Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti was
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
TROUBLE WITH NIGERIA
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
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.
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.
AND ETHNIC VIOLENCE
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
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.
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.
CIVIL SOCIETY ACTIVISM
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
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
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
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.
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.
FOREIGN GOVERNMENT MODELS
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.
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.
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
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
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
A. As I mentioned, we started
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.
HIS EARLY LIFE
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.
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.
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
As Chinua Achebe once said, “Nigerian citizenship is an acquired taste!”
A. (General laughter).
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
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
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.
A. I can only think of my parents.
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.
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
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.
Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti
What was it like growing up with the legendary Fela as a brother?
A. Very frustrating!
A. He was always up
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!
in live 'fête de l'humanité', Paris, 1986
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
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.
and his women
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.
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.
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.
Logic...do 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.
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...
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.
It is like the tyranny of the oppressed on the oppressed?
A. Well. (Long pause). It is not a very
Q. Where do you think Nigeria will go
from here, conference or no conference?
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.
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.