Allegation of intellectual property theft blights Nigeria’s ‘Change Begins with Me’ campaign

Two days after it was launched amidst nationwide fanfare, an allegation that the ‘Change Begins with Me’ campaign of the Buhari administration was a stolen concept has emerged.

Besides its inherent irony, observers said the dispute could also spark a new round of debates about intellectual property rights in Nigeria.

President Muhammadu Buhari on Thursday launched the ‘reorientation’ campaign in Abuja as part of his government’s strategy to make Nigerians eschew their “dishonesty, indolence, unbridled corruption and widespread impunity” and embrace daily introspection over their “immoral” conducts.

Specifically, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, is facing an allegation that he adapted the ‘Change Begins with Me’ from another public service campaign after its creators pitched the idea to him late last year and he declined interest.

Associates said Akin Fadeyi, a creative artist and former head of communications at Airtel Nigeria, met with Mr. Mohammed in December 2015 to intimate him about ‘Not In My Country,’ an episodic narrative that deploys humour to underscore societal ills and appeal to Nigerians to shun sharp practices.

This newspaper further learnt that Mr. Fadeyi met with Mr. Mohammed at his Isaac John Street, Ikeja, Lagos, home to demonstrate the role his project could play in advancing the Buhari administration’s change mantra.

“The idea was to appeal to the minister to get NTA and Radio Nigeria to play ‘Not In My Country’ as part of their administration’s campaign against corruption,” one of Mr. Fadeyi’s associates said.

At the time, Mr. Mohammed was the supervising minister overseeing all government-run media outlets until directors-general were appointed in May 2016.

Mr. Fadeyi declined repeated requests for comment for this report, but the associate, who said he’d been friends with Mr. Fadeyi for many years, told PREMIUM TIMES that Mr. Mohammed rejected the proposal from his friend and his partners after holding meetings with them and getting them to effect some changes in areas where he deemed imperfect.

“They submitted the final version of their proposal to him after ending each episode with ‘Change Begins with Me’ as he directed,” the associate said. “He immediately said it was a brilliant idea because it achieved ‘the power of one minute.’”

In total, three episodes were produced by Mr. Fadeyi and submitted to Mr. Mohammed in January 2016.

“He just suddenly disappeared since then and made it very difficult for Mr. Fadeyi to reach him for updates about the proposal,” the associate said. “Months later, he started publicity about ‘Change Begins with Me’ launch without signing any contract with owners.”

The associate said the video skits that were played at the launch of ‘Change Begins with Me’ bore similarities with Mr. Fadeyi’s ‘Not In My Country’ project.

“The minister just sort of made a little change here, a little change there, and ran to town with the concept.”

But Mr. Mohammed denied the allegations, saying he had started ‘Change Begins with Me’ before he was nominated by Mr. Buhari in October 2015.

“We started working on ‘Change Begins with Me’ before the honourable minister was nominated and we’ve been working with the agency that produced the campaign.” Williams Adeleye, Mr. Mohammed’s spokesman, told PREMIUM TIMES Friday.

“So let him go to wherever he likes then we’ll meet and go and sort it out there,” he added.

But Mr. Fadeyi’s associate said it was curious that Mr. Mohammed showed interest in adapting ‘Not In My Country’ when he already had his own plans in place.

“Why was he reviewing the proposal and even asking that changes be made to ‘Not In My Country’ to make it more acceptable to him if he already had his own project?”

Mr. Mohammed later called to explain that he received proposals from about 20 different individuals and firms interested in designing the ‘Change Begins with Me’ campaign.

“Akin Fadeyi just happened to be one of them,” Mr. Mohammed told PREMIUM TIMES.

Kolawole Ayanwale, founder and CEO of Centrespread, the advertising firm contracted by Mr. Mohammed for the campaign, said the allegations were unfounded.

Mr. Ayanwale told PREMIUM TIMES that he never heard of Mr. Fadeyi and his ‘Not In My Country’ project before the controversy this week.

“I heard his campaign was on the Internet and TV but I didn’t see anything neither did I even know the young man before now and that is the whole truth.”

Mr. Ayanwale said he won’t take actions that could erode the reputation his firm had established in the advertising industry for decades.

“Centerspread is over 34 years old and I have been in charge since it was established,” Mr. Ayanwale said. “Go and do your independent analysis of our works and you can never find any instance of intellectual property theft. We don’t copy other people’s work here.”

Mr. Ayanwale said his firm was contracted by the All Progressives Congress during the 2015 elections and worked closely with Mr. Mohammed to design campaign materials for the party.

Similarly, Brian Ebden, an advertising consultant who worked with Mr. Ayanwale on the project, said ‘Change Begins with Me’ had been in the works before Mr. Mohammed became a minister. He said Mr. Fadeyi’s associates were only out for mischief.

“This is nothing but sheer lies and blackmail,” Mr. Ebden said in a statement Saturday.

PREMIUM TIMES sighted email conversations between Mr. Ebden and Mr. Mohammed and other staff of the Ministry of Information that showed that the ‘Change Begins with Me’ was deliberated upon before Mr. Mohammed became a minister.

In one of the emails, dated October 31, 2015, Mr. Ebden sent Mr. Mohammed samples of the jingles produced for ‘Change Begins with Me’ as well as the logo.

“Further to our meeting yesterday and as promised, please see attached hereto, the document for your perusal and consideration. I have also attached the TVC pilots as well as the Radio Ads and Jingle options separately,” Mr. Ebden said. “If you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me at your earliest convenience.”

But Mr. Fadeyi’s associates said Mr. Mohammed would need to do more if he must absolve himself from the charges.

“That he started the project months before he met Mr. Fadeyi in December 2015 is not enough,” an associate said. “‘Not In My Country’ has been in public domain since 2007.”

The associate said Mr. Fadeyi conceived ‘Not In My Country’ in 2006 and shot the first episode at the University of Lagos Main Campus in Akoka the following year.

“He was driven by the zeal to force corruption out of Nigerians’ consciousness,” the associate said.

“Nigerians commit injurious acts of corruption too often and too often they point accusing fingers at equally corrupt leaders.

“But Mr. Fadeyi said he would use his project to end this and contribute to nation building.

“He’s using the project to tell Nigerians that only decent conducts could engender a good value system that would, in turn, give the citizens better leadership,” the associate said.

The associate said Mr. Fadeyi had attempted to pitch the idea to President Goodluck Jonathan but for the death of his political associate.

“Oronto Douglas was the middleman between Mr. Fadeyi and the president at the time, but his cancer and subsequent death disrupted the plan,” the associate said. “So when this government came to power on the wave of change, we thought the time had come.”

The associate said Mr. Mohammed should have simply partnered with Mr. Fadeyi on his existing project rather than launching an all-new campaign that would end up being an adaptation of the original.

“If you look at their video, they warned people against vices such as vandalisation of pipelines and others which were the same as what Mr. Fadeyi presented to the minister,” the associate said. “That’s our major problem with him.

PREMIUM TIMES’ efforts to obtain copies of the ‘Change Begins with Me’ videos from Mr. Mohammed — to examine possible copyright infractions —  were unsuccessful.

“We won’t oblige anybody the video,” Mr. Adeleye said.

While the controversy continued to stir debates about intellectual property theft on social media, PREMIUM TIMES’ checks revealed that both ‘Change Begins with Me’ and ‘Not In My Country’ have been deployed in other countries to speak against social epidemics.

While ‘Change Begins with Me’ has been running in India; ‘Not In My Country’ has been played across university campuses in Uganda for many years.

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