Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Slogans for the future?

Less than 90 days to the Sunday 9 January 2011 historic south Sudan referendum for independence from the Sudan, the people have been organising mass rallies to campaign for the great day – and future. In a recent rally in Juba, the capital, two prominently displayed slogans read: “Unity by force is slavery” and “Separation means peace”. Are these contradictory expressions? Do these slogans represent the future for/of Africa? What do you think?

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Nigeria does not deserve UN Security Council permanent seat

Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe

(French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for a permanent African membership of the United Nations Security Council. Addressing a summit of  “francophonie” leaders in Montreux, Switzerland, yesterday [Saturday 23 October 2010], Sarkozy said that it is a “scandal” that Africa, a continent of 1 billion people, is not “represented” on this crucial UN body. The following essay, first published in nigeriaworld.com [12 May 2005], is reissued here as a contribution to the debate on a seat on the SC by an African country.)

It now appears very likely that Nigeria will, after all, hand over Liberian fugitive leader Charles Taylor (currently on exile in Nigeria) to the Freetown-based UN court investigating war crimes in conflicts in and around Sierra Leone. Thanks to the insistence of the US government, the Obasanjo regime is about to send Taylor to the Freetown court despite its long-held position to the contrary. The regime has until recently argued that it was against its “national honour” (whatever that means) to respond positively to the court’s request to extradite Taylor to face trial for overseeing the slaughter of 1.3 million Africans in the west central states of Liberia, Sierra Leone and (southern) Guinea whilst he was head of regime of Liberia.

Devil itself!

The irony is of course not lost on any keen observer of this development. Whatever may be the US’s strategic interests on this subject (possible Taylor links with al-Qaeda, possible Taylor involvement in millions of dollars’ worth of money laundering, possible Taylor complicity in the January 2005 attempted coup in Conakry to remove the pro-American Guinean head of regime), it has taken the intervention of a non-African power to force a disreputable African regime to hand over the head of a fellow murderous African regime to face trial for the murder of 1.3 million Africans – not 1.3 million non-Africans. African democrats are surely unencumbered by this irony. Africa’s regimes have murdered 15 million Africans across the continent in the past 40 years in appalling spates of genocide and other murders. Even if the devil itself were to lecture African regimes to stop murdering their peoples and, in the process, help prevent just one more African been annihilated by their depraved overlords, that would be readily welcomed. African populations are under siege by brutal regimes replete across Africa. The peoples require unremitting support for the right to safeguard their lives and progress from wherever in the world. Not less.

If indeed the US administration has threatened to block Nigeria’s current so-called bid for a permanent seat on a possibly enlarged UN Security Council if it continues to keep Taylor away from facing justice, as some press reports indicate, Washington has done very well. But the Americans shouldn’t lift their threat yet, even if Nigeria dispatches Taylor to Freetown. It is breathtakingly obscene for Nigeria to wish to be considered for a permanent seat at the Security Council given the ghastly human rights records of successive Nigerian regimes in the past 40 years including the current one where statecraft, at best, is run as some medieval baronial fiefdom. The US and the rest of the world should reject this “bid” out of hand. Not to do that would be to send the wrong signal to Africa – by rewarding a band of genocidist operatives who have the blood of Africans on their hands and who have in tandem pillaged an economy whose resources alone could easily have transformed all of Africa.

Age of pestilence

It mustn’t be forgotten that Nigeria inaugurated Africa’s current age of Pestilence in May 1966 when it embarked on the premeditated massacres of its Igbo population during a stretch of five months. 100,000 Igbo were murdered during what emerged as the first phase of the genocide. The following year, the regime, headed by Yakubu Gowon and genocidist “theorist”-deputy Obafemi Awolowo, expanded the territorial reach of this campaign into Igboland itself, Biafra, for the second phase. 3 million Igbo, or one-quarter of the nation’s population then, were annihilated within 30 months. Most of Africa stood by and watched, hardly critical or condemnatory of this wanton destruction of human lives, raping, sacking and plundering of towns, villages, community after community...

As the perpetrators appeared to have got off free from any forms of sanctions from Africa (and the rest of the world) for what were clearly crimes against humanity, several regimes elsewhere in Africa (alas!, including the one that would be headed 20 years later in Liberia by one Charles Taylor who was then a nondescript high school student) were “convinced” of the lessons that they had drawn from the escapades of their Nigerian counterpart: “We can murder our peoples at will. There will be no sanctions from abroad”. As a result, the killing fields of the age stretched inexorably beyond the Nigerian frontiers: Liberia, Sierra Leone, southern Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan.

