Because I know my people, I am generally able to avoid being surprised by random madness on a daily basis. But I have to say that even this ‘knowing’ is not enough — every other day, I see something that leaves me completely astonished.
The latest of such is a rabble that wants to be known as Motion Picture Council of Nigeria (MOPICON). It appears they have been trying to get a bill passed for the best part of 10 years. Said bill is supposed to bring ‘sanity’ to Nollywood —Nigeria’s movie industry —by regulating every aspect of the industry from lighting to script writing. They appear to have gotten some traction lately (I understand they now have the ears of Lai Mohammed, the information and culture minister) so what was merely an idea in the past, now carries the risk of becoming law.
This is however not a commentary about Nollywood but more about the contents of the bill itself. As usual, it opens with a description of the council itself and all the grand offices that will come with it (you can bet that the people who wrote the bill are already dreaming of riding in their official Toyota Prados).
It starts to get interesting when the bill talks about how MOPICON will be funded
Morning shows the day as they say and as the first source of ‘income’ listed in the bill is from government, you can expect to see this as an additional line in the Ministry of Culture’s budget in a few years time if this is passed into law. This is how the sausage of ‘governance’ is made in Nigeria.
And what will all the money collected be used for?
That’s it. Not very complicated at all. The money will be used to enrich the lives of those fortunate enough to suck the breast of government via MOPICON.
People will need to be members of MOPICON and be duly registered as such. They have been kind enough to break out membership into 3 categories — associate, full and fellow members. Without being a member of MOPICON, of course, you will not be ‘entitled’ to practice in any area of the business of movie making in Nigeria. The list of ‘entitled’ people will be circulated to the following bodies every year
You must be 18 years old, a Nigerian, of ‘good character’, not have a criminal record and be of sound mind (don't be crazy) to qualify for registration. Every time I listen to Quentin Tarantino or Johnny Depp talking, I am never convinced that they are of sound mind. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed Django Unchained and Black Mass, among others. But that is neither here nor there.
Then the bill gets dangerous.
If you are not a member of MOPICON…
Yes, you will go to prison. For having the nerve to produce a film without possessing the proper paperwork. Not just that, where cabals already exist in the movie industry (under the name of ‘Guilds’), MOPICON now wants to layer itself on top of them as their new regulator. It will now issue certificates to all existing Guilds in the industry which will make them ‘legal’. They are not illegal at the moment but that is only a minor detail.
Licencing is the oldest game in town. Once you can get the law to allow you issue that valuable piece of paper, you are as good as setting up your own money printing press. Licences are a form of currency in Nigeria whether they be for rice imports or power plants.
Everyone is invited under the new MOPICON umbrella. Out of curiosity, what happens to a church that has the nerve to show a movie to church members for a reduced fee?
I am unclear as to what ‘infamous conduct’ is but it is an offence that will land you in prison under the new law
If you think that you can be registered as a director and then one day to save money on set, you decide to act one of the parts yourself, think again; you may end up in prison
A code of conduct for all MOPICON members was also released. It prescribes what is acceptable, in detail, for all the different functions in the movie industry. This is what is prescribed for directors for instance
Bollywood directors regularly work on more than one film at a time. But how exactly do you define this? What if a film has finished shooting and is in post-production? Is the director then allowed to move on to another project?
The thing with power grabs is that you tend to try to grab much more power than you might reasonably need on a ‘just in case’ basis. Hence, why MOPICON thinks it ought to specify that directors ‘guide, motivate and inspire actors in interpreting the story’. You might think that is the reason why anyone would want to be a director in the first place. Per MOPICON, you’d be wrong —they need to be told lest they demotivate their actors in error.
There is something that all of this says about Nigeria and its economy. Every country has its fair share of fruitcakes, cranks, loonies and all sorts of characters who want to impose their views on the rest of society outside of the democratic system that allows voters decide. But not every society makes it easy for such people to have their way in the way that Nigeria does.
I am partial to the Aston Martin DB11. It just happens to be beyond anything I am able to afford right now (I say ‘now’ so as to not to limit God from using any of you, my dear readers). If I had the opportunity to use the government to set the price of the DB11, I would surely be tempted to set the price at what I can afford, regardless of what it costs Aston Martin to make the car.
