"FESTAC FOR BLACK PEOPLE": Oil Capitalism and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria. ANDREW APTER


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In 1977, when OPEC came of age, an oil-rich Nigeria hosted Africa’s second world Black Arts Festival (FESTAC ’77) to celebrate the “individuality, the antiquity, and the power of the Black and African World.”
Featured as a black world’s fair, FESTAC produced an extravagant spectacle of ethnic diversity, Nigerian nationalism, Pan-African unity and utopian modernity which literally staged as “cultural tradition” in Nigeria’s National theatre. Throughout this festival of cultural revival, from its planning stages in Lagos to the closing Durbar ceremony in Kaduna, a distinctive ideology of black culture and Africanity emerged which owed much to early ideas of Negritude and Pan-Africanism, but in key respects diverged from them. This divergence can be identified in specific events, such as the falling out between Lt-General Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s Head of State and Grand Patron of FESTAC, and Senegal’s President Leopold Senghor, who abdicated his position as FESTAC’s co-patron and virtually boycotted the festival. It can also be understood in relation to Nigeria’s distinctive federalism, which, recently traumatized by the Biafran War (1966-70), sought to stabilize the distribution of political power between competing ethnic blocs. But the underlying “secret’ of FESTAC’s cultural project, motivating its representations of culture and race, was the development of a state-regulated oil economy which revitalized the nation with unprecedented wealth.
This essay will examine how FESTAC ’77 celebrated the marriage of “cultural tradition” with “fast capitalism” in Nigeria (Watts 1992), commodifying culture in the National Theatre through its forms of exhibition and display (cf. Karp and Lavine 1991). This investment of culture with commodity—value—a veritable fetishism of “fetishes”—masked a complex series of ethnic conflicts and class contradictions which intensified under oil-capitalism. For unlike the imperial world’s fairs of Europe and North America, which deployed racial and cultural idioms to naturalize colonial hierarchies and essentialize alterity, race and culture functioned in FESTAC as commutable tropes of radical inclusion, seeking to neutralize the paradoxes of state wealth and power in a universalizing black nationalist ideology. And unlike socialist humanism of Senghor’s earlier Negritude movement, celebrated in Dakar in the first Festac of 1966, FESTAC ’77 signalled Nigeria’s triumphant emergence as a significant player in global capitalism.
In fact, FESTAC celebrated a movement of articulation between Nigeria and the world economy which centralized the state to an unprecedented degree, overwhelming regional control of Marketing Boards initially established under British colonialism—cocoa in the west, palm oil in the East, groundnuts and cotton in the north (Helleiner 1966). These latter cash-crops dwindled in prestige and value compared with petro-dollars commanded by high grade oil, inflated by OPEC, and sold to the highest Western bidders. Nigeria had already reorganized its three regions into four (1963), then into twelve states (1967), and again into nineteen states by 1969.
A series of National Development Plans accelerated by oil-capitalism in the 1970s, however, lubricated the domestic economy in a state spending spree. A utopian vision of economic growth and modernization swept the nation as the government built new highways, doubled salaries in the famous Udoji Reform, and expanded the public sphere with new hospitals, schools and parastatal industries. Fast-capitalism indeed. Nigeria proudly proclaimed its role as the political and economic giant of black Africa, enshrined this message in its National Theatre, which served, in the words of FESTAC President Chief Anthony Enahoro (later dismissed for embezzling funds) as “the centre of Nigerian national life (Indigo, n.d.:16).


