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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #8

A Meeting of the Minds
(Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti in Conversation with Pini Jason)

The Chinua Achebe Foundation

Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti was

Dr. Beko ransome-Kuti

Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti

born into an extraordinarily gifted family on 2 August 1940 in Abeokuta, Ogun State. He first attended Mrs. Kuti’s Class, Abeokuta from 1945 to 1950, Abeokuta Grammar School (1951-56), Coventry Technical College, England (1957-58) and University of Manchester (1958-63). He qualified as a medical doctor with M.B.C; Ch.B (1963) Fellow of the Medical College of Nigeria in General Medical Practice, (F.M.C.G.M.P) (1984) and Fellow West African College of Physicians (FWACP) (1986).


From 1964 to 1977, Dr. Beko worked in several Government hospitals before establishing his own private practice. He was President of Nigerian Students in Manchester, Chairman, Association of Resident Doctors, Member, Lagos state interim hospital Management Board, and Chairman Lagos Chapter of Nigerian Medical Association.


He held several other national posts in the Nigerian Medical Association and was member and later chairman of Lagos University Teaching Hospital board. As a civil society activist, Beko belongs to several Non-Governmental Organisations. He is chairman of Campaign for Democracy; President, Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, and Executive Director, Centre for Constitutional Governance. He has written and delivered over 35 papers in Nigeria and abroad on various issues on Human Rights. He is married with four children.




P.J:   Let us begin with the on-going debate about the National Conference. The Government has convened its own conference while the civil society groups insist on a conference based on ethnic nationalities. Given Nigeria’s problems, what is the intrinsic value that a conference such as the civil society groups are asking for can add to Nigeria that the government’s conference cannot?


BRK:  Don’t forget that the issue of a sovereign national conference started as far

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back as 1990 when many of us did not even know what it meant. It was an attempt by General Babangida to extend his tenure as military president for another ten years, and started the whole process in the sense that he flew a kite through some retired ambassadors and permanent secretaries about the possibility of convening a national conference to ask him to stay in power for ten years. Thus, he would have five years as president, with a representative of one of the two parties he had just created – the Social Democratic Party, SDP or the National Republican Convention, NRC -- then as prime minister for another five years in the second party. This would ensure that he would stay in the background as president for stability.


So you could see that had his suggestion come through, he would have been in power ‘til year 2000. However, a number of politicians, who were afraid that for the next ten years they would be shut out, ran to Aka Bashorun who then consulted me and asked for help. We offered a different suggestion which we referred to as Another Memorandum to Nigerians – it was basically an agreement there should be a National Conference, but that Nigerians should be able to choose how they should be ruled, and who should rule them. The IBB group agreed to co-sponsor the conference with us, but lost interest when it came to the question of deciding how the delegates would be selected. We asked that the organizations choose their own representatives, and at that point they balked and eventually tried to kill the conference.


We tried to forge ahead, but eventually the government was able to abort our attempt. It was after the conference was terminated that the body organizing the conference -- the National Consultative Forum -- now metamorphosed into the Campaign for Democracy (CD) whose main aim was, basically, to remove the military. It was then decided that there was a need for a National Conference, but it had to be Sovereign. So that is the origin of the National Conference. And that agitation has being going on from that time; it became more pronounced during the June 12 protests for the simple reason that (MKO) Abiola agreed, as one of the conditions, to hold the National Conference if the Campaign for Democracy would back him.


Interestingly, what June 12 threw up was that the issue of ethnicity was a very prominent one in Nigeria; one could hardly deal with any issue, in fact, without the ethnic factor cropping up. So we thought that was the way to go about it; that the ethnic nationalities would find a way to accommodate themselves, instead of the perpetual killings and riots that had characteristically become a part of it. And that is how we progressed to that position. But after Abiola died, (Gen Abdulsalami) Abubakar refused to go along as previously planned. He imposed his own constitution on us, and we got (President) Obasanjo. Of course Obasanjo, as well, refused to hold a conference and became increasingly hostile. With the result of the 2003 election, we came to the conclusion that in 2007, we would be merely faced with yet another recycling of the same old people – whose tactic was always to choose each other as a way of retaining power. There had to be a major effort to prevent this from happening. This was why we began to meet over debates to convene the conference without the government; because we were certain that if Obasanjo called one, he would manipulate it.


Q. Of what use will your conference be if the result cannot be legislated into law?


A. Well, there are different scenarios. If the process is to proceed in the proper manner, it should begin at the grassroots so that people in local communities and local governments can be involved. They would hold meetings, and their representatives would be selected there. The next stage is at the state level from which representatives would also emerge. By the time the conference would actually be taking place, the citizenry would have been mobilized to such an extent that the government would have no choice, but to cooperate with us or give way…and there would be a new government, however it is formed. The (Obasanjo) government would be weakened, because the whole country would be mobilized against it. The other alternative is to do things the best way we can, and retain the results as a reference for whatever happens in future -- as an example of what came out of our attempts at convening a national conference. Whichever way it went, we thought it a better option than just sitting down, and allowing this charade that is presently going on.


