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Tony Okoroji, COSON Board Chairman
Chairman, Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON), Chief Tony Okoroji, says that he looks forward to repairing the fractured relationship between COSON and the Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC) so that COSON and the NCC can come back to working together to bring about true and sizeable reward for the Nigerian copyright community. Chief Okoroji served on the committee that drafted the law that set up the NCC and twice served on the board of the commission. In recent times, COSON and the NCC have been at daggers-drawn resulting in several court cases and lack of any co-operation between the two key copyright organizations in Nigeria.
www.beats-onit.com was at the gorgeous COSON House in Ikeja last week and had a deep discussion with the COSON Chairman who for several years has been one of Africa’s best-known copyright experts as well as a copyright activist extra-ordinaire. The exchange with the celebrated former president of PMAN and author of Copyright & the New Millionaires also touched on their issues concerning the creative industry.
There are many people who believe that the continued dispute between the Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON) and the Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC) is seriously hurting the copyright development in the country. Why can’t the dispute be brought to an end?
I agree that the dispute is bad. It has had a negative effect on the nation’s copyright system. COSON and the NCC used to have an enviable relationship. As a government agency, there are many things that the NCC needs a private sector partner to execute. COSON is unarguably the biggest private sector organization in Nigeria’s copyright environment. I want to say without equivocation that we do not want the NCC to die. I love the NCCC. I want the NCC to thrive. I fought very hard for the NCC to be set up. There is no doubt that COSON and the NCC need each other to achieve their mandates.
So, why can’t the dispute be resolved?
I have many friends within the NCC. Some of them I think of as members of my family. I consistently pray for their well-being and that of their kith and kin and the institution they work for. I know that they found themselves in a difficult situation. To be fair to the leadership of the NCC, they were ordered by someone they consider their political superior to take an action that they knew would be devastating to their mandate. They argued in writing that what they were being asked to do was unlawful and would create chaos. They were asked to go ahead and do it all the same. They were faced with a tough choice: Do they save their jobs by destroying the copyright system or do they say no and lose their jobs? I do not believe that the gentleman who asked the NCC to take those steps quite understood the huge damage his directive would do to the copyright system. I don’t think that he has any training or understanding of how copyright works. The Nigerian copyright structure which was beginning to be a pride to Nigeria and a reference point for the rest of the continent has been gripped with instability since then and the work we did for many years has almost been dismantled. To support the untenable step they took to satisfy their ‘oga’, the leadership of the NCC has been made to take a number of decisions that defy easy explanation and I see the officers, otherwise intelligent people, groping to justify those decisions and I truly feel sorry for them. Presently, we are having discussions both with the NCC and within COSON itself. It is my hope that with the lessons that have been learnt and everything that has happened, someone somewhere will find the liver to do what is right and we will set the Nigerian copyright system on the path of growth once again.
What lessons do you think should have been learnt?
I believe that on both sides, we have all learnt lessons. One important lesson is that the institutions we lead are all products of the law. In a democracy, you cannot just have a brainwave that is inconsistent with the law and think that you can successfully impose it on innocent people, especially persons who understand the law. There will be a response. That is why we have the many court cases we have had. The good thing is that with the cases, we can begin to understand and appreciate our respective limits and hopefully that will lead us to building a more enduring system. I hope that my friends at the NCC understand that if their attack of COSON continues, COSON will have no choice but to defend itself and litigate the powers of the NCC. We cannot keep quiet because there are thousands of people who depend on COSON for their sustenance. The undesirable consequence might be that the NCC will find out one day that it has been laid naked and the courts have left it with little or no powers. That will be sad.
I also hope that those within the NCC who misled themselves into thinking that the commission has the authority to impose a leadership on a proud private sector institution like COSON have learnt a lesson. Across the world, people have come to the realization that despite the awesome powers of government, it is not easy to crush a movement. At COSON, we have built a strong institution which has become a movement of proud musicians with deep roots who value their independence and are prepared to defend it. More than any other CMO in Nigeria, we have subjected COSON to the regulations of the NCC and will continue to do so. What we will not subject ourselves to is slavery. Irrespective of everything else, every musician in Nigeria should be very proud that our industry now has an organization that can withstand serious pressure and stress.
Are you ready to forgive those who have relentlessly attacked you for many months?
Yes. Definitely. Yes. I am a leader and my role is that of father to all and in so many ways, a servant to the people. That is my position both within COSON and the NCC. I have outgrown wanting to have my ego massaged. I have worked all my life and I believe that my point is made. I do not need anybody’s praise or adulation. I have stood firm on the important principles I believe in because the copyright system which I have dedicated much of my life to would have been torn to pieces if I had walked away.
