Africa on the Rise: The Revolutionary Potential of Contemporary West-African Pop Culture

”Since the idea of a nationwide march was first mentioned, the need for urgent solutions to the challenges facing Nigerians has become very clear. The people have hoped for a better Nigeria since 1999 but things are not getting any better for the majority. We are still where we are – poor and desperate. I will no longer be quiet.”

This is how Innocent Idibia, the famous Nigerian pop star also known as Tubaba or 2face, begins the statement in which he calls for a nation-wide protest against economic malaise and widespread corruption. He does so in collaboration with Enough is Enough (EiE), a non-partisan Nigerian grass-roots coalition that is committed to ‘instituting a culture of good governance and public accountability’.

Tubaba is but one of the many contemporary Nigerian pop artists that seem to have taken a turn to becoming more socially conscious and use their massive platforms to raise awareness about societal issues and, ultimately, to effect social change.

Others are more subtle. Tekno, for example, lashes out at the greediness of the powers that be and the failure of the government to provide people in their basic needs in Rara:

NEPA no bring light ooh
Generator wan tear my ear
Generator wan tear my ear ooh-oh-oh
Plenty greedy man ‘Plenty greedy men for there oh
Takey project oh, forgetti na the matter ooh

NEPA is the former name of what is now called the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, the federal governmental organization responsible for providing Nigerians with electricity. Power outages (no light) happen on a daily basis and hinder ordinary Nigerians in their daily (economic) activities. This causes many to be dependent on generators (if they can afford one), but generators make a lot of noise (wan tear my ear). Generators also rely on oil. Interestingly enough, more than 90 percent of Nigeria’s total exports consists of crude oil, yet most of the oil for consumption is imported¹.

Moreover, Tekno lashes out on the powers that be for their greediness (plenty greedy man). The role of a democratically elected government should be to represent the people and to provide them in their needs (the matter), not to fill their pockets by auctioning licences for large projects (takey project) or by simple stealing it.

Have these music artists suddenly decided on a career change? To become politicians instead?


Tekno did’t read Plato’s Dialogues and Tubaba doesn’t have a bachelor in political science. They just happen to be artists with a large following and a societal awareness who felt compelled to assume the role of voicing the concrete concerns of their people, because the ones who are supposed to do this, the politicians, are too busy bickering about non-issues or filling their own pockets.

There is a long history of Nigerian artists voicing criticism of their governments. As a matter of fact, there is an interesting parallel between contemporary Nigerian pop music incorporating elements of older genres such as Afrobeat and the increasingly vocal criticism of government policies. One name that comes to mind most prominently is Fela Kuti, the Godfather of Afrobeat, the guy who single-handedly invoked an army of one thousand soldiers to raid his Kalakuta Republic commune after he expressed scathing criticism of the corruption of the military government in his classic album Zombie².

There are also paralells to be seen in other African nations, like Senegal. Y’en a marre (French for ‘enough is enough’³), a grass roots movement set up by Senegalese rappers with a strong youth appeal, succesfully mobilized Senegal’s youth vote and ousted the incumbent president Abdoulaye Wade in 2016. The structure of the movement is decentralized and network-based. It also claims to have no aspirations to form a political party and thus to obtain real power.

These movements fit in perfectly well with the liberalist story of a developing country’s path towards development. The general consensus is that developing countries such as Nigeria or Senegal are poor because of malfunctioning institutions and bad governance. Having well-functioning institutions such as the rule of law, private property and a free press, and having good governance such as low levels of corruption, a transparent government and political continuity, clears the path towards sustainable development.

Key in steering a country towards having well-functioning institutions and good governance is civil society. Civil society, also known as the ‘third sector’ (the other two sectors being the Market and the State), consists of all non-governmental organizations that represent the will of the citizens. By voicing the concrete demands of ordinary citizens, as we have seen in Senegal and now see in Nigeria, the coalition of music artists and social movements exerts pressure on the Nigerian or Senegalese government to adapt well-functioning institutions and good governance. From there on it is just a matter of time for those countries to sustainably develop and lift their citizens out of poverty.

There is a big grain of truth to this liberalist story. Botswana, for example, has been among the fastest growing economies in the world, averaging about 9% per year from 1966 to 1999 and transformed from one of the poorest countries in Africa to an upper middle-income country. It also has strong institutions and good governance. The World Justice Project (WJP) has consistently ranked Botswana’s rule of law as best among its African peers. Globally Botswana outperforms Greece and Turkey.