“The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue.”
—Guy Debord

Located in Lagos and built for FESTAC within a network of new highways, the National Theatre established the “exemplary center” (cf. Geertz 1980:11-18) not only of festival activities, but also of new Nigeria. Its circular structure, occupying 23,000 square meters of ground and riding thirty-one meters high, resembles the hub of a cosmographic wheel radiating out through architectural “spokes” and superhighways to embrace the modern world. Viewed from the outside, the Theatre’s facade resembles a crown rising out of the earth, as if linking the wealth of the land—its chthonic traditions and subterranean oil—with national territory and sovereignty. A closer look reveals the Nigerian coat-of-arms perched like a jewel at the center of an architectural diadem. This image evokes a new association between the military hat which also resembles the Theatre’s facade and sports the same coat-of-arms in its “crown.” These are symbolic musings to be sure, suggesting possible interpretations of FESTAC’s cultural cathedral in the popular imagination.
Viewed from within, the National Theatre offered state-of-the-art facilities. The Theatre hall was the major showpiece, providing an extravagant venue for cultural performances and “dance-dramas”, 5,000 seats, a rotating thirty-three by forty-four meter stage, an orchestral stand, a rampart of stage-lights, and a set of earphones at every seat which were hooked up to interpreter’s booths equipped for simultaneous translation into eight major languages.
Radio and television booths were also installed to broadcast FESTAC performances to the outside world. Should you need to relieve yourself during a FESTAC performance, closed-circuit video consuls in the hallways and lavoratories allowed you to watch the show as you went about your business. The smaller Conference hall, with 1,500 seats, boasted identical translation facilities for foreign delegates and visitors, for it was here that the much vaunted FESTAC colloquium took place, with scholars from forty-one countries presenting 269 papers on ten listed sub-themes of Black Civilization (Appendix A). As we shall see, these two major venues served the two basic components of FESTAC ’77; the choreographed performances of traditional cultures and dramatic arts, and the more intellectual exchange between black and African scholars. Equally important, however, were two large Exhibition halls which displayed traditional sculpture, musical instruments, and architectural technology, as well as modern art works, mostly by Nigerians.
A modernist vision was thus clearly inscribed on the surfaces and in the spaces of the National Theatre, embracing the latest audiovisual and administration technology in black Africa’s largest and wealthiest country. As a champion and herald of a new black order, Nigeria played host, through its National Theatre, to self-styled Black United Nations which invited representatives from the widest reaches of the black world, and which not only rivalled the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in scale, but challenged its authority in the FESTAC Colloquium as well as in the popular press (Olusanya n.d.: 24 appendix B) In the official discourse of FESTAC’s organizers, which included the Grand Patron and Head of State Lt-General Olusegun Obasanjo and associated top military brass and Federal Commissioners, FESTAC’s goals were made explicit: “To succeed, we must restore the link between culture, creativity, and mastery of modern technology and industrialism … to endow the Black Peoples all over the world with a new society, deeply rooted in our cultural identity, and ready for the great scientific and technological task of conquering the future” (Iwara and Mven 1977:7). The modernist hi-tech National Theatre was an appropriate venue for this great “restoration,” staging cultural tradition for privileged representatives of the black world’s imminent emancipation.
We can appreciate FESTAC’S popular appeal in the affirmation of common origins, racial brotherhood and shared colonial and cultural experience that was voiced by elites on behalf of the masses and disseminated by the mass media. FESTAC was, after all, a grand party. Juju music superstar King Sunny Ade dominated the airwaves with his welcoming song, “FESTAC for Black People,” as Nigerian hospitality achieved new heights. Interviews with academics and government officials flooded the press, expressing quasi-utopian visions of a prosperous future while invoking Nkrumah, Du Bois, Garvey, C. L. R. James among other Pan-African Heroes. Leftist intellectuals like Wole Soyinka and Biodun Jeyifo added dissenting voices, prevailing the chinks in FESTAC’s populist facade and calling for greater mass participation through a more genuinely popular theater. Even Soyinka—who founded the University of Ife’s Guerilla Theatre Unit—participated in the FESTAC colloquium, where he criticized the OAU for its lack of unity and, in an uncharacteristic turn, called for Swahili as a Pan-African language (Soyinka ref.). But to appreciate the role of the National Theatre in “restoring the Link” between tradition and modernity, and to grasp the political transformation of culture which this great restoration entailed, we must go beneath FESTAC’s overt ideology and examine the hidden hegemonies which operated behind the scene.
The first hidden hegemony concerns the rationalization of “traditional culture” into state-regulated categories of space and time. Spatially, FESTAC’s planning committee divided the black world into sixteen zones comprising 75 countries and communities, extending throughout Africa to include Caribbean countries like Haiti, Monserrat and the Dominican Republic; Latin American countries like Venezuela and Brazil; as well as “black” communities in North America, Ireland, India, Papua New Guinea and West Germany. Clearly an imperial imagination was at work, echoing if not consciously reproducing the branches of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. But over and above the countries themselves, the bureaucratic logic of FESTAC’s planning committee offered equal time and space to its participating representatives, providing its rotating 33 by 44 meter stage to guest performers and allowing two hours and 15 minutes for each production. In the Exhibition Hall, similar parity was accorded to exemplary visual and plastic arts displayed on walls and in cases.
