Pirates and Traders

The traffic in Lagos is famously bad. The local driving culture dictates tailgating, honking, flashing of brights, left turns into oncoming traffic, passing on the right, and shouting (but no cursing or lewd gestures—not in such a religious country). It isn’t rare to see a car casually reversing down an on-ramp, a motorcycle scattering pedestrians on a sidewalk, or a truck inching over a highway median to make an improbable u-turn.

A sack of oat flour was mysteriously displayed on the front desk.

Alaba International Market for Electronics

The following is an excerpt from Emily Witt’s new book Nollywood: The Making of a Film Empire, just out from Columbia Global Reports. Witt will be in conversation with n+1 film critic A. S. Hamrah on Tuesday, November 14 at the n+1 office. RSVP!

The Alaba International Market for Electronics is located off the Badagry Expressway, the transport corridor that goes west out of Lagos to the border with Benin. When I traveled on the Badagry to Alaba for the first time, in mid-November 2015, there was nothing express about the expressway. The road was choked with Volkswagen Transporters, Ford Transits, and HiAce Super vans, all painted school bus yellow, with inspirational mottoes on their windshields such as no king as god or appriciation. The vehicles arrayed across its haphazard lanes inched forward at a pace just slightly slower than a woman sauntering in a pink and purple abaya down the highway median.

Around the cars, people sold things. In an hour locked in a bottleneck under a bridge I saw hawkers selling plastic folders, Q-tips, a map of Nigeria decorated with all of its past presidents, dishtowels, umbrellas, phone chargers for the car, cologne, peanuts in their shells, plantain chips, compact discs, chewing gum, newsboy caps, and mini fire extinguishers. They sold books that reflected Nigeria’s obsessions with Christianity, positive thinking, and material success (Me and My Big Mouth! by Joyce Meyer, Attitude is Everything, How to Write Business Proposals—but also Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe). I saw an exercise apparatus called a Tummy Trimmer. I saw a dartboard, a chess set, Scrabble, boxes of tissues, and leather sandals. I bought a baggie of roasted cashews from a woman carrying a plastic tub of them on her head.

The air on the road was hazy from diesel fumes. The sky was gray with cloud formations that threatened a rain that never came. Alongside this highway another, newer highway was being built. Nigerian workers painted black and white stripes on its barriers, overseen by Chinese supervisors. The new highway was a kind of promise: that Lagos could change, that one day this horrible traffic jam would be replaced by a speedy light rail system, that there was some kind of momentum toward greater ease and comfort, toward an electricity grid that worked, toward highways that were not rutted, and toward movies with excellent sound quality.

The road passed Bible Wonderland, Ltd., a concrete gate that read welcome to festac town, a patch of brilliantly green tropical foliage, carpenters selling furniture, and marketers selling live chickens and their eggs, pyramids of tomatoes and of hot peppers. Graffiti on road barriers advertised web design services and cures for erectile dysfunction. Stop messing this place up u will be caught, read the spray paint over a pile of garbage in a ditch. We passed the Dominion Faith International Ministry, falling-down houses, and a promotion for a “War Against Satanic Manipulation Preaching Session.”

Exiting the highway for the market was accomplished not via cloverleaf or overpass but by a sheared-off U-turn into the oncoming rush of yellow transport vans with fare takers hanging off the sides. We drove past an area of two- and three-story buildings with facades of faded paint, snarled electrical wires, the trundling mechanical tricycles known as keke napeps (also schoolbus yellow), mobile phone stores, and purveyors of electronics and umbrellas. A motorbike taxi pulled up alongside the car, a photograph of a smiling blond baby mysteriously glued to its engine.

The driver who brought me to Alaba, Solomon Iseowula, parked the car in a guarded yard and shouted down a man who was aggressively promoting himself to be our fixer in the market. (The man would, explained Solomon, want to take a cut of anything we bought, thereby inflating the prices.) Alaba is a vast maze of passageways. It is the major wholesale electronics market serving the region, the place where the contents of thousands of cargo containers from Asia offload their cables, cords, Bluetooth headsets, and mobile phones for distribution around Africa’s most populous country. We walked from the market’s edge down a passageway that was lined with stalls selling Nollywood videos of all kinds. Banners hung from above advertising a movie called Wanted, and another called Emily Millionaire. I had come with a list of movies I wanted to buy, but Solomon avoided many of the stalls as we went past, steering me toward a man he would later tell me he selected because he looked to be of morally upstanding character. (“He’s clean, he’s well-shaven,” Solomon explained.)

