The Nigerian festival was one of the greatest Pan-African celebrations – and the beginning of the end for Fela Kuti’s Shrine

May 31, 2017

On January 23, 1977, ABC debuted a television miniseries based on Alex Haley’s bestselling novel, Roots, following his family tree from the postbellum American South back to an 18th century Mandinka village on the banks of the Gambia River. Not only did Roots break all existing US television viewership records, it mainstreamed the vogue for cultural afrocentricism among black people in America and beyond. Africa became a mirror for self-realization and self-actualization: braids and beads, Africa-inspired names, garments, adornments and styles of thought became pathways back to the Motherland.

For black people to truly find themselves, the thinking went, they would have to return to the site of their origins in Africa – spiritually if not physically. And 1977 would prove to be a watershed year for back-to-Africa themes in popular culture. Later in the year, Lamont Dozier would score a disco hit exploring this motif on “Going Back to My Roots.” Bob Marley & The Wailers’ magnum opus Exodus tackled similar subject matter: Allegorically positing a movement of the people away from the corruption of “Babylon,” Marley exhorted children of Africa to march across the sea and back to the purity of their ancestral home.

But before this fascination with African repatriation took hold, an exodus of sorts had actually already occurred. On January 15, 1977 – the week before Roots hit the airwaves – 17,000 black artists and musicians from 55 nations across the world converged upon Lagos, Nigeria in a global homecoming, a month-long jubilee feting the seemingly endless cultural permutations of the descendants of Africa.

This was FESTAC ’77.

Festival Mundial de Arte Negra - Dakar, 1966

Properly titled the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC was theoretically a sequel to an earlier gathering, the First World Festival of Black Arts, held in Dakar, Senegal in 1966. But in terms of scale, scope, ambition and pure flamboyance, FESTAC ’77 had no precedent. The 1966 event, also known as FESMAN (Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres), was a relatively low-key, highbrow conference powered by the precepts of the French African intellectual movement, Négritude. With its emphasis on black liberation via poetry, literature and philosophy, FESMAN felt more like an academic retreat, while FESTAC was a wild circus full of sound and color and sensuality.

It was the first event of its kind, but it would also be the last. As Ebony magazine rapturously described the once-in-a-lifetime quality of the event: “For 29 days, black people from everywhere – from Africa, Europe, African-America, South America, Canada and the islands of the seas – testified to the haunting presence of blackness in the world. And what this meant, at least on the level of the viscera, was that for the first time since the Slave Trade, for the first time in 500 years, the black family was together again, was whole again, was one again.”

Nigeria would play the role of the well-to-do sibling in this family reunion, though they were financing the affair more out of ego than benevolence. FESTAC ’77 was the perfect opportunity for Nigeria to flaunt its newfound status as a prosperous petro-state, demonstrating its worthiness of the nickname “the Giant of Africa.” But the Nigerian government overreached, and its excesses would result in FESTAC ’77 being remembered 40 years later largely for rampant graft, cynicism, brutality and destruction – that is, in the rare instances that it is remembered at all.

Nigeria is to Africa what Greece was and still is to the history of Europe.

Leopold Sedar Senghor

The notion of Nigeria as a spiritual mecca for the black race was a relatively new one in the 1960s. Rastafarians had previously mythologized Ethiopia as the Promised Land, and in the 1950s, Ghana gained a reputation as the model African nation and necessary destination for conscious-minded diasporic blacks. Many Pan-Africanists in the Black Power era also came to romanticize the Swahili-speaking regions of East Africa as a source of metaphysical nourishment. But Nigeria was frequently championed by none other than Leopold Sedar Senghor, the philosopher-president of Senegal and the prime poet of Négritude, who consistently argued for the central role Nigeria played in the formation of a universal black consciousness. To Senghor, Nigeria represented a black version of ancient Rome or Greece. At FESMAN, he had designated Nigeria “star country” and tasked the nation with hosting the next Festival of Black Arts, citing the analogy to classical civilization: “Nigeria is to Africa what Greece was and still is to the history of Europe,” Senghor declared.

Senghor was hardly the first to recognize Nigeria as a crucial nexus for Pan-African alliance-building. Formed in New York in 1957, the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) was a collection of African-American artists and intellectuals dedicated to fostering deeper connections between America’s black community and the peoples of the African continent. The group soon established an office in Lagos, and in 1961 it staged a two-day festival featuring African-American artists such as the dancers Geoffrey Holder and Pearl Primus, singers Nina Simone, Odetta and Brock Peters, jazz bandleader Lionel Hampton and various Nigerian performers. African-American jazz pianist Randy Weston also attended the concert as an AMSAC guest and recounts reaping a lifetime’s worth of creative inspiration from the visit. He also recalls his first meeting with a young Nigerian musician who was just starting to gain notice in certain rarefied strata of the Lagos scene.