The point is not that all black and African cultures were thus exhibited, but that in principle they could be, for each represented the same message in a distinctive idiom and style, i.e. “the individuality, the antiquity and the power of the Black and African world.” In the bureaucratic semiology of the National Theatre—at once a place and a performance—all “traditional” signs acquired the same contemporary meaning within the master narrative which shaped official display. Through the legislated equivalence of spatial and temporal categories (in Foucault’s terms its “architecture of distribution”), the National Theatre homogenized ethnic differences into distinctive representations of equivalent cultural and “racial” value—that of the black African world entering the mainstream of industrial capitalism. And as FESTAC’s events progressed, “traditional” dance gave way to “contemporary dance theatre” and ballet, while the Exhibition Hall turned to modern Nigerian and African artists. The culturally differentiated past was thereby assimilated to Nigeria’s modernist agenda (cf. Appadurai 1990:4).
In FESTAC’s official program, the rationalization of “traditional” culture culminated in the colloquium on Black Civilization and Education, shifting registers from the dramatic and aesthetic to the overtly intellectual. Termed the “heart of FESTAC” by the Grand Patron, it was more appropriately its head, an “intellectual awakening” designed to celebrate the Black world’s heritage, decolonize the black scholar’s mind once and for all, and articulate FESTAC’s goals in a program for future action (“the Lagos Programme”). The colloquium featured opening address, public lectures, and the reports of five working groups representing 35 countries and international organizations such as the OAU, UNESCO and even the Holy See. Topics were organized around five conjunctive themes, concerning the relation of Black civilization to 1) Arts and Pedagogy, 2) African Languages and Literature, 3) Philosophy and Religion, 4) Historical awareness and African Systems of Government, and 5) Science, Technology and Mass Media. It is not the substance of these discussions which I shall address, but their formal categories, their implicit “progression” from art to science, and the communicative context itself.
The Colloquium Proceedings reveal a wide range of often dissenting views regarding the definition of the Black world, appropriate educational strategies and developmental ideologies, and the politics of the OAU. One can almost feel Nigeria’s head of State squirm in his chair as Wole Soyinka lambasted “the robots of leadership with their narrow schematism” (45) while damning his government with faint praise. But underlying and ordering the range of positions, and manifesting the power of the Nigerian state—administered as it was through an international Colloquium Committee—were the categories which structured the discursive field itself. The Colloquium established an archive of knowledge, planned to fill six volumes, which would attest to the intellectual integrity and unity of Black civilization. If select scholars offered particular views, it was the Nigerian State, through Col. (Dr.) Amadu A. Ali, the Hon. Federal Commissioner for Education and Colloquium Chairman, which authorized the presentations and published proceedings. Under the guise of a unified object of knowledge, the unity was imparted by the Nigerian Government and its military regime of truth, which forged the categories of the archive. If the depth and span of Black Civilization could not achieve consensus among the participants, it could be categorically imposed by the organizers.
Moreover, the epistemological division of labor, represented by the five working groups ranging from the arts to the sciences, recapitulated western Imperial themes of social evolution and progress. When speakers deviated from FESTAC’s developmental agenda, the heroic narrative of Africa’s ascent to modernity restored the official story (cf. Corby 1992).
Like the bureaucratic semiology of the performing and visual arts, which converted cultural difference into equivalent ideological value, the Colloquium produced a master narrative of Black Civilization which subsumed dissenting voices. And in its triumphant march from traditional arts to scientistic modernity, rewriting the past to take on the future, it reproduced the hegemony of the Nigerian state. This can be seen in the Colloquium’s opening ceremonies, initiated by the Grand Patron himself, who poured a “traditional” libation of water and alcohol to honor unspecified gods and ancestors, as well as the important guests at his high table, which included the Yoruba Oba (King) of Lagos, King Moshoeshoe of Lesotho, President Sir Jawara and President Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone. Young girls in “traditional” dress brought calabashes with kola nuts that were broken and distributed among dignitaries. The Grand Patron thus established himself as the patron of the Black World in what served as a distinctively African opening, uniting members in a secular church. The libation was followed by the FESTAC Anthem, sung by the FESTAC Choir, to which the assembled official delegates stood at attention. FESTAC’s President, Col. O. P. Fingesi, delivered opening remarks, followed by the Colloquium Chairman—both top ranking officers in the Nigerian military government. Through this opening and ordering of communicative acts, and in the Pan-African Language of fraternity and communitas, the Nigerian state established itself at the center of the Black world, with the military government in charge.


