guy has definitely lost it”). I’m tempted to kick him out right away. But I immediately remember that one must never annoy a madman. Especially a fool of God. (These days, it can cost you your life).

To be on the safe side, I let the guy talk. He embarks on a long sermon, punctuated by hallelujahs. Minus the “amens”, I am speechless and therefore my heart was not in it. In his speech, there is much talk of the Holy Spirit who would manifest himself, and consecrate him a Pastor. As he feels I am somewhat skeptical, he invites me to follow him. To tell you the truth, he is starting to get drunk. But I’m curious to see how far his delirium goes. So I decide to follow him.

Once we are outside, he shows me his shiny limousine. He tells me about his temple, his flock composed mainly of the ritzy elite, wheeler-dealers and other political scheming figures of the area, not to mention the pack of morons who are ruining themselves for the sake of God. He praises his successful small business. In short, he is trying to bamboozle me.

The problem is that, for my part, I live hand to mouth. So what the hell would I be doing in his infernal paradise. He feels that I am dissociating myself. It is then that he takes out his best argument: flattery. He tells me he admires what I do. That with the storytelling talent God gave me, if I give myself to Jesus and especially if I follow him – given that he has an exclusive contract with God himself and that he is also the only way to the Lord –, he guarantees I will get out of my misery. I could sell out every Sunday, if I take part in his show. Because “Jesus is the solution!” While he continues to roll out his spiel, time freezes. Freeze-frame! The spirit of Fela possesses my body; I enter a trance. Suddenly, deep inside of my soul, I distinctly hear the warning of the maestro…

 Amen, amen, amen!
Amen, Amen, Amen…
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
By the grace of Almighty Lord
“Allah Wakubar Mohammed Salamalekum…”
I waka many village anywhere in Africa
Pastor’s house na him dey fine pass
My people them dey stay for poor surroundings
Pastor’s dress na him dey clean pass
E hard for my people for them to buy soap
Pastor na him them give respect pass
And them do bad bad bad bad bad bad things
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
Amen, Amen, Amen!

1981. You need to remember what the ingredients were for the explosive political forces of that era: a drop of inconsistency, a good mouthful of bad governance, add a dose of rampant corruption, and a few tears from the ’70-80s economic crisis. You’ll soon add to all this, in the ’90s, a serving of the famous Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) conducted by the Bretton Woods institutions (or the art of tightening the belt on those who barely have skin on their bones)… Shake violently, and you get a permanent misery, both spiritual and material.

One can thus imagine the degree of despair which all this confusion created for many Africans. The crisis has made religion and politics the only two safe investments. And those who combined the two get richer even faster.

Many vocations arose from this atmosphere of collective and generalized mythomania. All kinds of smooth-talkers and fake prophets grew like poisonous mushrooms: all this, in the name of an untouchable God that cannot come down to confound these top-flight crooks.

Nigeria, as told by Fela in his music, is a powerful reference of the consequences of Africa’s spiritual, economic and political slump in the 1970s and 1990s. As for Nigeria, it is all the more paradoxical that it is a large African country, rich in addition. However, it was run by soldiers who knew how to suck, for their greater benefit, the two mammaries of politics and religion.

General Mathew Olusegun Obasanjo (a Baptist Christian from Southern Nigeria) comes to power when General Murtala Muhammed (a Muslim from Northern Nigeria) is murdered on February 13, 1976 during a failed coup. Murtala had also come to power by another coup d’etat on July 29, 1975, and Obasanjo (the Christian) was then his Military Chief of Staff. Once in power, General Obasanjo appointed General Shehu Yar’adua (a Northern Nigerian Muslim) as Vice President (from 1976 to 1979). The latter died in prison on 8 December 1997 while serving a sentence for his alleged involvement in a coup against another president-general, Sani Abacha. In short, the military played Game Of Thrones long before the TV series was even conceived, and Fela fiercely denounced all this wheeling and dealing in the song “Army arrangement” (1985). But I’ll talk about that later…

I go business places
I see see see
All the bad bad bad things
Them dey do do do
Call corruption
Them dey call nepotism
Inside the promotions
And inside all business
I say I waka waka waka
I see see see
So I waka waka waka…
I waka many business anywhere in Africa
I waka many business anywhere in Africa
North and South them get them policies
One Christian and the other one Muslim
Anywhere the Muslims them they reign
Na Senior Alhaji na him be Director
Anywhere the Christians them they reign
Na the best friend to Bishop na him be Director

When you listen carefully to Fela, you realize how visionary he was. Today, one can seriously question whether any of the politician-soldiers did not voluntarily maintain the divisions and disparities between Southern and Northern Nigeria. All these manipulations seem to be at the root of the terrible religious violence that has terrorized the country for so long. Some are still conducting the same old political tactics, seeking to make the country ungovernable. Divide and loot. The division has been placed inside the minds of Africans, as well as self-deception, contempt towards and rejection of their own traditions, abandoned in favor of others. Fela gives us a little reminder:

It is a known fact that for many thousand years
We Africans we had our own traditions
These moneymaking organizations
Them come put we Africans in total confusion
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
Amen, Amen, Amen!…

[Chorus]
Waka, waka, waka!
So I waka waka waka
I go many places
I go government places
I see see see
All the bad bad bad things
Them dey do do do

Look Obasanjo!
Before anything at all, him go dey shout:
“Oh Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord, Almighty Lord!”
“Oh Lord, oh God!”
And them do bad bad bad bad bad bad things

I say, look Yar’Adua!
Before anything at all, him go dey shout:
“Habba Allah, habba Allah, habba Allah!”
“Habba Allah, habba Allah!”
And them do bad bad bad bad bad bad things

Through Mohammed our Lord
Amen, Amen, Amen!
By the grace of Almighty Allah
Amen, Amen, Amen!

“Coffin for Head of State” was released in 1981, three years after the defenestration and the tragic death of Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Kuti. Symbolically, in memory of his mother, the “Black President” and his own family deposited a coffin in front of the headquarters of the military government. An episode that gave its title to the song, and that Fela recounts, without forgetting to point the finger at other Obasanjos and other Yar’aduas I mentioned earlier.

I go many places
I go government places
I see see see
All the bad bad bad things
Them they do do do

Them steal all the money
Them kill many students
Them burn many houses
Them burn my house too
Them kill my mama

Fela Ransome Kuti (left) and Funmilayo Ransome Kuti (center)

So I carry the coffin
I waka waka waka
Movement of the People
Them waka waka waka
Young African Pioneers
Them waka waka waka

We go Obalende
We go Dodan barracks
We reach them gate o
We put the coffin down
Obasanjo dey there
With him big fat stomach
Yar’Adua dey there
With him neck like ostrich
We put the coffin down

[Chorus]

But them take am!
Them no want take am
Who go want take coffin?
Them must take am
Na the bad bad bad things
Wey they don do
Them no want take am
Obasanjo grab am
Yar’Adua carry am
Yes, them no want take am
Obasanjo carry am
Yar’Adua tow am
Them no want take am
Them no want take am

E dey for them office
E dey there now now now now now
E dey there now now now now now
E dey there now now now now now
E dey there now now now now now…

 The last notes on “Coffin for Head of State” are gradually making me come out of my trance like state. The lips of the fake pastor still agitate in front of me. I have to warn him, “Little brother, I’m sorry for you, but in case you forgot, I am an Old Lion who writes his own history book. There is no predator that will do it for me. It would be a serious mistake to think I am a lost sheep. So my friend, go grow your flock of bewildered believers elsewhere… In the name of FELA! Get out of my den! Get out!” Amen.

Read next: Fela’s stories: Sorrow Tears and Blood