“On our first full night in Lagos Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first post-colonial president of Nigeria, had a big dinner for all 29 of us at his house,” Weston writes in his autobiography, African Rhythms. “He didn’t speak formally, but he made us feel very comfortable, very much at home. There were many ambassadors there from all over Africa and each one of us was seated next to an African ambassador… Fela Kuti, the renowned Nigerian music star, was invited and he brought his trumpet. There was a piano there, so Fela and I played together for the first time and were friends from that moment on.”

The question was not whether Nigeria would be prepared to host the festival, but whether Nigeria itself would still exist.

Despite Weston’s retrospective appraisal, Fela Ransome-Kuti at that time was far from renowned, or anything close to a star in the local music ecosystem. A classically-trained alumnus of London’s Trinity School of Music, he appeared laughably overqualified and effete in the down-and-dirty nightclubs of Lagos. His preferred idiom of modern jazz was out of step with the dominant native taste, which favored highlife – a simple, Caribbean-inflected indigenous dance style. Progressive musicians like the Afro-Jazz Group were trying to bridge the gap between sophisticated jazz and homegrown popular music, but Ransome-Kuti was too much of a purist to derive satisfaction from such fusions. (“Look, while I was in London I played highlife,” he would tell the Lagos Daily Times in 1964, “but anyone who is expecting to hear me play highlife now is wasting time. I shall play this thing called jazz until I find that it cannot catch on in this country. Then of course I’ll call it quits and no more music for me.”) To the average Nigerian music fan, Fela Ransome-Kuti’s aesthetic was too foreign, too western, too un-African to ever really take root.

In general, that was also the assessment of the AMSAC Festival by many local critics. The Lagos press alternately excoriated the American artists’ performances as too alienating, or their expressions of diasporic neo-Africanism as offensively primitivist. Some commentators harbored suspicions of AMSAC itself, speculating that the organization was a US imperialistic front deployed to Nigeria for the purposes of espionage and indoctrination.

As paranoid as such theories sounded, they turned out to not be far from the truth: In March 1967, the American radical political magazine Ramparts published an expose revealing that in the effort to controvert worldwide communist influence, the Central Intelligence Agency had funded and overseen the operations of a variety of citizen front groups. AMSAC, unbeknownst to the majority of its members, had been one of these cover organizations. To ensure an ideologically uncompromised Pan-Africanist agenda, it became all the more necessary for the self-sufficient, oil-rich Nigeria to host the next festival.

Preparations began for a November 1975 kickoff. However, by July 1967, Nigeria was embroiled in a vicious civil war. As the conflict stretched into 1969, the more serious question was not whether Nigeria would be prepared to host the festival in 1975, but whether Nigeria itself would still exist in 1975.

Then, in January 1970, the civil war came to a sudden end, and in the interest of restoring national unity, Nigeria’s head of state General Yakubu Gowon adopted a “no victor, no vanquished” policy. The past was the past, and Nigeria was ready to face the future as a nation reborn.

Kuti realized that rather than reaching out to black America for influence, he was better off looking inward.

About a month after the end of the war, Fela Ransome-Kuti returned to Nigeria from the United States, having experienced a kind of rebirth of his own. Frustrated by the poor reception of his musical ideas in Nigeria, he had taken his Koola Lobitos band to the United States in June 1969 on what would turn out to be a disastrous tour. While there, he fell under the sway of the Black Power and Black Arts movements, and found himself rethinking his relationship to his own Africanness. Black Americans fetishized and celebrated traditional African culture as a mother lode, the same African culture that modern Africans like Kuti took for granted or even regarded as “primitive.” Kuti realized that rather than reaching out to black America for influence, he was better off looking inward. This spiritual reawakening catalyzed a musical one, and when he got back home in February 1970, the formerly westernized jazzman was draping himself and his band in exotic African garb, playing a new, funky African brew he called “Afrobeat.”

Kuti would later reflect upon the irony of having to travel to America to reconnect with his African pride. “It’s crazy,” he told the New York Times’ John Darnton in 1977. “In the States people think the black power movement drew inspiration from Africa. All these Americans come over here looking for awareness. They don’t realize they’re the ones who’ve got it over there. Why, we were even ashamed to go around in national dress until we saw pictures of blacks wearing dashikis on 125th Street.”