“The Spectacle is the other side of money: it is the general abstract equivalent of all commodities”
—Guy Debord.

The rationalization of tradition discussed thus far, linked the past to the future in programmatic statements which assimilated cultural difference with the authority of the petro-state through the logic of FESTAC’s administration. Although Nigeria was wealthy, it had much to worry about, given the hated “ethnic balancing act” of keeping the federal republic together in relative concord. Within FESTAC’s arena of secular ritual, the idea of cultural traditions was highly politicized. Nigeria’s numerous minority cultures, such as Efik, Ibibio, Isoko and Tiv, competed with the politically more powerful Hausa, Yoruba and Ibo ethnic groups for both time and space in the National Theatre, where they performed abridged segments of their “traditional” festivals. As FESTAC became a multi-media stage for integrating Nigeria’s diverse cultures within an overarching nation, it also became a contested site in which ethnic minorities competed for national representation and recognition. FESTAC’s rationalization of tradition defused Nigerian ethnic politics by according different cultural phenomena equivalent value within a unified Nigeria and larger Black World. For this abstraction of identity from ethnic diversity became the formula for modernity itself. As in the capitalist marketplace, ethnic (rather than individual) identities were realized through the production and consumption of standardized exchange-values, except that here the surplus- value of Black Civilization accrued to the Nigerian state. It is perhaps no coincidence that the final and “highest” form of Knowledge in the colloquium’s archive was Black Civilization and Mass Media, privileging a technology of power which reproduced ethnic identities as commensurable icons and simulacra for mass consumption.
This latter aspect of rationalization shades into a second hidden transformation whereby culture itself was commodified. FESTAC demonstrated that an oil-rich Nigeria placed a premium on cultural traditions, which it financed, “reproduced” on stage, marketed for tourists. A new class of culture-brokers emerged, selling the images, icons and ideas of “traditional” Africa to a broad range of national and international consumers. Indeed, FESTAC ’77’s trademark of a sixteenth century royal Benin mask became a familiar symbol of Nigerian grandeur spanning a wide range of spectrum of meanings: of African Kingship, of cultural genius, of European contact and Portuguese “trade” (primarily slaves), of British intransigence (the British Museum refused to return the mask), and above all, of commodity-value. No other image was so mass-produced and commodified, both in souvenir replicas and on fliers and broadsheets which sold the idea of Festac under the sign of African Sovereignty (plate 5). This iconic association of African culture with commodity-value was in fact allegorized by the Festac Flag. As explained in a promotional book published by the International Festival Committee:

The Flag of the Festival is a tricolour flag of three equal perpendicular rectangles. The two outside rectangles are black and the central rectangle is in gold. Over the gold is superimposed centrally the festival emblem. The Black colour represents the black people of the world. The gold colour represents two ideas. It represents the wealth of the culture of the areas and peoples embraced by the festival. It also stands for the non-black peoples associated with black people in the Festival (137).

