Supporters of opposition parties protesting the result of the 2023 presidential election in Abuja, March 2023. Some of the protesters even openly called for the military to take over power/Photo: Idoma TV/Screenshot

A writer’s passionate plea for democracy in fragile African states

Military coups are becoming fashionable in Africa again. In the past five years, elected governments have been toppled by the army in four countries in West Africa alone. Citizens openly call for the military to take over these days out of frustration with the politicians. A Nigerian writer and poet Lola Shoneyin pleads with Africans to give democracy a chance. Steve Ogah* reviews Shoneyin’s “A Fragile State”, a short film in which she makes a case for patience with elected governments

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Vigorous reactions on X have greeted Lola Shoneyin’s recent performance poem. Nonetheless, her short film A Fragile State has distinctive and adequate poetic credentials that echo the stark reality of democracy and the haunting dangers confronting civil society on the African continent. This review is concerned with the use of music in the poem and the function it serves while reinforcing meanings. Again, this analysis will underscore that Lola’s poem is a timely social commentary, a spoken word performance worthy of critical acclaim. 

Poetic Symbols

A Fragile State thrives on many poetic and social fronts. The poem has evocative symbols that capture the violence and pandemonium in post-colonial African countries. This is reflected when the poet says, “and just like that, dust clouds obscure the colours of daily life/Khaki green and black leather unsettle the streets.”

The poet’s strident voice is a communal echo of how several observers of the continent’s politics feel about the foundation of modern African states. For instance, “Oh Yes! It can vanish in a gunshot/Or a radio announcement” refers to how swiftly democracy and civil liberties disappear in most African countries. From Benin Republic to Liberia, to Ghana, and further afield from West Africa, the rule of law often wobbles on the brink of disaster.

Words and Sense

The poet chooses her words for their inherent sounds and literary sense. “Trigger, bomb, blood, gun, terror, fear, gunshot, fire, impunity,” and other violent symbols conjure a world of conflict, eliciting images of canon fire and skirmishes reminiscent of coup d’états.

Lola Shoneyin has been widely praised for expressing Africa’s political dilemma so poignantly and powerfully/Photo: X/ @lolashoneyin

Without much effort from the audience, familiar images arise due to the poet’s successful engagement with apt idioms, insightful word choices, and matching sound devices to invoke staple terrains in independent African societies.

It is always a remarkable achievement in a work of art when a poet effortlessly grips the audience, pointing listeners to the wretched reality of the world in which they struggle for survival and from which they must devise enduring freedoms. In sum, the poet employs conversational and familiar word choices to capture the subterfuge and fundamental language of African dictators.

For instance, “Fellow countrymen” refers to the stock language of some of Nigeria’s past military rulers, particularly Generals Sanni Abacha and Ibrahim Babangida, and several other despots in Africa. Over again, the accompanying historical images offer visual backdrops suitable for the poet’s thematic concerns. These historical images from real-time recordings and recreated scenes capture the audience’s imagination in ways that suggest that we are better off with the freedom to choose our leaders from the pool of choices that democracy offers. 

Democratic Pleas

Part of the substantial accomplishment of the poet is that her work critically calls our attention to the evils of tyrants while also making a subtle plea for our liberties. The poem’s dramatic opening and elements of suspense add to its overall literary value as a work of thoughtful art from an artist imbued with an astute sense of political and social history and the histrionics reminiscent of autocrats. For instance, “Have you watched it disappear?” arrests and elicits attention, prompting questions about the poet’s theme and the things to come. 

Music and Meanings

The deployment of Afrobeat music from Made Kuti, one of its enchanting exponents, further adds significant beauty to Lola’s poem. Made Kuti, grandson of the social critic and originator of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, employs horns and percussion instruments that enforce meanings inherent in metaphors and allusions, further enhancing appreciation for the poem and lending a danceable performance quality to the poet’s artistic composition. 

The vigorous ad hominem reactions from some X users must not detract from the poet’s dramatic genius and social vision and FT’s foresight in commissioning this performance at a time when democracy is diminishing on the African continent, in West Africa, notably. Lola Shoneyin’s “A Fragile State” should be read as a poetic intervention in the sociopolitical landscapes of Africa. The poet’s work should be held aloft for its democratic perspective and its denunciations of despots.

“Save yourself soldier,” the poet says, denouncing soldiers who bulldoze their way into presidential palaces, calling them out for their tyrannies. “A Fragile State” is a solid and dramatic poem, offering an engaging treatment of pressing social and political themes symbolic of the past and relevant to staple African experiences. It deserves critical acclaim because of its motifs, timeliness, and the overall use of matching sound devices to drive home several salient points that call for the protection of democratic freedom on the African continent, which we “never want to live a day without.”

Watch “A Fragile State” HERE

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* Steve Ogah is the author of The African New Yorker, Freedom Campus and other books. His writings have been published in Black History Month (UK), The African Magazine (USA), Africa Briefing (London), Borderless Journal (Singapore) and elsewhere. He is active on X @stevewritings and on LinkedIn.


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