Jailed for arts sake: On the unlawful arrest of Nigerian artist, Jelili Atiku

“Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go (Zombie)

…Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think (Zombie)

Tell am to go straight
A joro, jara, joro
No break, no job, no sense
A joro, jara, joro…”

Fela’s ‘Zombie’ of 1977 was nothing short of a hit. This is because the song told the truth, referencing the characteristics of the Nigerian military who obeyed their commanders without question. Thirty-nine years later, it appears nothing has changed; the security forces in Nigeria still seem to be the same robots operating under the whims of a ‘commander’, in this case, a traditional ruler.

On Sunday, award-winning performance artist and human rights activist, Jelili Atiku, was arrested for his performance in the Ejigbo area of Oshodi-Isolo, Lagos state on Thursday the 14th of January, under the instructions of Oba Morufu Ojoola of Ejigbo. While the reason for his arrest was not quite clear then, whether the Oba was offended by the performance itself, or that it was staged without his permission, there was widespread discontent over the unlawful arrest and continued detention of Atiku until his release, on bail, only two days ago.

When Ventures Africa contacted Atiku early Friday morning, he mentioned he was still recovering from the ordeal. It turns out he was detained at the Ejigbo Police Station on Sunday, then thrown in Kirikiri Medium Security Prison the following day. This was after being charged to court on four counts – for disturbing the peace of the community, for intimidating the public, for distributing publications likely to provoke the community and for managing an unlawful society. “I was released on bail on Wednesday, January 20 at about 6pm and will appear in court in on the 1st of February 2016,” he said.

Charge document Credit - Jelili Atiku
Charge document
Credit – Jelili Atiku

Credit - Jelili Atiku
Credit – Jelili Atiku

Atiku told Ventures Africa that his performance on Thursday titled, “Aragamago Will Rid This Land off Terrorism”, was performed in the context of a campaign against international and domestic terrorism. “It is a processional and public intervention performance with public participation. It borrowed heavily from the philosophical foundation of the statement by George Orwell, which was made in the book 1984,” he explained. In the book, Orwell says, “The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object of murder is murder. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”

From our conversation with Atiku, we gathered that Oba Ojoola and his cohorts had threatened Atiku and his family for speaking up against his corrupt rulership, previously. The Oba is accused of mismanaging community property, while intimidating and oppressing the people by converting public property to his and keeping community generated revenues for himself. Speaking to the press on Tuesday during the protest for the release of Atiku, a youth of the community named Azeez said the Oba uses men of the Oodua Peoples’ Congress and members of the Nigerian police force to oppress the people. “The police in Ejigbo have been compromised,” he said.

Credit - Jelili Atiku

Prior to his arrest, the artist had written letters to the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, and to Yakubu Dogara, the Speaker of the House of Representatives citing this threat to his life and harassment by the police. Just as soldiers launched an assault on Fela’s Kalakuta commune in response to “Zombie”, which was further evidence of the song’s ethos, the Oba and the Nigerian police force seem to have endorsed Orwell’s words, attacking Atiku for his performance. Not only are they zombies, used by one man for his political ambitions, they are also oppressors and terrorists to the community.

Atiku is an artist unlike any other. His work is always a passionate expression of the environment around him to enable people understand the world so as to renew their lives. “For over decade, I have put my art at service of the prevailing concerns of our times; especially those issues that threaten our collective existence and the sustenance of our universe.”

Last year, he received the Prince Claus award for his contribution to the development his society through art. Recently, the artist has been focusing on enacting “social intervention and political motivated live art performances” like “Give Me Boko Haram,” “Victim of Political Assassination” and “Who’s Afraid of FoI Bill?” The government certainly needs to intervene in what appears to be an oppression of one of the countries finest creatives, and his community.

Below is a video highlighting some of Atiku’s brilliant performances:

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