Thursday, April 12.
At an intellectual property law conference in Lagos this week, I’m meeting with representatives of Nigeria’s film and music industries, which have struggled to turn their creative output into profit in the face of rampant piracy and distribution problems. Chief Tony Okoroji, chairman of the influential Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON), points to the frustrating paradox of the country’s creative industries. “The more music and movies we create, the poorer we become,” he tells attendees in the National Film Corporation’s conference hall. The chief is speaking from long personal experience. In 1976, at the age of 18, he released his first album, Super Sure. In the ‘80s he became one of the country’s best-known musicians, parlaying his success into a career as an advocate and activist on behalf of Nigerian performing artists. He was elected president of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria, which under his stewardship grew into one of the country’s most powerful unions; later, his relentless activism – during which he organized demonstrations across the country on behalf of recording artists – forced the military government to review its archaic copyright laws. Okoroji was appointed to head the committee that eventually redrafted the outdated statutes.
It was an important step forward for recording artists, yet the bigger problems persisted. Across Nigeria, songs were being played on rag-tag radio stations, in hair salons, on buses, and in other commercial venues where artists never saw a naira for their work. The system was too diffuse; there were too many professional bodies that spoke for too many interests, without a single voice representing their collective interests with the government. Speaking at an industry conference some years ago, where a banner cheerfully announced, “Let the music play!”, Okoroji let loose the spontaneous outburst for which he is still celebrated: “Let the music pay!” It was like a dam had burst. Within months, music-biz stakeholders gathered in search of a way to give their industry coherence, coming together in 2010 to form the umbrella group, COSON.
It was his success with COSON that brought Okoroji to the National Film Corporation this week, as members of the Nollywood film industry seek to replicate the success of the music biz. “There is a new Nigerian spirit that confronts that which appears impossible and…makes it possible,” says Okoroji, to sustained applause. But the obstacles confronting the film industry are great. Chinyere Okorocha, an entertainment lawyer, lambasts the short-sightedness of the government, which has failed to address any of the challenges facing filmmakers trying to enforce their copyrights: the ease of illegal reproduction; poor distribution networks for original works; lack of a regulatory structure; insufficient public awareness. “In Nigeria, our government doesn’t know what intellectual property is,” says Okorocha. “What they know is oil.” Murmurs of general assent from the crowd. Suddenly, the power cuts out. While the government knows oil, it still can’t manage to keep the lights on. There is perhaps a metaphor in this for Nigeria’s creative industries, which are blessed with an abundance of talent – “Nigeria is a brand on its own,” says Okorocha – yet struggle to turn that talent into widespread material gain. Few Nigerians see the benefits of the country’s prodigious oil output, and few Nigerian filmmakers see the benefits of contributing to the continent’s most prolific movie industry. The Nollywood DVDs that proliferate on the streets of Nairobi and Kampala and Joburg, the low-budget shoot-‘em-ups I’ve watched on buses in Botswana and Ghana and Zimbabwe, only profit the pirates who duplicate them and whisk them through the country’s porous borders. Nigerians, again, remain poor in spite of their abundance. “We’re different in Nigeria, and we are blessed,” says Okorocha. “And we need to benefit from our creative genius.”
In the newspapers, in the conversations I have on the street, the government is always described as corrupt, inept: in battling Boko Haram in the north, in resolving the country’s ongoing power crises. That evening, outside Bogobiri, a man is railing against Nigeria’s elected leaders. He points to the snarls of power cables drooping over the street, lifeless for all but a few hours each day. Why is Africa’s largest oil producer exporting oil to all its neighbors, yet being forced to import oil because its decrepit refineries can’t meet the nation’s needs? It is an argument that has gained steam in recent months. Leaks have been reaching the press from a long-anticipated report which will release the findings of an inquiry into the opaque system behind the government’s fuel subsidies. The report was prompted by massive, nationwide protests this January in response to President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to lift the measure – one of the few benefits of oil production in Nigeria that actually reach consumers. Overnight, the price of a liter of petrol at the pump more than doubled. “The protests went on for days,” wrote the Nigerian-American author Teju Cole, in The Atlantic, “at considerable personal risk to the protesters. Several young people were shot dead, and the movement was eventually doused when union leaders capitulated and the army deployed on the streets. The movement did not “succeed” in conventional terms. But something important had changed in the political consciousness of the Nigerian populace. For me and for a number of people I know, the protests gave us an opportunity to be proud of Nigeria, many of us for the first time in our lives.”