In the past 40 years, Nigeria has been run by a succession of genocidist generals and other operatives (military and civilian alike) who planned, executed and sustained the Igbo genocide. The current head of regime, Olusegun Obasanjo, commanded a notorious division in south Igboland which committed indescribable atrocities as it overran cities, towns and villages. Obasanjo also ordered his airforce to destroy a clearly marked International Committee of the Red Cross DC-7 aircraft flying in urgently needed relief aid to Biafra in June 1969. Indeed, Obasanjo records this crime in his memoirs most unabashedly (see Olusegun Obasanjo, My Command [Ibadan and London: Heinemann, 1980], p. 79.). Neither Obasanjo (who has been head of regime for a total of nine years during the period) nor any of his colleagues (most of whom are still alive) has apologised or shown remorse or, most importantly, been indicted for their crimes against humanity. On the contrary. In fact Gowon, the grand overseer of the genocide, only recently told the press in Enuugwu (political and cultural capital of Igboland) that he had “nothing to apologise” to the Igbo. Before he shot himself in a Berlin bunker in 1945, few would have expected Adolf Hitler to apologise or show remorse for his organised genocide of 6 million Jews across Europe during the Second World War. Hardly anyone, though, would wish to contemplate a Hitler travelling to Jerusalem, today, to address a press conference in which he would insist categorically:  “I have nothing to apologise for the 6 million Jews my forces annihilated between 1939-1945. What I did was right”. That would be unimaginable monstrosity. But this was precisely what Gowon did at Enuugwu a fortnight ago.

Nigeria’s “bid” to join the Security Council could not have provided the world with a better opportunity to deal with the crux of contemporary Africa’s malaise: the non-accountability of Africa’s regimes which employ genocide and pillage of the economy as twin-track instrument of power. No country in Africa is more appropriate for the world to enforce this accountability than where the disease emerged in the first place on the continent – Nigeria, the quintessentially failed and genocide-state.

Now is the time for the US and the world to insist that each and every member of Nigeria’s “leaderships” who participated in the murder of 3.1 million Africans 40 years ago, and who in effect triggered the chain of mass killings of 12 million others elsewhere in the continent must be made to account for their crimes. Besides, if Nigeria is ultimately forced to hand over Taylor to face trial for the murder of 1.3 million Africans in the 1980s/1990s, then his current hosts (Obasanjo, Enaharo, Rotimi, Adekunle, Akinrinade, Abubakar, Babangida, Buhari, Gowon, Danjuma and many many others) must also be apprehended for the murder of 3.1 million Africans in the 1960s/1970s.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Wednesday night prayer meeting*

(Charles Mingus: bassist, composer)
It is no mean achievement that Charles Mingus’s music encapsulates all the critical junctures of jazz. His work with the pioneering geniuses of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Art Tatum in New York of the early 1950s gives Mingus the compositional and arranging insights that would soon be the bassist’s forte.

Few jazz scholars would now disagree that the success of that much discussed May 1953 concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall featuring the Parker Quintet (Parker, alto; Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet; Bud Powell, piano; Mingus, bass; Max Roach, drums) is not just a Parkerian triumph but equally that of the iconoclastic bassist from Los Angeles. Beginning with Mingus, the bass ceases to be merely an “accompanying” time-keeping, harmonic instrument in jazz. It still has to contend with “time-keeping”, but it has entered into the interplay as a polyphonic participant. The work of subsequent bassists particularly Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Jimmy Garrison, Scott La Faro, Gary Peacock, Eddie Khan, Charles Haden and Dave Holland attest to this Mingusian redesignation

In 1954, Mingus launched his Jazz Workshop experimentation which was to emphasise more of “group” or “collective” improvisation in jazz, away from what was then increasingly becoming the tedious and formularised “theme-solo-theme” structures of the bebop revolution that had been launched in the 1940s by the Parker-Gillespie-Thelonious Monk troika. As a critic once observed, it was not that Mingus was “avoiding Bebop, he straddled it”. He still had to absorb the great jazz heritage to move the music forward to wrestle with the new possibilities.

Creativity and rehearsals and creativity

It is therefore the case of Mingus trying to return jazz to the “group feeling” of those years of its early development in the closing decades of the 1800s. The soloist still has a great deal of space in Mingus’s thinking but their musical concepts have to develop in anticipation and in response to the polyphony of collective interaction; there are now multisided and multiple centres of creativity soon after that infectious bass intro! The act of creativity is no longer dependent on some space and time limitation. The Workshops could not distinguish between rehearsals, for instance, and real performances! Creativity during rehearsals becomes rehearsals of creativity occurring at bandstands with or without an audience (for the latter, listen to the 1962 album Mingus Presents Mingus, featuring Eric Dolphy). The music is always in a state of flux: evolving, developing, maturing, breaking up, only to form the nucleus of another centre of activity, itself interacting with other centres of the medley.