Kuti took to saluting his audience with raised Black Power fists, renamed his band Afrika 70, restyled his personal performance venue as “the African Shrine” and eventually turned his home into a communal compound that he dubbed the Kalakuta Republic. It took a while for his ideas about a universal brotherhood of blackness to catch on with an African public that was more concerned with the vagaries of local politics. However, through the compelling spectacle of his performances, his irresistible groove and fiery testimonies from the bandstand, Kuti gradually achieved what several colloquia of professors, philosophers and essayists had up to that point been unable to: He made Pan-Africanism a popular idea amongst everyday Nigerians. As one of Nigeria’s biggest musical artists and the country’s reigning prophet of Pan-Africanism, it was a no-brainer that Fela Kuti should be enlisted to contribute to the planning and promotion of the coming arts festival.

Soul Power trailer

However, FESTAC ’75 had become a contentious subject in Nigeria. Preparations for the event had proceeded for years after the war, with the stakes steadily rising. The continent had already seen preludes of sorts to the festival: The Pan-African Cultural Festival held in Algiers in 1969 was regarded as an unofficial rehearsal for FESTAC, and this was followed in 1971 with the “Soul to Soul” concert, which brought American acts such as Wilson Pickett, Santana, The Staples Singers and Ike & Tina Turner to Accra to share a stage with Ghanaian stars like The Psychedelic Aliens, Charlotte Dada and Guy Warren. Then there was Zaire ’74, the three-day “Black Woodstock” in Kinshasa that preceded the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle.” All of these had been major affairs, but they were relatively localized phenomena. FESTAC ‘75 was to be a global homecoming, so it was imperative that it be last word in such African diasporic events. All stops had to be pulled out.

Still, FESTAC ’75 couldn’t help but be affected by chronic flux in Nigeria’s domestic polity. General Gowon was deposed in a coup d’etat in July 1975, just months ahead of FESTAC’s targeted November commencement. Among the first actions taken by Gowon’s successor Murtala Muhammed was the indefinite postponement of FESTAC, citing “the obvious difficulties in providing all necessary facilities” and the desire to “save Nigeria, Africa and the black community from embarrassment.” Murtala’s sudden and unilateral decision to shelve the festival angered the other participant countries that had already invested resources into their upcoming delegations, but by October 1975 Muhammed was assuaging their frustrations with the assurance that FESTAC would still take place – albeit in a scaled-down form – sometime in the summer of 1976.

Then, in February 1976, Muhammed was assassinated in an abortive coup. Muhammed’s chief of staff, Lt-Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, promptly took over the reins of government and ramped up plans for FESTAC, now set to take place in January 1977 by hook or crook. The heat was on to complete the installation of the facilities Muhammed had feared could not possibly be achieved in time to ensure a successful execution of the festival. Several millions of dollars had already been poured into the project, but the government felt confident that Nigeria could afford it: In 1971 Nigeria had joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, placing it in league with powerful petro-states like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Libya and Kuwait. OPEC’s imposition of an oil embargo in 1973 resulted in the price of oil skyrocketing four times over, making Nigeria suddenly, startlingly affluent. The strength of Nigeria’s currency, the naira, even dwarfed the US dollar, with ₦1.00 trading for $1.60 by 1976.

Gowon was famously quoted as saying, “money is not Nigeria’s problem, but how to spend it,” and spend it they did. There were tremendous pay raises for government workers and government contracts flowing in all directions. There was exponential growth in the market for consumer and luxury products. And looming over this circus of spending was FESTAC, the biggest white elephant of them all.

Billions are being spent to keep black people apart. It is impossible to spend too much money to bring black people together.

Prof. Chike Onwuachi

In advance of the festival, new roads and expressways were constructed. The bustling urban plaza at Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos was revamped. An ultramodern housing estate was built in the Lagos suburbs (at a cost of around $80 million) to accommodate the thousands of guests expected to attend. Five-star hotels were erected on the government’s dime in Lagos and Kaduna, as was a cutting-edge racecourse. The crown jewel of all the construction projects, though, was the National Arts Theatre.

Designed and built by the Bulgarian firm Technoexportstroy (and based on the Palace of Culture and Sports in Varna, Bulgaria), the Theatre actually resembled a glittering crown ascending from the swampland of Surelere, Lagos. The official bill for the Theatre’s construction came to $60 million, though knowledgeable observers asserted this was a conservative tally.