Q. You have earlier mentioned the upsurge of ethnic discontent.  As a medical doctor, wouldn’t you say these things are more or less symptoms of a failure of leadership; the failure of the state itself to intervene, mediate, and arbitrate the people’s interests? After all, everybody’s anger is with the Nigerian state.


A. That is not correct. At a point, the Ijaws from the Niger Delta came to

Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti

Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti

Lagos, and indulged in a bloody riot, because they claimed part of Lagos was Ijaw territory. So there have been ethnic problems all over the country. These problems did not originate in a vacuum. If you go back to the pre-independence days, the Northerners made sure people from the South did not come to the North, because they feared the South would try to influence the way they ruled their people. The British also did not encourage it. Lagos was pretty cosmopolitan, but as things began to develop, the National Council for Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) became Igbo; the Action Group sprung up as a Yoruba party; the Northern Peoples Congress began as a Hausa-Fulani party with the Middle Belt people opposing them. So the ethnic issue is just not a new thing. And it is an issue that either has not been addressed or is impossible to address. This is why we think it is important that our diverse nationalities should, at some point, sit down to decide what kind of intervention we want from government that would hopefully alleviate, ameliorate, or remove these problems. But just to say that the issue is one of a failure of government -- I think the deep hostility and suspicion in the country goes further than that.




Q. What is it that frustrates you most about this country?


A. The obvious fact that a group of people have captured state power, are using it for their own benefit, and recycling themselves in order to remain in power by co-opting a few here and there to promote their interest…but mostly, the powerlessness of the people! We complain a lot; but in analysis a very major problem exists. And so, frustration readily sets in... Thus, if the idea is to, perhaps, introduce a different system in the hopes of promoting the peoples’ power, there might appear to be a slight improvement, yes. Sadly, however, it appears that in these times, to achieve even the slightest improvement means the decision that one is ready to commit suicide.


Q. Have you been able to put your finger on what accounts for this civil society powerlessness or helplessness? Is it the use of ethnicity and religion to divide the people?


A. I don’t think it is the issue of the people themselves. I think, in the final

analysis, that the cause is simply related to the poverty of the majority. You don’t have many people who are financially independent, and thus are able to take a stand without the fear of overpowering repercussion. When I was involved with medical politics, the army was involved in ridiculous things such as appropriating national funds. I would go to doctors in very high positions and ask -- why don’t you do something about this? They would, however, reply, what do you expect us to do? But can’t you resign? I would then say. Of course, they would look at me askance; I didn’t appreciate their difficulties then. Now, however, I can see that even those who did not resign, but retired at the end of their career, have problems receiving their pension today. So for one to ask them at that point to resign, it was almost like asking them to commit suicide. Now, if people in such positions—permanent secretaries, directors-general—are not able to stop people from stealing government money, what can all of us shouting outside do?


Q. I remember an encounter; funny, in retrospect, but actually significant when one thinks about it now. We were attending a conference in Abuja, and we were booked at the Nicon Hilton. At the front desk, we were provided with forms to fill, and you came to the point where one’s ‘nationality was requested.’ You turned to me and said you were going to fill in ‘Yoruba.’ Now, how much, really, do you care about Nigeria?


A. In the present form, not very much. You know, in the early nineties, we were being arrested and taken to police stations. And when we got to the police station, we were asked to fill out a form. Usually, the forms did not request one’s ‘nationality,’ but, rather, one’s ‘tribe.’ I would then scratch out tribe, and write ‘Nigerian,’ because I did not see the point of it. I thought the major problem at that time was with the military; that once we were able to get rid of the army, things would begin to change for the best. Well, the situation peaked after June 12, and then I saw that the problem was not simply about a group or class of people, but really, it was an ethnic issue. Everyone had to defend his own position, if possible, try and make progress on one’s own and not let other people pull them back. It was at that point that I decided it was much better for each ethnic group to try and find its own destiny, rather than pretend to be chasing “the Nigerian dream” -- which to me does not exist. People just got whatever advantage they could from that notion and nothing more! After all within the Yoruba ethnic group, we can fight among ourselves, we can cheat ourselves, but at least we will not be able to say we are not Yoruba! But anyone can pretend to be ‘Nigerian’ while pursuing his own selfish interests.


Q. Is the Nigerian dream possible?


A. It is possible after a National Conference; in other words, all of us must agree on certain things. For example, in most instances, we must all agree on a system of merit -- that if we all sit for the same exam, merit will be the measure for success. One cannot run a hundred yards race, then at the end of the race, begin to adjust results; the person who came first -- where did he come from? Thus, the second must come from a different place, and so on. There is no point in running the race or sitting for the exam, then! Let people simply send representatives... I know there are some ceremonial positions where one may rotate posts or whatever one likes; but this should not happen with serious matters like sitting for exams or qualifications for official posts.




Q. You are associated with the Oodua Peoples Congress, OPC. People have been concerned with the preponderance of ethnic violence perpetrated by ethnic militias. Do you, as a doctor, have any qualms about your association with OPC?


