by Zik Zulu Okafor
I still remember the ecstasy that greeted the announcement of the grant. That historic Saturday, March 3, 2013, will surely remain imperishable in the life of Nollywood.
It was a gaily evening inside the State House, Marina, Lagos. President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, sat in the midst of an expectant Nollywood crowd. It was a rendezvous of everybody that was somebody in Nollywood.
Even the most elusive man, in Nollywood, Kenneth Nnebue, the inspiration to the very industry being celebrated was present. It was the first time a Nigerian President would be sitting with Nollywood practitioners for a dinner just to say, “hey guys, you have done well; I appreciate your contribution to job creation in this country”.
President Jonathan was hosting Nollywood to celebrate with them 20 years of the home video industry. He had demonstrated an unshaking love and recognition for Nollywood. He had earlier in 2010 announced a $200 Million loan for the creative industry. But collateral clogs had made it practically impossible for practitioners to access the loan managed by the Nigeria Export Import Bank (NEXIM).
But this evening in this finest hour for Nollywood, the President decided to demonstrate his love further. If the loan was interpreted to be political because election was drawing close, he was now a bonafide President, not canvassing for votes.
And so, having treated Nollywood to some delicious meal plus a fabulous patriotic song performed by Timi Dakolo, the President of the world’s most populous black nation, Dr. Jonathan literarily sent even the roof of the State House flying as he announced a grant of N3 billion for Nollywood. Celebration! Jubilation! Wow! Wow! Wow! Nollywood went wild. This is no loan! This is ‘dash’. A gift! A grant!
Right there and then, questions, apprehension, fear followed. Who will receive the money? How will it be shared?
“Nna, how we go share this money? Is the cash here,” a producer teased. But the President soon provided the answer. “This grant will be managed by the Ministry of Finance under the supervision of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Honourable Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy”.
The mention of Okonjo-Iweala added to the joy of the practitioners. This was one minister that had spoken so eloquently of Nollywood. She had spoken unequivocally on many occasions about the capacity and capability of our motion picture industry to create jobs.
She believes that if Nollywood is given support and properly managed, it could be a major contributor to Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). She is therefore a loyal advocate of Nollywood. Above all, Nollywood sees her as an exemplary government official with an untrammeled integrity.
And, so, Nollywood felt safe, sure that in a matter of weeks, the money would be in their pockets. It was not to be. It will turn out a long, tortuous journey through the wilderness, a grinding odyssey to a grant.
GLIMPSES OF THE GRANT: HOPE RISING
On Saturday, April 27, 2013, some Nollywood practitioners vowed they smelt their money. They could see it and almost touch it, they said. And the reason for this is simple. The Honourable Minister of Finance, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, and the Honourable Minister of Culture, Tourism and Strategy, High Chief, Edem Duke, who was the second Minister appointed by President Jonathan to join in the fund’s management, had gathered them once again. This time, it was at Eko Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos. Over 60 practitioners but essentially heads of guilds, associations, and generally stake holders gathered in this arena of hope.
The much awaited money now seemed available. The ministers had come to consult the owners of the money to know how to ‘share’ it.
“I swear, I can smell this money”, an old practitioner enthused; ecstatic that in a matter of days, he would have his share. “What we have come here to do is to continue the initiative of Mr. President in trying to support our creative arts industry, particularly Nollywood”, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala opened up.
“The idea is to recognise the talent in this industry and the fact that it is a generator of jobs for our young people. As you know, the industry has generated over 200,000 direct jobs, one million indirect jobs, US$250 million, equivalent in value and we believe that we could double and triple all these, if government has some supportive measure to help the industry”, Dr Okonjo-Iweala said with candour to the delight of Nollywood.
The minister finally revealed that she and her team had been brainstorming on how Nollywood would use its money. They came to the conclusion that the grant should be put into Distribution, Capacity Building and Film Production. Script writing was to be part of film production.
They needed to seek Nollywood’s opinion in order to move forward. Apart from some little suggestions, the practitioners were in consensus that the two ministers and their team had done a good job.