As FESTAC-related spending ballooned into the range of $400 million, much of the public questioned the wisdom of such profligacy and remained largely ambivalent about the point of festival itself. Before his death, Muhammed’s administration had actually launched a probe into the allocation of FESTAC-earmarked funds, to the delight of critics in the Nigerian media. These critics had similarly applauded Muhammed’s postponement of the festival and urged him to cancel it altogether, writing off the entire enterprise as “one big ego trip” for the Nigerian government – one that yielded no real benefit for the average citizen. Government spokesmen argued vehemently that the investment in culture was a worthwhile one, and that the solidification of global black brotherhood was its own reward. “Billions are being spent to keep black people apart,” said Prof. Chike Onwuachi, the festival’s international coordinator. “It is impossible to spend too much money to bring black people together.”

I didn’t know that my resigning would cause so much shit.

Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti was among the Nigerians critical of the government spending and the inevitable corruption that accompanied it. He had initially expressed high hopes for the festival, believing that if properly coordinated it could be a positive program “to redirect the thinking of the common man.” Kuti was invited to join FESTAC’s National Participation Committee, comprising leading lights of the arts and culture sector such as dramatist Hubert Ogunde, writer Wole Soyinka and filmmaker Ola Balogun. Under the leadership of Major General I.B.M. Haruna, the Commissioner for Information, the NPC was expected to establish the cultural program and priorities of the festival. Kuti claimed that Haruna rejected the nine-point program he proposed “to make the festival meaningful,” and he began to wonder why the planning committee for an arts and culture festival was being chaired by a military man rather than by an artist or intellectual.

“He started demagoguing, man,” Kuti said of Haruna, “saying he was ‘open’ to fresh ideas and that kind bullshit. So I resigned.”

Kuti held a press conference in July 1976 to announce that he was distancing himself from FESTAC, decrying it as “a huge joke.” Ogunde, Balogun and Soyinka would also soon resign from the committee, but the government’s wrath was reserved for Kuti, who had mobilized his youthful followers into a political activist group and begun circulating an anti-government newsletter that mocked and maligned FESTAC. “I didn’t know that my resigning would cause so much shit,” Kuti told his biographer Carlos Moore in 1982’s Fela, Fela: This Bitch of a Life. “You see, the stage was being set for a very serious confrontation. But I didn’t know it.”

On the morning of January 15, 1977, the flags of 55 participant nations sailed in front of the National Theatre. The standard Lagos traffic jams were exacerbated by the presence of hundreds of buses transporting thousands of wide-eyed, colorfully attired visitors from all reaches of the globe. The front page of The Nigerian Punch newspaper screamed in giant letters, “FESTAC IS HERE!”

Everywhere you looked – on books, bags, jewelry, posters, placards, t-shirts and television and graffiti – you saw the already iconic “FESTAC mask.” The image of an ancient Benin carving had been aggressively promoted as the mascot of FESTAC ‘77, a symbol of spiritual and cultural renewal, of a glorious African past converging with a hopeful black future.

The organizers of FESTAC had selected as its official emblem the mask of Idia, a 16th-century ivory sculpture depicting the Queen Mother of the Benin Empire. Benin, a culturally advanced kingdom in the Midwestern region of modern Nigeria, had been destroyed in February 1897 when it was invaded by the British. For ten days, British military forces had sacked Benin and carted away over 2,500 sacred sculptures, among them several copies of the Queen Idia mask. These objets d’art had ended in various western museums, chiefly the British Museum – whom the Nigerian government had for years petitioned to return the plundered artifacts, to no avail.

As FESTAC drew ever closer, the government desperately resorted to entreating the British Museum to at least loan the primary copy of the mask for the purposes of the festival, even offering a ₦2 million ($3 million) rental fee. This request was rejected under the pretext that the mask was too fragile to withstand overseas transportation. Instead, the festival had to make do with a replica of the mask carved by local sculptors. The reproduction of Queen Idia would become the most famous single image in the black world in 1977.

FESTAC ’77 - the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture

FESTAC’s opening ceremony was held in the massive National Stadium, prefaced by a Parade of Nations before an audience of over 60,000 spectators. Ethiopia, the designated “star country” of FESTAC ‘77 and putative host of the next edition of FESTAC (optimistically projected for 1981) led the procession with a team decked in vivid traditional attire. They were followed by delegations from other countries in Africa, Europe, North and South America, Australia and the Middle East, all dancing and singing, laughing and crying at the honor of being part of this momentous occasion of diaspora in action.

