On Burna Boy, Ending SARS and our Search for Leadership

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A study of contemporary Nigerian history will point to a distinct lack of leadership in the political space. It can partly be traced to President Buhari’s 2015 ascension to the Aso Rock throne.

Buhari’s success at the fourth instance of his trying elevated to power the All Progressives Congress (APC)- a party with next to no ideological grounding aside from its disdain for the Jonathan administration. They were effectively “a coalition of disgruntled politicians”. For then outgoing Rivers State Governor, Rotimi Amaechi, his disagreements with then Minister for Education and his eventual successor, Nyesom Wike, and the First Lady, Patience Jonathan essentially made him persona non grata within the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). His joining the APC was essentially the only move of self-preservation. For Bola Tinubu, his ambition to preside over the country and quest for power meant he could never really align with the power at the center considering a large part of his political legend was built around being the sole survivor of the 2003 hurricane which saw the PDP sweep the South West and then defeating the Obasanjo led Federal Government via the courts. Bukola Saraki, another politician with ambitions of presiding over the country said of leaving the PDP for the APC in the build-up to the 2015 elections “we left in a quest for justice, equity, and inclusion; the fundamental principles on which the PDP was originally built but which it had deviated from. We were attracted to the APC by its promise of change. We fought hard along with others and defeated the PDP.” For Atiku Abubakar, the incumbent status of Jonathan meant he had to seek an alternative platform to pursue his ambitions. Ditto Buhari whose cult of personality had steadily grown in the North. In defeating the PDP- a party who had not expected to lose and once boasted of ruling the country for 100 years, a leadership vacuum emerged. At the time, the APC which had spent its time in opposition embodying campaign as poetry had a good pulse of the state of the nation. Since power changed, the PDP has struggled to find its feet and it has fallen on the country’s most prolific ambassadors to fill that vacuum.

In the Buhari era, one of the most resounding themes to emerge has been the continued excellence of Nigeria’s creative class. The government’s lack of involvement is a subtle clue as to why. This excellence and the need for leadership has seen some of the country’s top artists attempt to fill the role of the opposition and offer a degree of leadership. Banky W now living a second life as a bankable Nollywood Star ran for office in the highbrow Eti Osa constituency losing narrowly. Davido, owing to his family’s political antecedents has spoken against the government at the center and found himself targeted at times. Falz, the son of the distinguished lawyer and human rights activist, Femi Falana produced a TV show interviewing presidential candidates in the 2019 election cycle and also put out the very political Moral Instruction album. He has also played a role in the recent protests against the Special Anti Robbery Squad. Show Dem Camp has also documented the times with the most recent volume of their Clone Wars series entitled ‘These Buhari Times’. Most prominently, Burna Boy has retained a political undertone in his music over the last two years and also sought to co-opt the imagery of protest and memory of Fela Kuti in his art. Both he and Naira Marley have attempted to posit themselves as leaders of the movement by chiding young Nigerians for being passive and not protesting against their oppressors- the government.

When the protests came, Burna and Naira Marley were nowhere to be found. In Marley’s case, his platform was leveraged by the Police Force for a transparent marketing ploy. In Burna’s case, his silence has spoken. Naturally, this has resulted in a backlash which while serving as a distraction from the message is reasonable. Burna’s politics has generally lacked depth and offers the impression of an artist whose talking points are well-curated but has failed to do the full reading. By channeling Fela in both style and manner, he raises the bar for himself relative to his peers, and when he ultimately falls short, leaves himself vulnerable to inevitable criticism. The sacrifices Fela made of himself in using his music to protest against the government of the day and bearing the consequences have not been met by the artists who profess their admiration for him. These expectations will not exist if the artists themselves did not create them with their utterances. It calls to mind D’ Banj’s antics in 2012 when after positing himself as a representative of the youths in supporting Jonathan in the 2011 elections, his retort to questions around his failure to support the Occupy Naija protests outside the country ranged from his disdain for the cold to his not being a Politician to being busy recording for Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music collaboration, Cruel Summer where the grand sum of his contribution would end up amounting to background adlibs. It speaks to a sense of artistry that is motivated by self. When Burna Boy said on Independence Day that “Youths are focused on one thing and one thing only and that’s how to get money- to be fly” and “I don’t think there’s any of my mates that you can ask a historical question, that will give you a proper accurate answer” he betrays any sense of leadership. Leadership cannot be motivated by self or a desire to present oneself as better than those he leads. It has to be rooted in the common good- offering oneself as a platform for building the framework for a better society. It also speaks to a failure in education. To hold an opinion, it is imperative to do the work that validates that opinion. That means we must engage with all the arguments and counter-arguments that inform said opinion and be willing to accept that our beliefs might be wrong. If that opinion had received any sense of scrutiny, it would have fallen flat on its face. Nigeria’s youth have grown up with a broken system and are constantly fighting to fix that system. It is Nigeria’s youth who led the battle against rape culture in June and are again fighting the fight for Police reform. Against the backdrop of economic strife, and other systemic failures, a desire to disrupt the status quo has gradually developed and culminated in the #EndSARS protests.

In our quest for leadership and a rallying point, young Nigerians have venerated a number of people whose CVs essentially read “makes us dance”. On one hand, it is perhaps a blessing in disguise that they have been found wanting as it offers an opportunity for us to take true ownership of our issues as we have recently. On the other hand, it is a reminder of what leadership can truly look like- matching words with actions but also representative of the size of the fight for better. These important battles need a greater sense of structure- from mobilization to funding to lobbying to policy direction- there are clear gaps to be filled and it is from there that leadership will follow.

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