But the questions in the inner recesses of the practitioners’ minds remained, “where is the money? When are we getting it?”
AND THE WAITING BEGINS
By August, 2013, my office as President of the Association of Movie Producers (AMP) had come under permanent siege. “When is this money going to come? Or have they spent it like they do in Nigeria? Is this money real or a mirage? How long are we going to wait?”,
So many questions rained as producers became impatient. Many actually accused me of ineffective representation.
“You are not pushing enough. Go to Abuja and bring our money. Tell those people the money is for Nollywood and not for government officials”, they fired.
This grant almost cost me my re-election as AMP President in January 2014. But with the inestimable wisdom of hindsight many of them are beginning to realise that the corrosive attack directed at my office was absolutely unnecessary as grants usually come with snail speed. Importantly this was despite the fact that application for capacity Building Fund had opened.
But I understood their plight and aggressive quest for the grant. With their own meagre resources, they seem to have reached the limit of possibilities. Nollywood therefore needed this splendour of Aso Rock generosity and hospitality, even if a drop in the ocean, to re-oil the wheel of their checquered professional journey. Here was an industry they created with sheer grit and granite will, an industry that has changed Nigeria’s story and image abroad; yet an industry that past leaders have paid only scant attention and lip service.
Only President Jonathan has turned his promise into possibilities and these practitioners do not want to hear stories about this grant. And, as long as they have not seen the money in the vaults of their banks, as long as this grant remains something of a mystery, they needed to keep the pressure, if nothing else, to crack the carapace of the fund managers’ conscience. That way, they believe, the grant managers would understand the crucible they have been through to create an industry that now seems to offer its viewers laughter and pleasure at the expense of these oracles of zest – the content creators.
ON- LINE APPLICATION AND THE UPROAR THAT FOLLOWED
The month of July 2013 heralded the arrival of ‘Jonathan’s money’, in Nollywood’s lingo. The N300 million earmarked for Capacity Building was ready. Nollywood could now apply online for the fund and it was open till the end of December 2013. By February, 2014, the N700 million fund for Film Production was also ready and open for application.
This, ordinarily, should speak joy to Nollywood’s ears and minds. But this was not to be. The forms especially that for Film Production, was complex, complicated and intricate. Here was a people that their whole life is governed by caprice and their trade by whim. Now they had to cope with this acidic test of dealing meticulously with forms. It was a tedious examination for many a practitioner. Some had to hire consultants to overleap this intellectual and indeed highbrow hurdle. Not even a seminar held by the fund managers on the filling of the forms could bring any succour.
But the worst crisis came with submission of the applications. Apart from the acknowledgement of successful submission of the first phase of the application, which is in fact an automatic response from a programmed computer, many did not receive the form for the second phase which is like the semi-final round to the fund acquisition. There was uproar. As the AMP president, my office was once again besieged by producers.
They want to know why the Project Act Nollywood managers had failed to reach them. They wanted me to reach Dr. Supo Olusi, Special Adviser to the Honourable Minister of Finance and the man saddled with the responsibility of dealing with Nollywood on this much awaited fund and issues arising from it.
Sadly, no one could reach Dr. Olusi. None had his phone number except one of the guilds’ heads. But he was hoarding this ‘all important’ number. In response to my request to get this number he seemed to have ‘colonised’, he told me he needed the man’s approval and later called to say Dr. Olusi would call me. He never did.
Many started wondering whether Project Act Nollywood had become a mystique that only the initiates could access. I finally reached through phone a lady in Dr Olusi’s office who explained that some of the forms were not properly filled while some had clear errors. She still wouldn’t give me Olusi’s number. I couldn’t spare her a bit of my caustic tongue. But it had also become clear to me that equipment failures in their office must have complicated the problems.
For instance, some forms duly filled and sent to their office online got there with some sections blank. Twice this writer had to correct his own form and that became a testament to the failures of equipment in some cases. But more problems kept springing up and it was becoming a horrendous challenge. Since we could not reach Olusi on phone, we decided to take our problem to his office.
