ONYEKA ONWENU/TONY OKOROJI RIFT GETS MESSIER.PATRICK DOYLE STEPS IN,CALL ONYEKA AN INGRATE
Friday October 14 was not a very good day for me. I woke up and my attention was drawn to a very sordid article in a national newspaper as well as calls from colleagues all over the world directing me to various sites on the internet carrying the same sordid tale in which the well known singer, Onyeka Onwenu, had poured invectives on Chief Tony Okoroji, Chairman, Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON) under whom Onyeka has served in different capacities for several years. I felt very bad because I know the facts in the matter which had been so badly twisted in the newspaper and internet stories to damage the name of a good man.
Tony Okoroji is my friend. I have cherished his friendship for a long time because he is an uncommon Nigerian. In a nation filled with all kinds of charlatans, Tony Okoroji is a genuine article. Always willing to donate his prodigious intellect and unrivalled organizational skills to any cause in which he has faith. His commitment to his friends is legendary.
Last year when I turned 50, Okoroji mobilized the entire entertainment industry to honour me with the biggest celebration of my life. A few days to the event, Chief Okoroji had to travel out of the country on an urgent assignment. From where he was, he never stopped calling everyone connected to the event to ensure that every detail of the celebration was in place. He had to fly a rather crazy route to arrive Lagos 2 hours to the show, drove straight to the Household of God venue and took charge. The result was a most memorable event executed by a master with style. Coincidentally, one of the several 'A' list artistes assembled by Chief Okoroji to honour me was Onyeka Onwenu.
Six years ago, I was present when Tony Okoroji, during a visit to Onyeka's GRA Ikeja office, reminded her that she had spent 25 years on stage and that the event ought to be celebrated. For several weeks after, Okoroji did little else but mobilize Nigeria's high and mighty to a weeklong mega celebration of Onyeka Onwenu's career. I produced the documentary on Onyeka for that event and those who came to Planet One for All for Onyeka cannot forget the exquisite multimedia theme show designed and produced by Tony Okoroji with my assistance. For two weeks before the show, Okoroji burnt the midnight oil in my Maryland studio as he worked every night to produce the montage and inserts that made the show unique. Dinner at the event cost millions of naira. Okoroji paid the bill and for much of the cost of the Onyeka Onwenu weeklong celebration. No tickets were charged. Tony Okoroji was simply happy to honour someone he considered a talent and a friend.
When Chief Okoroji told me that the late Christy Essien's husband, Edwin Igbokwe had asked him to serve on her burial committee, I told him not to accept. I know Tony and I know that he is a perfectionist. He does not like half measures. If he said yes, he would abandon everything else, throw himself at the burial and spare nothing to ensure that it was a roaring success. In a nation with many lazy people who would do nothing except for money, the Okoroji incredible work ethic confounds a lot of people. Those who do not know him well cannot comprehend how a man can give so much for nothing. Therefore, they assume that he must be on the take and that if they shake him up properly, rotten fruits would start falling.
One Sunny Neme who used to report for a major national newspaper must have acted with that assumption when with no facts he caused the paper to publish some injurious stories against Tony. When Tony Okoroji took his paper to court and got an award of 40 million naira in damages, a Tsunami occurred at the newspaper washing away Sunny Neme and a host of others. Let me say here that I warned Sunny Neme but he would not listen. Femi Lasode made the same mistake and bailiffs from the High Court in Ikeja visited his VGC home one early morning, carted away his glittering white jeep and everything else of value in his home. Lasode could not pay the damages for libeling Okoroji and he has practically been a recluse ever since. Charly Boy is smatter. Despite his devil-may-care outward appearance, when he saw the hand writing on the wall, he called me and begged me over and over to help him plead with Okoroji not to turn him to a Lasode. Oputa and I went to Tony and Tony warned him and forgave. There are many more of such stories. Tony Okoroji has little interest in building estates or buying flashy cars but he does not joke with his family name which he says is a legacy from his father which he must leave for his children.
I am familiar with Okoroji's home. Despite his many years of holding several important positions, he lives a very simple lifestyle. Tony Okoroji who has delivered important papers around the world, served on Federal Government boards, been the longest serving President of PMAN, been Chairman of PMRS and now Chairman of COSON which as he did with PMAN, has been turned into a household name in a few months, drives only one car, a fairly used Toyota. When his daughter got married last year, Okoroji who has organized some of the most celebrated events in the history of Nigeria invited less than ten friends to a marriage registry in a Lagos suburb and hosted them to launch in his living room.
Many must consider Onyeka an intelligent woman. Onyeka was twice Vice President to Okoroji while he was PMAN President. She was on Okoroji's Board while he was Chairman of PMRS. She presently serves on the Board of COSON of which Tony is the Chairman. She knows the man. Tony Okoroji is not a lawyer but very few people in Nigeria know the Nigerian law of libel better than he does the same way he is probably Nigeria's foremost authority on the Nigerian copyright law of which he is one of the authors. I have spoken to Tony who is pained by what he considers Onyeka's betrayal. He has already briefed lawyers to clear his name. Knowing what I know, it is difficult to understand why Onyeka who is six years older than Okoroji could have decided to make herself a Lasode.