A. Not at all, if you understand how things began…from what I have already told you! At a point in time, it was eminently clear that there was nothing like “Nigeria,” and that everybody had to find his own salvation the best way he could. It was at this point that we started encouraging people to take their ethnic origin more seriously. Even within the Campaign for Democracy, we were encouraging each group to begin to defend its own area. And I know we encouraged the Yoruba youths to form something. It was at the early stage of that that I was arrested and put in prison.


I think some of us at the time were thinking that an armed conflict in this country might be necessary, and so people had started making arrangements for that. So, OPC was really a minor development. But when I came back from prison, OPC had become well established, and then somebody tried to split the group. It was at that point that I became personally involved; to try to strengthen an OPC that was headed towards factionalising. So, no; I have no qualms about the concept of the OPC; I have no qualms about my ethnic orientation, and there is nobody who can convince me that the Hausa-Fulani man is not looking after his own interest. You cannot tell everybody, I am sorry; but you are all Nigerians! Unity! One Nation, One God! I mean, whoever says that is just pretending, because what people are doing is not what is being preached.


Q. The census, later part of this year, is going to exclude ethnic origin and religion from the data it plans to collect. What is your reaction to that?


A. Well, it is the same game we are still playing. What is wrong in getting figures? The idea is that the factual numbers of the Igbo or the Yoruba are unknown, and therefore, we are all Nigerian. The trouble with that is that people have been using figures we got from such a long time ago to their own advantage. And we suspect that these figures might either have been incorrect or since then altered. Yet certain groups insist on employing these arbitrary figures so as to receive certain advantages.




Q. You have gone through CD, NADECO, OPC, Citizens Forum, and now PRONACO. Why the mutative process; at what point does one idea become another?


A. Change is the reason for this -- that things should improve; that we should live in a better society, whatever it takes! I started in the Nigerian Medical Association in the early seventies, because there were no civil society organizations and the level of medical practice was seriously declining. So we thought we should, perhaps, do something about the situation; I joined the Lagos State NMA, basically to see what we could do within our competence, at the time. Looking back now, most of the changes were temporary. But at least, at the time, we did make some difference.


I branched out of medical politics when the Civil Liberties Organisation was formed. Some of us were impressed and wanted to join, but the structures of CLO did not take care of the possibility of other classes of people joining, and there were cases of human rights abuses that CLO could not deal with. So we formed the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, and it dawned on us that unless we formed a coalition, the people in the army would remain in power forever. So between the CDHR, CLO and other groups like ASUU and NANS, we now formed Campaign for Democracy. CD was active until Abiola reached an agreement with Abacha, and things appeared to calm down. When Abiola saw that Abacha was trying to con him that was the point at which the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) came in -- a much bigger coalition. We went to prison, and when we came out, NADECO was terminated. Then I started this NGO -- Centre for Constitutional Governance. Of course the nation was still faced with the same problem, so we tried to form Citizens Forum in coalition with some other groups to try and address the problems of the country.


The Conference of National Political Parties, CNPP, in an attempt to remove Obasanjo, went round the whole country mobilizing civil society groups. However, they discovered that most civil society groups were just not prepared to remove Obasanjo for nothing; they insisted there must be a Sovereign National Conference. The CNPP and some civil society groups now formed the United Action for Democracy, UAD, trying to stage a National Conference. Some of us who had the idea of a Sovereign National Conference, thought that instead of UAD doing its own National Conference, Citizens Forum doing its own, other people doing their own, why don’t we all try and form a single group? That was when the consultation started; we had arrived at an advanced stage, when Obasanjo came up with his own initiative. When we wanted to start this National Conference, we called all pro-national conference groups together to streamline the modalities. That was how PRONACO came about.


Q. The Citizens Forum you refer to is different from Citizens Forum for Constitutional Reforms?


A. Very different!


Q. If someone gave you this term (because it has always been used by Nigerian leaders) -- ‘unity in diversity,’ what will your interpretation of it be?


A. It will be unity after a Sovereign National conference. There can never be unity because everybody has different agendas. There can never be unity, and that has been proved since 1914. At every point in time, everybody retreats to his own ethnic group. After independence, it was the same thing; when the army came, it was the same thing, and after the army, the same thing! So let us decide how we are supposed to relate with each other. As for now, every body pretends that there is one Nigeria -- that this is a great country, the giant of Africa! But we have only used the concept for our own local advantage.


Q. Does it surprise you that President Obasanjo, who, apart from being a Southerner, and has also been a victim of the skewed state that the advocates of National Conference believe can be corrected through such mechanism, instead of trying to create the space for that, is rather trying to short circuit it?


A. With hindsight, it doesn’t. Obasanjo is someone who has always thought of his space in history as he perceives himself. I remember in the Babangida era, he was anti-Babangida, and he came out and made statements against Babangida and so on. He even formed an association on Good Governance, which he later disbanded. So he is not entirely anti-progressive. I remember, I was once detained in Kuje prison, and after few months, we were released. One of Obasanjo’s wives, who was interested in pro-democracy work, tried to get both of us together. I went to his house for lunch, and all he could talk about was how great he is. That he is the greatest Nigerian that ever lived, that he has been an army general; that he took the instrument of surrender (from the Biafrans); that he was Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters; he was Head of State; he is the first this, he is the first that. He said he was a Minister. So what he has been no other Nigerian has ever been!


