Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
Beko Is Gone - But His Spirit Lives On!
(A Personal Retrospection)
Mobolaji E. Aluko, PhD
Burtonsville, MD, USA
February 26, 2006
This is the third ode to a fallen person that I have written in under 5 years: one to Chief Bola Ige, assassinated in cold-blood in his own home on December 23, 2001; another to Mrs. Stella Obasanjo, who died from medical complications on October 23, 2005 and now to Dr. Bekololari ("Beko") Ransome-Kuti, who died February 10, 2006.
I hope that that is it for a long time to come. "Ki ojo ko jina si'ra ", as the Yoruba would say may there be a long distance between this day and the next unfortunate happenstance.
His public life is well known, his private one far less known except by a few persons. So this piece is more of a personal retrospection of the man called Beko, to put a more human face around him, even though still woven much around his public-spirited commitment in many places.
Our first meeting was sometime in end of 1993 or beginning of 1994, at Howard University, at the instance of some DC-area pro-democracy activists. Prior to then, I had only read of or seen him in the media, and always wondered within myself why a medical doctor would not just keep to his profession, and stop fighting against the government.
After our introduction and warming to each other, I asked him exactly that: why all of this activism? The irony of me being a chemical engineering professor heading a pro-democracy organization abroad at that time was lost on me myself. He smiled broadly then laughed that famous and inimitable Beko laugh that trails off with some hiss-like sounds at the end and explained, first that he for a long time had a clinic while he did his activism, but he discontinued it after he saw that too many brushes with the law separated him and his patients too often. In any case after his clinic was destroyed by the Obasanjo military regime in 1978 (during the famous Fela's Kalakuta Republic music shrine burn-down), he had little heart to bring it back to its former level thereafter.
I could understand that, and moved on, along with others, with probing him on the state of the political situation in Nigeria. He struck me as a quiet man with a steely resolve, intensely disliking of the military his voice would rise whenever he talked about the military.
He could be quite flexible given superior reason or argument. I remember once his narration of how in early 1994 Chief MKO Abiola, who had just returned from abroad but before his Ipetedo declaration of June 1994, came to thank him profusely for all that the Campaign for Democracy (CD) under Beko was doing on his behalf to realize his presidential mandate . "Ee, a o mo eni ti o feran eni afi ti o ba di ojo ijogbon" , quoting MKO. Beko told of how he looked at him quizzically and asked "Do you really think we are doing this for you? Nitori ilu ni it is for love of country!" to which MKO exasperatedly replied "Mo mo! E sa se! I know. Thank you all the same."
On another occasion, in July 1994, the Rev. Jesse Jackson of the United States had been appointed by the Clinton Administration to act as "Special Envoy to Nigeria" over the June 12/Abiola incarceration (that happened beginning on June 23, 1994) and related events. Immediately all hell broke loose for Jesse Jackson: the international press accused him of presidential ambitions and coziness with past military regimes in Nigeria, a charge also made by the pro-democracy activists like Prof. Wole Soyinka and Beko inside Nigeria all of who promised NOT receive Jackson and in fact give him an outrightly hostile treatment. Only a few pro-democracy organizations in the US, notably the Nigerian Democratic Movement (NDM; I was vice-president then) and Organization of Nigerian Unity (ONU) in Los Angeles (led by Nuno Philips, with whom Jackson put us in touch) supported his trip.
Jackson panicked suspecting that he had been set up by the "White press" - and invited members of my NDM in to his Washington DC Rainbow Coalition office for two separate meetings on the same day for a total of about six hours to explain his position and to urge a more favorable reception. He showed us some secret communications including some harsh words in a particular letter - that he had with Abacha, and pleaded his strong friendship with Abiola, and that whatever dealing that he previously had with any military persons in Nigeria were through Abiola. We not only faxed the Jackson's letter to Abacha to Beko, we also got him and Jackson together on the phone to talk for about 30 minutes, whereupon Beko decided to try and convince the rest of the pro-democracy movement in Nigeria to give Jackson a chance. Beko's initial lack of success in convincing his highly skeptical colleagues (we had asked that he not circulate the letter itself, just discuss the contents) was reversed when at Jesse Jackson's insistence we faxed the same letter to the "politician" Senator Bola Tinubu (now Governor of Lagos State) who promptly and to Beko's and our horror - violated our "confidentiality agreement" by making copies of the said letter and circulating them among the pro-democracy community. Tinubu's political move however secured the needed- promise of receiving Jackson without hostility, so he proceeded to Nigeria with confidence.
