Last year, in honor of Nigerian Independence Day, the Chicago-based Nigerian National Alliance published “Blueprint for Democracy in Nigeria,” a 76-page proposal calling for political and economic reform in the West African nation, which has struggled under military rule for most of its history. Committee members forwarded the document to the government. When there was no response, they were not surprised.
This year the alliance decided to take a different tack. By staging a celebration of Nigerian art and culture, they hope to attract attention to their troubled homeland.
“Even if politics have failed us, our culture provides unity,” says Cyril Ibe, secretary for the Nigerian National Alliance and editor of African Newbreed, a five-year-old monthly newspaper that covers African affairs.
To mark the 35th anniversary of Nigerian independence, Babatunde Olatunji–the legendary 68-year-old musician whose 1959 album Drums of Passion helped introduce West African chanting and drumming to the U.S.–will perform a mix of contemporary and traditional music. Ibe says Olatunji “will showcase our rich cultural heritage and make Americans aware of the sad situation at home. We want to mobilize the American government to put pressure on the Nigerian government the way they did in South Africa and Haiti. Baba brings a message of healing. We fought for independence without much bloodshed, but maintaining freedom and living in peace and harmony is another thing.”
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and still one of the richest, but it has been in an almost constant state of upheaval since a military coup led to the assassination of the country’s first prime minister in 1966, only six years after it gained independence from Great Britain. Twenty-five of the next 29 years would be spent under military control. A presidential election in June 1993 was supposed to return the government to civilian rule, but the results were withheld by the military. The apparent winner, businessman Moshood Abiola, was put in jail one year later.
“Over the past two years, the citizens have lived in the worst form of uncertainty since our existence,” says Ibe, who was in Nigeria this past April. “There’s uncertainty about what to do, who’s in charge. People are starving. People are dying. They have lost hope.”
The Nigerian National Alliance was founded six years ago as an umbrella organization for Chicago’s 20 different Nigerian organizations. The group hopes to help bring democracy to Nigeria, even while its members are in exile. “The human resources are there,” says Ibe. “Nigeria needs to regain its respect as a political power in Africa, and we’re waiting to do that very soon.”
Babatunde Olatunji performs at 3 PM Sunday at the New Regal Theater, 1645 E. 79th; tickets are $26. Call 721-9230 for tickets or 784-0470 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.