Now, if you follow that, you will see that after he left prison, the 1999 Constitution was worked out between him, Abdulsalami, and Babangida. And it was what they thought he needed to get the country going the way they thought it should go. So for him now to give that up and allow people to decide how they want to rule themselves, I think it just does not fit. That is why he is opposed to a Sovereign National Conference. A group saw him recently (I was supposed to be part of that delegation, but I refused to go) and they were talking about resource control, and he said: “There is no resource control. I fought in the war. I was ambushed during the war. How can somebody now come and say there is resource control anywhere?” That is why he is Chairman of the Commonwealth, Chairman of the OAU. That is the kind of thing that interests him; so that he can say he is the only Nigerian who has been this, who has been that; I don’t think he bothers very much about the country as he bothers about his own CV.




Q. The Oputa Panel Report made a statement that is quite interesting. The term, marginalisation, has over the years, almost been patented by the Igbo. But here comes Oputa Panel, saying that every ethnic group in Nigeria is marginalized. One may want to question that. How can the Yoruba also say they are marginalized? 


A. I think that it is just a wrong use of words, because if you are going to be marginalized, somebody has to marginalize you, unless everybody has marginalized himself. Even if you say the army has marginalized everybody, the soldiers themselves come from different ethnic groups. I think the word was first used by the Igbo after the war. Before the army took over, the Igbo could not have claimed that they were marginalized. I am not sure they were not the ones people said were marginalizing others. But certainly, after the war, if they said they were marginalized, they can prove it. Later, most other groups were complaining that the far North was marginalizing everybody else. I think it was after the handover in 1999 that the North themselves started to claim that they were marginalized. So people use marginalization in different contexts, and with different contents. I think Oputa was just trying to play safe by saying everybody in the country is marginalized.


Q. I want to put it another way. The Yoruba say they are uncomfortable in Nigeria. Considering everything, could they rightly say that they, as a group, are uncomfortable?


A. Well, don’t forget that the Western Region was ahead in almost everything, at one time. But all the gains made then have been destroyed by the army and by this centralized Nigeria. So when they say they are uncomfortable, they are uncomfortable with what could be; what they feel is their potential; that they are being dragged backwards; they cannot move and are, can I use the word, marginalized? (laughter). Anyway, they are disadvantaged; they cannot live up to their potential. During the June 12 annulment they felt the Hausa-Fulani were directly targeting them; I think they were getting ready to face that danger. But as of now, I think they are more uncomfortable with the fact that they are being restricted, they are restrained by this concept of One Nigeria with a strong center.



Q. This administration, for the past five years, has been trying to fight corruption. Yet year in, year out, the country ends up either first or second on the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. What do you think is wrong with the crusade against corruption?


A. The way corruption has been handled in the last five years, it seems that the man in charge is not taking the issue seriously, because corruption is endemic. There is nowhere you go to that you don’t find some corrupt practices. Even a messenger in the ministries would demand money from you just to move your file from one table to the other, not to talk of those who have to work on the file itself. I think, to tackle corruption, it is not just enough to set up bodies like the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, or the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. What you have to put in place is systematic and systemic arrangement.


For example, the police can be mandated to prosecute criminal cases. I do not see why the police cannot pursue cases and follow them to their logical conclusion without having to report every case to the president. And what happens is that when you report a case to the president, it means you are now asking for a subjective decision on these matters. I think the rule of law must be seen to operate. And what the president should be doing is to make sure the rule of law is adhered to and that if anybody tries to destabilize that system, then he may intervene to make sure things takes the proper course. What we have had so far, really, is that the president himself chooses what to prosecute and what not to prosecute. The most obvious one is the Uba-Ngige case in which he, himself, claimed that he caught two armed robbers fighting over the spoils of their crime. One would have thought that the first thing would have been for him to refer the case to the police for prosecution, and not for him to turn it into “a family affair,” which has now buried the matter conclusively. Until we have somebody at that level who is really serious about corruption, and provides a means that those who are disadvantaged by corrupt practices can refer to and get some relief, I don’t think we will ever solve the problem.




Q. There has been a general clamour for the removal of the immunity clause in the Constitution. What do you think is the solution to the problem with the immunity clause?


A. I am a bit reluctant to have the immunity clause removed. Removing the immunity clause is not the major thing; the major thing is that we are just not prepared to follow the rule of law. The immunity clause says that when those concerned, leave their post, they can be prosecuted. If they know they are going to be prosecuted, there should be no reason why they will not be prosecuted once they leave office. We have had a few governors who have left office and who have allegations of widespread corruption against them; yet nothing has happened to them. I think this is partly why people want immediate action. But how do you now reconcile immediate action with the president going to court every month on a corruption charge, or on a criminal charge, and when he leaves the court he goes back to what he was doing? Where does it end? On the other hand, I suppose the system seems to have been abused so much that people are looking for drastic and immediate action. I would rather err on the side of putting our systems in place, enforcing them, and making sure they work.




Q. You run this NGO called Centre for Constitutional Governance. What is your concept of Constitutional governance, and what are the benefits that should flow from that?