If there was pride in the protest, and in the struggle for millions of average Nigerians to find a collective voice, the report’s findings were yet another embarrassing stain on the national conscience. In two years, more than $6 billion had been siphoned away from the fuel-subsidy system, which allows the government to keep prices at the gas pump artificially low. Licenses for fuel importation – a lucrative trade in this fuel-starved nation – were targeted by the corrupt patronage networks that have crippled Nigeria for decades. In 2006, just six companies were involved in importing fuel; five years later, that number had risen to 140. Many spent surprisingly little time performing the task for which they were cashing government checks. In 2009, government officials doled out nearly $800 million in a 24-hour span without properly documenting where the money was going, according to the report. A year later, fifteen fuel importers collected more than $300 million without actually importing any fuel. Earlier in the day, Okoroji referred to the “generator import cabal and diesel distribution clique” who were holding Nigerians hostage. It is impossible not to suspect more than a casual relationship between the country’s power shortages and the well-connected suppliers who profit from them. A small business in Lagos, says the man at Bogobiri, spends 50,000 naira – more than $300 – a day to power its diesel generators. The ambient noise of their constant thrum, the millions of gallons of diesel being coughed up into the sky each day, provide the backdrop to life in Lagos, the sputtering musical score. “I need to join Boko Haram,” he says. “Where is that application form?”
Two hours later, racing across the Third Mainland Bridge, the slums of Lagos Island pass silently outside our windows, black, still, menacing. The darkness is absolute, as if the night had swallowed the western tip of the island, slowly encroaching on the tony precincts of Ikoyi and, in the distance, the well-lit compounds of V.I. It is a fitting symbol, in this city of appalling contradictions, that Lagos’ working poor, numbering in the millions, could be rendered invisible by nightfall. Thirty years ago, Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti sang:
Plenty, plenty light for Africa
Na so-so energy for Africa
Na the big-big men dey get electric
If them no get electric dem go
If they no get electricity
Get plant O
Ordinary light for man nko O
As with so many of Fela’s lyrics, the words to “Original Sufferhead” remain sadly relevant today. Perhaps it’s only fitting, as the dark pall of Lagos Island vanishes behind us, that we are off to pay homage to the departed legend at the New Afrika Shrine, an offshoot of the mythic club where Fela used to hold court. The original Shrine was where Fela preached his tireless sermons against Nigeria’s military dictatorships, the structural adjustments of the West, the multinational corporations that had already begun to rob his country of its resources, under the noses of its corrupt, complicit rulers. In a cloud of marijuana smoke, surrounded by the lithe, gyrating dancers – 27 of whom would become his wives – for which the club was known, Fela became a poor-man’s hero, an icon for millions of Nigeria’s dispossessed. He was a man of the people, but an enemy of the state, which saw his populist rancor as a threat to the officially sanctioned kleptocracy that was running the country into the ground. “In the last military regime, I was the only one to speak out against the government and the army,” he told a British journalist in 1985. “Anything could happen in Nigeria. If they get to the point that everyone trying to rule the place isn’t making any headway, they might drop their guard and ask, ‘Fela, do you want to rule us today?’” Fela never had his chance; his free-wheeling ways were ill-suited for governance. Yet harassed, hounded, arrested, beaten, forced into exile, he endured. In the end, it wasn’t the state’s brutality but his own fast living that caught up with him. Fela Kuti, a proud polygamist who called condoms “un-African,” died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1997. After his death, the original Shrine was closed. Three years later, the New Afrika Shrine was inaugurated by his eldest son, Femi.
The club is buried deep in the mainland; to reach it takes something of a pilgrimage. Efere steers us through the streets of Ikeja, an endless series of turns. He is an entertainment lawyer; the bumper sticker on his car reads: I be lawyer. Trouble na be my work. He is telling us about Fela’s funeral, when more than a million mourners filled the streets of Lagos – the biggest funeral in the country’s history. You could smell the marijuana in the air, he says, burning like incense. When we reach the club he leads us to a table in front of the stage, exchanging a few words with the waiters until the requisite number of chairs materialize. The place is like an airplane hangar, with plastic tables and chairs spaced sporadically around the hall and a few fluorescent-lit pool tables hugging the far wall. Most of the audience are young men in their teens and early 20s, rastas, guys in hip-hop gear smoking joints beneath signs warning that drug use on the premises is strictly prohibited. A few dancers wiggle on shaky wooden platforms surrounded by chicken wire. Femi is onstage, singing, shaking his hips, exhorting the crowd, which is mostly listless. Thursdays’ shows are open to the public – rehearsal for the main event, on Sunday – and the place seems drained of energy. Just a handful of rastas are bobbing on the dancefloor and one-loving their fingers in the air; two white girls of northern European provenance are spastically flailing about. Rob, my American lawyer-friend, is next to the stage, getting close-ups of Femi’s three genetically gifted back-up dancers. Nearby is a small scrum of young men, holding up smart phones and iPads, recording. Femi indulges them with smiles and fist bumps. He is well-loved by Nigerians, but more temperate than his free-wheeling father. (After the show, when we visit him in the dressing room for the requisite platitudes and photo ops, he poses dutifully before going to play with his kids.) He is prompt, business-like, punctual. Not long after we arrived, he said, as if reproaching us specifically, “If you come at 10:45, you have missed four hours of rehearsal.”
Just a few minutes past 11, after a single, brief encore, the dancers jiggle off-stage; the band begins packing up its equipment.
“We said 7pm: sharp. 11pm: sharp,” says Femi. “This is the new Africa.”