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Chief Tony Okoroji, Chairman, Board of COSON
Chief Tony Okoroji, Chairman of the Board of Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON), Nigeria’s biggest copyright collective management organization, is a man of many parts. He was first heard of as a young singer when he released his first album, ‘Super Sure’ as an 18-year-old. He went on to be the first Nigerian to play all the musical instruments in a pop music album in his ‘Big-Big Sugar Daddy’ album recorded in 1979 when there was neither digital technology nor sequencing. Okoroji may have changed the direction of Nigerian music with the release of his cross-over album, ‘Juliana’ which he recorded while he was a Producer and Artiste & Repertoire Manager with the international recording company, EMI. His songs, ‘Juliana’, ‘Oriaku’, ‘Mama & Papa’, ‘Locomotion’ and ‘Wishing You Well’ captured the imagination of many and influenced many young musicians.
At 29 years old, Chief Okoroji was elected National President of Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN) and went on to transform the little-known body into one of the nation’s most powerful professional associations. As an activist leader, Okoroji mounted an unrelenting campaign for the review of the nation’s copyright laws, organizing demonstrations and rallies across the country which forced the hands of the military government. He was eventually appointed by the Federal Government into the committees that drafted both the Nigerian Copyright Law and its first amendment. He also led the vanguard for the establishment of the Nigerian Copyright Commission and served twice on the Board of the Commission. Chief Okoroji is today one of Africa’s most respected authorities on Intellectual Property and continues to be an unrelenting voice in the campaign for the rights of creative people across the continent.
Chief Tony Okoroji created and launched the famous Nigerian Music Awards, Africa’s first internationally respected entertainment award event which has played host to Heads of State, Ambassadors, Ministers, Governors and stars from all over the world. As a social activist, he has served in many capacities including being a member of the Lagos State Police/Community Relations Committee. For more than eight years, Chief Tony Okoroji has written the widely syndicated weekly column, “SATURDAY BREAKFAST with TONY OKOROJI”, read across the world.
Chief Okoroji attended College of Immaculate Conception, Enugu where he obtained his West African School Certificate in Division One. He holds a Degree in Business Administration from Delta State University where he graduated as best student. He also holds both a Diploma in Business & Industrial Law and an Advanced Diploma in Commercial Law & Practice from the University of Lagos setting a record of graduating with a Distinction in both sets.
Chief Okoroji recently poured his heart out to Uzo Chikere of www.beats-onit.com in this interview. Please read on:
Q. People know you as a revolutionary manager of men, situations, and organizations in the Nigerian entertainment sector, but now and again, you delve into socio-political commentary. Why?
A. The fact that I have played music does not make me an idiot. We are all stakeholders in the Nigerian enterprise whether we are politicians, civil servants, journalists, carpenters or musicians. Every industry and every group ultimately suffers from bad government and pays a price as a result. As a manager of men, it has been clear to me that Nigeria is being very badly managed and sometimes completely mismanaged or unmanaged. There are too many small people wearing shoes that are too big for them. There is little motivation for young Nigerians to seek to be the best they can be. Everything has become ethnic, tribal or religious. The value system that propels or inspires a nation to greatness has crumbled. We have become a patch-patch nation struggling every day to deal with all kinds of man-made crisis. I cannot see a strategic vision that can make us a respected nation. I have some followership, so I have a duty to speak up. We all have a duty to speak up in a constructive manner.
You will recall that three years ago, I did a one-man demonstration for several days in front of the Federal High Court in Lagos. I raised alarm because I saw the rule of law crumbling and the courts being shackled. Three years ago, mine was a I voice in the wilderness. Today, I see JUSUN with the support of the lawyers go on strike for judicial autonomy and the courts locked up for weeks.
Can you reconcile Tony Okoroji the creative entertainer and Tony Okoroji the nationalist?
A. If I am a nationalist, I have not done something that other artistes before me have not done. Fela was a nationalist. Sonny Okosun was a nationalist. So was my brother and great friend, Ras Kimono. What may be different is that I do not only write songs, I write prose and have maintained newspaper and social media columns for several years and there are many people who follow what I write.
What drives you?