The marketer’s name was Barnabas Mbanugo. He was a middle-aged man with an avuncular air, wearing dark jeans and a white button-down shirt. After the gracious and formal greeting that one receives on entering any shop or home in Nigeria—“you are welcome”—I handed him my list. He peered at it through reading glasses then began pulling titles off the shelves and from boxes in the back. Vendors like Mbanugo were the movie industry’s connection with the informal market. Every month, the Association of Movie Producers or independent distribution companies would negotiate with the marketers over release dates, determining which marketers would be allowed to distribute which movies. As a man down the passageway started enthusiastically praising Jesus into a loudspeaker for the noonday prayer, Mbanugo showed me a monthly manifest from one such agreement, which described which films would be distributed by which marketers, and the location of their market stalls.

Alaba was primarily a wholesale market: Once Mbanugo got copies of a movie, he would, from his stall, disperse them to other sellers across Lagos. If he bought the movies from the producers for 200 naira apiece he would then sell them to his marketers for 250 naira each. The sellers would in turn sell to their customers for 300 naira. I bought fourteen DVDs from Mbanugo, which ranged in price from 250 naira for a Yoruba-language horror movie called B’ogiri O Lanu (translated from Yoruba as Without a Crack in the Wall) to 350 and even 400 naira for higher-end “New Nollywood” movies that had been released in the cinemas, like 30 Days in Atlanta and Kunle Afolayan’s Phone Swap.

I had not bought a DVD in the United States for years and my computer no longer had a drive to play them, but in Nigeria, DVDs and video CDs were not obsolete technologies. Cellular data and cable television were expensive here. Broadband availability was minimal. The fraction of the population who owned computers and could afford Internet access tended to rely on little pay-as-you-go satellite dongles, which groups of friends sometimes pooled together to buy. The Internet access via these small black boxes was excellent, but streaming movies on them was a way to eat through expensive data at an alarming rate, and one often stared at a buffering symbol more than an actual movie. Still, many people watched movies on their cell phones. Downloaded from the Internet by a single person who paid for a fast connection or accessed one at work, these movies could be passed on to friends and family via peer-to-peer Bluetooth file-sharing apps without eating into data allowances. But watching a movie on a cell phone is not the best experience of most movies, even if it is certainly a better experience of sitting on public transportation in an endless traffic jam. There was also cable: On television, the big satellite cable networks had channels dedicated to Nollywood, but these too had limited reach as the subscriptions were expensive for most Nigerians. As of 2015, the most popular African pay TV network, South Africa–based MultiChoice, had only an estimated 1.2 million subscribers in Nigeria.

So, for content that wasn’t on cable, and when they did not want to watch movies on their cell phones, Nigerians rich and poor still consumed movies on DVDs and video CDs, many of them from Hollywood or Bollywood. Pirated foreign films and television shows were easy to find. I was hosted in Lagos by a Nigerian American friend who while I stayed with him was binge watching HBO’s Game of Thrones, or rather, as the DVD sleeve put it, Game of Throne, starring, if one judged by the photos on the sleeve, Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins. When I bought a pirated copy of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs from a hawker on the bridge connecting Ikoyi to Victoria Island, I did so in the blind hope that I would get that movie instead of, as the front of the DVD sleeve indicated, its soundtrack or, as the back of the sleeve advertised, Alex Gibney’s documentary about Steve Jobs. When you bought a pirated movie or television show in Nigeria, you weren’t making a decision to buy something illegally because it was cheaper, you simply wanted to watch something. In the absence of cheap Internet streaming or a plethora of cineplexes, it was often the case that the only way to access a particular piece of content was to find it on the street on DVD or video CD. When it came to Hollywood, local taste heavily favored shows and movies with African American leads, and the shows I saw the hawkers selling the most during my time in Nigeria were Empire and Scandal.

