THE AMAZING BAD BELLE OF ONYEKA ONWENU – Tony Okoroji
1 hereby state categorically that I do not have one naira belonging to the Christy Essien-Igbokwe Burial Committee. In all, the sum of thirteen million naira was passed through me to the committee: a ten million naira cheque from Akwa Ibom State Government and three million naira in cash from Cross River State. Both were handed over to the committee. I did not demand neither did I receive any commission, honorarium, token or compensation for obtaining the money. I was not paid a penny for the over two months of back breaking work that I did to make sure that we kept the promise I made on behalf of the committee that Christy Essien-Igbokwe would be buried like a queen. Indeed, I spent substantial amount of personal funds to ensure the success of a project which I believed in and which despite the attempt to stain it will remain a watershed moment in the history of events organization in Nigeria. I never was a signatory to the Committee's account and was not even a member of the finance committee and there was no key decision I took without obtaining the authorization of the Chairman of the committee, Dr. Austin Izagbo. At the end of the burial, I submitted very comprehensive financial reports on behalf of the two sub committees that I headed
I was only drafted by the committee to help with fund raising when it became clear that the entire project was about to collapse because the Contact Committee of which Ms. Onwenu was a member, had failed to raise any money. At every meeting all I heard from Onyeka was how she was 'in touch with the First Lady' A good number of us including Austin Izagbo and Bisi Olatilo put in significant time and personal funds towards the success of the burial. I do not know of any money that Onyeka contributed towards the project. When Onyeka Onwenu sings I celebrate her because she is a very good singer but being a good singer is not a licence to act without self control and without any consideration for the consequences of your actions on others.
I am a very busy person and did not seek to be part of the Christy Essien-Igbokwe Burial Committee. I was invited to the committee by Christy's husband, Edwin. Despite the size of the committee and my protestations, I was requested by the members to head two key sub committees: the Ceremonial sub Committee and the Publicity sub Committee. The ceremonial committee was charged with designing and executing the events and the Publicity Committee with promoting the activities. I was warned by friends of the high risk of my name being tarnished. I ultimately agreed to undertake the assignments because I believed in the cause but I warned everyone in the committee that I did not want to be part of any scandal.
The committees worked for weeks without one naira from anywhere. As Chairman of the Publicity Committee, I tapped on the substantial goodwill I enjoy with the media and I was answered positively and comprehensively. As a result of the work of my committee, over one hundred million naira in direct advertising was given to the burial activities by diverse media institutions in Nigeria free of charge, not to speak of the massive amount of editorial support, something that had never happened. I will never stop expressing my gratitude to the Nigerian media for their generosity. Among the several media friends I personally pleaded with on the phone were Mr. Tony Onyima, Editor-in Chief of the Sun; Mr. Sam Amuka Pemu, Publisher of Vanguard; Mr. Demola Osinubi, Managing Director of the Punch; Mr. Kunle Bakare, Publisher of Encomium Weekly; Mr Azuh Arinze, Publisher of Yes Magazine, Mr. Olisa Adibua of Beat, Classic and Naija FM; Mr. Lekan Ogubanwo, the Permanent Secretary in charge of LTV, Mr. Bola Agboola, the FRCN Director of Marketing, etc. I personally went to plead with the leadership of TVC, met with Chief Steve Ojo, owner of Galaxy TV and spoke with my friends at NTA, AIT, Channels, etc.
At the editorial and reportorial levels, I continuously spoke with countless journalists. Those I could not speak with, I wrote letters to. I invited a number of crack journalists to join the Publicity Committee and was constantly on the 'neck' of friends like Nat Biefoh Osewele of the Sun, Nonye Ben Nwankwo of the Punch, Charles Okogene of Independent, Kabir Garba of the Guardian, Fred Onyeka Nwalue of Metro FM, Patience Okeafor of Galaxy, Alozie Uzoukwu of STV, Ifeoma Oti &Jasmine Egeonu of AIT, Hazeez Balogun of Compass, Azuh Amatus of Entertainment Express, Ayo Lawal of PM News, Tunde Laiwola of LTV, Emeka Nnamani of Ray Power FM, etc.