In Nigeria, the government is always readily available to be captured to do the bidding of a well-connected rabble, such as MOPICON. Unlike in other countries where you can rely on the public to debate a bad idea into the ground and ultimately defeat it, Nigeria offers a different challenge —it is not enough for an idea to be obviously bad as a mechanism for stopping it.
The 19th Century American machine politician, Simon Cameron, famously quipped that ‘a honest politician is one who, when he has been bought, stays bought’. In that sense, the Nigerian National Assembly is full of ‘honest’ men and women. Stopping this bill will take more than just ‘debating’ it on the floor of the NASS — it’s fate is likely to have been sealed long before then.
The first problem with a regime such as the one being proposed by MOPICON is that its costs will be hidden while its ‘successes’ will be very visible. After all, some people will manage to be registered as directors, producers and cinematographers under MOPICON. They can then be touted as its successes. But the cost will be all the people who will inevitably be kept out of the industry (or driven underground) for reasons ranging from someone not liking your face to the insiders trying to protect their turf/raise prices by keeping out any new supply of people who might drive down prices. This cost will never be publicly counted.
The bigger problem is with the nature of ‘command and control’ as a way of organising human activity. In effect, MOPICON will now decide what kind of film gets made and which ones don’t. On pain of deregistration, directors who make ‘inappropriate’ movies can be stifled. The cosy arrangement where government funds MOPICON gives the government a back door through which it can regulate films.
Tim Worstall, writing at Forbes, illustrated the point using one of my favourite examples:
To give a concrete example: to run tractor wheels, or tank tracks, properly you must be able to make ball bearings. They’re the crucial and essential technology to really power the whole wheeled transport thing. And the Soviet Union most certainly had ball bearing factories just as they had tractors and tanks. Being able to make ball bearings is also the essential technology you need to a washing machine or a tumble drier. And the Soviet Union never did make either of those despite having that basic technology. I’ve actually owned a Soviet washing machine and it didn’t wash and was hardly a machine (more like a bucket with a hand crank in it). So, what happened? In a planned economy we’ve got just the one filter through which all ideas must pass before they are tried. In a market economy we’ve a multiplicity of them. Once the idea of a drum, a ball bearing and an electric motor combined with water was hatched, it was obvious that a market economy would supply it in volume. Every household would want one. In a planned economy not so much — either people couldn’t see it, only men were the planners, maybe they were more fixated upon tractor production — doesn’t really matter why the idea was never tried. The fact is that it wasn’t. And this extends to all exploration of that available technological space.
The Soviet Union and the Americans both had the technology to make tractors and washing machines. But the Soviets only managed to get tractors, while the Americans got both. This is no trivial matter — the washing machine was a phenomenal invention which liberated women in America from the drudgery of washing clothes and then sitting at home with them. This meant they were then able to enter the workforce in numbers, delivering a big economic boost to America, to say nothing of happiness and well-being.
Perhaps someone had the idea of a washing machine based on ball bearings in Soviet Russia too. But when presented to the apparatchiks at Gosplan, it was probably rejected out of hand. We are talking about tractors and industrial machines and you’re talking about washing machines? How dare you!
This is how much of Nigeria is organised — government constantly finding new ways to degrade the capacity for Nigerians to think and organise for themselves. The paradox here being that the more this capacity is degraded, the more Nigerians need the help of government even when the government is hopelessly lacking the capacity to do so.
A fairytale industry that pulled itself up by the bootstraps in the last couple of decades is now facing an existential crisis partly of its own making. Nollywood needs to move on to the next step, but over the last few years, it has opted for ‘ever closer union’ with the government as the way to achieve this — taking free money here and there, endorsing halfwit politicians and turning Aso Rock into a place of pilgrimage. This is the sad denouement to that bad romance.
But Nollywood also has a significant number of people who love their art and are committed to making things better. It now falls upon them to ensure this bill does not pass. To organise themselves and preserve their freedoms.
To allow this bill pass is to open the industry up to government regulation and control. It is also to allow the worst of them determine the rules for the best of them.
When you see that in order to produce you have to take permission from men who produce nothing, when you see that money flows to people who deal, not in goods or services but in favours, then you may see that your society is doomed