Here the FESTAC emblem performed a double synthesis; first by connecting all black peoples with the wealth of their “culture,” and second, through the ambiguity of the gold rectangle, which brought the wealth of black culture to “non-black peoples.”
Visitors were indeed welcome to attend FESTAC and enjoy its festivities. They were also welcome to purchase works of art: not original antiques, of course, but replicas and contemporary paintings and sculptures. As the promotional FESTAC book announced: “The acquisition of any works of art exhibited shall be made through the International Festival Committee. The price of each work shall be shown in (US) dollars. The price of each work shall include local taxes” (152). Here is the consumption of culture commodified. The “pure value” of an exhibited culture, unperturbed by local taxes, was measured in US dollars—the international currency of global capital and key ingredient of industrial development. The road built by FESTAC from tradition to modernity was thus forged through a series of commutative reductions; first, by assimilating cultural diversity to a singular Black Civilization, and second, by commodifying culture itself, measuring its value in dollars and selling it to international consumers. Culture (the past, tradition) and capitalism (the future, modernity) were thus reduced to the “general equivalent” (Goux 1990:3 at passim.) of the money-form.
Not that FESTAC was banking on cultural commodities to invest in the black world’s future. But Nigeria did have oil, which it sold, like black culture, through a state-appointed committee. Oil for dollars, art for dollars, the equivalence was confirmed by the spectacular scale of the festival itself. Nigeria’s oil-wealth—black-gold indeed—appeared as a form of money-magic which emanated from the ground and was tapped by the government (Barber 1982; Watts 1992).
Conspicuous spending, fleets of hi-tech FESTAC buses, and the intensified consumption of luxury imports brought the signs of development without its substance. By equating petro-dollars with the value of black culture—after all both were indigenous resources—FESTAC created a dramaturgy of state power (cf. Cohen 1981) which masked the material conditions of Nigeria’s new prosperity.
Briefly stated, Nigeria’s goal as a developing country—to build an efficient and productive economy—was implemented from above, by a state which swelled the civil service, imported commodities and expensive technology, while promoting little indigenous production.
If new wealth circulated through the private sector, it was mainly acquired through patronage networks that provided coveted access to state resources. The Nigerian ruling class was primarily a state class, based less on the exploitation of wage-labor and more on the exploitation of state power and wealth, through a de facto market of government contracts, licenses and officers (Berry 1985:13-14). Moreover, it was a growing class financed by exceptionally high-grade oil. As the state expanded into the public domain, forestalling organized assaults on its position by absorbing whole sectors of the economy together with their internal class divisions and tensions, it internalized the entire process of class formation (ibid.), recruiting the educated elite into the civil service while providing free education and hospital care for the masses. It was a dizzy time, as administrative structures, civil servants, and employment opportunities proliferated, as cash and commodities accelerated in complementary flows, as fortunes of well-connected “contractors” appeared overnight without any apparent relation to investments or hard work. The magic of Nigeria’s nascent modernity was based on unproductive accumulation that was financed by the state, Obasanjo was indeed the Grand Patron of state clientelism, building a modern black nation on black gold and culture. It was only a matter of time before the growing demands on Nigeria’s oil revenues would far outstrip their value.
It was thus within the diatic of a self-consuming state—a rapidly expanding public sphere that was simultaneously privatized by kickbacks and subsidies (Watts 1992:37)—that FESTAC’s commodification of culture made ideological sense, masking divisive ethnic cleavages and the absence of indigenous production through the production of Indigenous Culture. As a dramaturgy of power, FESTAC obscured the growing class divisions that were absorbed by the state, reproduced by its clients, and objectified by the “fetishism” of both “traditional” culture and imported commodities, cut loose from their moorings and reduced as they were to exchangeable signs of modernity. Through FESTAC’s forum of public culture, ethnic differences and class formation were subsumed by the inclusive horizons of blackness. FESTAC was for black people because the state was expanding at its own expense. Within Nigeria’s spectacle of Black Civilization, the contradictions of the oil economy were nowhere to be seen.
It is here that I would like to return to the racial dimensions of FESTAC’s conception of Black Civilization. I have mentioned that “blackness” functioned as a category of radical inclusion, assimilating cultural, national and ideological differences to rationalized forms of commodity-value. Blackness assumed the semantic function of a super-class rhetorical function of master-trope, unifying FESTAC’s field of different communities, cultures and nations into common heritage and program for future development. This assimilation expanded the horizons of the black world; first qua Africa, which the colloquium unified by tracing “negro-African” languages back to Ancient Egyptian (Obenga 1977:94-104); second, to the black diaspora which disseminated out of Africa through the European slave trade; and finally, to non-Africa blacks like Austrialian and Papuan aborigines, whose “blackness” derived from an ambiguous combination of phenotypical attribution and former colonial subjugation. We may note that this third extension was never completely absorbed, but repeatedly surfaced in the designation “Black and African World,” thus sustaining an implicit cleavage within a larger global field.
But I am less interested in whether or not “blackness” was a racial category as such, than how and why its racial overtones provided a spectrum of historical, cultural, national and transnational meanings, it also retained a racial inflection which was never entirely eliminated, even by the most “enlightened” attempts to define it non-ascriptively, as in the words of a Commissioner of Education: “What makes the race is what it has actually achieved (David-West n.d,: 27). FESTAC’s category of blackness is significant precisely because it pushed the idea of race to its limit. Embedded in concepts of history and culture, it could not be entirely reduced to these concepts, but assimilated them to the master-trope of blackness instead.
To be sure, FESTAC’s black world owed much to the ideologies of Negritude and African Personality which preceded it, and which it reformulated along more modernist lines. As a racial idiom, it must be historical within the anti-colonial struggles and nationalist movements of Africa and the Caribbean, and must take into account the racial taxonomies of the colonial imagination, against these movements of Africa and the Caribbean, and must take into account the racial taxonomies of the colonial imagination, against which these movements developed their meaning and momentum (creating in Sartre’s famous phrase, “anti-racist racism). As such, FESTAC inherited a historical discourse about blackness, one which encountered new contradictions in the country which celebrated Black Civilization with such unprecedented excess. For in FESTAC, blackness was wedded not only to historically specific forms of rationalization and commodification—old black culture turned new mass culture—but to a specific modality of universalization as well, all of which derived new meaning and impetus from the discovery of oil. As Nigeria’s oil provided fresh blood for a new and revitalized Black world, Nigeria’s wealth became the cultural wealth of all black people’s nations (cf. Coronil 1987). As a tradition mixed with modernity, as culture mixed with oil, so oil mixed with blood. Rationalized, commodified, universalized, and thus fetishized, culture was assimilated to racial identity because “blackness” represented the general equivalent of an imagined transnational community.