“Ordinarily the term diaspora refers to a movement and dispersion away from a center,” General Obasanjo declared in his address to the crowd as festival patron. “I would like to suggest that a movement towards the source is also diasporic.” “Unbelievable” was how African-American jazz pianist Nadi Qamar described the experience to the New York Times. “You had 60,000 people in that stadium and they were all saying ‘Welcome home, black Americans, come home.’ It was incredible.”

FESTAC continued for the next month. There were concerts featuring the likes of Boston’s Ronald Ingraham Concert Choir, Zairean rumba giants T.P. OK Jazz and Tabu Ley Rochereau, the formidable Golden Sounds band of Cameroon, the elegant and spiritual orchestrations of Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz National, the Invaders Steelband from Guyana, and Trinidadian calypso superstar Mighty Sparrow (whose rousing set would subsequently inspire a decade-long discolypso fad in Nigeria). There were carnival troupes from all across Africa, the Caribbean and South America; dance presentations from the Alvin Ailey Group and the DC Repertory Company; Egyptian belly dancers and Tutsi showmen from Burundi. There were fashion shows flaunting an array of traditional and modern apparel from across the black world, theatrical productions, conferences and plenty of parties.

Through all the days and nights, the varicolored sounds of the diaspora filtered through the air around the participants’ accommodations at the FESTAC Village, bouncing off each other and interlacing to form a sonic tapestry for an imagined new black world. Nadi Qamar said, “I just listened to the sounds floating through the window. I heard drums from Upper Volta, songs from Ghana, all the elements that weren’t in my work. What I heard was what John Coltrane was playing.”

Another black American musician, saxophonist Hugo Glover, characterized the environment as a kind of spiritual ecstasy. As he told the Washington Post: “Hearing all that black man’s music – through the gut, the senses, the psychology – is total immersion in black musical expression. It will bliss you unless you keep your feet on the ground.”

The second World Black African Festival of the Arts opens

One man who kept his feet solidly on the ground and doggedly resisted the seductive euphoria was Fela Kuti. On the contrary, Kuti raged against it all from the confines of his Kalakuta Republic fiefdom. Every night he took the stage at the Shrine and vilified FESTAC and the Nigerian government. But something started to happen: Many of the FESTAC delegates and visitors started brushing off “official” FESTAC events to party at the Shrine.

“The word started getting around that the Shrine was the place to be,” remembers Chyke Madu, of the London-based Nigerian afro rock group The Funkees. “What Fela was doing at the Shrine was more exciting and more raw than any of the other programs in the festival. So everybody started to go there instead. And of course, the government didn’t like that.” Soon, the Shrine was hosting international stars every night. Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra, Osibisa, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Hugh Masekela and Francois Lougah were constantly at Fela’s place, playing on stage or just hanging out and enjoying the vibe. The Shrine scene became recognized as a kind of alternative to the main festival, or as Kuti himself put it, a “a counter-FESTAC.”

Kuti’s old friend Randy Weston had traveled to Nigeria independently, not as a member of the US delegation. He remembers barely being able to wait to get to the Shrine, finding it packed to the gills, and being unwittingly dragged into Kuti’s nightly verbal assault against the military government.

”At one point in his performance Fela grabbed the mike and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to meet my brother from America,’ and they brought me onstage,” Weston says. “So we jammed a bit. Next thing I know he’s talking on the mike again and he’s got me by the hand and he’s cursing out the military – and there were military guys in the club. I wanted to get the hell off that stage with a quickness, ’cause those cats don’t play. Man, Fela was fearless, but I was sweatin’... The people were cheering him on.”

“One week later, after we had all left, the soldiers raided Fela’s village and destroyed the place.”

The raid Weston describes was the shameful postscript to FESTAC ’77. After a successful closing ceremony on February 12 that featured performances by Stevie Wonder and Miriam Makeba, most of the participants departed to their home countries, but many hung around for weeks and months. Stevie Wonder was among them: A week after the end of FESTAC, he appeared at the 19th Annual Grammy Awards live via satellite link from the National Theatre in Lagos. On February 18, 1977, the day before the Grammys, Wonder had reportedly been spotted hanging out at Fela’s Kalakuta compound. Later that same day, the entire complex was on fire, with a full battalion of soldiers beating and shooting its fleeing inhabitants.