With the classic Pithecanthropus Erectus album (1956), Mingus gives notice to this sense of continuous creativity – after all, this composition is his portrait of the formulaic development of a cataclysmic human form and the (predictable?) resultant chaos that this produces in the world by the end of the 20th century. Using distinct but unusual forms of squeals, grunts, duets and harmony, the composition exacts a coherent understanding of this tragic travelogue that a 1996 earth inhabitant would perhaps be familiar with (exhaustion/appropriation/destruction of the world’s limited resources, rupture of the ozone layer) than their counterpart 40 years before. The impassioned crystalline-striking lyricism of altoist Jackie McLean, the Rollinsesque rebuttals of tenorist J R Monterose and the plodding, haunting echoes of pianist Mal Waldron strokes keep the narrative of the age on course and there is relief, at the final movement, when the pulverising destroyer falls, is destroyed.

In Blues and Roots album that follows suit, Mingus pays homage to the sacred music of his roots. The rhythmic tension at play by soloists McLean, Booker Ervin (tenor), John Handy (alto) and Jimmy Knepper (trombone) over such compositions as “Tensions”, “Moanin’”, “Cryin’ Blues” and “E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too” always calls for new insights, ever more challenging interpretations on replays. “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” is predictably such a joy and by the time this composition is confronted yet again by a new Mingus personnel line up live in Antibes, Juan-Les-Pins (France) in 1960, detailing Mingus (bass and piano), Ted Curson (trumpet), Dolphy (alto), Ervin (tenor) and Danny Richmond (drums), it has become the launching pad for intuitive flights and virtuosity.


 Mingus’s vivid commentaries on contemporary American life and worldwide developments are prolific. These samples range from ballads (“Sue’s Changes”, “1 X-Love”, “Bemoanable Lady”, “Celia”) to the very humorous (“Eat that Chicken”, “Hog Callin Blues”, “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am”, “Old’ Blues for Walt’s Torin”, “My Jelly Roll Soul”), sentimental/sensuous (“Portrait of Jackie”, “Love Chant”, “Orange was the Color of her Dress, then Blue Silk”, “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”) to outright, politically serious (“Pithecanthropus Erectus”, “Ecclusiastics”, “Passions of a Man”, “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”,“Letter to Duke”, “MDM – Monk, Duke, Mingus”, “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me”, “Meditations on Integration”, “All the Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother”, “Fables of Faubus”, “Haitian Fight Song”, “Weird Nightmare”, “So Long Eric”) and dirge – “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, Mingus’s salute to tenorist Lester Young, and of course Epitaph, his 127-minute long composition which was performed posthumously by a 30-piece orchestra at the New York’s Lincoln Center in 1989.

Nearly a decade before critics would use the term “free jazz” to describe the music of revolutionaries such as Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, etc., etc., the Mingus Workshops were already redefining and laying the foundation of new points of departure for jazz. Names of Workshops’ alumni read like the priority core zone of the restless and most adventurous innovators of the jazz directory of the era: drummers Willie Jones and Danny Richmond; trumpeters Clarence Shaw, Richard Williams, Ted Curson and Johnny Coles; altoists Jackie McLean, Charlie Mariano, John Handy, Eric Dolphy (also flute and bass clarinet virtuoso), Charles McPherson; tenorists Teo Marcero, J R Monterose, Roland Kirk, Booker Ervin and Clifford Jordan; trombonist Jimmy Knepper; pianists Mal Waldron, Jaki Byard, Horace Parlan, Roland Hanna.

*This essay was first published in the African Peoples Review (Vol. V, No. 3, September-December 1996, p. 22) under the signature of Nnamdi Nzegwu. It is reissued here in the original – HE-E

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Freedom, survival and the future

The major preoccupation of an aggressor/conqueror state is to seek to effectuate a process of memory erasure over its overrun nation and land. This is the opportunity for the conqueror to begin to construct a bogus narrative of possession and control of the targeted society that arrogates it to the fictive role of primary agent of the course of history.

The enduring success of Chinua Achebe’s Things fall Apart is that the classic not only anticipates this conqueror’s predilection but it subverts the triumphalism of the latter’s pyrrhic victory. Despite the District Commissioner’s bombastically-titled anthropological treatise at the end of the novel, heralding the latest European “possession and control” of another region of Africa, this time Igboland, the future direction of history here neither lies with the administrator nor his evolving occupation regime – nor indeed with his conquering capital back home in Europe!

To locate the source for change and transformation in Igboland, subsequently, we need to examine, carefully, the import and circumstance of historian Obierika’s address to the administrator on the life and times of his friend and people’s hero, Ogbuefi Okonkwo, who had recently committed suicide. We are reminded that as he speaks, two full sentences into a third, Obierika’s voice “trembled and choked his words”, trailing off into gasps and silences of deep contemplation. It is precisely within the context of these kaleidoscopic frames of Obierika’s recalls and introspection that we discern the sowing of the nation’s regenerative seeds of resistance and quest for the restoration of lost sovereignty. It is therefore not surprising that Okonkwo’s grandchildren would spearhead the freeing of Nigeria, to which Igboland had since been arbitrarily incorporated by the conquest, from the British occupation.