“The history which creates the relative autonomy of culture and the ideological illusions of this autonomy also expresses itself as history of culture”
—Guy Debord

Nowhere was the spectacular conversion of colonial genealogies (of “race” and “tribe,” capitalism and empire) into postcolonial identity more striking than in FESTAC’s closing Durbar ceremony. Held in Kaduna, the Durbar extended FESTAC out of Lagos into the Islamic emirates of Northern Nigeria, remapping the festival onto the country’s vast political geography to celebrate Islamic jihad and theocratic rule. Amid the “4,000 horses, 500 camels and 2,000 grooms, footmen and ratist,” who took part in the Durbar, General Obasanjo praised the Northern emirates for their precolonial statecraft and the challenge they had posed to the architects of British overrule:

I believe this is one of the few countries in which colonialists have found it necessary to leave traditional power structures more or less intact. This system met by the British had its own rules, its laws and its bureaucracy. The British no doubt found the emirate system so effective that they had no choice but to adapt it to suit imperial objectives (West Africa, 14 Feb., 1977:311).

No doubt indeed, for the emirate system provided the very model for Indirect Rule which Lugard championed on formerly “acephelous” societies through the creation of warrant chiefs. Whereas Lord Lugard was attracted to the Hausa-Fulani emirates precisely because of their aristocratic ideology, administrative machinery, and “sultanistic” control, for Obasanjo they became precolonial templates of indigenous “democracy” and interethnic unity—themes of FESTAC that were ritually consecrated by the Durbar ceremony itself. He proclaimed:

The durbar is a device whereby the emir can judge the popularity of his rule as well as an indication of loyalty of those governed to his rule. By that simple control-device and despite ethnic diversity of the territory, a collection of people are able truly to present their basic unity. In witnessing the durbar and savoring its splendid spectacle we are symbolically paying our respects to a civilization that existed here in this country, as well as in many other parts of Africa, at various times in our continental history before the advent of imperialists from Europe (ibid).