A. Love of God’s children and the determination to be the best in whatever I do. I do not accept that there is anything that a man can conceive that he cannot achieve. I also do not accept that as a people, we are inferior to any other group of people in the world. I do not tolerate mediocrity. Every task or assignment I have had to handle, I give 24 hours attention. I enjoy work. Those around me may even tell you that I am a workaholic. To me, a straight line is a straight line and a curve is a curve. I do not accept any curve as a straight line. Twelve o’clock is twelve o’clock. A minute after twelve is not twelve o’clock. I challenge everyone around me to find it in themselves to do a better job than they are doing and usually they do. It is in the same way that I challenge myself. I am not driven by personal wealth. I have no interest in owning many houses across the world. Indeed, the only house I own is my unfinished building in my village. Much of the work I have done in my career I have done for the good of the society and for free. I earn a living from 20% of the work that I do. I have said repeatedly that I drive on a full tank of faith and that love is my engine oil. I have very strong faith that if what I am doing is for the love of God’s children, failure is impossible.
Q. You have been attacked relentlessly by a certain group within the music industry with all kinds of accusations. How do you handle such attacks?
A.I laugh at them and pray that I continue to love the attackers. If not for the challenges of our nation, I will tell you that I am the happiest man alive. The reason is simple: every day, I engage myself fully in doing good. At the end of the day, I am so busy that I have no time for negative thoughts. I am fulfilled because I use my time well and spread as much love as I can.
If you see a lot of people throwing stones at a tree, check the tree. It must have a lot of ripe fruits. I am humbled by what the Almighty has done with my life, giving me the ability to touch the lives of other people positively.
I understand the lack of self-esteem, envy, jealousy and covetousness that propel the hatred in those who have done nothing for anyone but are so ready to fight those who are doing their best to improve the lives of others. If I was a failure, they would have ignored me. I know the conmen and charlatans who are desperate to kidnap the music industry. They enter the COSON House in Ikeja and are dazzled by its magnificence and beauty. They cannot believe that such an edifice was built in Nigeria for the musicians of Nigeria without any government contribution or bank loan. Rather than try to replicate it, they deploy their Facebook and WhatsApp platforms to diminish the people who made it possible so that they can acquire what they never worked for.
During the Coronavirus nationwide lock down of last year, there was clear anguish within the music industry as there was no income for anybody. To reduce the suffering, the COSON Board decided to send palliatives to thousands of our members across the country. This came to several millions of naira. We were the first national association to take such a step. I personally called hundreds of COSON members to make sure they got the money. This made our members very happy.
It is no longer news that in December, I was abducted by 5 fierce looking men with plans to take me away to Benin-City in the middle of the night. The miscreants write petitions upon petitions upon petitions to Police, EFCC, DSS and co, the same people you talk about, saying that the money which was paid by bank transfer to thousands of musicians in Nigeria, with incontrovertible records, was never paid! They run from high courts to magistrate courts and very soon, maybe they will go to customary and sharia courts looking for court orders to freeze our accounts and make our lives unbearable. I am sure that you know that without my being contacted, they enticed law enforcement agents who at this time should concentrate on the biting security problems in the country, to freeze my personal bank accounts and even my corporate accounts. I know that they will be shocked to find out that there is no big money or “proceeds of crime” in any of my accounts. I went to the Police in Benin City to confront the so-called petitioners and they all ran away. They were nowhere to be found. They have thrown every evil at me. Their plan is to break me by all means. It is all so laughable because they are not my God.
Q. So with all your bank accounts frozen, how are you surviving?
A. The birds of the air have no bank accounts. The fish in the rivers have no bank accounts but they all survive. I did not come into this world with any bank account. When push comes to shove, you will realize that there is so much without which life will go on. I repeat that I drive on a full tank of faith and love is my engine oil.
Q. You have been known through the years as a singer, producer, PMAN President and now COSON chair. How have you managed to evolve through the years?
A. I have also been a member of the committee that drafted the Nigerian Copyright Act. I have served on the Board of the Nigerian Copyright Commission. I am also author of the text-book, ‘Copyright & the New Millionaires’, a pre-eminent material for teaching the complex subject of copyright, a book that is being used by judges and lawyers to resolve copyright disputes. I have also travelled extensively to lecture large groups of people in different parts of the world on the subject of copyright. I am a great believer that intellect and knowledge drive the world. I am a voracious reader and would not enter a meeting, discussion or negotiation without first thoroughly studying and researching the subject. I want to always be very well prepared. Whether as PMAN President or Chairman of COSON, I never went into any negotiation where my team was not the most prepared. Both as a producer of music and a producer of complex events, I have learnt that preparation is everything. I do not work on conjecture.