For the aggressor state with a clear genocidal goal, memory erasure of the crime scene at the targeted nation is even more frantically pursued. On the morrow of the conclusion of its execution of the second phase of the Igbo genocide in January 1970, genocidist Nigeria wheeled out pretentious cartographers to embark on erasing the illustrious name, Biafra, from all maps and records that it could lay its hand on! During its meetings, the Gowon genocidist junta in power banned the words “sun”, “sunlight”, “sunshine”, “sundown”, “sunflower”, “sunrise” or any other word-derivatives from the sun star that unmistakably reference the inveterate Land of the Rising Sun. This task and symbolism of “sun-banning” and “sun-bashing” were of course bizarre if not daft as the junta itself was to discover much sooner than later – and from a most unlikely source indeed…

At the time, a British military advisor to the junta, who was out dinning with a senior member of the council in Lagos, unwittingly compared Igbo national consciousness and tenacity with that of the Pole. The advisor, who had studied modern history at university and was a great admirer of the exceptional endurance of Polish people in history, stated that the Igbo had demonstrated similar courage in the latter’s defence of Biafra and that a “rebirth of Biafra is a distinct possibility in my lifetime” – this was unlike the 123 years it took the Polish state to re-appear in history after its disappearance from the world map! The advisor was then in his early 30s and the obvious implications of his Igbo-Polish analysis were not lost on his host. The junta member co-diner was understandably most outraged by the advisor’s crass insensitivity on the subject which he readily shared with his junta colleagues. Predictably, the immediate consequence of the hapless advisor’s impudence was an early recall home to Britain.

There were other bouts of farcical treats on display in Nigeria during the period aimed at erasing the memory of the Igbo genocide. Junta and other state publications and those of their sympathisers would print the name Biafra, a proper noun, with a lower case “b” or box the name in quotes or even invert the “b” to read “p”, such was the intensity of the schizophrenia that wracked the minds of the members of the council over the all important subject of the historic imprint of Igbo resistance and survival.

The Awolowoists and Awolowoids on the junta even toyed with the idea of abolishing money altogether in the economy of the resourceful and enterprising Igbo. They reasoned that this would deliver the final solution that had eluded them during the “encirclement, siege, pounding, and withering away”-strategy of the previous 44 months… They ended up with the “compromise” pittance of £20.00 per the surviving male-head of the Igbo family – a derisory sum, which, they reckoned, stood no chance of averting the catastrophe of social implosion they envisaged would occur in Igboland subsequently. We mustn’t fail to note that the £20.00- handout excluded the hundreds of thousands of Igbo families whose male-heads had been murdered during the period… Dreadfully, the accent placed by Nigeria on this third phase of the genocide, starting from 12 January 1970, was the economic strangulation of the 9 million Igbo survivors… 3.1 million Igbo had been murdered in the genocide between 29 May 1966 and 12 January 1970.

Igbo survival from the genocide is arguably the most extraordinary feature for celebration in an otherwise depressing and devastating age of pestilence in Africa of the past 50 years. Few people believed that the Igbo would survive their ordeal, especially from September 1968 when 8-10,000 Igbo, mostly children and older people, died each day as the overall brutish conditions imposed by the genocidist siege deteriorated catastrophically…

The Igbo were probably the only people in the world who were convinced that they would survive. And when they did, the aftermath was electrifying. In spontaneous celebration, the Igbo prefaced their exchange of greetings with each other for quite a while with the exaltation, “Happy Survival!”: “Happy Survival! Nne”, “Happy Survival! Nna”, “Happy Survival! Nwannem”, “Happy Survival! Nwanna”, “Happy Survival! Nwunyem”, “Happy Survival! Oriaku”, “Happy Survival! Dim”, ‘Happy Survival! Kedu?”, “Happy Survival! Ndeewo”, “Happy Survival! Ke Kwanu?”, “Happy Survival! Odogwu”, “Happy Survival! Okee Mmadu”, “Happy Survival! Dianyi”, “Happy Survival! Umu Igbo”, “Happy Survival! Ndiigbo”.

Igbo survival, at the end, does represent the stunning triumph of the human spirit over the savage forces that had tried determinably for four years to destroy it. Forty years on, first and second generations removed from their parents and grandparents respectively who freed British-occupied Nigeria in 1960 and survived the follow-up genocide, Ogbuefi Okonkwo’s progeny are once again tasked and poised to restore Igbo lost sovereignty. Everyone knows of their firm resolve and ability to achieve this goal. The Igbo can feel it; they feel it. Surely, the successful outcome of this endeavour is the most eagerly awaited news in Africa presently.