I do not think that the politicians who want to preserve Nigeria without restructuring it love Nigeria more than other Nigerians calling for a better system. Nigerians have always against all odds persevered in being citizens of their country despite the herculean task it appears to be, as bad governance plague the land. In October, 2020, the people needed a new song. The rhythms of that new song began in the hearts of youths. This song grew loud and clear and millions of Nigerians felt liberated and indeed wanted to join in this new song. The demands of the youths were actually, if well appreciated, for the betterment of the police force and for a better society generally.
But while Nigerians were hoping to continue to thrive in the new inspirations they have just acquired, thugs conveyed in SUVs, bullets from “unknown” soldiers and an uninspiring speech were all shot at them! Now who inspires the violence in Nigeria? The people who want to sing a new song or those who never change the tune of their music even when the rhythms of time has changed!
There is a musician who hails from Nri, who was ready to sing a new song for Nigeria with me. He performed this song on my birthday in June, 2020 to the small audience in my compound. We had sat together in my house on the 21st of October, planning to sing a song to heal Nigeria with the thumb piano, an indigenous African musical instrument. The thumb piano in Igbo is called ubo-aka and it has different names in various African communities as its use is widespread across Africa. So to sing with this instrument will be a symbolic way to express our unity in diversity.
Indeed, it was with the thumb piano that I found some healing after unarmed protesters lost their lives to those who want to keep the voice of freedom silenced. I sang Bia Nulu Onu Anyi (a song of hope, calling on God to come and hear His people) originally composed by Ikoli Harcourt White and later popularized by Onyeka Onwenu. I uploaded the video on my Facebook wall to heal my friends who were all really broken.
This healed me, healed my friends and by the time this musician visited me, I asked him to bring up his old song for Nigeria which is yet to be published (even though he it has been with him for over 20 years). He told me that he last performed this song for Nigeria in 1998 during the riot that ensued after Abiola’s death. He was excited about the idea of performing it again for the country and he rehearsed for hours in my studio. Possessed by the music, he paced round the studio and occasionally talking aloud to himself.
Anyone who understands the total commitment required for the manifestation of indigenous African musicianship can relate to what was happening to him at that time. I then gave him money to buy another instrument for me at Onitsha, as we planned to also engage another indigenous Igbo musician in singing this new Nigerian song. We were still hoping that things will go out well only for my friend to go home and by the next day, his phone did not ring!
Mr. Emmanuel Nwankwo is an isolated musician who hails from and lives at Nri, in Awka South Local Government Area of Anambra State, Nigeria. To the best of my knowledge, he is the only one I know living, who makes the ubo-aka, the Igbo thumb piano. I will indeed be glad to be shown someone else who still makes the instrument in Anambra and possibly within the South-East; it shall be a pleasure to witness the person and learn something new. Onyubo, as he is popularly known, does not have anybody visiting except for a few who may want to buy his instrument.
He has no wife and children, and he both enjoys and endures total isolation in his home. When the isolation for the prevention of the spread of Covid-19 started, I figured how he will not mind but at the same time, I figured the point that will hit him. While Onyubo may not have anybody visiting him, he often performs at the village squares, bars and market places, engaging and entertaining people and making some money for himself. This keeps him going on a daily basis.
Let’s not forget the current project with my friend, Onyubo. My heart bleeds as I type. Remember I wrote that his phone was off! It remained off and I could not reach him. I was worried if he had been consumed in the violence that ensued in Onitsha. I could not place my mind together. Indeed, on Friday, 23rd October, the night came upon the afternoon in Awka as the streets were deserted and so I could not go to his house to find out if anything had happened to him. Each time my phone rang, I prayed that it should be him even before picking the call.
I was in the kitchen when a call came in and my phone was ringing in my study room. A friend who had been with me for some time now told me that Onyubo was calling. I celebrated the call before I tried to pick, but the phone had stopped ringing by the time I was done with the celebration. I eventually called him back and the thing he said next shattered my heart.
