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The Rage of Citizen Agbetu

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From: African Writing Online

Toyin Agbetu, the Nigerian founder of the African rights campaign organisation, Ligali, was recently in the news for disrupting the slavery abolition anniversary ceremonies at Westminster Abbey. He had risen to protest the sanitized and elliptical official version of the abolition story in an occasion at which the Queen and royal family, the Prime Minister and many distinguished others were present. Toyin Agbetu was arrested for his action.

AW15.gif considers his Westminster intervention in the light of a continuing struggle for African emancipation.

There are iconic moments, occasions with history wrapped around them. The human story is full of such moments – in its progress, in its many wanderings. Louise Brown crying her way out of a test tube. Neil Armstrong on the moon taking one giant leap for mankind. Mandela free at last, apartheid driven from the streets. And the human genome moment. There are these kinds of marvellous moments, and there are others, also iconic, infamy reeking from their dark… Times of outstanding terror. Auschwitz revealed. Camp Delta, Guatanamo Bay. Such other iconic places from our epic concentration camp narrative. Shark Island, Namibia, its discovered skulls, bleached white, blood drained, enough to stir the rage in Citizen Agbetu. The Rape of Nanking. Rwanda screaming with the blood of its Tutsi dead. Armenians trekking to their death in Ottoman Turkey. My Lai. Bosnia. Biafra…

History is not always friendly. There is perhaps too much memory, and so much of it quite hurtful. Much of life lives by removing itself from death: by not knowing, not hearing, not seeing, mostly by lying to itself. But deceit is the great poverty. A life of secrets is a life in chains. Angers that insist from the past, suppressed, become our shadows, trail our days with their dark malice, their wounding tobacco presence. A place from the human past may never know love. Many avoid there. Others like Agbetu bestride its pain, pointing and pleading, not letting go. Like every bearer of grim news, he has something to say most prefer not to hear. And there is comfort in not knowing – but also uncertainty. A forbidden place of memory is fertile ground for the farming of accursed futures. Vampire histories live after their death. Bloody histories scream for justice – or more blood. They are our inherited grief. Their poison is already in our breaths, Citizen Agbetu will have us know. We already inhale. That is not the choice. The question is when and how to exhale the deaths we live.

We are defined by our iconic moments, sometimes defiled by them. Of occasion and history, recline then and regard this spectacle of one contemporary African in London. Agbetu – in all its syllables as resonant an African name as any. His heart, unyielding as his name, burns with the restlessness of his African soul in England. And it is the season of bad consciences. Two hundred years of the Abolition. Those who matter in political England are gathered in Westminster Abbey – most of Her Majesty’s government. Sobriety is the official code. People wear nobility like a fixed smile at a time like this. The Archbishop usually throws a good party. He does it on behalf of God and country, his famous Abbey awash with occasion, generosity, and good feeling. Her Majesty is also present with family. Pomp is not quite with circumstance as it can be, as it used to be. This should be about slavery not about empire.

In England, however, nothing is without its echoes of empire, and Citizen Agbetu knows this. He is invited too, one of about two thousand guests at this occasion. If only he would remain silent, maintain the peace, he could be mistaken for one of the ‘High Commissioners’ present – representing Her Majesty’s postcolonial family of nations. But Agbetu is not that kind of guest. He knows there will be prayers and speeches. And the inevitable history lesson: how the British abolished slavery, 1807. The abolition story, as retold, with Wilberforce as the Christ figure, has the feel of Christmas about it. It is intended to. But in Agbetu it is not quite Christmas, not really the season of peace on earth and goodwill towards all. He is at this Westminster event on behalf of his African rights campaign group, Ligali.

He knows there will be much spin on the abolition story, which will echo from the Abbey pulpit. This would be another political moment not a moment of truth. He knows even more than that. He has seen it in the eyes of the speechmakers: No one will say sorry. Around him things will move at their desired pace, and all that movement will bring no change. This event at the Abbey will happen, and others like it, all telling the tale of how a benevolent empire freed its African slaves. But no one will say sorry! They will say they wish it never happened. They will say in hindsight it was a bad thing to enslave your fellow humans. But there would be no apology. There will be words. There will be no action. They will turn to that place of pain, acknowledge it, but refuse to go there. They will leave the matter still unresolved, as potent a breeder of conflicts and bad consciences as ever. Two hundred years after the Abolition there would be no volition towards a proper and permanent settlement, towards genuine reconciliation. Two hundred years after.

Rage erupts in a moment unknown. Sometimes we are warned, even prepared, but the moment of rage is all its own. Not that there is never any hint of agony in a kettle on fire, but that the pressure when it boils over happens in a moment without signposts. The rage of Citizen Agbetu was like that. He must have felt like a slave to occasion that imperial moment at the Abbey, expected to assent to a story he could neither believe nor own, a story about his people without his people in it. What uncommon thoughts might have emboldened this ordinary man to risk his life and seize the moment? Was he thinking of Sam Sharpe, Dutty Boukman, Sojourner Truth, Olaudah Equiano, Nanny of the Maroons, Queen Nzinga of the Mbundu (now Angolans), and others less known, some of them martyrs of the emancipation, ‘villains’ of the same story in which Wilberforce is hero, considered runaways or agitators and hunted to their death?

In that moment before his eruption, while he yet struggled with the pressure, knowing there would be no apology, did Agbetu also think of Sarah Baartman? Born 1789, died 1816, most likely of a syphilitic condition she contracted from captors who eventually worked her in prostitution. Finally, for her, they had found a self-fulfilling role for her reputedly outstanding bottom, the reason for which she was held captive in a foreign land. Her life was worth nothing. Her bottom was the gold they traded on. Some called her “Saartje,” others, “the Hottentot Venus,” derogatory names quite appropriate for the display animal she became for circuses and scientists. In London and Paris, she was stripped, gawped at and defined by the size and appearance of her genitals. continues

Or, perhaps, Sarah Baartman and other terrible details of slavery were not the thoughts to have in that happy moment at Westminster Abbey? Slave ship Captain John Newton’s meticulous 1709 log of frequent African deaths in his ship? William Lynch and his infamous 1712 advice on how to breed slaves like horses? Pirate Captain Bart Roberts, in 1722, burning his shipload of Africans, chained below deck, to avoid capture? The 1783 case of Captain Collingwood of The Zong, who threw 133 Africans overboard for insurance purposes? And the deadly racist history of Psychiatry and related medical practices? Thomas Cartwright, infamous for Drapetomania, the non-existent disease of “running away” by slaves for which the cure was frequent whippings and hard labour? Benjamin Rush, so-called ‘Father of Modern Psychiatry,’ who introduced the disease of “Negritude,” considered a form of leprosy? Eugenics and such other white supremacist ideas of racial difference?

All these were too depressing to think about at the Abbey? What other African choices did he have – Citizen Agbetu? He could have been “forward-looking” instead of dwelling on slavery. Should he then have wound his mind forward to colonialism, which, in cases, continued the enslavement of Africans inside Africa? King Leopold 11 of Belgium – just one of those at whose behest African peoples were forced into dehumanizing, chattel labour, heads and limbs cut off those who opposed? And the racial experiments, gulags and genocidal acts of colonial enforcers and their intellectual justifiers? But again it was probably wrong to remember colonialism by those experiences. Better to think of it only as a civilizing mission…

Is there a reason for an apology to Citizen Agbetu? What was going through his mind in that Abbey? Did he, perhaps, have a William Cowper moment:

I own I am shock’d by the purchase of slaves,

And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;

What I hear of their hardships, their tortures and groans,

Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.

I pity them greatly but I must be mum,

For how could we do without sugar and rum?

(Pity for Poor Africans, 1788)

Or was he ‘full on’ from the beginning, and primed for his encounter with history without quibble or irony or fear, without doubt, the famous words of the old anti-slavery movement ringing in his ears:

Am I not a man and a brother?

The rights campaigner, Sojourner Truth, would express the same emotion in an 1851 speech to a women’s convention:

Ain’t I a woman?

It does come down to that foundation question, doesn’t it? Are those who oppress even remotely capable of imagining the shared humanity of those they dehumanize?

Toyin Agbetu had to contest the validity of the oppressive decorum at the Abbey before he could grab his moment. Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka, had similarly contested the international moment provided by his 1986 Nobel Prize award. In Sweden, when a similarly oppressive decorum dictated what might be safely said, the Nobel Literature laureate chose to seize the moment and own it for Africa. And it was a significant moment. The 1986 Nobel Literature moment was iconic as a first tribute from the world to intellectual achievement in Africa, to African intellect. And Soyinka should have played the thankful good boy in response to that belated burst of international goodwill, but he did not. He chose to be awkward, using his Nobel Lecture to champion African rights, to seek redress for the diverse historic enslavements and injustices from which the continent still suffers. In his lecture he was particularly focused on the then unfolding racial situation in South Africa. Soyinka chose the title, ‘This Past Must Address Its Present’ for his Nobel Award lecture:

In any case, the purpose is not really to indict the past,

but to summon it to the attention of a suicidal, anachronistic

present. To say to that mutant present: You are a child of those

centuries of lies, distortion and opportunism in high places,

even among the holy of holies of intellectual objectivity…

And to say to the world, to call attention to its own historic

passage of lies – as yet unabandoned by some…

Wherein then lies the surprise that we, the victims of that

intellectual dishonesty of others, demand from that world

that is finally coming to itself, a measure of expiation?

Was Citizen Agbetu looking at the visible opulence of the Abolition commemoration ceremony and, perhaps, thinking how like that Abbey moment much of Britain, its great cities of London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, the might of its industrial revolution, the stability of its democratic experience at a time of revolutionary pressure, the early prospering of its financial systems, even the funding of its historic centers of learning, such as Oxford, and the lavish maintenance of its great country homes and estates, all owe a debt of gratitude to the slaving of Africans? He might have wondered about William Beckford, a wealthy eighteenth century owner of slave sugar plantations in Jamaica. Beckford as Lord Mayor of London and, perhaps, the first English millionaire, was quite representative of a slavery-enriched political leadership in his time, so that by 1766 at least forty members of parliament were significant beneficiaries of the trade. Is there a reason for dialogue with Citizen Agbetu?

1807, that year of parliamentary assent to a freedom movement already advanced in its course, is important for its groundswell of activism involving many ordinary people who denounced the trade in human lives. This concerted move of the social conscience for social action was motivated by many reasons other than mere pity for poor Africans. It was neither a William Wilberforce moment nor the conclusive abolition action official history has made it. British Quakers had already banned slavery among their own as early as 1760, the year Thomas Clarkson, a less heralded but effective abolitionist, was born. For the slaves at the time of the 1807 Abolition, and their children born after them, freedom was not yet. There were still freedom struggles in the Americas by distressed African slaves. There were slave uprisings in the Caribbean islands and the United States. In South Carolina, 1822, they had the Denmark Vesey uprising. So many “Gullah” or Angolan Africans wasted. They called them runaways. Runaways could be wasted on sight. The Abolition Act was actually passed in 1833 and, finally, for the enslaved by Britain the possibility of real freedom came in 1838. Even then there continued to be the dangers posed to the freedom and lives of African captives by unscrupulous slave dealers. For instance, Sengbe Pieh, a Mende man, known in United States history as Joseph Cinque, would be forced to lead other captives aboard the slave ship, Amistad, in an 1839 revolt.

March 25, 1807 simply records the date of parliamentary assent to the abolition of the trade, but not the practice of slavery. Then after that the slave owners bagged their million pounds compensations and the Africans were left still bonded to those from whom they had to earn or purchase their freedom. In the end universal emancipation, begun by those earlier slave revolts, which have no grand monuments or cathedral ceremonies to commemorate them, was eventually achieved rather quietly as individual projects, each slave doing what had to be done to become free and to earn the freedom of other dear ones. Two centuries from that official 1807 date of the Abolition may seem like a long time ago, enough time for the impact of the trade on Africa to have worn off, but it has to be remembered that the Trans-Atlantic Slavery went on for about four centuries, beginning as early as the fifteenth century. Together with aspects of the colonial experience that followed, the devastating impact on Africa of slavery cannot be understated – in much the same way as you cannot successfully seek to diminish the advantages it gave to the slaving nations of Europe and America.

When he began to rise from his seat at the Abbey his neighbours must have thought he was going to unburden himself. And Citizen Agbetu was, but the toilet was far from his thoughts. He had his arms raised all the time as he moved to empty his rage. Better to have those arms raised. He knew there were protection people even in the haloed hall of the Abbey. Those hidden eyes had to see he did not mean war. It serves no purpose to be just another ‘nigger’ dead. “This is a disgrace to our ancestors!” he yelled, as the Archbishop tried to engage all in a solemn prayer of atonement over slavery. “Millions of our ancestors are in the Atlantic…” Citizen Agbetu would not be cowed by either location or occasion. Archbishop Rowan Williams, a fair-minded intellectual type, was not unused to hecklers. His own fractious bishops are engaged in a ferocious moral struggle over definition and control of the Anglican centre. He would later attempt to lighten the sense of invasion others felt over Agbetu’s Abbey outburst. Agbetu, he said, represented people who had deep hurts about the oppressive history of slavery, and that had to be understood. The Church of England is itself still ambiguous about how to apologize and possibly offer reparations for its earlier historical role as slaver and justifier of slavery. It did later become a bastion of the anti-slavery movement, and, in recent times, the anti-apartheid movement. continues

Agbetu would continue his unusual Abbey outing with a direct address to the Queen. Another Queen Elizabeth – Elizabeth 1 – had been monarch over a Britain, which fully engaged in and prospered from the trade in Africans. Agbetu compared the British imperial adventure in Africa to Nazi imperialism in Europe. If Jewish nationals could obtain an apology and some recompense from the German inheritors of the Nazi legacy, would Her Majesty not consider a proper British apology to the African peoples? There was never going to be any immediate response from Her Majesty, of course, and as is the nature of his kind of protest, Citizen Agbetu’s great leap into history was soon silenced several sentences after it began. Unless you are Oliver Cromwell no one lets you spew out a torrent of unpalatable truths against a reigning monarch for too long. Out of the ceremonial hall, leaving on his own terms, but surrounded by guards, Citizen Agbetu would be arrested and then conditionally released.

As an iconic moment in the modern history of African emancipation struggles, Toyin Agbetu’s Westminster Abbey intervention is in rather distinguished company: There was Kwame ‘Osagyefo’ Nkrumah, in kente cloth, saying brave things about African unity at Ghana’s independence. So much hope then. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington expounding his dream of ‘one love’ and ‘one human race.’ Rosa Parks, eyes wide open, saying no by not saying yes to the segregation laws of America. And Emmett Till in an open casket chosen by his mother to show the world the disfigured head he got in 1950s America for whistling at a white girl. Emmett was young, male, behaving like a naughty boy. But he was an African naughty boy.

The racial dehumanization of the African peoples has its shameful history and the leader of the Anglican Church was right: There is a reason for the rage of Citizen Agbetu. There is a reason for an apology to Citizen Agbetu. There is a dialogue waiting to begin with Citizen Agbetu. These are some of the excuses given to deny this proper closure to the shameful legacy of slavery: Slavery is of the past not of the present… You cannot hold a people responsible for the sins of their ancestors… And some of those European and American ancestors were nearly just as deprived and oppressed as the African slaves… And was historical slavery was a unique African experience? And, anyway, many African kings at the time collaborated in the slaving of African people… And, corruption is the real problem of Africa not its history of destabilization by imperial oppression… Such excuses.

Would a detailed response to these excuses serve to silence those for whom the matter of an apology is defined only in racial and economic terms? Not likely. It suffices then to indicate that slavery, in its effects on both the enriched slave-holding lands and the impoverished African places of the enslaved, is still very much with us. It is still with diasporic Africans in its lasting disruptions to their sense of family, identity and direction. Institutional white supremacist prejudice towards the African peoples and the intellectual and moral justifications of that are mostly rooted in the experience of slavery. Too often the fact of corruption in Africa becomes the catchall excuse for those who wish to deny any kind of benefit to the continent from the international community. But Africans, including even their leaders, are not more corrupt than the other peoples of the world. Many Africans now live outside Africa, and know from experience and by means of locally available information that corruption is also prevalent in the political, social and economic systems of many developed nations. Mostly, the element of impunity by which corrupt leaderships carry out their activities in Africa is missing in these more economically advanced places, which usually have better funded and more dependable law enforcement systems. Individuals and institutions are generally not above legal sanction in these places. The benefit of functioning law enforcement safeguards against corruption aside, these other lands are economically powerful and stable enough to absorb levels of corrupt practices that would sink many African countries.

Of course, the real difficulty for many governments of former slave-holding lands is not really whether to apologize but how to apologize without having to pay compensation. It is difficult to imagine Africans getting all they want or European and American governments giving all they should in this process. But slavery was about impoverishing one people to enrich another. Compensation is a necessary part of the healing. How to effect this can be worked out in independent people to people (rather than government to government) meetings under the guidance of the United Nations. These representative people meetings may be advised by governments but remain independent of the unequal exchanges and corrupt practices by which successive African leaderships have been pressured or persuaded to serve their people poorly in their historical dealings with explorers, slave merchants, colonial and other representatives of the imperial and industrial nations.

But there is another side to the rage of Citizen Agbetu. Africa and Africans cannot in the end be a matter for others. It is a question of ownership – African ownership of the experiences, realities and fortunes of Africa, African ownership of responsibility for Africa. The remaining time of Africa is still Africa’s to employ in the construction of the African Dream. That may be easier to achieve in parts through joint venture efforts with the significant others of the international community, through a requirement that they own their historical debt to Africa and so truly commit to its reconstruction in recompense. But the Westminster Abbey experience of Citizen Agbetu demonstrates again the importance of primary African ownership of responsibility for the healing and development of Africa. Others have a role, and should own that historical role, but if they don’t, when they do or how they do, should ultimately not undermine or determine an African ownership of the African Struggle, and the African Dream. Africa is still Africa’s to win or lose, its onerous history notwithstanding. That experience of slavery, and the varying forms of colonial and continuing imperial involvement in Africa since then, can become a matter for blind, disabling anger in the conscious African – for the kind of rage that burns up itself or simply burns. It is important to know the past, necessary to address its historical ugliness, overcoming all official and informal denials of access. That was what the rage of Citizen Agbetu was about. It was about ownership, about African ownership of its part in history, about re-establishing in that ceremony at the Abbey a pre-eminent African presence and moment, taking that opportunity to say the usually unsaid in what was and always will be a profoundly African story. continues

It is probably more profitable for reconstruction purposes to think of slavery, colonialism and imperialism in universal human terms rather than with a racial focus. It certainly serves contemporary African realities better. Africa is more multiracial than it ever was, and all of its peoples are part of the African Dream. Many diasporic and expatriate Africans now have complex family histories involving other racial ancestries and relationships. The troubles of Africa, for all their peculiarities, are part of a universal conflict. In that conflict, no one is born free. Individually and collectively, we are freed or enslaved more or less by what we do or fail to do to create and perpetuate our freedoms or enslavements. And there are no uncontested territories. It really is about ownership. If you fail own to yourself, someone or something will take you over. If you will not own your home, something from the street will want to control it. If you loosen your grip on your mate too much, he or she will find or be found by someone or something else. And if you are not watchful over your land, others will rule over it.

It is not so much a question of power, which can be ineffectual when misapplied, as it is a question of ownership, the ability to use even minimal power appropriately in service to and control of ones fortunes. Regarding the survival of Africa – and we do not now even talk of its prosperity – there is that important issue of ownership to be resolved. Africa does not own Africa. Much of the wealth and labour of Africa is really in service of other lands, so most Africans merely tenant Africa. The life of Africa is daily bargained out to others, not just to the usual occidental suspects, but now also to the others of the ravenous global economic system, especially to the Chinese in Zambia, Congo land, the Sudan and other prostrate African places. Since the coming of foreign explorers, invaders, slavers, colonizers, contemporary imperial agents, and the punitive history left in their wake, there has not even been an authorized version of the African story. Africa is a tale retold severally in abridged versions by foreigners for the foreign reader. This is possible because the story of Africa, the making of modern Africa, is mostly recorded and filed in foreign storage.