A. Good governance is when you can see progress; when you can see things improving from the general disorder, when you can see less corruption, when you can see less impunity, when people can go about their daily business without being harassed by officials…and, maybe, when there is a general increase in prosperity. Basically, when people can live a more settled life -- when you are driving on the street and all that is required is that you have your driver’s license on you; a policeman will not ask for your fire extinguisher in order to extort money from you.








Q. In spite of all that has been discussed about the need for the various ethnic nationalities to brainstorm together for understanding, people still say that our problems are a result of practicing foreign government models that our people hardly understand, anyway.


A. It may be so.

Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, Jimmy Carter, Obasanjo

Nigeria 1989. Nigerian Health Minister Olikoye RANSOME-KUTI (left), Former U.S. President Jimmy CARTER (center), and Nigerian President Olusegun OBASANJO (right) at an experimental farm Copyright : © Eli Reed / Magnum Photo

But on the other hand, there are hundreds of models in existence. The Hausa-Fulani model is not the same as the Yoruba model; it is not the same as the Igbo model. So we still have to agree on something. Obviously, with the kind of problems we have, I am sure the Yoruba will not agree to practice the Hausa-Fulani model. I think the idea that there was ever an African model of anything has been rubbished; even within
Nigeria, we talk of a Nigerian model! I think the basic thing, really, is that whatever model we are going to adopt, we have to sit down and agree that it is specifically what we want. The suggestion of a Nigerian model was first made in our first National anthem: though tribe and tongue may differ, unity…but the concept of Nigeria, itself, has been rubbished.


Q. Why is it that Nigeria cannot play with its first eleven in terms of evolving a leadership?


A. Well, it is for the simple reason that we have not agreed amongst ourselves to give the system of merit a chance. We are still messing around with quotas and so on. And so the most corrupt and the most manipulative seem to gravitate to the top. It is part of the problems we have. We are always compromising, and it is very difficult to play on merit. Usually, on the Nigerian stage, it is those who can sell out their people who make it to the top; whereas when we are playing at the ethnic level, a better type of person usually emerges, because we are then seeking someone of wholesome character.




Q. You have been incarcerated on numerous occasions by various governments. The important thing, however, is that you’ve been through all of these encounters that have, at times, almost cost you your life, and yet you are still at it. Why have you not given up the fight?


A. I actually don’t see it that way. One takes actions. One knows the possibilities associated with activism. As a matter of fact, if you are not arrested, there is a great possibility that your actions are not very effective. So, if you are arrested for your civil rights activities, you begin to develop ideas on how best to get out of bad situations. These are simply the consequences of the necessary steps one has to take as an activist. And if you discount these repercussions as part of your ordeal, then you might as well not start. So for me, incarceration is nothing I regret as such; it is not a big deal.


Q. There were times people thought you had been compromised, especially when you took up the Chairmanship of the Board of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH. But it wasn’t long before you fell out with the government. Why did you accept to operate at that level?


A. As I mentioned, we started


Professor Olikoye ransome-Kuti

Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti

very early at the medical association level, on medical health delivery in the country. Under the Babangida era, my brother was made the Minister of Health, so I did have some influence on what was going on at the Health delivery level, especially as it concerned doctors. LUTH was the litmus test. Dr. Ore Falomo was a very fiery medical activist, and used to be chairman of the Lagos State NMA. He was also national treasurer, and a friend of Babangida, and so, he was appointed the Chairman of LUTH. But LUTH was a very hot place, with the doctors there not prepared to do any work….or, perhaps, they were merely being recalcitrant.


We took a decision to have a confrontation with them. But the doctors organised themselves, and managed to push my brother to remove Dr Falomo. My brother then got a very seasoned administrator, Dr Sholeye, to become the chairman. Within a few months, the doctors went back to their nonchalant attitude. People were dying in the emergency room; they were not being seen in the wards. My brother said something had to happen again. But I said to him, now you have a problem. You had somebody who was strict; they influenced you to remove him, and then you had a seasoned administrator whom they also forced you to remove. You now have the problem of appointing someone else. My brother said – “well, God will provide somebody.” So after a month, he said the situation had been under consideration, and it was thought that I would have to do the job. Now, I have a reputation of being very tough… (…whether I am tough is another thing). I asked him – “are you sure you can stand it, because I am worse than Falomo! I won’t tolerate all the things he tolerated.” That was how I became the chairman of LUTH. And of course we tackled the doctors there, and within a month everybody had started reporting for duty, and the place started to function. But not too long after, I was sacked by the military because they were not prepared to take criticism.


Q. The Medical Association you led at that time was a kind of crusading organization. But it seems that the Association is now completely moribund.


A. Terrible! Terrible! It was a fighting organization. And we were bent on improving things. Things actually improved, though it was only temporary. We lost all the gains we made at that time. But I think that this time we are back to the Nigerian fashion of just sharing posts; and posts are shared among the different states, every two years. Hopefully, the futility of that will be revealed and stopped.


Q. When Nigerians, especially those in Lagos, became acquainted with you, you were the quiet, urbane, corporately attired medical doctor, who was always around to get Fela out of a police cell or prison. Then what a transition! Beko himself became the activist. Was this evolution a sudden or gradual process?