This provides robust, empirical evidence that supports the liberalist story spelled out earlier. However, is this story complete?

Jasper Ayelazuno, Ghanaian scholar at the University of Development Studies in Tamale, doesn’t think so. As you might have seen in the WJP report on African nations, Ghana comes in a close second in terms of strong institutions and good governance. With its free press, political continuity since 1992, relatively low levels of corruption and obedient implementation of the neoliberal Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), Ghana has been praised by many as the ‘beacon of democracy and development’.

However, despite three decades of (nominal) economic growth, Ghana lags far behind most countries in Asia and Latin America in other important development indicators: human development, basic needs, modernization, and industrialization. Moreover, a majority of Ghanaians still live in grinding poverty. Basic necessities of life like jobs, food, potable water, medicine, decent shelter, sanitation facilities, and so on are lacking⁴. Ayelazuno refers to this as ‘growth without development’.

So what leads to growth with development?

Ayelazuno is rather straightforward about this: the visible hand of the
Ghanaian state should promote industrialization, particularly manufacturing, in Ghana. Just like how South Korea and Malaysia, two nations that were economically on par with Ghana in the 1960s and now rank 18th and 5th on the Human Development Index, did. More specifically, the Ghanaian government should target certain export sectors and develop ‘infant’ industries that are subsidized and protected from the competitive forces of the global market.

I remember visiting a Shoprite, a South African chain of huge supermalls built all over West Africa, with my father last Christmas. When we entered the extravagant walhallah of consumerism, my father burst into a big rant. ‘Instead of building factories to provide our people with work’, he said, ‘they [the politicians] license outsiders to build supermalls where people waste their hard earned salary on things they don’t need’.

Funny enough, my father and Ayelazuno echo the words of one of the most influential economists of the 20th century: John Maynard Keynes. Part of Keynes’ proposals when negotiating the post-war Bretton Woods system was for ‘countries with payment surpluses’ to ‘increase their imports from the deficit countries, build factories in debtor nations, or donate to them—and thereby create a foreign trade equilibrium’⁵. Nowadays, few dear to argue for such a policy (which in itself is an indication of how far our economic paradigm has shifted towards neoliberalism) and if it wasn’t coming from a renowned economist who revolutionized the discipline, this proposal would have been shoved away as ‘radical’ or ‘Marxist’.

But, and it is a big but, to pull this off the institutional capabilities need to be in place. If a government is corrupt, unaccountable and ineffective, it wouldn’t make sense to pursue these policies.

And now we have come full circle.

Ghana might have the institutional capabilities, but the Nigerian government is too corrupt, unaccountable and ineffective to embark on such an endeavour.

Hence the importance of the civil society, of artists such as Tubaba and Tekno and organisations such as EiE, exerting pressure on the government to either adapt policies of good governance and well-functioning institutions or to hand over the power to those that are willing to.

However, it should not be forgotten that, should they be successful in their campaign, they are only halfway on the path towards sustainable development. The other half being that the government builds factories instead of supermalls and diversifies export instead of solely relying on oil.

Perceptive as always, our man Fela got it right when he chants in Confusion Break Bone:

Many people dey say Nigeria don dey
But me as I see am
I know Nigeria go go down
How country go dey make money
Make people of country no see money


  1. Even though Nigeria possesses some of the largest oil reservoirs on the globe, most of it is exported in raw form and refined elsewhere. As a matter of fact, refined oil, oil that is ready for consumption, needs to be imported again. Read more about this here.
  2. His life turned quite tragic afterwards and probably explains the long silence of Nigerian artists in the subsequent period; during the raid his 70 year old mother was thrown from a window, all his equipment, master tapes and instruments were destroyed and he was deserted by a lot of his band members. The rest of his life was spent in and out of jail and making more music until he died of AIDS in 1997.
  3. Interestingly enough, the name of the movement behind the February protests in Nigeria is a literal translation ‘Y’en a marre’. No direct references between the two movements have been made as far as I know, probably due to linguistic differences, however, it is very likely that the events in Senegal have inspired the Nigerian activists.
  4. See this article for more detailed data and sources (only accesible if you are registered at a recognized university, if you are reading this far into detail, I can also send you the article).
  5. See more about this here and here

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