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What Would Fela Think of Today's Africa?


In late April of this year, the award-winning Broadway musical Fela! was staged in Lagos, Nigeria. I traveled there, at the invitation of the organizers, to watch the show. From the moment Sahr Ngaujah, the actor who portrays Fela Anikulapo Kuti, took to the stage, he channeled the late musician, and I was immediately transported back to the 1970s.

What made the experience all the more poignant was the fact that the performance was set against the backdrop of what was being labeled the freest and fairest elections Nigeria has ever had, with the victory of Mr. Goodluck Jonathan ushering in a much needed belief in the possibility of change — not only for Nigeria but for the entire West African subregion. As I sat spellbound in the audience, I couldn't help wondering what Fela would think of his country, and of our continent, if he were alive to see it now.


During the 1970s, I was in my teenage and early-adult years. It was a time when my political consciousness and sense of cultural identity were just forming, and as with so many of the people who came of age back then, the music of Fela Kuti played an instrumental role in that process.

Because of the rise of television and FM radio, and the increasing accessibility of air travel, the influence of Western culture was strong in both Ghana and Nigeria. Though we wore bell-bottoms and platform shoes, listened to James Brown and used American slang, Fela and his Afrobeat rooted us firmly in the pride of our African selves. The lyrics "I no be gentleman at all, I be Africa man original," from "Gentleman," were practically an anthem.


Although we felt that we knew who we were, nobody could say for sure anymore what Africa was. The fervor of the postcolonial independence period had died down, and Africa's future, which everyone had assumed would be bright, was now hanging in the balance. Fledgling democracies gave way to dictatorships as country after country experienced military coup after military coup.

Fela's music addressed issues of corruption, military brutality, and social as well as economic justice and gave us an outlet for our outrage and frustrations. He sang about what so many people felt but were not able to express for fear of the consequences.

His music turned him into an enemy of the state in Nigeria. He was harassed by the government and even jailed. For a period, Fela fled the country and sought refuge in Ghana, until the government here, which was growing increasingly uneasy with the rebellious nature of his music, ordered him to return to Nigeria.

That stretch of time from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, which the entire body of Fela's music documents and critiques, is often referred to as Africa's "lost decades." During those years, the continent experienced absolutely no discernible growth in any arena. Whereas once blacks in the Diaspora were clamoring to come to Africa, there was now a mass exodus, one that crippled the continent by claiming many of its most promising minds.


And then came the HIV/AIDS epidemic that further ravaged its people and, with the fear and stigma that accompanied the illness, cast a shadow on Africa's image and reputation. An unfathomable number of lives were lost to AIDS and AIDS-related complications, including the life of the man we affectionately referred to as the Black President, Fela Kuti.

Throughout history, Africa's strength has always been its ability to recover and prove to the rest of the international community that it cannot be counted out. That's precisely what is happening now. A number of the situations against which Fela raged no longer exist. Coups and military dictatorships anchored by the sort of henchmen whom Fela famously called zombies are becoming a thing of the past.


Democracy and the rule of law have taken hold. In the past year alone, at least a dozen African countries have held elections. Ghana held its last presidential election in 2008. Our economies are becoming more stable.

As a result of all of these improvements, large numbers of Africans who had fled to seek political and economic shelter in foreign lands are repatriating. This influx of educated professionals and skilled laborers is hastening the pace of development on the continent.


Nigeria, in particular, appears to be in the midst of a significant rebound. With approximately 154,729,000 residents, Nigeria is Africa's most populous country and, therefore, one of its most important. It is also one of the top 10 oil-producing nations in the world and one of Africa's largest economic hubs.

Because of corruption, poor governance and ethnic and religious tensions, Nigeria has also been one of Africa's most troubled nations. However, for a little over a decade, Nigeria's political progress was steady. When Gen. Sani Abacha, its last military ruler, died suddenly in 1998, the country slowly found its way back to democracy. An interim government was put in place, elections were held and power was handed over to the winner, Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo.


A former soldier, Obasanjo had previously been head of state. This time, however, he served not as a military ruler but as a popularly elected president. He served two terms and then handed over power to Mr. Umaru Yar'Adua, who won in an election that was widely criticized by independent observers and political opponents, who alleged voter irregularities.

In 2010, when health problems led to Yar'Adua's death, with a year of his term in office remaining, his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, had to step into the role of president. It was an unforeseen occurrence, and there was speculation as to what might happen next. There was a lot of uncertainty.


Everybody wondered what the next election might bring and whether Jonathan could truly stand — and win — on the weight of his own strength and leadership. The fact that he did, with nearly 60 percent of the vote, was a sign of hope. Nigeria was indeed moving forward.

One of the biggest challenges to recovery that Nigeria and most other African nations have had to face has been the battle with HIV/AIDS. But even there, statistics show that Africans are winning. Jonathan and I are both in the United States this week, as are more than a dozen other African heads of state, to attend sessions at the United Nations High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS to figure out what additional steps we can take to further reduce the prevalence of the disease in our respective countries. The incidence of the disease and its related illnesses is relatively low in both Ghana and Nigeria, at less than 4 percent of their populations. But we can do better, and I believe that we will.


As I watched the immense talent that Sahr Ngaujah and the other cast members of Fela! displayed that evening in Lagos and was reminded of Fela's outspokenness, I had to concede that if he were alive, he would still find plenty to sing about.

One of my favorite songs in Fela's repertoire is "No Agreement." It is about the importance of speaking up in the face of injustice, something that all Africans have been doing of late, without the fear of consequence, by raising our voices and by casting our votes. And this, I am sure, would surely have made the Black President proud! "No agreement today, no agreement tomorrow/I no go agree make my brother hungry/Make I no talk."


John Dramani Mahama, the vice president of the Republic of Ghana, is writing a nonfiction book about Africa.

In a previous version of this article the year of Ghana's last presidential election was misstated, due to an editor's error.

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