A kind member of my association was, however, able to finally, and to our infinite joy, obtain Olusi’s number from an Abuja based friend and gave it to us. We, at long last, reached the seemingly elusive Olusi on phone and most surprisingly he gave us an appointment without any qualms.
THE ABUJA MEETING
I arrived the Ministry of Finance with a strong lawyer, Barrister Sam Kargbo, who is also a member of my association. The Dr Olusi we met, again to our utmost surprise, came across a delightful character, hospitable, business-like, no fuss, no semantics, his language within the precincts of civility, devoid of unnecessary preambles. He gave us his call card with his phone numbers without any hesitation. In fact, he was only a surprise because there was nothing surprising about him.
We then brought the uproar in Nollywood to his attention. The complicated film-fund form and the awaited fund for Capacity Building. Specifically, we told him of the many practitioners that have been given admissions in US Universities for three weeks intensive training but are yet to receive funds from Project Act Nollywood. We also stressed in crystal language Nollywood practitioners’ determination to get the N10 million Film production fund. Having told him about Nollywood practitioners’ rough and tough road to creating an industry, we made it known to him that this money, to some, “is not a matter of life and death. It is more than that”.
Dr Olusi was precise though with some understanding. Having explained that they were working assiduously on the applications and trying to correct the errors and mistakes from Nollywood and perhaps his office, he shocked us with the news that the N300 million set aside for capacity building had been exhausted.
We sat mouth agape. With all the guilds in Nollywood, only the Directors Guild, about 28 of them, had been sent to the US for training and each had a total of US$6000 for tuition, ticket, accommodation and welfare. So, where has all the money gone to? What happens to all the members of the Actors Guild of Nigeria, the largest guild in Nollywood? What will be the fate of over 60 producers who have been given admission for their training and many more still waiting? What about the editors, the cinematographers?
Dr. Olusi was not about to answer the salient questions that cascaded our heat oppressed mind. His words were concise. “We are going to publish how your money was spent. The money is for Nollywood and we will spend it only on Nollywood practitioners and projects”.
His words spoken with granite cast conviction and confidence sounded to us more like sophistry and poetics of pseudo tradition, that made our ears tingle. He then told us that he had advised that since we are very passionate about the capacity building, we should apply for additional fund to be injected into that segment of the project from the budget for distribution. It was an advice that Nollywood easily bought.
All the guilds’ heads have since jointly written to the Minister of Culture and Tourism on this development as directed. And so the waiting game, like their histrionics calling, is once again being acted out even as I write this piece.
Phone calls continued to come and the same questions again and again – where is the money? Some asked if the directors’ trip to USA was a mere facade. What exactly is holding the money?
AT LAST, THE FILM PRODUCTION FUND!
On the cloudy evening of Friday, July 4, I received a call from our National Financial Secretary. “Presido, she said excitedly, the money don land o!”. What do you mean, I quarried amidst laughter.
Chinasa Joy Onyechere, our ever buoyant and sprightly Fin Sec then told me that some of our members had just received mails inviting them to come physically for an interview on the Film Production Fund. This is the final stage. Once you appear and successfully defend the form you filled, then you are in business. The ‘Jonathan cash’, ‘GEJ’s largesse’, whatever you call it will be yours.
The ball is now in everyone’s court. It has been one long dizzying walk to a place called hope. This grant does not hold a financial revolution for Nollywood, but it could rev the sound of change and begin the reconstruction of a promise, the journey of history that Nollywood encapsulates.
And that is why President Jonathan will have a hallowed place when the story of Nollywood is told. It is that uncommon tale of silent mystery; a story of an industry, started by ordinary people for ordinary Nigerians; but an industry that is today not only an African pride but a stunning subject matter the world over.
The President has made the very first audacious move, ever, by a Nigerian leader to give Nollywood a nudge up the ladder of hope. We urge our trusted ally, Dr Okonjo-Iweala therefore to assure the success and survival of this initiative even as we believe that she, with the President’s support, could do more for this authentic Nigerian brand- Nollywood!
Zik Zulu Okafor, award winning journalist, scholar and President of AMP, lives in Lagos.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.