Through his universalizing rhetoric, Obasanjo projected a “Northern” ritual of Islamic hegemony (which included a powerful clique of political bosses and oil-ministers known as the “Kaduna Mafia”) onto a Pan-African continental field to create national unity out of “ethnic” diversity. The Durbar was to the “traditional” Hausa-Fulani emirates what FESTAC was for Nigeria and the wider black world—a “splendid spectacle” of political identity and indigenous cultural value.
Like the cultural performances and the FESTAC Colloquium held in the National Theatre, the Kaduna Durbar played to a distinguished line-up of international guests among its 200,000 spectators. In addition to the forty-two “traditional” rulers and chiefs, the Kaduna State Governor and various Federal Commissioners, there were six African heads of State and a Prime Minister from St. Kitts. But the star V.I.P. was none other than Andrew Young, then President Carter’s UN representative whose very body combined the “blackness” of Africa with American superpower and spectatorship. As one journalist reported, Ambassador Young knelt in respect to the Sultan of Sokoto, “the most important of the numerous traditional rulers who attended the Durbar” (ibid.). This act of international fealty was widely publicized by the media, since it concluded Nigeria’s historic journey from periphery to center-stage in the world theater of capitalism. In a show of final glory, the Sultan led the Sokoto state contingent in military formation, full speed toward the assembled world leaders and dignitaries in a “customary” mock attack: “Deafening applause shook the arena when the sultan galloped at the head of his contingent on a splendidly caparisoned horse to the visiting Heads of State in the grandstand, who all rose to their feet in recognition of the ‘Commander of the Faithful'” (ibid.).
One of the greatest ironies of this concluding event can be found in FESTAC’s reworking of historical memory, in the collective repression of the Durbar’s role in establishing colonial authority. We know from Cohn’s work on Victorian India that the Durbar ceremony has a curious genealogy that traces back not to Africa, but to Colonial India, when Lord Canning, the first imperial viceroy, held “Durbars” to incorporate Indian rulers within the British empire (1983:167-9). Modelled on court rituals of Mugal emperors, these Durbars became the colonial ritual par excellence, “with English officials acting as Indian rulers” (ibid, 168), reproducing (and as Cohn brilliantly demonstrates, misconstruing) the political economy of gift exchange and status hierarchy around the imperial crown. It was through this strategy of ritual appropriation that the British promoted the Royal Titles Act of 1876, which established Queen Victoria as empress of India and prepared the way for the apotheosis of colonial ritual—the spectacular Imperial assemblage (ibid. 185).
The Durbar was transplanted from India to Africa through none other than Lord Lugard himself, who came of age in British India where he was imbued with the colonial male fantasies of Kipling, conquest and tiger hunting, before heading off to Africa (Perham 1956). Lugard staged his first African Durbar to inaugurate the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria, an event which took place “shortly after daybreak on the first day of January, 1900, the dawn of the new century” (Callaway 1987:57). Thirteen years later, Durbar held in Kano marked Lugard’s appointment as Governor-General of Nigeria. Amid fifteen thousand “native” horsemen following their chiefs, Lugard stood at the center of the military spectacle, a self-styled hero of the British empire. Here he received the Northern Emirs as loyal colonial subjects. As one officer at the scene observed: “There were 800 West African Frontier force, and about 300 mounted infantry, with turbans and lances, and there was the galloping ‘Salute of the Desert,’ with Emirs dismounting to kneel and make obeisance to him” (quoted in ibid. 59) and as Callaway (ibid.) records, two subsequent Durbars were staged for British royalty; one in Kano in 1925 for Edward, the Prince of Wales, and another in Kaduna in 1956 for her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, in which “the chiefs made a special request to the Queen to wear ceremonial dress and tiara; she graciously obliged despite the fact that the event was held in the morning when the heat was already shimmering.”
I do not want to suggest that the Nigerian Durbars bore no relation to indigenous ceremonies. Just as the British in India reinvented Mughal court rituals to consolidate their authority, so in Nigeria the state rituals of ruling Emirs were appropriated for imperial ends (cf. Kirk-Greene 1959). But to hail the Durbar as a symbol of indigenous glory just twenty-one years after Queen Elizabeth’s colonial “beatification,” as Obasanjo did at the very scene of the event in Kaduna, does seem to stretch the limits of popular credibility. In FESTAC, however, the proof was in the performance itself, and in the spectacle of black horsemen and statesmen affirming common cause. After all, the Nigerians were only doing what the British did before them, by putting themselves at the center of the Durbar and making it their own.