Q. How has the emergence of COSON affected the creative environment?
A. Prior to the emergence of COSON, very few in Nigeria cared about the performing rights of any Nigerian artiste. Our music was used freely by almost everyone. Nigerians can bear witness that due to the painstaking work done by COSON, the attitude has changed tremendously and most people in Nigeria now know that intellectual property has value.
Not in any financial year since COSON began operations has COSON failed to have its accounts professionally audited and all necessary details sent to our members, filed with the Corporate Affairs Commission and the International Confederation of Authors’ Societies (CISAC) of which COSON is a member. COSON has never filed any of these details out of time.
In the attempt to destroy our image, there was a recent propaganda campaign on social media for a forensic audit of COSON despite the 10 years of unblemished statutory audits, which no other organization in the Nigerian creative industry can boast of. Last year, our Board invited one of the most respected auditing firms in the world, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) to do a forensic audit of COSON. For eight months, PWC has scrutinized thousands of financial records at COSON, receipts, vouchers, meeting records, cheques, resolutions, audited financial statements, etc. PWC has had unfettered access to every COSON bank account and has interviewed every relevant COSON personnel. We, in fact, provided the PWC officials an office at COSON House to facilitate their audit. I have seen the PWC Report and I am exceedingly proud that we did not in any way let ourselves or our members down. I challenge other organizations in the creative industry, including the Nigerian Copyright Commission, to subject themselves to this level of scrutiny.
It is important to make it clear that COSON is not a profit-making organization and has never received a penny from the Nigerian government. No member of COSON pays a penny to join the society. There are no dues or subscription fees of any type. With the checks and balances we have put in place, I can say with certainty that no COSON member can lose one penny due to him from the society. We are very-very thorough. There is this assumption that every Nigerian organization is corrupt and ineffective. COSON is very different. At COSON, we maintain the highest international standards and there is zero tolerance for any kind of shady dealing.
Q. Some COSON members seem to be kicking against the General Distribution policy of COSON. What is your reaction?
A. I do not work for a few musicians but for the thousands of musicians all over Nigeria. Their progress is my progress. Their survival is my survival. I know that there are a handful of musicians who are doing well, maybe 20 or 30 of them who can live comfortably on their income. It is my duty to make sure that those who are doing well continue to do well. There are however many thousands of our colleagues who need help. It is our obligation to reach out to all. The general distribution policy of COSON ensures that while the bulk of the royalties we distribute goes to those who are doing well momentarily, those who are not so lucky, at this moment, do not die in penury.
We need to be careful so that we do not take decisions simply based on the circumstances of the moment. Some of the bestsellers of a few years ago are not selling much music anymore. At least, they get some basic money through our general distribution policy. Some of the bestsellers of today will find out that in a few years, the demand for their music may have disappeared and that they will require the general distribution to remain afloat. I am a supporter of our general distribution policy because it makes sure that we remain a big family that cares for each other.
Q. You have had a frosty relationship with the Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC) for some time. How is it now?
A. The NCC has completely lost its way. I cannot see how they are relevant to the welfare of the copyright stakeholders. The money the government is spending on the NCC is money thrown into a big hole. Apart from the small-small deals they do inside, their preoccupation is to destroy COSON, one organization that has been the pride of Nigeria within the international copyright community. Anybody they believe is an adversary of COSON or Chief Tony Okoroji immediately becomes their friend. They aggregate all kinds of charlatans to fight COSON or to kill Okoroji. They want to retire with their singular achievement being that they killed COSON and destroyed Tony Okoroji. What is Okoroji’s offence? I am not a yes man. I had the audacity to tell them to respect the law. In present day Nigeria, that is an offence.
Q. What next? (What can we expect from you?)
A. As long as I have the ability, I wish to continue to work for a better nation. I hope to engage whichever government there is on how we can deploy the enormous creative talents of our young people to create a 24-hour economy across our nation so that while some people are going home from work, others are going to work. Nigeria has the potentials to be a major music hub, a movie making hub, a hub for the making of content and TV programs, a tourism hub, a gaming hub, a sporting hub, a computer program creation hub, etc. It is doable and that would substantially reduce our unemployment problems, boost our economy and bring down the frightening level of insecurity that is currently biting our nation.
Q. Thank you so much for your time.
A. Thank you for the opportunity.