Solomon Iseowula, the driver who transported me around Lagos for the duration of my visit, had an iPhone and at least one other mobile device, but he also had a portable DVD player in his Toyota Camry and a stockpile of Nollywood comedies and Hollywood action thrillers to watch while waiting for clients. When he took me shopping for movies in the markets, he would often buy some DVDs for himself. A friend told me that her hairstylist, who made house calls in Lagos, would bring Nollywood movies on disc to watch as she braided hair. Nigerians could buy DVDs and video CDs in neighborhood stalls or from street hawkers who wandered between cars stuck in traffic, and I bought many movies from these vendors with varying results in quality. (The biggest downside of watching on a DVD, in my experience, was trying to find your place again after the power cut out in the middle of the movie, which in Lagos would usually happen multiple times during the course of a viewing. Nollywood DVDs did not divide the movies into chapters, which meant that every power cut meant several minutes of fast forwarding when the lights came back on.)

Nollywood began in the market—here, in Alaba. It created its vast audience by an effective market-based distribution system first of VHS tapes and later of digital discs. Even in 2015, the satellite cable audience, the cinema audience, and the Internet audience had yet to reach the size of the disc-buying audience.

But many Nollywood producers and directors, especially those of bigger budget movies, had come, by necessity, to ignore this audience. They would talk to me about the potential of cinemas, satellite cable networks, and digital subscription platforms like iRoko and Netflix, even though such platforms would only be accessible to a fraction of their viewers in Nigeria and around Africa (outside of Africa was another matter.) These producers ignored the disc-buying audience because piracy meant that they made very little money from them.

Once a movie was released into the market into a replicable format, revenue from its sales was all but lost to the people who made the movie. The fact was that in a country of 180 million people, where the audience for a popular movie on a disc or a mobile device could be in the millions, a producer might earn revenue from at most, if he or she were lucky, 200,000 or 300,000 disc sales. This was due to the rapidity with which movies would be copied from official distribution channels and enter the pirated market, where sellers, having no need to make a return on an investment, would drop prices from 300 naira to 150 naira, or even 50 naira. Having not had to put up the money for making a movie, these small sums represented almost pure profit to the pirates.

It was due in part to piracy that Nollywood’s popularity had extended beyond the country’s own borders. Before Nollywood movies were available to be digitally streamed, pirates distributed them around the world on disc. In 2008, as a Fulbright Scholar in Mozambique, a country on the other side of the African continent, where the lingua franca is Portuguese, not English, I saw Nigerian movies for sale in the north near the country’s borders with Tanzania, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. The movies were also for sale in New York City, in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where they found an audience among Caribbean immigrants as well as African ones. A 2009 New York Times article described a store in the Bronx called the African Movies Mall, which did wholesale distribution of Nollywood movies to smaller stores catering to African and Caribbean immigrants. Even before digital piracy became a problem, most of this foreign sales revenue was lost to Nigerian producers. In 2010, for example, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office seized more than 10,000 counterfeit Nollywood movies from stores in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Nollywood did not have a distribution problem. Its movies were widely available around the country and the world. It did not have a success problem. Nollywood was very popular. But the money made did not necessarily go to the producers who invested in the movies, because Nollywood had a piracy problem. The ad hoc distribution system that created the industry was now the biggest obstacle to its success.

“The day is gone when we used to be able to make money off of DVDs and CDs,” Genevieve Nnaji told the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016. “But there’s one thing we still have: eyeballs.” Nnaji hoped to make up for lost revenue with cinemas. “If we had enough cinemas, like Hollywood does, we will be good because we have the numbers,” she said. “Africa has—forget Nigeria—Africa has enough people to be able to buy tickets.”

I asked Barnabas Mbanugo if he had a copy of Kunle Afolayan’s movie October 1. Set in the waning days of colonial rule, it is a detective story about the hunt for a serial killer who goes on a murderous spree as the British prepare hand over control of the country to Nigerians, and was a highly anticipated “New Nollywood” movie released in the cinema in 2014. He told me it was not yet available on DVD. I had seen the movie for sale several times on the highway, and I soon learned that October 1 had been pirated even before its official cinema release, probably by someone in the post-production facility.

