This week, I have thought about Prince Bola Ajibola, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, former Attorney-General of the Federation & Minister of Justice, former Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, former Judge of the World Court at The Hague, etc. He must be in his mid 80s now.
I care about the man. Few Nigerians who have held public office have made the kind of impression on me that Prince Bola Ajibola has.
It was November 30, 1988. I had been elected President of PMAN the year before at the age of 29. Upon election, I had promised to do whatever it took to get Nigeria to promulgate a new copyright law to deal with the devastating piracy situation threatening to suffocate the Nigerian creative industry. If only I knew what it would take! I immersed myself in many hyperactive activities to fulfill this pledge. I triggered many seminars, conferences, workshops, meetings and endless newspaper articles and indeed was involved in producing what we saw as a high quality draft copyright law. Despite this effort, it had become clear that the government was not interested. It was preoccupied with other matters and there was little concern in whether any one was copying right or copying wrong. We therefore had to force the issue.
I presided over the PMAN meeting that declared November 30, 1988 Anti-Piracy Day throughout Nigeria. All PMAN chapters were directed to mobilize musicians for mass public actions to protest the government’s seemingly nonchalant attitude towards the huge copyright problem in Nigeria. All record companies were contacted. Recording studios and businesses engaged in music were asked to shut down and join a planned protest. Some in the industry however questioned the wisdom of taking such an action that could be seen as confronting the military government. A previously vocal set in the music industry conveniently chose to leave town before November 30. Some ran away from the country!
I was not oblivious of the risks involved in the planned action in Africa and under military rule. Before leaving home on November 30, I told my young wife to go on with her life in the event that I was abducted or killed. By 9.00 am, the agreed assembly point on Obafemi Awolowo Way in Ikeja was bustling with activities. The mobilization had succeeded. Many of the major names in Nigerian music were present. All colours of placards were handed out. The PMAN legal team led by Caleb Atolagbe and Bankole Sodipo was out in full force. It was before the social media age so, all the serious newspapers and magazines and the not so serious had their reporters present. It fell on me to flag off Anti-Piracy Day and this I did with the speech of my life, chronicling all the efforts that had been made over several years to get the different governments to adequately respond to a problem that was threatening to wipe out creativity in Nigeria.
As the long convoy of buses, trucks and cars carrying the nation’s music stars with our provocative placards snaked through the streets of Lagos with the heavy sound of drums and blaring horns, it was clear to me that the massive action could not be ignored by anyone. History was being made. In my mind, there were two possible outcomes – I would be shot or arrested and locked up as we had not bothered to even obtain a police permit, or our demand would be given serious attention. At the Federal Department of Culture, then located at the National Theatre, no work was done for hours as the protesters took over the offices. From the National Theatre, the protesters took Eko Bridge and marched along the Marina to the Federal Ministry of Justice, where we blocked all entrances and exits. The presence among us of music icons like Ebenezer Obey, Christy Essien Igbokwe, Oliver De Coque,, Mike Okri, Majek Fashek Ras Kimono, Kollington Ayinla, Charly Boy, the Mandators and many more music idols, virtually brought work to a standstill in the financial district of Lagos as many workers abandoned their offices to catch a glimpse of the drama playing out at the Federal Ministry of Justice.
After we had drummed and sung for a while in the premises of the Ministry, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Prince Bola Ajibola appeared. He quickly read the situation and exhibited exceptional crisis management skills. The A.G. turned on his charm at the protesters whom he addressed as his “friends”. He said that he considered the demand for our rights as legitimate.
I had become tired of hearing empty words from government officials so, I interrupted the AG. There was no “Honourable Attorney General”, no “Honourable Minister”. There was no protocol or niceties. I told him that we were not just fighting for our rights but those of thousands of people who earn their living from the music, movie, publishing, broadcast, and the emerging computer software industry and the many organizations and individuals that provide ancillary services to these industries. I went on to chastise the government whose lack of interest in the issue I characterized as evidence of ignorance of the tremendous economic importance of the intellectual property issue in the emerging world economy.
Despite several rude remarks made by some of my angry colleagues, the Minister never lost his cool. Instead, he said that he understood our anger and that he was promising that action would be taken on the matter “soon”. In reply, I insisted that the protesters had heard too many empty promises from the government in the past and that some of us had decided to remain at the Federal Ministry of Justice until the government either shot us, arrested us or promulgated the Copyright Law. At this point, I expected the Minister to go back to his office to call the army to flush out the many crazily dressed musicians that had taken over the Federal Ministry of Justice. That did not happen. Instead, the Minister said to us that there was no need for any of us to remain at the Ministry since he was going to keep the promise he had made. I told the Minister that “soon” was no longer acceptable to us and that our demand was for a specific date or we would not leave. I went on to say that after so many years of torture, the least the government could do was to give a new Copyright Law as a “Christmas present” to us and if the Minister was to give a firm promise to meet the demand, we would leave the Ministry.
The Minister promised to convey the request to the President without delay and asked to meet privately with me. In his office, he said that the deadline was difficult but he was going to give it a good shot if I was ready to work with him. A meeting was fixed for me to come back to the Ministry, a few days after to work with the AG on the necessary documents that would go to council. In none of the tense events that transpired did Prince Ajibola give the impression that he was doing the musicians a favor. His attitude was that of a public servant who was being asked to do a job that he was appointed to do. As we left the Ministry, with the heavy drumming and singing, I had developed a deep admiration for Prince Bola Ajibola. There was no question that most government officials would have mishandled the situation he was faced with.
From the Ministry of Justice, we marched to the 15 Awolowo Road, Ikoyi headquarters of the Federal Ministry of Information & Culture. Initial concern had been expressed by some about taking such a large protest to the ministry located next to the dreaded State Security Service (SSS). Surprisingly, the officers of the SSS joined the large crowd that had gathered and were singing and dancing with us. The protest had metamorphosed into a carnival. At the Information ministry, we met the minister, Prince Tony Momoh who had been my benefactor for a long time. We simply briefed him on the promise made by the AG.
The last stop of the protest was the headquarters of Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) in Victoria Island where we got very bad reception.
On December 19, 1988, six days to Christmas and nineteen days after Anti-Piracy Day, I was driving on Ikorodu Road Lagos. The car radio was on and suddenly the FRCN Network newscaster announced that President Ibrahim Babangida had signed a New Copyright Law for the country. Prince Bola Ajibola had kept his promise and won my heart forever!
See you next week.
– Okoroji is the chairman of COSON