By Tunde Olusunle

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti the innovative Afrobeat musician, irrepressible composer, untiring activist, consummate artist, multi-instrumentalist and public intellectual it was who popularised the expression “basket mouth.” His career as a performer straddled four decades, most especially between 1958 and 1997 when he transited. Within the period he turned out dozens of hits and albums which earned him accolades at home and abroad. His demonstrated leftist radicalism engendered repeated confrontations with the state, especially during the heady days of military rule in Nigeria. He battled the khakied administrations of Olusegun Obasanjo, (his kinsman from Abeokuta by the way); Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida, among others. He was in turn harassed, battered and bludgeoned in several instances, becoming a familiar face in many police stations and detention facilities. It has been suggested that he was arrested at least 200 times during his career!

Fela released Beasts Of No Nation, (BONN) in 1989. It was a retroactive jibe on the administration of Buhari and his deputy, Tunde Idiagbon which framed him for foreign currency violation charges. He was jailed for five years but liberated after two years. Upon his release in 1986 there was popular clamour for him to relive his experiences like he had customarily done after every dramatic entanglement with overzealous agents of state. His prefatory chant in the song is: “Basket mouth wan start to talk again o/Basket mouth wan start to leak again o.” He profiled himself as a relentless critic who, like a basket, will of necessity spill whatever liquid is stored in it. He, Fela, was therefore poised to narrate his experiences no-holds-barred while in incarceration, starting with debunking the falsehoods, the state concoctions which sent him to the gulag. Indeed, the judge who sentenced Fela visited him following his hospitalisation while serving his prison term. The said judge Fela contended, apologised to him and confessed the judgment he read out was predetermined by the military authorities.

Bright Okpocha one of Nigeria’s most famous stand-up comedians would subsequently appropriate Fela’s creation as stage name. Okpocha was a pre-teen when Fela’s BONN was released. It is more plausible therefore that he borrowed the “basketmouth” concept from a precursor, a name which has hoisted him to the topmost heights of the Nigerian and African comedy genre. The referent Basketmouth presupposes a tell-all, no restraints comedy brand which pulls no punches once he wields the microphone on the performance podium. Basketmouth has had a successful career thus far and inspired younger comics who themselves are holding their own.

Since he came to national limelight as governor of Akwa Ibom State in 2007, I have taken keen interest in the career of Godswill Akpabio. His good works in the actualization of the masterplan for the transformation of the state as enunciated by his predecessor the venerable Victor Attah was remarkable. Deploying the services of some of the most reputable construction companies in the land, Akpabio set out on the task of massive infrastructural uplift of the state. Roads, flyovers, bridges, educational facilities, sporting infrastructure, aviation development and so on dominated Akpabio’s exertions. He soon earned a sobriquet derived from the “uncommon transformation” of the state under his watch.

I had the opportunity of verifying the testimonials about Akpabio’s yeomanry when I was his guest on two separate occasions within a fortnight in the first quarter of 2012. Despite having to fly through Calabar on my first trip owing to flight disruptions necessitated by aviation fuel scarcity before being transported to Uyo in the night, the protocol regimen emplaced by Akpabio was non-pareil. My team and I had our fill of the sights and sounds of the redevelopment of Akwa Ibom State which Akpabio was anchoring at the time, in the course of our tours. I must have been one of the first occupants of the “presidential guest house” built by the construction giant Julius Berger within the Government House complex in Uyo. He hosted us to lunch on both occasions and I came away with the conviction that Akpabio was a witty, down-to-earth, pragmatic leader with a good grasp of his state and the workings of government.

Akpabio’s political career has been on the rise since he left Uyo in 2015. First he was elected senator representing Akwa Ibom North West and emerged the minority leader of the upper parliament despite being a first timer, a recognition typically privileged ranking legislators. He did not make it back to the senate in 2019 but was compensated with the office of the Minister for Niger Delta Affairs. Akpabio had previously exited the erstwhile ruling political party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, (PDP), on which platform he served as governor and senator, in 2018. He returned to the senate in 2023 and was concurrently voted president of the senate. In the Nigerian order of state protocol, Akpabio is the Number Three Citizen, only behind the president and his deputy. Video clips of the interminable convoys of automobiles which accompany him like similar very senior government officials regularly assail our sensibilities on the social media. Such wasteful grandeur, such flamboyance in a land ravaged by mass hunger, poverty and insecurity is not the way to demonstrate commitment to fiscal conservatism in governance.