We all agreed after Jesse Jackson visited Nigeria that he did an excellent job of putting the pro-democracy's positions with the imprimatur of the Clinton administration - across to the Abacha regime, even though the regime never relented in its oppressive ways throughout its tenure.
From then on, we constantly kept in touch with each other by phone, but largely by fax before Beko's 1995 imprisonment. This was before emails were "common" in Nigeria - as he began to fax "Socio-Political Updates of Nigeria" from the Campaign for Democracy (CD) constantly to the Nigerian Democratic Movement (NDM), of which I was now president. [The Updates were later to evolve into widely-circulated "NDM's Oppression Watch" after Beko's incarceration.] We would then re-type the entire faxed message, and send it to various list-serves (private websites like many people have now were not yet popular then). Invariably, he faxed the documents himself at night, from one of two telephone lines that he had in his home at Imaria; by morning, one would find six, seven pages of faxes sitting on my home fax.
Little did I know then that he was also faxing to at least two other sites in the world at the same time: to Dr. Kayode Fayemi in the UK (then head of New Nigeria Forum NNF in London), to Mr. Nuno Phillips in California (head of Organization of Nigerian Unity ONU). That multiple faxing got not only too expensive for Beko but quite tiresome, because he sometimes had to fax and refax documents with the terrible phone connection from Nigeria - for which many pages did not come out clearly.
That was how he got the three of us together: "you three decide ONE of who I would fax to, and from there you can decide how you all got the message out." I volunteered to receive the faxes in the quiet of my basement, and to transcribe them (I did not have a scanner with OCR then; but I can type rather fast) for transmission by email to Kayode and Mr. Phillips, before transmission to the world via listserves.
Kayode (younger than myself), Nuno (older than myself, and Beko slightly) and I have been tight friends ever since.
HIS 1995 ARREST BY ABACHA'S GOONS
Beko had so many tangles with different governments in Nigeria, and was in and out of detention so many times - that he could not count, and he did not care to keep count as Gani Fawehinmi is wont to do. In fact, Beko once told me that he always was tipped off when an arrest was coming, and he would then pack his cigarettes, his books and his chess set he had to have those, or he would not go anywhere - and wait for the police to come to his home to arrest him. He said he never resisted arrest, and always told the "arresters" NEVER to manhandle him, that he was sorry for them since he knew that they were just doing their job. They also often thanked him for fighting for them "common men"!
He was arrested by Abacha's goon on or around July 25 after the Aziza tribunal had sentenced Obasanjo, Bello-Fadile, Lawan Gwadabe and quite some others to long term imprisonment sentences - but I need to relate a story that occurred before his Beko's own arrest.
There was a serious debate going on among the pro-democracy movement abroad as to whether to include General Olusegun Obasanjo among the names of "Prisoners of Conscience." At that time too, Saro Wiwa was featuring prominently as one of the Prisoners of Conscience. The majority was against Obasanjo's inclusion because of his "antecedents", particularly over some of his statements concerning Abiola and June 12, but a few others and I thought it was impolitic NOT to include him, since he had such a high profile abroad.
I called to ask Beko for advice specifically about including Obasanjo. I caught him in his mischievous moment, I think, because he laughed mirthfully, wondering what was wrong with those of us abroad. Speaking in Yoruba, he stated "Ah, l'Eko yi o, won ma nbere pe "se won o ti pa ni? Kini won duro de?"" Translation the question all over Lagos was whether or not Obasanjo had not be executed yet, and what was Abacha waiting for!
Then he laughed again and stated that it was right that we include Obasanjo in the list. So we did.
That was in June. 1994. About a month later, he called from Nigeria frantically.
That was only one time I read panic in Beko's voice. About three days before he was arrested in 1995, he called frantically to say that he had been tipped off that he would be arrested by Abacha for being "an accessory after the fact" for the faxes that he had sent concerning those who were being tried and/or had just been imprisoned. He wanted us to contact Amnesty International and the Human Rights organizations IMMEDIATELY about the news yet he was concerned that an issue not be made TOO MUCH about it lest it be a rumor. I think he feared that Abacha would indeed arrest him if it was a rumor made too loudly, and was preparing to execute him and others if for any reason, rumor or not, he was indeed arrested.
We played it down as requested, but it was not a rumor. On July 27, he was arrested AFTER all the other alleged coup plotters had been sentenced and the Aziza panel dissolved. The panel was re-convened specifically for Beko. On August 2, he was sentenced first to life imprisonment, which was later commuted to 15 years.