Afolayan had other possibilities for revenue for his high-end movie. It had been released in cinemas and he had secured an international distribution deal with Netflix. But the vast majority of Nollywood movies did not have much possibility for earning revenue outside of disc sales, beyond the relatively low license fees paid by cable channels. In the market for lower-budget B-movies that had to earn all of their revenue from disc sales, the producers clearly held some control over the market, or they would have had to stop making movies altogether. I heard of different strategies to maintain control. Taiwo Samuel, who produced a Yoruba-language horror movie I bought in Alaba, told me that his strategy was to print an official DVD jacket that marketers had to pay him to receive. A New Nollywood producer named Mildred Okwo said she makes the marketers pay her a fee based on projected sales before she hands over a master. Ishaya Bako, the director of Road to Yesterday, told me the production had contemplated “pirating themselves”—flooding the market with their own low-cost copies. One popular director, Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, circulated a public warning for his movie ATM.

Piracy alarm! piracy alarm!! piracy alarm!!! it read. “Well-meaning Nigerians are advised to disregard and do not purchase the pirated copies being circulated by some unscrupulous elements on major streets and on the road during traffic.”

The financial disconnect between producers and their audiences also meant that the primary way to know which Nollywood movies were the most popular—not with the limited cinema or satellite cable audiences, but with the disc-watching nation and Africa at large—was by word of mouth. Consider an Igbo-language comedy called Nkoli Nwa Nsukka. When I asked Shaibu Husseini, an academic and movie critic for The Guardian newspaper of Nigeria, what he thought was the most popular movie in recent years, he said he thought Nkoli might be one because he had attended the burial of the producer’s father and it had been extremely lavish.

When I bought the movie at Idumota Market in downtown Lagos I learned a second metric of Nollywood success: Nkoli Nwa Nsukka, the first installment of which had first come out in 2014, now had at least fifteen sequels. I read articles about the new SUV that its star, Rachael Okonkwo, had bought, and about her appearance at a charity event sponsored by Rapha juice, for which she served as brand ambassador. But there was no central database, no Excel spreadsheet in a computer with the exact numbers. There were no critical reviews of the movie in any major newspapers that I could find. The metrics by which I, an American, would try to gauge a movie’s popularity or success did not apply to Nigeria’s fragmented market. And the number of sequels attested to the rapidity with which the revenue of the movie’s iterations, once released and pirated, was out of the hands of the producers who made it.

The producers and directors of Nollywood railed about piracy. Some had organized street protests to demand the government crack down on it. Others were so bored with the subject that they dismissed earning money from their disc-buying audience as a lost cause. Then there were those who had to deal with it directly, because they were in the business of distributing DVDs. They, at least, had not yet given up on the business.

One day in December, as the harmattan choked Lagos in a smog that hid the stilt city on the lagoon from the Third Mainland Bridge, I returned to Badagry, in the neighborhood of Alaba Market, to visit Gabriel Okoye. Better known by his Slavic-sounding nickname, Gabosky, Okoye had been a Nollywood distributor and executive producer since the mid-1990s. More recently, he won a loan from the Nigerian Bank of Industry to develop a system of licensed disc distributors that would allow producers to bypass pirates via more formal and controllable channels. In an interview he gave to the magazine Yes! International, Gabosky described his attempts to control the pirates:

I started arresting them; I went to Alaba to arrest them. They started fighting openly and telling me I cannot control piracy. We fought and later what I did was to withdraw. A year later, I did not release my film, after October 1. I did not release any film until December 15, 2015. I released Headgone, October 1, and The Needle. They were also pirated. I could not do anything, then 15 February, 2016, a day after Valentine[’s Day], I released Invasion 1937, by Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen. A week after, they also pirated it. I said no, I traced it. So, I said let me give them a small fight again. I traced it to a guy, I got him arrested on the road, because if you go inside Alaba market, they will machete you. They have all kinds of weapons and they don’t care who you are. The last time I went there, they macheted one of the policemen that came with me to raid the market and the policeman was so traumatized. So, I decided to lay ambush outside the market and luckily he was going to cargo goods for someone in Benin. That was how we got him arrested at Ohonba Line’s park and handed him over to the Ojo police station. That same day, they wanted to grant him bail. I asked them why, they said their boss gave an order that no culprit should be in cell for more than 24 hours. So, we contacted the Copyright Commission and we handed him over to Copyright Commission and later we contacted industry people.