A. It arose from the problems that the medical profession was having at the time. There were no drugs in the hospitals, there were no mortuaries that functioned; just dead people lying about on the streets. Nothing was happening, and a group of young Lagos doctors led by Dr Ore Falomo began to protest the situation, and they started getting things done. That was how people who felt that there should be an improvement in the medical services began to join the NMA and the crusading activities of the NMA was born. Then I became the state chairman. In trying to get things going, I was forced to become the Secretary-General. Then I became a Vice President.




Q. The family of a priest is usually expected to be a conservative one. The priest’s wife usually takes charge of the Christian Mothers, and his children generally behave as they are told. However the Reverend Ransome-Kuti family produced four individuals that were radicals in their own way. Of course historians will not also forget that your mother, the much-revered Fumilayo Ransome-Kuti, was, in her own time, a political activist. What was the Ransome-Kuti family like with the, if you like, contradictions in terms of personalities?


A. Well, I don’t know that there were contradictions in the family as such, because the reverend and his wife grew up at a time when people were anxious to develop their society. For example, Abeokuta Grammar School was built by ordinary people who literally carried the blocks that built the school. My father, who was then a student at the CMS Grammar School in Lagos, had to leave in his final year so that he could go to Abeokuta Grammar School and help with the teaching while he was studying for his School Certificate examination. So people were all involved in trying to build up their society. And while they were doing that, my mother was also trying to encourage women to teach people how to read and write. That was the kind of organization that was going on at that time.


My father was not the type of reverend who only held Sunday school meetings and services. Don’t forget that at that time, there were not very many highly qualified people around. So I believe even that function was mandatory and forced on them. I mean, people didn’t have much choice. And with the white people around, you also had to defend the rights of your people, and make sure the whites behaved themselves. As a result, people were very conscious of what was going on around them, and this was infused into their students at school and in their children. So you couldn’t really help not being aware of what was going on around you, and if things were not proceeding along correctly, then you had to try and do something about it.


Q. Was there no regimentation in the family?


A. There was a lot of regimentation! At that time the general principle was that if you spared the rod, you spoiled the child. So there was a lot of beating going on, generally. And we suffered even more because our parents were trying to pretend that they were even-handed. So they beat us twice as much as they beat everyone else. The school then was very strict. It was noted for taming wild boys sent from all over Nigeria.


Q. Were there students from other ethnic groups in the school?


A. They were mainly from the old Mid-West and the East. And I think special effort was made to recruit them. At the time very few Northerners attended school. In fact, I can’t remember any Northerner who was a student then.


Q. In the midst of these other students then -- did you really, at that time, see yourself as a Yoruba, per se; or just another Nigerian?


A. I am not sure that the concept of Nigeria was at all concrete then. I think at that time, we were thinking more of Africa, rather than Nigeria. Even in later years when we left school, we were more of Nkrumah’s followers in the sense of One Africa rather than One Nigeria. We didn’t think there should be differences between black people. So Nigerianness was not the prominent factor. Don’t forget that our parents were not born Nigerians! They were born before 1914…so they only acquired the Nigerian nationality.


Q. As Chinua Achebe once said, “Nigerian citizenship is an acquired taste!”


A. (General laughter).


Q. Now who influenced you more -- your mother or your father?


A. I think both. What you could read from both of them was a genuine concern for their environment. My father was very good at music and he composed numerous songs. He composed the Egba National anthem! He was not necessarily thinking of Nigeria; he was thinking in terms of Yoruba nationhood. When my father died, my mother carried the Nigerian vision a bit further, which was why she joined the NCNC, because the NCNC at that time was the one group focusing on the concept of One Nigeria, whereas the NPC and the Action Group were more interested in a Federation of the regions. She transmuted from ‘One Africa’ to ‘One Nigeria;’ but in her last year she had become disillusioned.


Q. She was disillusioned? Why?


A. Well, she could not believe the extreme and brutal treatment she received from the Army; even in her wildest dreams. She did not think such barbarity existed anywhere, especially not in the Nigeria we were all jumping around for. So she was disillusioned.


Q. You were born into what, at that time, could be called an upper class family. You also ended up with a distinguished career as a medical doctor. So you could easily have been cocooned away from society and its problems. What made the turning point for you -- from this rich-boy background to a person as sensitive to the issues around you as to have become a civil activist?


A. I think it was the atmosphere in which I grew up. You could call my parents activists…and they were! They disapproved of people who were not concerned with their environment, and encouraged working with organizations. While my father was forming the Nigerian Union of

Teachers, my mother was forming women’s associations. My parents encouraged everyone and showed the importance of organizations and associations. It certainly meant that you did not think of yourself as special. They discouraged that very, very actively in my siblings and me! So it was very difficult to grow up and think of yourself as someone special who had privileges.


