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The Rage of Citizen Agbetu

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

50 African Writers

Tales by Conversation

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

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