There are levels of violence. Self-violation is the purest violence of all. Those who might have loved and led Africa have been violating her. This must be part of the rage of Citizen Agbetu. As in the plantation days of slavery and under the colonial project the bonding of Africa continues, supervised by local African whiphands, who, misled by the comforts of office, consider themselves independent. But no one may truly self-own who is not self-aware. African ownership of Africa’s slave history should include ownership of African complicity in the Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Saharan Trades. But it can be just as easy to live in denial of this as it would be to make more of it than we ought to. Trusting African rulers, uneducated on the full story of the human trade, divided and frequently manipulated or threatened to think themselves somehow protected and prospered by their economic and military association with the foreign slavers, were surely not on equal footing with these foreign slavers in the making of the tragedy that was slavery in Africa. Conquering slavers and oppressors everywhere in history always found some willing and coerced local collaborators. In Nazi action against the Jews of the German mainland and concentration camps, and against the nationals of France and the other occupied European places there were always these forced and friendly collaborators. The French, for all the embarrassing history of their Vichy government collaboration, know who the real aggressor of the occupation was. And that historical fact of local collaboration in German occupied-Europe, or some Jewish complicity in Nazi action against German Jews, did not act to invalidate the claims and complaints of these oppressed peoples regarding their experience. There were some Nazi sympathizers too even in free Britain. But the aggressor, the villain, was never in doubt. So must be the case with African complicity in the enslavement of Africans.

This is not to make light of what is a continuing trend in the relationship of Africa with powerful foreign exploiters of African wealth and labour. It is the case that most of those who rule Africa are still intellectually unconscious, without a commitment to ending the continuing imbalance in relationship between Africa and others. It is still the case that they are too focused on the comforts of office and the symbolic power or imagined independent authority they have in their local territories. And there is still the issue of weapons flowing in from abroad, encouraging Africans to wage war on each other, and providing the African ruling elite with a sense of security and special protective relationship with their arms providers. In parts of Africa, especially in the long sectarian conflicts of West Africa, East Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Sudan, African dictators and warlords have used these weapons to kill other Africans or commit them to slave labour in mines, providing the wealth with which the weapons are paid for. These are exactly the same divisive methods of corruption, coercion and collaboration used during the periods of colonialism and plantation slavery.

The kind of leaders at home and traders from abroad who sold and enslaved the past of Africa are still the same kind of collaborators working together to sell and enslave its present. If no one stops them there will be no African future, not as we know it, not in an increasingly disputed world of resource scarcities, global imperial hungers and new theories of preventive warfare. Fully displaced and dispossessed, all hired out to others, that desperate African future in which the humanity and different culture of the African will again be doubted, that second slavery, the unspoken fear in the rage of Citizen Agbetu. On yet another historic moment, iconic for all the wrong reasons, someone may finally convince the world there is no longer any need for Africa, there being no lasting progress and so much beggary, its land and resources no longer its own, its peoples long surrendered to others as wage slaves or worse. And then as now there will be Africans abroad who will deny Africa, thinking themselves exempt from her misery. This Bicentenary anniversary of the 1807 Abolition Act is even more about looking at Africa now than it is about engaging the African past. And this is how to rebuild a ravaged land: First you must own the land and its truth. Abolish play, abolish the postcolonial laughter of false societies built for exploitation by others. Abolish trust, and let the era of proof begin. In these ill-governed lands let the unled now lead their leaders. Africa is wealthiest of all in people, and, as in the earlier days of the independent struggles, its success still depends on its own people of ideas. Ideas are the principal bricks. AW15.gif

From African Writing Online

GOTTA respect Brother Toyin!

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