 Q. Did you ever have role models; who are they?


A. Not as such.


Q. None?


A. I can only think of my parents.


Q. How religious are you?


A. I have been an atheist for 44 years! That has been as far back as when I was at the University of Manchester.



Q. That is curious; rather strange for the son of a Reverend gentleman!


A. Well, my parents were not very religious. Although my father was a Reverend, I


Chief Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti


Chief Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

Chief Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

think he initially wanted to become a lawyer. But he was pushed into his profession…he never robed unless a friend died, or somebody close was getting married; perhaps, once or twice in school during Founders Day or Valedictory service. He always got to church very late. So I don’t think he was very religious, and he never really preached religion to you. My mother was neither here nor there, although she claimed she was religious. Towards the end of her life, I was gradually convincing her to be an atheist. And I almost succeeded.





Q. What was it like growing up with the legendary Fela as a brother?


A. Very frustrating!


Q. Why?


A. He was always up

Brother Fela Anikulakpo-Kuti

Fela Anikulapko-Kuti


Fela Anikulakpo-Kuti

Fela and Saxophone


Fela in live 'fête de l'humanité', Paris, 1986

to one thing or the other! He was almost two years older than I am, but he started school just a year ahead of me. As usual with the last born, I was pushed very early to school because there was no one at home to play with. So he was only a year ahead of me. And in secondary school, he didn’t get in after the first Entrance examination, so we were in the same class, together. However, he played so much that he neglected his studies and so, failed that first year. I had to leave him behind. He complained bitterly that he could not repeat the same class, especially since I would now be his senior. But my mother told him that he should have thought of that consequence and faced his studies. He took things very easy; yet he would attempt things you would not think were possible. As strict as our parents were, he drove their car when they were not in, knowing that had they caught him, they would almost have killed him!





Q. It is often said that his creative genius carried him over the brink; that he indulged himself in a self-destructive lifestyle. How true is this?


A. The only lifestyle that proved

Fela and his women

Fela and his women

destructive was just a coincidence, because from a comparatively early stage, he believed that sex was the greatest gift God has given human beings and that he would be sinning if he did not wallow in it. So he tried to engage in as much sexual activity as he could. It was just unfortunate for him that AIDS became pandemic. Of course, when he started, no one had the idea that AIDS was in the offing…but even then, he would have convinced himself that there was nothing like AIDS. It is just one of those things; all the other things that he did were not destructive.


Q. He smoked hemp...


A. Hemp is not destructive. I could see that he could not help it. I’ll take the example of many artistes in the Western world. Many of them are into all kinds of drugs…and hemp is a mild drug. Some might feel some shock upon initially hearing this; I remember that when he came back from America, my oldest brother called me one day, and said that he had heard that Fela now smoked hemp. I said, yes, I know, and he retorted, so you know? I said yes; but what is the medical position on hemp? He said, Well, I was not thinking of it from that angle… The medical position, at that time, was that marijuana was not addictive. I don’t know about that now. I think there is still some debate about it, but what there is no debate about is that marijuana is a mild drug.


When Fela traveled and asked me to look after his club, Afro Spot, I had to employ different bands to come there and play, and I could see that due to their lifestyle they needed something to pep them up. Because it was not possible, day in day out, sometimes with very few customers, to pretend to be always happy, especially when one is jumping up and down; it must be very tough. So I could relate with him that it was not something, if you were an artiste, you could easily do without.


Q. What would you say was his significance as a musician and a social critic?


A. He understood his trade. I mean he was a very accomplished musician. I am not saying that from my own observation, but from world renowned musicians, like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder; people I have met who told me that my brother was someone extraordinary. So from what I have gathered from people like that, he was an outstanding musician. And I think part of his self-centeredness, which is not uncommon with musicians, made him very intense, in the sense that when he wanted something, he didn’t brook anybody trying to distract him from it. That was why he resisted the army very viciously trying to disrupt his shows.  His comments, as well, about what was going on in the country, I think, are very insightful. Many of them are relevant today. He might have gone off the track in trying to reject Christianity and Islam…but he had adopted the African -- not really religion as such – but rather, African concept; the African way of looking at things. He believed that Africans possessed and had access to important supernatural powers, many of which they had lost when the new religions came along. Thus, he was often involved in trying to revive these lost powers. This did not really have much to do with religion, be it African or whatever; it was, perhaps, more to do with African culture…however, he delved into that, and it also created problems for him.


Q. How much of his philosophy or worldview did you share?


A. Not much.


Q. Anyone could have sworn that you agreed with everything Fela said.


A. (Laughs) On the contrary! We agued over everything, and we were at loggerheads all the time. He used to try to make fun of me and say, Mr. you think you can address everything with logic?” And if I had a cold, he would come to me, swipe his hand over my face, put it in his pocket and say, “You see? Your cold is gone! Doctors talk only of pills and tablets…” (Laughter). I used to laugh, especially if the cold was coincidentally cured! He would say – “I told you! You think you are clever...”


