Singer TuFace Idibia and other music stars are expected to enter the witness box of the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, Lagos, on July 14 and 15, in the latest salvo in the battle against piracy in Nigeria. They are likely to take the stand during a court appearance by the notorious ‘Eze Ndi Awalawa’, the alleged kingpin of Alaba Market pirates.

The sanctity of artistic talent, and its rewards for its creator, has for a long time been subject to incalculable violations in Nigeria. It was therefore with jubilant resolve that stakeholders in the Nigerian music and video industry joined forces as one formidable body to bring to book, in a fierce legal battle, the much touted Tony Onwujekwe, also known as ‘Alaba King of Pirates.’

Alaba Market, located in Ojo, Lagos, is the hub of artistic piracy at its most virulent in Nigeria. Even works yet to be made public are not spared in the perpetrators’ attempts to live off the intellectual efforts of others. Many artists have since assumed the identity of fishwives in their incessant complaints about the antics of these peddlers. Whole works, and hastily crafted mélange of various artists works are given labels like “The Best of Tuface”, ‘Timaya Versus P-Square’, ‘Nonstop Hits’, and sold at prices that would make their creators cringe in pain.

First court appearance

This faceless, impenitent trade, after what seems to be a lifetime characterised only by pointed fingers, ghost-hunting and lukewarm efforts by government and its agencies in finding solutions, on Monday, February 1, finally recorded an unprecedented breakthrough with the arraignment of Tony Onwujekwe at the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, Lagos.

Presided over by Justice Okon Abang, it was an electrifying atmosphere in the courtroom as the three-count charge of piracy of the works of the best-selling Nigerians musicians today, including: Idibia, Plantashun Boiz, Faze, Banky W, Timaya, P-Square, and Dbanj among many others – was read to Onwujekwe. He pleaded “not guilty” to all charges; and was initially remanded in custody but is currently out on bail.

Many entertainment industry stakeholders such as Kelvin Luciano of Questionmark Entertainment, Charles Novia of November Records, Cally Ikpe of Calivision and Toni Payne were present at the arraignment. Tuface Idibia, Muma Gee and W4 have also made appearances in court. Organisational presence was recorded in the persons of Tony Okoroji, Chair of Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON), Toju Ejueyitchie; and John Ewelukwa Udegbunam, President, Music Label Owners & Recording Industries Association of Nigeria (MORAN).

Speaking at the arraignment, Okoroji said, “While we celebrate this historic event and recognise the right of every suspect to due process, we call on the judicial branch to understand the significance of this case to all living and dead Nigerian artists. We cannot afford the matter of the ‘Alaba King of Pirates’ to become one of those Nigerian cases that are forever trapped in twisted logic, never-ending legal manoeuvring and eternal adjournments.” He concluded by calling for Onwujekwe to be brought to book without delay.

Second court appearance

Investigations into the case have proceeded with the court’s admission, on April 29, of evidence in the form of boxes and boxes of pirated works retrieved from the business premises of the defendant.

Fresh charges of unauthorised reproduction and offer for sale of the works of Nigerian artists as diverse as 9ice, Wande Coal, Banky W, Olu Maintain, Idris Abdulkareem, Yinka Ayefele and Osita Osadebe – were also brought against the defendant. To these, the so-called ‘Alaba King of Pirates’ again pleaded not quilty.

Led in evidence by a prosecuting counsel from the Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC), Obi Ezeilo, the first prosecution witness was Mathew Oloruntade, a police officer from Ojo Police Station. Oloruntade testified on the arrest of Onwujekwe on November 5, 2009, following a complaint concerning the defendant’s alleged piracy of work by a certain Peter Devine.

The battle ahead

The saga of Onwujekwe’s trial continues on July 14 and 15, when artists will finally get their chance to testify to the ruinous impact of piracy on their intellectual properties. And with the artistic and organisational support garnered in the prosecution of the once invincible ‘Alaba King of Pirates’, many believe that the tide may be changing for the Nigeria entertainment industry.

However, the war against piracy in Nigeria, while finally making embryonic steps towards implementing a successful penal system for intellectual theft, may still have some way to go. Even in the light of the legal proceedings against Onwujekwe, pirates appear seemingly undeterred; and the practice remains rife. Only recently, NEXT reported the massive piracy of Mainframe Production’s latest film, ‘Arugba’. The speed of the reproduction, just days after the movie’s launch, caused filmmaker Tunde Kelani to speculate publicly that he might have to leave the country.

Commenting on the ongoing trial, Kelani said, “It is certain now that [Onwujekwe] is the not the only one operating.” The cinematographer informed that a third pirated version of ‘Arugba’ was released last week, along with two of his earlier films, ‘The Narrow Path’ and ‘Yellow Card’. Amidst the gloom, he is heartened by news that the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVC) has started raiding pirates in the South West of the country.

Kelani, who once said, “The government agencies have no clue as to what to do or are intentionally refusing to act,” is also tackling copyright infringements of his work head on. His lawyers have succeeded in getting unauthorised full-length versions of ‘Arugba’ taken off YouTube. Nigerians were responsible for the breach; and one of them has sent Kelani a threatening email; and boasted about the intention to pirate even his future films. And so it would seem that the impunity of pirates is far from dented by the current case against Tony Onwujekwe; and there is a long way to go to reduce the prevalence of piracy in this country. Much hinges on the outcome of the case against the ‘Alaba King of Pirates’.