I have a short videotape of his kangaroo trial I believe taped off NTA News - blurry, but you could hear some silly questions being asked of Beko, and he responding defiantly. [It is sobering to note that where we inside Nigeria, many of us fax-receivers would be also arrested for sending or receiving faxes.]
On the same videotape is also a bewildered Olusegun Obasanjo, listening pensively as Bello-Fadile allegedly lied against him like a drunken sailor.
Anyway, Beko and Obasanjo would spend the next three years in Abacha's gulag till June 16, 1998, after Abacha expired June 8.
Many of us his friends and admirers were most glad that Beko did not die in Abacha's prison, because there was a strong possibility that he would if Abacha lingered beyond June 1998 when he himself gave up the ghost. Once during his incarceration, the rumor was very strong that Beko had died. That was not to be for another seven-and-a-half years.
Beko was indeed sick, real sick, upon leaving prison, and might have died if he was not given a thorough medical check up in the United States, courtesy many donations and Nigerian doctors (with free service) over a six-week period in the Los Angeles, California area, all arranged by Nuno Philips and his group. But during the time, he made it a point of duty to go round the Washington DC area and elsewhere to thank Nigerian pro-democracy activists, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Amnesty International, Physicians for Social Responsibility, etc. for their work in seeking his release during those dark days.
One more thing: While Obasanjo was pardoned by the Abdusalami regime for the alleged coup, neither that regime or the Obasanjo regime saw it fit to issue a pardon for Beko and a number of others.
Just as well, because if you wanted to get Beko angry, talk about a "pardon", and he would bark at you how you could pardon a person who was not guilty.
Finally, I also strongly believe that some more things died with him in prison about his confidence about the continued unity "One Nigeria" of our country. Even before his imprisonment, "Ko le work! It won't work!" was his frequent refrain when we discussed various devices to keep our fractured nation together. Once in the company of Bola Tinubu and Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi in my home, Beko startled a "One Nigeria" friend of mine "Towncrier" Ikhide Roland Ikheloa by suddenly bringing out a map of Nigeria from his shirt pocket and re-drawing the independent countries that he thought that Nigeria might still become if certain things were not done.
Towncrier could not believe that Beko Kuti was thinking along those lines. He never fails to ask me whether Beko always carried a map of Nigeria around. I was as startled as himself and said I knew that he carried it in his head but never knew about his shirt-pocket.
Beko is reported to have died of lung cancer.
Beko smoked and smoked constantly. If there was ever a chimney of a person, it was Beko. Our running joke was like this: "Why do you smoke so much?" "Esu ni !" was his response, meaning that it was the work of the Devil !
And he would break into his laughter that ended with a hissing sound!
Due to his smoking, he did not like coming to the US as such. On the other hand, I believe that the short almost-smokeless periods of time that he spent in the US extended his life! He complained that the US was "too oppressive" because smokers were so inhibited you can't smoke in public places, and smokers were made to be like "orphans", smoking in corners hidden away from buildings. "America yin i paapa, enia o ti le smoke anywhere ! What kind of democracy is this?", he complained quite jokingly.
GOD & CHRISTIANITY
We spoke about God and Christianity on a number of occasions he once stayed in my home in Burtonsville; he smoked outside of course, not inside the house for a week or so. So we had a lot of time in our hands to talk about religion, but he always smiled, and waited for you to say everything you wanted to say without interruption, and then moved on to other things.
Although his father and grandfather were pastors, Beko had no use for religion, and I respected that - slightly. There are millions of people who are religious Christians, Muslims and in-between who did not bear the burden of humanity like Beko did, and seek ONLY their own salvation in the world beyond and could care less what happened to their fellow human beings in this life that we live in. I identify more with Beko than with them.
May God show his mercy and his grace on Beko through the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May He, please, may He actually on both of us. [Amen.]
ASKING BEKO THE WRONG QUESTION
There is something that I will never forget with Beko: his disposition when you asked him a wrong question that is a question that he considered silly like "What do you think about Abacha?" or "Do you think that Obasanjo should continue in office beyond 2007?"
He would stare at the questioner quizzically like "Do you really expect me to answer that?" His pause would be so pregnant that only a fool would not move on to the next question. He was never abusive, would not raise his voice just stare at you with the implication "Next question or please kindly disappear!"