He was fine. He was not hurt, at least not any injury on the body. No one stole anything from him. He did not go to Onitsha again but instead he was headed to my house to come for the recording of “The New Nigerian Song!” He saw that the road was deserted yet he persevered and according to him: “I wanted to see things for myself”. At this time, the monster that our negligence, apathy and bad governance created had become a destructive masquerade and Surugede (the dance of the spirits) was the dance of the day! Tires were burning, chants of destruction were rising, chaos was looming.
It was rigorous finding his way to my house because there were several road blocks both by security operatives and more by angry people who were out destroying and burning tires. But he ended up turning back right at the junction that leads to my house. It was not the road blocks that scared him, it was not the deserted streets that scared him, it was not the difficulty in getting to my house that scared him, it was the words spoken by one of the protesters.
According to him, on getting close to the angry mob, one of them shouted “End Nigeria!” Onyubo continued: “How can I sing about Nigeria to these kind of angry people? They will just kill me for that. I think we should be concerned about personal developments now. I just have to focus on myself and develop myself.” This is a creative spirit despairing; you can imagine how much apathy suffered by those who are not as resilient as Onyubo.
Before you judge him for giving up easily, this man has been committed to the production of ubo-aka while living in his poor home for over 30 years. He did not yield to hunger, instead he stayed faithful to his art. But the same people he wants to inspire in his songs are broken down to the point of violence. He now lacks the courage to sing the new Nigerian song. If he was to look up to our leaders, many of them do not care. If he looks to the society, they are angry! And so he told me he was going to the “wilderness, to the forest where I can just be alone. I do not feel safe here”.
In October 2020, the time was ripe for the publication of this new song. There was only one man who could have commissioned the new Nigerian song; there is only one person who could have led this singing; there is only one person who the people hoped in 2015 to uplift the spirit, and he is the President of the country: His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari. But he read to us, a speech that summarily meant, we should not be angry with the wonderful Nigeria in his mind. That is alright, since we all, including Mr. President, have free speech enshrined in our constitution as part of our fundamental human rights. But this speech made me speechless.
However, the President asked international communities to pay attention to details before jumping into any conclusions but the very speech that was delivered lacked many vital details. I wonder only one thing: would it have been difficult to deliver the nature of speech written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? Sadly, until that kind of speech is delivered, the New Nigerian song will likely remain unsung. The danger in suppressing the desire for this new song is that silence often broods chaos, and silence nursed for too long broods chaos usually too difficult to stop. My musician friend has gone into Isolation, and this symbolizes the state of mind of the Nigerians who are disappointed in the “ordered” return to the old ways.
Fortunately, my friend Onyubo called me again on the 26th of October and he sounded hopeful. But he had not changed his mind. Instead he said this to me: ‘Look Gerald, I think we should be doing something like “Pharaoh let my people go”. I am not interested in the patriotic song at the moment.’ We both laughed out loud! He continued: “I should rather liberate the people from the Pharaoh of ignorance.” Did you read right? “The Pharaoh of ignorance.” For me this man is a genius and he is my guru.
He is not even seeing the Pharaoh to be a seating President or Governor but a mindset of ignorance sitting on many Nigerians in Governance as well as those who are not in governance. He continued: “Let’s forget about that song because musically at this moment it is not correct. Rather, I will like to steer them to move against the oppressor. It is a better musical idea”. You see Ignorance, it is such a loud thud produced by emptied vessels! Ignorance makes man the oppressor and so we must change our mindset.
In conclusion, since the youths could pull up the organizations it did during the peaceful protests, strategies on how to create a better political structure should not elude us. We have to dust our PVCs, get involved in politics, and continue with the sense of responsibility and discipline that will not mar all the efforts of those who have lost their lives. And, may the unarmed protesters who died while trying to sing the new Nigerian song inspire courage in us endlessly! We will surely find our voice and produce the New Nigerian Song.
- Gerald Eze teaches at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka.