A Colonial Continuum

Coconut Head Generation’s Dialogues on British Soil

Abiba Coulibaly

Coconut Head Generation
Director ALAIN KASSANDA, Year 2023, Country FRANCE, NIGERIA

In considering this screening of Alain Kassanda’s Coconut Head Generation, I wanted to think instead about something context-specific: what it might mean to show the film on British soil for the first time.  

Kassanda’s documentary follows Thursday Film Series, a film club set up by students at the University of Ibadan in 2016, intended to ‘create a safe space for expression and debate.’ The University of Ibadan happens to be the first institution of higher education established in Nigeria, and during the film’s prologue we learn of its founding, in 1948, under the British protectorate which lasted from 1884 to 1960. The first scene proceeds to show us the university’s official opening by Lord Tedder, a colonial administrator turned eminent RAF commander, whose war tactics spawned a bombing technique named after him - the ‘Tedder carpet’ (now a designated war crime under the Geneva Convention). In the juddering archival footage, a cornerstone appears for a split-second; it reads: “In 1952 the University College of Nigeria occupied its first permanent buildings. These were provided by the people of the United Kingdom at a cost of £1,700,000. This tablet records the gratitude of the college.” Needless to say, just how much the people of Nigeria - abducted to power the plantation economy, exploited by extractive British (neo)colonial systems in situ or as ‘economic migrants’ abroad - have provided for the UK is incommensurable. Yet this will not be declared on any plaque, either side of the Atlantic. Today, the physical presence of Britons in Nigeria, such as Lord Tedder, who made their livelihoods trading on human suffering, might be gone, but what of their presence remains?

In one of the many sobering post-screening discussions that punctuate the film, an audience member seems to offer one articulation of a response to this question, stating: “I am an offspring of the British empire, she was my mother’s mother which makes her my grandmother. At a tender age grandmother took her daughter and taught her how to lie and steal...one day she took a knife and cut her into 3; the amalgamation of our skin, and then she left and ever since then, all my mother has done is teach her children how to lie and cheat and divide ourselves; Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa. And the lines only grow further each day because we teach these lies to our children. Britain gave her daughter independence but didn't teach her how to be independent, so Nigeria never taught us how to be Nigerians.” While it is too easy and lacking in nuance to lay all the blame for ongoing issues such as homophobia or intertribal conflict solely at the feet of the British colonial systems which undoubtedly made a considerable and calculated effort to (re)inforce them, it does bear importance to recognise the ashes from which the modern Nigerian state emerged. The terrifying police violence and resolute #EndSARS counter-movement - inextricably linked to university strikes - that surge in the latter portion of the film, demonstrate this continuity; as one protestor states in reference to SARS, the Nigerian Police Force's Special Anti-Robbery Squad, “what we have is a British colonial system of Nigerian force.”

Following the fatal violence inflicted upon protesting students, two films, the last to appear in Coconut Head Generation, are screened as a double bill; Med Hondo’s West Indies (1979) and John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (1986). The latter, about civil unrest in response to racialised police and wider state violence in the Midlands during the 1980s, was chosen, in the words of one organising member to “depict exactly what happened during #EndSARS.” Towards the end of Handsworth Songs, a young man expressing his anger on Broadwater Farm is warned: “you will provoke the paramilitary action unknown in mainland Britain.” These words demonstrate the argument that police tactics have historically been reserved for, and refined in, the colonies, with the post-independence period seeing them pursue the (descendants of) colonial subjects who have migrated to the metropole, while being inherited in situ by nascent ‘post-colonial’ states, as demonstrated quite plainly by the actions of the Nigerian police. At another point in Handsworth Songs, we hear that “There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.” Britain’s relationship to Nigeria began with colonial-conquest-disguised-as-abolitionism in the early 1800s, and continues with the very recent supply of funding, arms, and training to the now disgraced and disbanded SARS unit. As Coconut Head Generation crosses the Atlantic to materialise in Britain, it encounters many of the ghosts of stories manifest in the #EndSARS protest movement; thus we should not view the film and its subject matter as the concern of a far flung corrupt African state, but rather as a domestically implicated and germane one. If its origins and real-world implications are relevant to a British audience, so too are its methods of organising, and Kassanda’s documentation of the Thursday Film Series in Coconut Head Generation reminds us that film exhibition, as an exercise in communal organising and exchange, particularly in relation to that which makes us most uncomfortable, is one of them.

Abiba Coulibaly is a film programmer with a background in critical geography, interested in the intersection of ethics and aesthetics. She is the founder of Brixton Community Cinema, and pre-selects for Open City Documentary Film Festival and Festival Ciné-Palestine.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the screening of Coconut Head Generation at Bertha DocHouse, 11 September 2023.