Thus sketched, the genealogy of the Durbar traces the history of colonial and postcolonial conversions—an argument of shifting origins and invented traditions; a refashioning of master narratives, national cultures and African identities; a selective remembering and forgetting. The same royal pedigree applies to FESTAC itself, which was modelled on the colonial expositions and world’s fairs of Europe and America, only clothed in African custom and costume. By hosting FESTAC, and even housing foreign guests in FESTAC village, Nigeria entered the mainstream of international commerce and placed itself as the center of the postcolonial African world—a black world with expansive frontiers that shaded into lighter hues at the edges. To judge FESTAC’S multi-media spectacle of culture a success or failure is of course beside the point, since all such festivals boast impossible dreams. But it does mark a crowning moment in Nigeria’s turbulent postcolonial experience, when the state remade the nation in a Pan-african image of the commodity-form. And when, for a few breathless years, the country—”awash in petro-dollars” (Watts 1989:2)—was a spectacle to behold.
If, as I have argued, FESTAC ’77 offers a model case of culture commodified under oil-capitalism, I do not mean to reduce it to a single ideological function or formula. FESTAC may have masked the growing contradictions of an oil-rich rentier state, producing a spectacular vision of the black and African World before Nigeria’s oil boom went bust, but this is only where FESTAC’s story begins within the larger problematics of modernity and identity in postcolonial Africa. Clearly, any self-conscious recuperation of “tradition” simultaneously grounds a vision of “modernity,” and what varies in projects is not only the semantics of this grand opposition, but also the poetics of historical memory, what Raymond Williams (1973:12) calls the “structures of feeling” which inform collective recollections. In this retrospective light, FESTAC’s oil-based spectacle of Africa writ large, and its techniques of illumination and statecraft, represent a significant break from the imperial conventions of seeing and knowing the self through the other.
We know from the growing literature on European and American world’s fairs and exhibitions, on what Hinsley (1991:344) calls “carnivals of the industrial age,” that the initial marriage of culture and commodity value (inaugurated with London’s Crystal Palace in 1851) produced imperial visions of the “natural” world which appropriated other cultures as objects of knowledge, and arranged them in various racial hierarchies with white at the top and black at bottom. Crucial to such ideological productions, engineered with the latest technology and anthropological expertise, was a realist rhetoric of direct observation, the creation of what Mitchell (1989:220) calls “an object-world” in what were “endless spectacles of the world-as-exhibition” (ibid. 222). The moral orders, national identities, natural taxonomies, and Darwinian dynamics that were reified by these extravagant exhibitions and were embodied by the unlucky natives (Egyptians, Apaches, Dahomeans, Patagonians) corralled into fairgrounds to exhibit their lifeways, are now too familiar to further review. I merely wish to emphasize the specific perspective which constituted both the colonial subject as an object of knowledge, and the epistemological subject—the I/eye of the world’s fair—as the producer and consumer of the objective truth, in a space where “the primitive” could be seen, but could not see. And of course, complicit with this vision of imperial order was a poetics of nostalgia for the disappearing savages, displayed as they were by the very technologies of their appropriation of displacement.
It is against these imperial forms of knowing and feeling that FESTAC’s spectacle of Africanity can be compared, not only as an inclusive ideology of racial equivalence, but also as a form of objectification. For it was through FESTAC that the Nigerian state produced a postcolonial African subject, one which bore witness to its own modernity by gazing at itself. This is not to deny that FESTAC meant different things to different people, and sustained many illusions and ambivalent identities. But following the universalizing function of the general equivalent, with its universal money-form as the measure of all value, FESTAC neutralized the colonial gaze which for so long held Africa hostage, first through the authority of scientific racism, and later, in the anti-colonial nationalist movements which inverted racial hierarchies but left their principle intact (cf. Mudimbe 1988).
As for FESTAC’s ethos, it was anything but nostalgic. Seeing itself in the mirror of cultural production, at once a reflection of forgotten achievements and self-styled “programme” for brighter future, FESTAC produced a collective body in ecstasy. For better and for worse, it demonstrated the postcolonial African subject (whatever and wherever he or she may be) could acknowledge and celebrate its own ambivalence—its multi-cultural, transnational, historical “hybrid” and unstable identities—in that global language of commodification which only oil-money could afford.


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(Reproduced in full from http://quod.lib.umich.edu)

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