As Chairman of the Ceremonial Committee, I worked with a fantastic group to design the seven different events of the burial. With the kind assistance of the Lagos State Commissioner for Sports, Barrister Waheed Enitan Oshodi, I got Governor Fashola to allow us the use of Teslim Balogun Stadium, free of charge. I pleaded on the phone with the General Manager of the National Theatre, Malam Kabir Yusuf and a hall was given for the Symposium free of charge and the VIP foyer given for the Lying in State also free of charge. I drafted in Segun Arinze, Baba Dee, Fred Edore, Azuh Amatus and Yinka Davies and I spoke with each of them several times every day no matter where in Nigeria I was. That was how the entertainment industry and the media were mobilized and the four teams that played the celebrated Match of the Stars in honour of Christy and the cheer leading ensemble were formed. Through Felix Awogu and Fred Edore, both of whom I will remain ever grateful to, the teams were fully kitted like professionals free of charge by Zenith Sports. With the approval of the committee, I invited Lagos lawyer and former police officer, Mr. Victor Eiremokhae to join the committee and to head the security team and without any compensation, he did a first class job. Without asking how the Match of the Stars was conceived or put together, Ms Onyeka Onwenu arrived at Teslim Balogun Stadium on match day, smiling from cheek to cheek, to do the kick off, jumping around the stadium and posing for photographs everywhere.
I assembled the artistes that gave the wonderful performances at the Red Carpet Tribute Night. When rehearsals could not begin because there was no money, I provided personal funds to the band to start rehearsals at African Shrine graciously made available to us by Yeni Kuti who showed great commitment to the success of the event. I was convinced that Frank Edoho of Who Wants to be a Millionaire was the right compere for the Tribute Night. I spoke with Frank countless times. It became clear that while Frank wanted to do the show, he had already been paid to do another event that night. Between Frank and I, we agreed that the only way that he would make the Coliseum event was to give a refund to those who had previously paid him. Frank will bear witness that I made significant personal contribution towards this refund. Nowhere in the financial statement to the committee did I mention this or seek that I be repaid. Indeed, the only person I informed about this was Dr. Izagbo after the event.
I was aware of the well known dispute between the Igbokwe family and Governor Akpabio of Akwa Ibom State. There was clear agreement between me and the Chairman of the Burial Committee, Dr Izagbo that we owed a duty to Christy to attempt to resolve the dispute. Consequently, I called a contact in Uyo who helped set up a meeting with Governor Akpabio. I invited my very good friend Bisi Olatilo who was then in Abuja and he graciously cut his trip to join me in Uyo. Ms. Onwenu was asked to travel with me. The two day meeting in Uyo with the governor was a turning point as it helped to clear much of the clouds that hovered over the entire project. Governor Akpabio showed the kind of simplicity, maturity and forgiving spirit not usually associated with people who occupy such positions in this part of the world. He went out of his way to help douse whatever tension existed between the Igbokwe and Essien families. Let me say that without Godswill Akpabio, the Christy Essien burial would have ended differently.
I have heard that a rumour has been activated that Governor Akpabio gave me millions to do the documentary on Christy. I suspect that this is a key reason for the long brewing hyper ventilation of Ms. Onwenu to boil over. I state categorically that The Story of the Lady of Songswhich has been broadcast by several TV stations in the country was funded entirely by me and has financially set me back significantly. Contrary to Ms. Onwenu's assertion, nowhere in the financial report sent by me to the Christy Essien- Igbokwe Burial Committee was one naira requested as cost of the documentary. I did the research and wrote the script and within two weeks, in the midst of the mind boggling challenges of organizing probably the most elaborate burial in Nigerian history, I traversed the country with a film crew led by an incredible Nigerian known as Razak Izebe, and day and night we shot the visuals across several states, edited on the road and produced the first ever cradle to grave story on any Nigerian artiste. Austin Izagbo and Bisi Olatilo will bear witness that Ms Onwenu was repeatedly requested to participate in the documentary and she declined.
It may be sour grapes or bad belle but Ms. Onwenu has set out to rubbish The Story of the Lady of Songs describing it in her internet and newspaper tirade as 'substandard' I have however received commendations on the work from several professionals whom I have great respect for. The so called “substandard” documentary has been seen by millions of Nigerians on several TV stations like AIT, Channels, TVC, Biscon, Galaxy, NTA, etc. It is arguably the most broadcast documentary in Nigeria in recent times. Many people have told me that through the documentary, they have learnt so much about the life of Christy Essien Igbokwe that they did not know. The documentary is today a national resource and an everlasting legacy to the memory of Christy. It does not matter to me if Ms Onwenu develops a headache each time The Story of the Lady of Songs is broadcast but someone should remind her that Nigeria is a free country and that she has every right to do her own documentary on Christy or anyone else and get it shown wherever she may choose.
