It was the musician, Habeeb Okikiola also known as Portable who tested the ‘weightier’ between the power of a celebrity and the authority of the state when he thought he was above the law and was untouchable. Portable had behaved unruly to policemen who went to his bar to invite him over some allegations levelled against him. Portable’s transformational life from a street hustler to stardom didn’t make him realise that treading softly is the required ethical virtue for stardom. He shouted at the policemen who went to his bar. The police gave him 72 hours to report himself. After the time lapsed, he was arrested and prosecuted. Since then, he has been ‘cultured’ to appreciate the boundary of stardom and the limitless nature of the power and authority of the State which he calls, “government” in the song he released after he was granted bail by the court. The song is entitled “Am not a Prisoner”. But Seun Kuti, the son of legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti (Abami Eda) didn’t learn from Portable’s story. Seun in a viral video ‘dashed’ a policeman with a slap offering on the third mainland bridge. His action was a show of power inequality between him and the police Inspector and total disrespect for the police institution which the man represents.
Seun’s father, the legendary Fela in a video had showed how he was treated by the police, beaten from “top-to-bottom”. But Fela who said he didn’t die because he had a death in his pouch (aníkúlápò), also warned people in one of his songs, Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am’, to let the sleeping dog lie and not by their own insensitivity invite trouble. Fela counsels us to be sensitive to context, and understand the setting and what is happening in the life of the other person, irrespective of what we may feel at that material time before we act. Fela says, “When trouble sleep, Yanga go wake am Wetin him dey find, Palaver, he dey find, Palaver, he go get-e o. When cat sleep, Rat go bite him tail Wetin him dey find, Palaver, he dey find, Palaver, he go get-e o. Tenant lost him job, Him sit down for house, Him dey think of job, Mr. landord come wake am up, He say, “mister, pay me your rent” Wetin him dey find, Palaver, he dey find. My friend just come from prison. Him dey look for work. Waka waka day and night. Policeman come stop am for road. He say, “mister, I charge you for wandering”. Wetin him dey find, Palaver, he dey find, Palaver, he go get-e o. When you slap a policeman in uniform who didn’t retaliate for whatever reason, the assault is not only on the wearer of the uniform, it is the uniform that has been assaulted and insulted.
When Seun Kuti ‘dashed’ the policeman a slap on the third mainland bridge, he was not wise enough to distinguish between the uniform and the wearer of the uniform. The wearer of the uniform may have done something that infuriated him, but the uniform represents an institution of the state which ought to be respected. The audacity to slap the gentle face of the policeman was an affront to that institution because Seun, with all his contacts, could have reported any infraction against him at a nearby police station. In some jurisdictions like Texas, assault on a police officer is a third-degree felony and comes with serious consequences, ranging from 2 to 10 years imprisonment and may be required to pay as much as $10,000 as fines. This is because police officers are respected public servants. But since Seun claims he has evidence against the policeman, he may as well press charges against him and let the public have access to what only he and the occupants of his car know.
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It’s the social standing of Seun that made the Inspector General of Police order his arrest because a lot of underground interventions would have been made as soon as the video went viral. The courtesy extended to both Seun and Portable would not have occurred if they were ‘ordinary Nigerians’ and not celebrities. That said, Portable understood how a celebrity can be humbled when handled by the government. When the government is interested in your case, only God can rescue you. Sensibly enough, upon his release, portable said he had learnt his lessons, releasing a song “Am not a prisoner” where he tried to show the differences between an accused and a convict. In his brilliant lyrics, portable used the song to erase being labelled a prisoner. He knows its implications for him in the industry. Who wants to associate, endorse or invite elewon (prisoner) to sing in their event?
He argues that although, dem carry me go prison, mi o gba so, dem no sow cloth for me, e jawo loro mi ooo…I am not a prisoner oooo. He reasoned that prisoners are those who have prison uniforms sewn for them and since he didn’t get that, he could not be labelled a prisoner. And the song is to serve as a historical document, as he warned that nobody should call him a prisoner because he was not imprisoned (Ko mo lo do’la, ki e ma lo ma pe brother yi ni e le won oo). His encounter with the “government” however showed that he experienced a degradation ceremony.
The degradation ceremony that Seun Kuti is undergoing through his arrest and arraignment is to show him the limit of celebrity power and the power of government. Portable captured this in his song, saying “After God, na government, ma fi ejo e sun olopa” (I will report you to government). The star on the third mainland bridge was handcuffed, possibly because he showed the capacity for violence, and was instructed to off his shoes and subjected to lower social status treatment. Portable would have experienced the same treatment to have appreciated how grace should not lead to disgrace. How did we arrive here?
The direct and indirect experiences of police brutality have affected the way Nigerians perceive and treat policemen. This started from pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial encounters which have pitched the public against the police as an institution of repression, force and brutality. The ENDSARS saga showed the revolt of people against the high-handedness of the Special Anti-robbery Squad (SARS) and the consequent death of over 70 persons (police and civilians) during the violence caused by another state attack on protesters at the Lekki Toll-gate. Although the brutality of Nigerians by some overzealous policemen (and other security agencies) has not stopped since the ENDSARS protest, the Police authorities have not spared any of its men found compromising the minimum expected conduct. Some have been demoted, and others dismissed. But while lecturers, doctors, civil servants, tanker drivers and other unions go on strike, police cannot go on strike despite their sorry welfare state. To show their importance and anger at the way the institution of police was treated in the aftermath of ENDSARS which culminated in the gruesome killing of some of them and the destruction/burning of police stations, the police refused to ‘work’ for weeks, and people started shouting of insecurity. In criminology, the presence of police bearing no weapon has a deterrent function than a state without police presence. There are bad eggs in every institution. I am not sure that the trauma of being slapped on the third mainland bridge would leave the victim soon, but justice being pursued on his behalf by the institution he represents will aid his quick recovery. All of us should learn and embrace lawful conduct when dealing with our security agencies, celebrity or not. It is hoped that the incoming government will prioritise the welfare and conditions of service of the police. The police authorities should dignify police by stopping posting our respected officers to work as ‘domestic servants’ carrying bags and collecting food for rich men and their wives. This is not dignifying.
Dr Tade, a sociologist writes via [email protected]