IfeOluwa Nihinlola

If ‘This is Nigeria’ can be banned, forget social activism in Nigerian music

While writing about Falz’s ‘This is Nigeria’ I claimed “there’s no chance he’ll become a martyr because of this [song], not when his most egregious claim is one he shares with the leader of the country.” This was in response to Oris Aigbokhaevbolo’s assertion that “All that is left is for Nigeria, through some silly government official, to ban the video and in doing so give its online citizens a chance to cheer Falz to living martyr status.” On Thursday 9 August, Twitter user Folaranmi Folayan shared a letter addressed to a radio station in Jos, which revealed the ban of songs by Falz, Olamide and Wande Coal for their vulgar and indecent lyrics by the  Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC).

“The commission has observed with great concern the continuous airing of vulgar and indecent music lyrics inspite of warning both verbal and written to the station,” says the letter signed by Igomu Onoja, the commission’s zonal director in Jos. “On 30th July, 2018 at about 9.56am, your station aired a song by Falz titled ”This is Nigeria” laced with vulgar lyrics, ”this is Nigeria, look how we living now, everybody be criminal.’’ Now I owe Aigbokhaevbolo a public apology for countering his claim. He properly diagnosed Nigeria’s penchant for petulant bans.

Before NBC decided to censor Falz’s ‘This Is Nigeria’—or more accurately, before the censorship became public—the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) group had issued a seven-day ultimatum for the song to be taken down or Falz would face legal actions. The crux of their accusation was that the video contained ethnic bias against the Fulani. “It is a hate video,” said the statement. “This video has the potential of causing religious crisis of unprecedented dimension.” MURIC’s statement was alarmist and laughable. The ultimatum was withdrawn and Professor Ishaq Akintola, the group’s director, said Falz would be reported to the appropriate agencies.

MURIC and NBC’s grouse with Falz are different, yet their motivations are the same. MURIC’s concerns are religious, NBC’s political, but they’re all about sensibilities. In the letter to the radio station, NBC claims “this is Nigeria, look how we living now, everybody be criminal” breaks section 3.6.1 of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code. In the fifth edition of the code—there’s a sixth version of the code with a draft published in 2017, which for some reason isn’t the draft referenced in the letter—section 3.6 is classified as “Good Taste and Decency” and 3.6.1 reads, “Obscene, indecent, vulgar language, lewd and profane expression, presentation or representation is NOT ALLOWED.”

If vulgarity means words not uttered in good taste and NBC believes calling Nigerians anything less than flattering an assault on their sensibilities, then this ban is justified. Falz’s statement can indeed be considered offensive to a large swathe of Nigerians. But if the response to everything people find objectionable is a ban, we can deduce NBC precludes social criticism of any form on radio. “Not in good taste” is a broad enough criteria that it has the potential to snag anything but blatant propaganda. So, it seems the commission’s existence is in service to Nigerian conservatism. There are people who ask artists to sing better songs that speak to the society. But if a low-hanging fruit of criticism is hit with a radio ban, artists can look at those accusing them, shrug, and ask, “what do we do?” The response of their audience should be crickets.

Beyond giving excuse to socially-reluctant artists, the larger concern should be limits the broadcasting code presumably places on creativity. Granted the inability to have your music played on radio is little deterrent in a world where twittering boxes have become anachronistic, the type of content that is banned should be scrutinized anytime it happens. Regulatory bodies in Nigeria often behave like feudal dictatorships unto themselves, ruled by the desires of whoever heads them at any given time. Sometimes their impact is little and can be ignored, but often they affect artistic work in ways that are tangible.

Censorship isn’t new in Nigeria. There’s a glut of it in Northern Nigeria, where mere touching of hands by members of the opposite sex in a music video can be considered indecent. But these instances rarely attract the attention of the world. The last time a regulatory body had a major clash with artistic work that attracted international media was during the release of Biyi Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun. The film’s certification was withheld by the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board because of a rumoured concern that parts of it depicting the Biafran war would incite violence in the country. Nigerians may think they’re tough, creative people, but if the response of regulatory bodies to anything outside the conservative ideal is what Bandele refers to as “a clumsy, heavy-handed ban in all but name,” then clearly the leaders think their people are nothing but wusses who have to be protected at all cost.

Maybe Nigerians are indeed mentally weak people who cannot accommodate anything that is barely critical of their conduct. The bloodshed that occurred in Nigeria in 2006, following the caricature of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, remains a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks Nigerians are anything but thin-skinned. In this regard, the commission can find justification for banning Olamide’s ‘See Mary See Jesus’ under section 4.3.1e of the code, which states that “The broadcaster shall avoid the casual use of names, words or symbols regarded as sacred by believers of a given faith.” When compared with the work of artists like  Ghanaian duo Fokn Bois who have more elaborate criticism of religion in their ouevre, Olamide’s song is tame. Fokn Bois are lucky; thank god they are not a Nigerians.

This silly ban of Falz’s song is further aggravating because if there should be a conversation about censorship, you want it to be with substance. When creative work is banned, the hope is that the artist has shaken the status quo to the point where her creation is an existential threat to the worldview of the people. This is the kind of development happening in Kenya and South Africa in response to the films Rafiki and Inexba. The movies are excellent, have international acclaim, and they hold the potential of altering how Kenyans and South Africans see themselves.

“The second major issue at the heart of the Rafiki tussle centers on the process of enforcing the constitution and other laws,” writes Nanjala Nyabola. “Kahiu [Wanuri] insists that constitutional protections for freedom of expression and ‘artistic creativity’ cannot be impinged because of objections based on ‘morality or offensiveness'”. Nor, she argues, “should KFCB-imposed regulations require artists to adhere to vaguely defined ‘African values’ that are not consistent with the constitution.”

Reading the nuanced conversations about constitutionality, which Kahiu’s work spurred in Kenya, reported by Nyabola should fill any social critic in Nigeria with jealousy. The potential for robust consideration of ideological positions that good art can present doesn’t exist in Nigeria. Often, the blame for this is heaped on artists who are considered too hedonistic. But in a country where officials are still concerned with an artist who calls people criminal, maybe we shouldn’t complain when the year’s most regarded social criticism in music is a bland adaptation of an American work.