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Nigeria votes: Nollywood’s President

Tolu Ogunlesi
By Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi is a journalist and writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. He is The Africa Report's west Africa editor. Tolu has twice been awarded the CNN Multichoice African Journalism Awards. He is an avid user of social media, especially Twitter (@toluogunlesi)

Posted on Thursday, 26 March 2015 14:03

“Nollywood is getting set to take over the world, I recognize the entertainment in the Nigerian economy, this government will support an industry that makes Nigerians happy,” news reports quoted the president as saying.

A whole lot of American actors and musicians took [partisan] stands, it’s nothing new

According to one newspaper, what followed the news of the fund was a “wild explosion of applause, jubilation, chatting and cheering that took some time to quiet down.”

Two months later the Minister of Finance Segun Aganga announced that the fund would be supervised by the state-owned Bank of Industry (BOI) and the Nigeria Export-Import Bank (NEXIM), and that the loans would be available at single-digit interest rates.

The President wasn’t done. In March 2013, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Nollywood, he hosted a dinner in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub, at which he announced the launch of a 3 billion naira “Project ACT Nollywood” support fund.

President Jonathan is “the first president to support Nollywood; what he has done successfully is to make funds available to Nollywood,” says Chris Ihidero, film director, and founder of True Nollywood Stories, an industry portal.

“I have issues with how the money has been deployed, but we can’t deny that these initiatives have been impactful.”

In the twenty-odd years since what is today known as Nollywood emerged from the unexpected commercial success of Kenneth Nnebue’s 1992 thriller, ‘Living In Bondage’, it has had to plod along almost exclusively on the sweat and savings of its practitioners.

There was very little in the way of government or corporate support – until President Jonathan came along with his generous funding, and recognition of a movie industry that is today the second largest in the world, by number of films produced.

As presidential elections approach, the avid courting by President Jonathan and his government appears have paid off.

The industry’s biggest names – actors, directors, producers – turned out in support of his 2011 election campaign, and are now doing the same for the 2015 campaign. In recent weeks the President and First Lady have seized every opportunity to host and fete Nigeria’s entertainers.

“A huge chunk of Nollywood is pro-Jonathan. I do not readily know any top Nollywood practitioner who is a dissenter or openly pro-Buhari,” says Ihidero.

“Naturally, many people in Nollywood will want an administration that has done this much to stay in power and do more for the industry.”

In ‘Four More Years’, a pro-Jonathan campaign video, Nollywood stars Ramsey Nouah, Segun Arinze, Monalisa Chinda, Omoni Oboli and Sani Danja proclaim the President “a clear choice.”

There are several videos like that making the rounds on the Internet and on television across Nigeria.

This close ties between the President and the industry have expectedly attracted criticism.

There are those like Ihidero who insist that most of the campaign appearances and endorsements are “incentivized”, and that it is these private payments, even more than the formalized industry loans and grants – which many in the industry have complained they’re unable to access – that are responsible for the staunchly pro-Jonathan stances.

Writing in a recent column, Nigerian musician Etcetera listed several actors and musicians whom he accused of being “political prostitutes.”

Producer and director Charles Novia, one of the industry’s best known, dismisses the criticism, saying he believes there is more to the support than “pecuniary” benefit.

“Even if some of the actors are getting paid, it involves personal convictions as well.” The passionate support for President Jonathan, he argues, is “payback time” from practitioners keen to repay, in goodwill, a president who “has done a lot for the industry.”

Novia adds that it’s standard practice elsewhere in the world for the interests of politicians and film industry stars to coalesce. He cites the 2012 US presidential elections, during which Mitt Romney and Barack Obama received endorsements from Hollywood and music industry stars.

“A whole lot of American actors and musicians took [partisan] stands, it’s nothing new.” He expects that 2019 will see politicians wooing Nollywood even more aggressively.

Etcetera, the musician, doesn’t buy the idea of drawing parallels with the United State, and says celebrities here don’t carry the sort of brand endorsement power taken for granted with their western counterparts.

“I like [actor] Kate Henshaw but expecting me to vote for a candidate she supports in the forthcoming elections is like asking me to start buying a particular milk brand because [music producer] Don Jazzy endorsed it,” he wrote.

“[Nigeria] is a different kettle of fish compared to what is obtainable in places like the US.”

Instead of falling over one another to produce “political jingles”, he thinks Nigerian celebrities should focus instead on “creating useful awareness that will benefit the larger society” – through humanitarian work.

Ihidero says the industry shouldn’t allow itself to be carried away by the presidential largesse, in the face of persisting deep structural problems like piracy, which captures as much as four-fifths of industry revenues.

He cites examples of recent films like Maami by Tunde Kelani and the film adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun, which were both available in bootleg DVD versions within days of their cinema release.

Comedian Ali Baba, one of Nigeria’s best known, has long been vocal about the devastating impact of pirates on Nigeria’s creative industries, calling for the creation of a high-level “anti-piracy squad” headed by a senior police officer trained in law, and the enforcement of jail terms as deterrent.

His argument is a simple one: that no amount of state or bank funding can help an industry that has failed at the fundamental task of protecting the intellectual property upon which it depends for its existence.

For now, however, Ali Baba must content himself with being but one of a handful of lone voices, mostly unheard amid the din of cheering for a President who has given the industry more attention than any other.

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