Gabosky’s reputation was shrouded in mythology. Nollywood producers would repeat rumors that he had once been a pirate in Alaba himself, in the bad old days of copied foreign movies on VHS. For those movie producers who preferred to remain removed from the fray, Gabosky was a liaison to Nigeria’s urban marketplaces. He knew who was playing by the rules in the market and who was pirating his movies. Barnabas Mbanugo, at least, followed Gabosky’s rules when he told me that October 1, pirated copies of which I had seen being sold by many street vendors in Lagos, had not yet been released on DVD. Gabosky’s company G-Media was its official distributor.

Gabosky’s office was in an area of warehouses not far from Alaba, along a dirt road as hummocky as a motocross course, ancient cargo trucks beached along its edges like whales. We drove past a truck with leaping dolphins painted across the cab, then one with a mural of Jesus weeping tears of blood. We passed God With Us Plaza and the Celestial Church of Christ. A man reclined on his motorbike under a beach umbrella, chatting on the phone. Tufted leather couches were lined up for sale in the open air.

The headquarters of G-Media was a new-looking building made out of green and orange panels that said GABOSKY in gold letters across the front. A weight room was visible through the tinted windows of the ground floor. I asked at the front gate, having made an appointment, but was told Gabosky had not yet arrived. My driver, a man of few words named Bisi who worked for Solomon when the latter had too many clients, parked the car under a tree out front. While we waited, he hailed a man walking down the road in mechanic’s overalls and hired him to fix the car horn, which was insufficiently loud, and another man carrying a leather kit to give him a pedicure. I was sitting in the backseat reading the newspapers, he was having his toenails cut in front, and the mechanic was tinkering with the horn when a chrome-gilled banana-yellow Hummer pulled up behind us. We turned and stared. “He is here,” announced Bisi.

This was Gabosky, who tapped gently on my window. He greeted me with a half-hug, half back pat. He wore a snakeskin baseball cap over a du-rag, a black T-shirt, black jeans printed with a white pattern, and black Air Jordan Nikes. I followed him into Gabosky, Inc., past a dimly lit warehouse room filled to its rafters with boxes of DVDs. At the front desk, three employees lined up to greet him. As they exchanged good mornings, he gave each one the same half-hug salutary gesture, almost militaristic in its formality. He continued up the stairs, not pausing to look back when I was detained to sign in to a visitor’s book. A sack of oat flour was mysteriously displayed on the front desk.

His office was painted in the same green and orange color scheme, and filled with DVDs, honorary plaques, and gilt awards. Here, too, boxes of instant oatmeal were carefully displayed, and a shrink-wrapped pallet of oats was sitting on a coffee table.

Gabosky came to Lagos from eastern Nigeria. He studied political science at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, then began his business career as an electronics trader in Alaba in the early 1990s. He had a supply of VHS cassette tapes from Asia that he would dub with foreign films and sell as packaged movies. But it was hard to get the foreign films. “We had to look inward and say, Why can’t we make our own content and put it inside the cassettes?” he explained.

After the success of Living in Bondage, Gabosky became the executive producer of Ogunjiofor’s popular hit Nneka the Pretty Serpent. He went on to produce his own movies, including Battle of Musanga, which he claims was the first in a now-established genre of Nollywood historical epics. Today he is known primarily as a distributor or, as he put it, “the only structured and biggest content acquisitor and DVD/VCD distributor across Africa and the diaspora.”

Gabosky’s distribution network spans almost every Nigerian state; the West African countries of Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia, and Cameroon; east into Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya; and beyond, into “most African countries.” These days G-Media distributes mostly high-end movies: those that most closely resemble a Hollywood format. His catalogue includes many of the minority of Nollywood movies that had cinema releases. Because these are among the few Nollywood movies that could be called “destination movies” (most Nollywood consumers don’t really seek out a particular title) they are also the first target of all the pirates.

“They prepare themselves and wait for me,” he said. “They go on the Internet. They download photos. They print their jackets. And they wait.” He grabbed a pile of seized copies of pirated versions of his movies, including October 1, and began flipping through it. “Once they hear that I’ve acquired the movie they know that movie’s good.” A successful Nollywood movie will sell 200,000 to 500,000 copies. If you factor in piracy, a movie could sell more than two million copies in Nigeria alone. It is for this reason that some Nollywood producers no longer especially care about the market that created the industry. Instead, they search for more reliable revenue streams.