My more urgent concern in this piece is the reflex predilection of Akpabio to logorrhoea. Oftentimes, he seems to lack environmental awareness, public sensitivity and verbal tact. In less than one year of holding office as President of the Senate, Akpabio has committed several gaffes totally incompatible with expectations from his person and position. At the height of the horse-trading which preceded the emergence of the leadership of the legislature, Akpabio showed up at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, at a meeting of members-elect of the House of Representatives. In a veiled threat to the parliamentarians to whip them into line and support the president’s preference, Akpabio purportedly admonished them to beware of the “dangerous” 3Gs. Suggesting that the acronym was derived from the advice of his mother, Akpabio said the 3Gs imply God, the Gun and the Government. It was allegedly a way of bullying the members-elect about the omnibus capacities of the President, who is concurrently Commander-in-Chief.

Akpabio drew the ire of his colleagues last August when he said on live television while the senate was in session, that “a token had been sent to the various accounts of senators by the Clerk of the National Assembly.” He spontaneously recast his gaffe to the effect that his office had sent prayers to the mailboxes of the lawmakers to enable them travel safely during the legislative holiday. Senate Chief Whip, Ali Ndume indeed warned that the senate took a very strong view of Akpabio’s flippancy and may sanction him. Not too long after, Akpabio made light of the issue of “letting the poor breathe” which became topical in the early days of the hastily announced, multipronged, unfriendly “reforms” of the incumbent administration. His body language was considered derisory of the underprivileged.

Last month, loose-tongued Akpabio publicly said that state governors received N30 Billion from President Bola Tinubu for the provision of palliatives to cushion biting inflation. Oyo State governor Seyi described Akpabio’s claim as reckless and unfounded such that Eseme Eyiboh his media adviser retracted his principal’s goof. More recently, Akpabio in total disregard of the global lachrymose which attended the tragic transition of former Access Bank Chief Executive, Herbert Wigwe, his wife Chizoba and his son, Chizzy, angered not a few people. Banker and entrepreneur Atedo Peterside was miffed about Akpabio’s lack of sensitivity at the solemn church programme held in honour of the departed. Akpabio had upbraided the congregation for not applauding him as much as they did Peter Obi, flagbearer of the Labour Party, (LP) at the 2023 presidential poll. In an obvious lack of spatial awareness, Akpabio also commiserated with the “wife of the deceased” whose remains were also in one of the three caskets at the service. He corrected himself immediately though while still speaking on real-time television.

Akpabio does have a history of verbal indiscretion beginning from his years as super-rich and remarkably generous governor of the oil-bearing Akwa Ibom State. He shocked Nigerians in March 2013 when he confessed on live television that he rigged the senatorial primary of the PDP in his state. He is also credited with the refrain that “what money cannot do, more money can do,” a tacit endorsement of corruption in our national politics which seems to advance that everybody has a price. A lot more verbal discipline, more circumspection is expected of a man who has been privileged to occupy some of the highest offices in the land except the presidency.

Akpabio is a witty, jolly fellow no doubt. He loves to ignite the space around him with wise-cracks. He cannot, however, afford to be an uncontrollable basketmouth during national emergencies such as we have on our hands as a nation. Not against the backdrop of his enviable attainments over time and space which confer specific responsibilities on him. Not at this period of variegated national traumas which calls for sobriety and introspection. Akpabio must live up to what his aggregate experiences confer on him. He should play the father figure and statesman in a country in the throes of psychological depression. These are no times for comic buffoonery and dramatised tomfoolery. These are times when the words from the mouths of our leaders should be the “shea butter” to assuage creased foreheads, soothe frayed nerves and mitigate dripping discomfort.

Tunde Olusunle, PhD, FANA, poet, journalist, scholar and author is a Fellow of the Association of Nigerian Authors, (ANA)

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