Q. Do you agree with people who say he was a bad influence on our youth?


A. I don’t think so. What he believed in, he believed very deeply and sincerely. For example, during his musical training in London, he finished all the Practicals. However, there was a tiny book of about 30 pages that he was told he had to pass, but refused to. I said to him…but why can’t you pass this thing? He grumbled, Oooh, books, books! What do you need books for? I said, “You have done three years, and you just need to pass this small book; just try and persevere… It is not even too big for you to memorize. Just sit down for about a week, memorize it, and pass your exams. That was when he went, memorized the book and passed the exams. As far as he was concerned, he was more interested in the practical aspect of his music. So when he tells you that formal education is not necessary, he means it. Other people may not agree with him, but that is his own view. So I had to push his children to go to school. But then, when the children themselves started losing interest he never discouraged them from leaving school. I think he always saw marijuana as a good thing. To me, marijuana is not much worse than cigarette smoking, and I am not even sure that it is as harmful except that it disturbs your focus on serious things; I mean you can’t be involved in something serious and also smoke marijuana. But then, these drugs are around. If any youth who strolls into it cannot make his own decision about the dangers of abusing drugs, that is unfortunate.




Q. The spot where Fela’s Kalakuta Republic, which also housed your clinic, used to be is today, a secondary school named after Ransome-Kuti. Is that honour an adequate compensation for what happened to Kalakuta?


A. The honour is not recognized as such in the sense that, in our family, we don’t take such honours very seriously -- that something was named after you. We just thought that government was being cynical. It is not something that we recognize as significant. I must say, however, that the Governor of Lagos State, Bola Ahmed Tinubu is trying to compensate us, and he has allocated a piece of land to us in Lekki, which we are trying to locate.


Q. When you drive through that area past that spot, what kind of thought goes through your mind?


A. How degenerate we are in this country! I was caught up in that infamous incident! And we always said that if anybody had any complaints against any resident in Kalakuta, the police should give a warrant for his arrest. That was what degenerated to the place being surrounded and invaded by the army, and being burned down with so many people injured. It shouldn’t have degenerated into such barbarism because even if the place was merely surrounded by soldiers, after a week, people would have had to come out on their own! But to go to that extent -- to almost kill people, to burn down a community, arrest all the people and throw them into prison -- just shows how barbaric we still are. And with the attitude of the police, I don’t think we have climbed out of it very much.


Q. You took your case to the Oputa Panel. At the end of the day, nothing seems to have come out of that exercise. What is your feeling about that?


A. Perhaps it is the experience that we went through; we could have lost our lives at the Kalakuta. As a matter of fact, my mother died as a result of that! All these experiences you have to go through in life, but, we also thought it was not possible for government to get out of the case without something being found against it. But they managed to, up to the Supreme Court, and even up to the Oputa panel. I am not sure the Oputa Panel said anything definite on it. I think Obasanjo felt so proud about himself for what happened. What can we say? It was part of the powerlessness of citizens in this country. If that can happen to us at our level, you have to pity ordinary Nigerians...


Q. Even then, there is this view that the ordinary Nigerian has come from a point where one hardly knew ones rights to a point now where no one reckons that the other person has rights.


A. Many things have degenerated. But then, what I find frustrating is that even after knowing what your rights are, what can you do about it? I am lucky that I am not often harassed in the street by public officials. But I see what goes on around me. A policeman has never asked me for my driving license; even when I do some thing wrong and they see me, they look somewhere else. But I have seen people just going about quietly, not disturbing anybody, and they are stopped and their money is squeezed out of them. So at that level, I find things very frightening, because you just don’t seem able to do anything about it. That is the frightening part.


Q. It is like the tyranny of the oppressed on the oppressed?


A. Well. (Long pause). It is not a very comfortable situation.


Q. Where do you think Nigeria will go from here, conference or no conference?

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What is the shortest means, if any, to the resolution of all these contradictions, all these crises in the society?


A. I can’t see any early resolution. My feeling is that a particular group of people have retained for themselves all the things that truly matter in the country and the other groups are so weak that it will take them a long time to catch up. But you never know. Things may just develop like in South Africa when nobody thought apartheid could end. But suddenly things did start to fall into place, and apartheid is thankfully a thing of the past. Perhaps, the same thing will happen in Nigeria; but it appears that it is still a long way for our people to understand that they can take their destiny in their hands, and rise up against oppressive forces. I just don’t see it for a long time to come.


Q. Finally, very often, I hear people reduce the powerlessness, the disempowerment, and complete dehumanization of the masses as a situation caused by poverty. But I say to myself that even in the communities we come from, a poor man has, at least, his dignity. My father used to tell us, growing up in the village, that he would rather pretend to be overfed than behave as if he was starving. For me what is more worrying is the complete lack of dignity available to the individual.


A. I agree. But, perhaps, people have come to the conclusion that having some dignity does not seem to have benefited them in any way. I can imagine a policeman ill-treating someone who tries to handle the situation with dignity. But the policeman might become annoyed that the man is not debasing himself. I remember the present Commissioner for Information in Ogun State, Mr. Niran Malaolu, who took over my prison cell in Katsina. They beat him up, because they said he wanted to behave as I did. In other words, he was insisting on his rights! I don’t know why they didn’t extend the same treatment to me (laughter).




Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not necessarily those of the Chinua Achebe Foundation. The Chinua Achebe Foundation, an intellectual and cultural organization, believes in the right of every Nigerian to express their opinion.

Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series: Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti in Conversation with Pini Jason