Onyeka has tried Tony before. I recall that in 1991, Onyeka aligned herself with a number of others to take Okoroji to court. In the celebrated case in which Christy Essien Igbokwe was Onyeka's ally, they sought to commit Okoroji to prison for contempt. At the time, the body of Tony's mother was lying in an Owerri mortuary. That did not stop Onyeka & Co from going for his jugular. The story around town then was that there was a plan to make sure that Okoroji would be in prison while his mother was buried. Judgment day came and the court in Ikeja presided over by the present Lagos State Chief Judge, Inumidun Akande, was filled to capacity. Lo and behold, the tables were turned: Onyeka Onwenu & Co not only lost the case so badly but almost faced perjury charges. It took Sir Victor Uwaifo and the same Tony Okoroji to plead with the judge for the conspirators not to be prosecuted. Okoroji has been dragged to the Police, EFCC, ICPC, SSS and each time, he has prevailed and not once has he been held for anything. In every case, it was clear that malice and hatred were at play.
Anyone would expect Tony Okoroji to hold a big grudge against those who have persecuted him over these years. Not Okoroji. There is probably no Nigerian who has continued to fight for the rights and sacrifice for the good of every Nigerian artiste than Tony Okoroji. It was the same man that mobilized Nigerians to give Christy Essien the kind of burial never before given to any Nigerian. It was Tony Okoroji that conceived All for Onyeka, funded it, organized it and gave Onyeka Onwenu the greatest honour she has received as a Nigerian artiste.
Tony Okoroji elicits a lot of passion, much of it positive and some of it negative but it is the passion that drives his massive self belief and responsible for the army of young people that follow him. He is a master mobilizer and a creative machine who will take a small idea, breathe life into it and everyone is left in awe. His pace and endurance can leave you gasping for breath. He is very well known to work 24 hours a day for days on end. Words without action mean nothing to him. His incredible work ethic and brilliance sometimes make it difficult for him to understand those who cannot work as hard as he works or think as fast as he does. His work ethic and brilliance generate a lot of admiration but they also produce frustration, envy and even hatred, especially among those who consider themselves always left behind.
I recall very vividly, when smack in the middle of the preparations for the Christy burial, Tony told me that he had informed Edwin Igbokwe of his resignation from the burial committee on account of some bad vibes he was getting from Onyeka Onwenu. This was at a hotel room somewhere in Ikeja which Tony had converted into the Christy Essien Igbokwe Burial command post.
I was naturally relieved at the news because Tony and I were to have gone to South Africa along with Mahmood Ali-Balogun for a business meeting. Suddenly, Mr. Austin Izagbo, Chairman of the Christy Essien–Igbokwe Burial Committee bagged into the room to plead passionately with Tony to rescind his decision to quit. He made it clear that without Chief Okoroji whom he said was “driving” the entire events, the huge plans for the burial would fall apart. Austin Izagbo even solicited my support to help prevail on Tony, something I was very reluctant to do. I however made a token gesture and left, only to hear later that Tony eventually gave in to Austin Izagbo's pleas, after Izagbo had assured him that he would hold Onyeka in check. Izagbo happens to come from the same home town as Tony's wife, Queen.
Suffice to say that the trip to South Africa was done without Tony. Upon my return from South Africa, Tony even succeeded in getting me to participate in the events of the burial. He convinced me to be an unpaid repertoire at the symposium organized in honour of Christy Essien Igbokwe at the National Theatre and to help with the Red Carpet Tribute Night at Niteshift Coliseum.
I know that after the burial, Austin Izagbo pleaded with Tony to go to Calabar to ensure that a 3 million naira pledge made to the burial committee by the Cross River State Government was redeemed. I know that Chief Okoroji who was the only one in the committee with some active contact in Calabar went only because Izagbo had told him of the need to pay those who were owed money by the committee.
I was shocked to read the Onyeka public diatribe against Chief Okoroji whom many consider to be her friend. I am still not sure what is driving her tirade which dabbled into too many unrelated issues. It certainly cannot be the sum of 3 million naira which I know for a fact was paid into the accounts of the burial committee. I am therefore left with some questions: Did Onyeka speak with Okoroji before circulating her inflammatory mail on the net? Did Onyeka get Izagbo's authority to circulate the vile mail? Did she think about the effect of her action on the integrity of the entire burial committee? Is the internet the Nigerian Police or the EFCC which ought to handle issues of fraud?
I know how much Tony Okoroji sacrificed to celebrate Christy Essien-Igbokwe even in death. I know that he put his money and abandoned his family for weeks to make her burial a historic success. I am angry at how he is being paid back. Haba Onyeka! why….nooooow?.