I was once with him at Prof. Koye's residence upon the professor's passing away - when a reporter came asking questions, about Beko's relationship to Koye, and the reporter veered to other inappropriate topics to do with the democratic struggle. Beko kept staring him down on some of the questions, but you could feel that he could not really bring himself to dress down the reporter. I got angry and had to terminate the interview by helping Beko with that arduous task, and the reporter quickly ushered himself out of Beko's presence, scampering off.
Let me relate a fascinating story about late Prof. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, Beko's oldest brother.
In 1996 or so, within a week that he had taken up residence in a Washington apartment on a short assignment with the World Health Organization and months after his brother had been imprisoned - he called me to indicate that he had a message for me from Beko Ransome-Kuti in prison.
I had never met him before, but his reputation as a humble yet dignified and accomplished man preceded him. His equally gentle wife Auntie Sonia was with him. After pleasantries from both of them, Prof. Ransome-Kuti handed me a bound document with the title like "A Report of HIV Prevalence in Nigeria." I looked at it and wondered what this had to do with Beko or myself. After leafing through the first 5 pages filled with data of how many women, children, etc. had tested positive for HIV/AIDS in Benue, Aba, etc, I then saw them: hand-written notes from prisoners jailed over the alleged coup plot against Abacha. Prof. Koye had helped to SMUGGLE them out from Nigeria at his brother's request!
They included in particular among several others - the confession by Bello-Fadile that he had been tortured into framing General Olusegun Obasanjo.
Then it hit me: I needed again to get word out about the plight of political prisoners in Abacha's gulag, and a "whole" Prof Olikoye Ransome-Kuti had risked being discovered at Nigerian airports by smuggling out documents for which he could have been criminally liable and summarily detained in Nigeria!
Prof. Olikoye Kuti a "mule" for the opposition?
I looked at him and his wife and could not help smiling.
All Prof. Kuti could tell me was "Onijogbon ni Beko, onijogbon ni! A ti so fun pe ko so'ra, but kii gbo'ran !" meaning that Beko was a trouble-maker who would not listen to advice, with his wife nodding, both with a hint of pride in this "troublemaker." "But we have to get rid of this military regime .", Koye added.
Koye himself was some kind of a trouble maker, in his own quiet way, with Beko some kind of a "median man" between him and the radical Fela.
I was at home in Nigeria when around Prof. Olikoye died June 1, 2003, and was glad that I could visit Auntie Sonia in their Lekki residence to express condolences.
There was once Beko gave me comfort in a matter in connection with his brother Koye: apparently some people (I know who they are) had warned him to be careful about me, since my father was then Economic Advisor to the Abacha government. He promptly reminded them that his own brother Koye was once Babaginda's Federal Minister of Health while he fought that IBB government.
Yes, that was some other thing that we had in common family members temporarily on different sides of the political spectrum.
By the way, I made sure that Beko talked with my parents, my father especially, whenever I phoned him from Akure during my visits to Nigeria. So it was no surprise that they were the first persons to call me from Nigeria upon hearing a radio announcement of Beko's passing away. " Ore e ti ku!" my father said. I heard already, I said sadly. My mother chimed in. I knew that she had flown with Beko on the same plane about four years ago she actually went to introduce herself to him as my mother during the boarding time - and he had then come later on to sit with her during the flight to chit-chat. She often questions my activist leanings and always thinks that all "radicals" are simple rascals I would not be surprised if she told Beko that but she came away knowing that Beko was a perfect gentleman and quite funny too.
Abami Eda !
I met Fela only once, when he came to Unife campus to play music sometime in 1973 or 1974 or so. Before his late-night gig, he came to have dinner at the GreatIfe's Cafetaria in Awo Hall. An impromptu speech was demanded of him, which he used to ridicule us students terming us "suegbes", cowardly simpletons - for calling off an almost four-week strike over a demand that I don't quite recall now. Question time, I took him up on the issue, stating that we students had abundantly made our point, and that we should not play into the hands of the military who did not want us to be educated anyway, and would not mind our university being closed for ever.
He ridiculed me further; to him I was the "chief suegbe."
Moving on .
Both Koye and Beko were very proud of Fela. At different times, they told me how they would be introduced at public functions abroad and each of their accomplishments would be reeled out. However, the one that got audience applause the most was, when added to all those accomplishments, it was disclosed that "By the way, Koye (or Beko) is the brother of Fela, the Afro-beat musician" !
Just "Fela" and there would be massive applause.
Koye and Beko loved that!
