Fela Kuti’s 1976 album, Ikoyi Blindness, featured a track documenting an encounter within Nigerian social context where violence is trite. The song, Gba mi leti ki n dolowo (slap me make I get money), is an encounter between an “Oga,” the quintessential big man who personifies the impunity of power, and an unnamed person who represents the disempowered masses. In the song, Oga reaches out to slap the Unnamed’s face. Rather than quake before Oga’s almighty power, Unnamed stands up to him. He taunts Oga to hit him saying the “systems of government in Africa” would arise on his behalf and he would ultimately become rich. Oga, stumped by the unusual rebuff, freezes in mid-action.
Fela being the activist that he was, of course, spoke from the angle of the disempowered Nigerian. Yet, the exchange he described gave enough insight into the predicament of Oga petrified by the defiance of the Unnamed. For Oga who must have been used to dehumanising the poor with such gratuitous violence, this unexpected boldness denies him the assertion of his status of power he sought through the slap. Pulling back from landing that slap would diminish his might as an Oga who can do and undo. Yet, going ahead would be imprudent if the enactment of that violence on Unnamed truly has the potential to change his fortunes. Oga’s hand suspended in mid-air as he is forced to listen to Unnamed’s taunt of “gba mi leti ki n dolowo” captures an intriguing moment of power reconfiguration. What happens if the violence the powerful enacts on the powerless is miscalculated and does not dehumanise? What if it instead elevates the Unnamed to be social equals with the powerful?
If you have followed the news on Seun Kuti’s ongoing travails for assaulting a policeman, you would have understood why I am using his father’s wisdom to divine the oracle. Who could have imagined that nearly 50 years after Ikoyi Blindness, the “Oga” in the tale would be Fela’s own son while the voice of the powerless lustily challenging the powerful power abuser would be the Police—an institution that has relentlessly abused Nigerians? It is a strange inversion, but here we are, parsing the layers of irony woven into the unfortunate encounter of Seun and an unnamed policeman.
By now, virtually everyone who has seen the video of Seun accosting an officer, unaware he was being recorded. There might have been a legitimate provocation somewhere, but the recording only showed Seun confronting the police officer and eventually slapping his face very hard before being restrained by passersby. The slapped officer—wisely, or maybe out of sheer intimidation—never fought him back. The first time I saw that video I wondered what kind of èèdì spell they cast on Seun. In a world where anyone can use their mobile phone to capture other people’s most mundane expressions without sparing a thought for their privacy, why get into a public fight? There is no winning for the person who wears the known face in such a dirty exchange. So far, nobody knows the name of the officer; his photo or any identifying details have not even been shared. It is Seun, the famous face in that encounter, that has now become a reference point for assault on the police.
That slap was ugly, even for a society like Nigeria where virtually everyone is prone to casual violence in everyday life. Whatever that officer did, whatever trauma a uniformed police officer represented to Seun, the man was—and will always be—a living breathing human deserving of dignity. There is no justification for assaulting him. Fela’s Gba mi leti ki n dolowo wisely intoned a lesson for the powerful. When you are higher on the social elevation, restraining yourself from engagement with those on the lower rungs of the social ladder is not cowardice. No, you preserve yourself because you do not want your virtue to be so cheaply transferred from your body to a moral or social unequal.
Like “Oga” found out, engaging the one you thought was powerless and could be driven over can end up with you being sapped of your worth. In that moment when Oga’s hand was suspended mid-action, debating whether to slap or not, he was diminished either way. The person he proposed to slap to assert your “Oga-ism” has become richer for the experience. They might not get cash out of it, but they could get morally richer because Oga let down his social worth to get into roforofo with them.
Seun must have imagined that since many police officers are routinely abused by the very system that employed them, by the coterie of Nigerian big men that use them like slaves, they can be treated like animals. Well, given his present tribulations, he sure thought wrong. They will fight for their own, not because they believe in justice or are trying to assert the dignity of their officer—whom the police institution dehumanises in other ways—but because they have been handed a golden chance to extract value from the encounter at the expense of Seun (and other civilians).
You only need to consider how the Ogas at the Police headquarters have been spitting into the air and using their own faces to collect it to know that they have become richer at Seun’s expense. A whole Inspector General of the Police had to order his arrest! A case of assault that should be treated at the local police precinct has now become an opportunity for the police headquarters to extract some moral coins from Seun. Even the Police Service Commission waded into the matter as if such violence is not routine in Nigeria. Delta Police PRO Edafe Bright even swore Seun would “regret his actions.”
The way they are going about his prosecution makes you wonder when they became so efficient at addressing an assault. Even though Seun turned himself in at the police station, they still had to handcuff him and parade him to the public. Then they asked the court for a remand order to detain him for 21 days claiming that the assaulted policeman was in a coma at an undisclosed hospital. For the prosecutor to spin such cheap and unimaginative yarn, you know that this case has become an opportunity to make money from a slap. As if all that was not bad enough, they raided Seun’s house and seized his wife’s phone!
Make no mistake, the assaulted officer is the least of their concerns. They do not abhor violence against their officers; they just want to be the ones to do it. If the Police institution truly cared about its officers, they would have the least proven it by improving their material conditions. Seun handed them his derrière on a silver platter, unfortunately. He not only slapped an officer but had also previously made a video where he boasted that he had slapped police officers many times before because he was Fela’s son. That is a slight the police will not take lightly. With his own mouth, he nailed himself to their cross.
The top officers might not even bother with him, but you see the lowly ones who regularly endure ridicule in the hands of the Ogas they are regularly deployed to serve? They will humble him. His humiliation will validate their self-worth. They will not stop there. In the future, they will still use him to deflect accusations of police brutality. Slapping a police officer in Nigeria is a fantastic example of overreaching yourself and making your victim richer at your expense. Seun is a very good musician who plays his father’s music very well. Honestly, he should have listened to the songs too.