Gabosky knew that in the rest of the world the DVD is a more or less obsolete technology, but what was going on in the rest of the world has not yet impacted Nigeria. As long as data is expensive, “the whole world might be doing digital and the DVD will be the thing in Africa,” he said. The vast majority of Africans who connect to the Internet do so on their phones, and there are millions more phones on the continent than there are televisions. But Gabosky was not worried about entrepreneurs who are betting that one day the mobile phone will be the primary outlet by which African consumers watch Nollywood movies.

“I cannot see an African man adopting to watch movie on phone,” he said. “They aggregate themselves in a video viewing center, what you call community cinema. They prefer it to looking at the movie like this, because Africa likes interaction, they like being together in a communal way. This laptop audience is individualistic and Africa does not enjoy that kind of life.”

He concluded: “I cannot say that DVD will be an old thing in Africa.”

I asked him about the bags of oatmeal.

“Oats are one of the wonder foods,” he said, and then my visit was over.

The traffic in Lagos is famously bad. The local driving culture dictates tailgating, honking, flashing of brights, left turns into oncoming traffic, passing on the right, and shouting (but no cursing or lewd gestures—not in such a religious country). It isn’t rare to see a car casually reversing down an on-ramp, a motorcycle scattering pedestrians on a sidewalk, or a truck inching over a highway median to make an improbable u-turn. Drivers honk to simply acknowledge each other, like flocks of migratory geese; they flash their brights like they are issuing ship signals in Morse code. Turn signals are far less enthusiastically deployed. Pedestrians in Nigeria have no right of way. In Lagos driving culture there is no such thing as right of way, a problem when constant power outages mean traffic lights are frequently out.

The best way to avoid a traffic jam in Lagos is to avoid traveling from the mainland to the islands in the morning and going the other direction in the evening, when the lines of idling commuter vehicles span the length of the Third Mainland Bridge. But there are certain days when the entire city is all but shut down. The jams on the day of my visit to Gabosky were epic in scope, and it took hours to get back to where I was staying in Ikoyi from Badagry. A fuel shortage—a dicult phenomenon to explain in one of the world’s largest oil-exporting countries—had been affecting the country since I had arrived three weeks before. Most mornings outside my window, a line of cars stretched from the gas station on the corner all the way down the street. Drivers who were simply trying to continue down the street would bypass the gas line by pulling into the lane for oncoming traffic. This would result in standoffs with cars traveling the other direction, and shouting matches in which bystanders and pedestrians would enthusiastically involve themselves until one group of vehicles would finally concede to reverse from whence they came to let traffic through. (One driver who made a principled stand not to reverse was roundly shouted at by strangers walking down the street. “He thinks he is a big Nigerian man,” muttered one pedestrian, with scorn.) Once they started backing up, long lines of cars moving in reverse would meet other cars coming down the street, with the mechanical tricycles trying to shortcut via the sidewalk, and the honking would start up again. It was a daily spectacle that eased only when the station’s gas ran out or on Sundays, when the clamorous city would fall silent and churchgoing pedestrians strolled peacefully in their finery.

On this day, the fuel shortage had extended to the expressways. The entry to the petrol depots in Apapa was backed up with empty fuel trucks that had been parked for hours, even days. Lagos Traffic Radio, a call-in station where people described the traffic jams they had hit in animated pidgin English, was flooded with reports. The main arteries were all but stopped. We idled behind a tricycle with a particularly existential slogan on the back: Can you pass god. Lagos traffic was frequently referenced in Nollywood movies, along with reckless motorcycle taxi drivers, keke tricycle drivers who try to overcharge, and self-styled preachers who deliver zealous sermons to trapped passengers in crowded vans. A few days later, I saw an article about a Nollywood movie written by a reporter who had not managed to watch the movie before writing her feature. “The actual order of event was for the reporter to be at the screenings,” she wrote. “But with the help of non-moving trucks and their drivers along Creek Road, Apapa, it became ‘mission impossible.’”

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