Nike Kuti, one of Beko's daughters perhaps the ONLY one of his children known publicly - is a beautiful and remarkable woman. Like Gani Fawehinmi once stated, Nike is "like father, like daughter." Very soft-spoken, you have to lean over to hear her words, but her steeliness in rapping the oppressive regime of Abacha and pleading her father's cause all over the world during his incarceration were wonders to behold. A lawyer by training and profession, she was the only one permitted to see her father during his incarceration in far-away Katsina, particularly after defiantly filing a petition with the Human Rights Commission of Nigeria. She was always ready to take advice and bear great discomfort as she pounded the corridors. There were times when I looked at her and prayed that my daughters would be like her if I ever got into trouble. She stayed at our home on some occasions, and my three young daughters got to know her. When her father was released and I told him how proud he should be of his daughter, he said, "I know, I know. I hear how she pleaded my case."
Nike is deep, like her father, not too much of a talker. "Oyinbo ni mama mi, but o ti ku " was all she once told me, concerning who was her mother was, a white woman now deceased.
BEKO'S WIFE BOSE
I never saw a woman with Beko except maybe some ladies who served him in his house when I visited whenever I was in Lagos. To be honest, it was an issue that bothered me slightly.
Then late in 2004 or so, when I visited Beko at his 8 Imaria home, I saw a child crawling ALL over him. "Who is this?" I asked him fearing that Beko had just had a child in his advanced age. My grandson, I am baby sitting him for the mother and he is a handful! You baby-sitting? What do you mean? he asked, can't I baby sit ? Hmmm..what is this world coming to, Beko baby-sitting, I said to myself.
I then wandered around his living room, and I saw the picture of a lovely woman and three other much younger women on the wall. I had been in this room a number of times before and never saw these pictures - or did I miss them?
Dokita, I never saw these pictures before? Who are these women, I asked him? That is my wife she she came back to me after 15 years. She could not stand all my troubles in and out of jail and with the government before now and decided to leave me to them. But now that I am more responsible she thinks that Abacha's is my last prison time - so she is back! I promised her that I would behave. I am sorry she is not in today, otherwise I would have loved you to meet her. Bolaji, let's go have lunch, ojare!
And then he laughed loud ending with his hissing sound.
I looked more closely at him, and saw that he had put on more weight a little more weight but maybe all the disclosures were discombobulating me!
I never did not meet her but once Mrs. Bose Ransome-Kuti that is until Hafsat Abiola's wedding on July 15, 2005 in Ikeja, when she (Mrs. Kuti) came decked in Yoruba clothing, with Beko in tow in his usual simple conductor-style suit. [I doubt if he has more than two or three of those or any other clothes in his closet.] We were introduced, and she was very gracious.
She would not be able to pick me out from a crowd of one though.
For the above, I am happy that Beko died a happy family man, more so than a warrior for the common man in Nigeria!
I saw him last in July 2005 twice in his CCG office and at home - looking no more or no less hale and hearty as I had ever seen him. He offered lunch both times, one of the times taking me to a restaurant within spitting distance of his office that he said he heard was very nice BUT he had never been before!
And when you walk or ride with Beko, prepare for stares from Nigerians, because it always appears that many do not believe that they THEMSELVES are ACTUALLY seeing Beko live. The braver ones come pumping his hand, with he ever smiling and responding to them in low tones.
We had spoken a number of times since July 2005, and even exchanged some testy emails over PRONACO/SNC affairs the last one was a note from him on October 22, 2005 to be exact - because I was not quite comfortable with the very public spat going on between him and Chief Enahoro, and the deleterious effect that it was having on the SNC movement. Beko was understandably ALWAYS suspicious of politicians and maintained that suspicion till the end of his life.
He ended his last note to me quite curtly. I could not sustain a public spat with Beko, so I never responded via email to him on the matter again, although I did speak with him on the matter later on.
Then when I spoke to him again about two weeks ago before his death, he was barely audible, merely telling me that he was being treated for his ailment. Like Africans, like Nigerians, I did not probe him too much then about what was exactly the matter with him, but it appeared the end was near.
The end came on February 10, 2006, at or around 10:30 pm. I hear that he had spent the last week or so tidying up his earthly affairs on this side of the veil.
WHY WE WRITE THESE THINGS
The bell has tolled for Beko. We write these things because we never know for whom the bell will toll next time, and what tales will be taken away never to be heard or read by mortals.
May Beko's soul rest in perfect peace.
I am happy that I knew you, Dokita, Beko, BRK, and I trust so do many Nigerians whose lives you devoted your own life to !
Sun re o ! Ki o ba won je nkan ti won ba nje l'oun !
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