After the NCC took the decision they were ordered to take, different elements sprang up, some driven by ambition, others by greed, covetousness, retribution, opportunism or the desire to be noticed. Believing that there was a vacuum and a chance to seize control of COSON, they ganged up. COSON had become very attractive. The fruit was ripe. There was the sparkling new COSON House. COSON had hundreds of millions of Naira in the bank and a fast-rising brand name and a crop of well-trained personnel. All the people who have had one angst or another against Tony Okoroji came together to take over COSON. It was a classic case of: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
If they had succeeded with their group ambition, OMG! There would have been unbelievable commotion. The fight for their individual ambitions to seize control of the money in COSON would have been the mother of all battles. Thank God the members of COSON across the country understood what was going on and went to work and gave us 100% support to dismantle the conspiracy. There would have been no COSON today. COSON almost went down. It was saved by the bell. It would have been much worse than PMAN. I am not the hero in this situation. The true heroes are the members of COSON.
How have the recent events affected you and COSON?
I am fine. You however do not stop learning that some of the people close to you whom you regard as your friends can eat you up for dinner or eliminate you if they want something badly and think you stand between them and what they want. My motivation has always been to build institutions that cater for everyone in the Nigerian music industry no matter where he or she comes from, institutions from which everyone can benefit. I did that in PMAN. I have done it in COSON. At some point, it became clear to me that there were some around me who wanted COSON to be their personal cash cow. Each of them wanted something special for himself. They knew that such an outcome was completely unacceptable to my philosophy so they conspired to get rid of me, deploying unprecedented defamation and unleashing government security agencies against me. It has been a huge price to pay but I realized long ago that you do not make omelets without breaking eggs. I am fine.
There is no way what has happened would not affect COSON. Our income has come down and our expenditure has gone up. Incredibly, our membership has continued to grow, our management has remained solid and the camaraderie within our board has been positive and exceptional. We have continued to pay salaries as due and distribute royalties across the country and across the world. COSON members continue to have great faith in COSON and our institution stands firm. COSON House remains sparkling and busy. COSON is working.
There are those who think that you do not want to step down as Chairman.
That is arrant nonsense. You were one of the many journalists present at the COSON AGM of May 20, 2019, at Lagos Sheraton Hotel. I stepped down both as Director and Chairman of COSON. I became a floor member. The members of COSON protested vehemently. At no time did I campaign to anyone to re-elect me. I was re-elected by the consensus of the members and in accordance with the rules. While the Board conferred, the fact is that for about two hours on that day, COSON did not have a Chairman.
I know that there are those who are scared that if Chief Tony Okoroji is around, they can never be COSON Chairman. In a democracy, they are afraid of competition. They want the NCC to give them the Chairmanship through the back door. The Chairmanship of COSON is not a government position. We do not dash it to anyone so that he can be happy. COSON is a national organization that people look forward to for their sustenance. You must have the support of the members across the country and not just your handful of friends on Facebook. You must be knowledgeable of the subject and prove by your history that you have the conviction and the liver to sacrifice personal interest and work consistently for the interest of the greatest number. Do you know the number of years of consistent hard work it has taken to build an institution like COSON? The Chairmanship of COSON is not an honorary doctorate degree that can be sold or bought on the streets of Lagos.
We have it on good authority that there are about 15 court cases resulting from the battle for the control of COSON. Are you ready to discontinue the cases you have in court?
Yes. I believe that the point has already been made that no one can crush COSON. It might be that some of the court cases have done their jobs already by bringing attention to what is wrong with some of the actions that have been taken against us. In that case, we might review whether it is necessary to go on with them. Some of the court cases may be so fundamental for the survival of the copyright system that we have to think hard and fast about discontinuing them. We also understand that it is not necessary for us to win every case. We have asked our lawyers to review all the actions, in some cases, working with the lawyers of our colleagues on the other side. The lawyers will report to us and advise us how to go forward.
We have left it to the leadership of the NCC to decide what next. They need to decide whether the commission was set up to massage the ego of one man or a few people or to serve the interest of the thousands of persons who depend on the copyright system. I fervently pray for them for the wisdom to take the right decision. You know … I keep hearing the term, ‘national interest’. Which decision serves the bigger national interest? Is it to fight COSON or to work with COSON? I promise you that in the interest of the nation, we are very eager to work with the NCC to promote the copyright system in our country.