The exact circumstances leading up to the attack on Kalakuta remain uncertain. Eyewitness accounts attribute the inciting incident to a traffic dispute between some young members of Kuti’s entourage and a couple of soldiers on the last day of FESTAC. Feeling invincible, the “Fela boys” allegedly traded blows with the military men and stole one of their motorcycles – which they subsequently set ablaze – and strolled off into the sunset, confident in their victory over the forces of authoritarianism.

Little did they suspect that a week later the soldiers would return with reinforcements and a furious thirst for vengeance. Witnesses testified that the military personnel storming Kalakuta numbered over one thousand men. This was no simple band of rogue soldiers spoiling for a fight – there was no way that many soldiers could have been mobilized without orders from above. For his part, Kuti did not bite his tongue over who thought responsible for giving the order. As he recounted to Moore:

“That one, they never forgave me-o [for the humiliation of FESTAC]! But Obasanjo held off till FESTAC finished, and everybody had left town. He knew he could not rely on [Inspector-General] M.D. Yusufu’s police. So this time, it was soldiers of regular army, man, that he used. The real zombies! I’m telling you, man.”

During the attack, Kuti and his followers were severely beaten, the young women in the residence were brutally raped and Kuti’s 77 year-old mother was thrown from a second story window, later dying from the injuries she sustained. What’s more, Kuti had recently signed a million-dollar deal with Afrodisia Records, and rather than depositing his advance in the bank, he had chosen to stash the cash in his bedroom. It was also taken by the pillaging soldiers.

Fela Kuti - Unknown Soldier (Part 3)

Kuti would later deliver an emotional, lyrical portrait of the chaos on his 1979 album Unknown Soldier. Taken out of context, the scenes of violence and brutality he paints could easily be a description of the 1897 British invasion of Benin. In an eerie, ironic twist, the very day of the assault on Kalakuta – February 18, 1977 – marked the 80th anniversary of the climax of the destructive expedition to Benin. The Kalakuta incident would lead to years of investigations, lawsuits and increasingly embittered musical commentary by Kuti, eventually overshadowing all the positive achievements of FESTAC ’77. The attack became inextricably associated with FESTAC in the minds of Nigerians, darkening the memory of the festival.

FESTAC ’77 was a peak Pan-Africanist experience, but it also appeared to be a tipping point. After 1977 the movement began to decline in popular culture, replaced by a slicker, more consumerist aesthetic. The rugged, earthy sound of early ’70s afro music started to disappear in favor of the glossy studio acoustics of western disco records. The native exotica that characterized bands’ stage costumes gave way to flamboyant, Blaxploitation-inspired threads and European-tailored evening garments. The noble austerity of traditional masks, sculptures and paintings on album covers was out; photos of musicians posing with capitalist totems of success like luxury cars, consumer electronics and lavish furnishings were in. Ethiopia, for its part, was unable to fulfill its pledge to host the next FESTAC in 1981, as serious political instability in the late 1970s would plunge the country into a severe famine from 1983 to 1985. Just like that, the FESTAC dream faded away, almost as if it had never existed.

As the glorious highs of the festival receded further and further in Nigeria’s collective memory, the legacy of FESTAC would mostly be the expensive public building projects it spawned, and how they gradually fell to pieces. Every oil boom can be expected to precede a bust, and that’s exactly what happened later in 1977. As the price of oil dipped sharply, so began a long reversal in Nigeria’s fortunes, the National Arts Theatre – the pride of modern Nigeria – fell into disuse and disrepair. The Durbar Hotel in Kaduna eventually was left to crumble into moldy ruins.

Four decades later, if you mention “FESTAC” to the average Lagos resident, they will point you toward the neighborhood known as Festac Town. If the respondent is in their 20s, they likely could not tell you why that precinct bears its name. Their only memory of Festac might be of its present state, as a somewhat dingy housing district along the Lagos-Badagry Expressway, slowly sliding into slum status. If they’re old enough to remember the 1980s, they might recall when Festac Town was a chic residential estate of upscale apartment buildings that were raffled off to well-heeled Lagosians after they were vacated by the festival guests.

But if they are older than 40 years old, their eyes might light up as they regale you with tales of that one month in 1977, when the air in Festac Town – then known as FESTAC Village – buzzed with the melodies of myriad languages, and those apartments were inhabited by a dizzying array of visitors from many far-off lands, representing a rainbow of culture.

A rainbow in which all the colors reflected black.

Header image © RBMA Staff

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