In the tirade in which Ms. Onwenu could not find one good thing done by me towards the Christy burial, she also complained about the use of COSON staff in the burial arrangements. I am Chairman of the Board of COSON which is a non-profit making organization. Until her death, Christy Essien-Igbokwe was a member of COSON. I owe no apologies to Ms Onwenu for requesting the hard working staff of COSON to participate in the burial arrangements of our member. Indeed I commend all the COSON staff who made valuable contribution to the success of the events:- Vincent Adawaisi, Elizabeth Ike, Isa Haruna, Benice Eriemeghe, Yemi Oyerinde, etc. To the staff of COSON, Ms. Onwenu's complaint would be a joke especially coming from 'Madam Probity' who regularly demands that the staff of COSON come to her private office to do her private work. Ms Onwenu likes to complain about everyone's leadership but I am not aware of any complex organization that she has handled or any serious group that she has successfully led.
A few days to the commencement of the burial events, it was reported at a committee meeting that the only drinks that had been mobilized by the welfare committee apart from the Ragolis water kindly donated by Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, were a few crates of Seven Up! I was alarmed and requested that I be allowed to intervene. I then called my friends at Nigerian Breweries Plc: Tony Agemonmen, Edem Vindah, Sampson Oloche and Ngozi Nkwoji and Nigerian Breweries stepped in and donated much of the drinks we received for the events.
What I truly do not understand is how I could have taken the many wrong decisions which Ms. Onwenu alleges and yet the organization of the events of the Christy Essien Igbokwe burial have been widely acknowledged to be masterful and Onyeka Onwenu has basked in the glory of the success of the events. It beats me how she cannot see the contradiction.
Despite the fact that, I live in Lagos, for several weeks, I did not go home because of the Christy Essien burial. Home and office were a room in a modest guest house in Ikeja which I shared sometimes with four other persons, several laptops and internet modems. While Lagos slept, we were deep at work. It was from this room that 24 hours a day, we mobilized Nigerians and did the important organizational and media work that drove the celebrated events of the Christy Essien burial which Nigerians witnessed. Some of us went for days snatching fifteen minutes sleep here and there. Austin Izagbo visited Room 302 at least 25 times. Ken Olumese was there and so were Yinka Davies, Eva Ogoro, Kaka Igbokwe, Chika Okpala, Lemmy Jackson, Pal Akalonu, Cornel Udofia, Victor Eiremokhae, Kunle Akintayo, Aladave, Aniekan Umanah - the Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Information and many others whose presence inspired us to successfully wrestle with the many challenges and tie together the hundreds of different elements that made the grand idea a reality. Onyeka Onwenu never came.
After Ms. Onwenu joined the committee and the atmosphere became soured, I realized that a concerted attempt was being choreographed to smear me. I had seen this happen before and I did not want to be part of it. Unknown to most members of the committee, on August 14, I wrote to Chief Edwin Igbokwe informing him that I had decided to quietly withdraw from the committee. I immediately commenced arrangements to travel with my friends, Patrick Doyle and Mahmoud Ali Balogun on an important business trip to South Africa from where I would proceed to the United States to join my wife. My plan was to remain in the US until the burial activities were over. Upon receiving my mail, Chief Igbokwe who was in Anambra, sent a mail pleading that I rescind the withdrawal. He followed it up with phone calls. (My mail and Chief Igbokwe's reply are hereby forwarded)
On the prompting of Chief Igbokwe, Dr. Izagbo rushed to Room 302 where he found me at a meeting with Patrick and Mahmoud planning our trip. For several hours, we argued back and forth on the effect my withdrawal would have on the burial arrangements. I told Dr. Izagbo that I could no longer operate under the atmosphere that had developed. Dr. Izagbo who shares a common ancestry with my wife pleaded with me and prevailed on me to reverse my decision in the interest of the committee, assuring me that he would take charge and ensure that my name was not dragged to the mud.
Once again, I have to pay lawyers to clear my name for doing massive unpaid work in furtherance of the beliefs that I hold. I have travelled this road before. I thank God that each time, He has given me victory. By His grace, it will happen again.
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Chief Tony Okoroji
Lagos – October 18, 2011.
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