MAURICE OKOTH Setting the record straight

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Former chief executive officer of the Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK), Maurice Mwande Okoth, was recently acquitted of corruption charges leveled against him. For the very first time since the acquittal, he opens up to ESTHER KIRAGU about the distressing charges filed against him, the acquittal, his side of the story and subsequent career move.

In 2015, while serving as the CEO of the Music Copyright Society of Kenya, Maurice Okoth and five others who also included his wife Shamillah Kiptoo, were accused of stealing millions from the copyright society.

They were arraigned in court to answer to various counts of offence, which they all pleaded not guilty to. And for the next year, he would be in and out of the corridors of justice seeking to clear his name. He remains adamant that the accusations were false.

“This was a truly tough period not just for me and my wife, but also for our families and close friends. A lot of my close family live abroad including my mum and were constantly fed by one-sided angles of stories from the media, which was rather upsetting,” he says.

All the same, Maurice talked to his family regularly to update them of the turn of events and reassure them that he was dealing with the lawsuit.

Maurice has always prided himself in having a close circle of friends, most of who are in the entertainment fraternity.

He says it was these friends that he turned to for solace and comfort during his hour of need. One of these friends he speaks very highly of and refers to as a brother, is Kevin Ombajo popularly known as Big Kev, a former MC and musician and the founder and CEO of True Blaq Ltd, an events management company in Kenya.

Coincidentally, the two friends, Maurice and Kevin, are now married to beauty queens – Shamillah Kiptoo and Tracy Ombajo respectively – both of who are former Miss Kenya titleholders: Shamillah in 2006 and Tracy in 1996/1997.

“Kevin and I go a long way back,” he says and adds, “When a suit was filed against me, I had a heart-to-heart talk with Kevin and some of my closest friends about the allegations. They took my word for it and promised to stand by me through thick and thin. I feel very blessed to have such friends.”

Venturing into the music scene…

Having friends in the entertainment circles meant that Maurice was always in the know of their challenges.

“I recall that I was always baffled by the fact that the public would refer to artists as celebrities yet these artists had little financial gain to show for their celebrity status. This disparity piqued my interest in entertainment issues,” he explains.

Maurice holds an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in law from Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in India. He also holds a Bachelors degree in commerce from the same university.

He says of India, “It was one of the best experiences of my life. Many people have this perception that India is a poor country but it is here that I got to see the world in both extremes – poverty and richness. At 19, I was responsible for myself in a foreign country away from the comfort of family and friends and this fast-tracked my maturity.”

After a five-year stint in India, he returned to Kenya and continued interacting with the wider circle of artists, producers, musicians and even models.

The disparity between their work and financial gain convinced Maurice that he needed to do something about it. This led him to research on renowned world musicians and how they earned their livelihood.

“To my surprise, I learnt that despite some of them having retired and others even deceased, their beneficiaries were still earning money from their music. It dawned on me that being a musician is not just about writing a song, recording an album and making lots of money from its sales.

Artists also make money from royalties even if they are not active. It became clear that as the music industry and technology continues to evolve, music is played on different platforms hence generating royalties from radio stations, and digital platforms such as YouTube and websites among many others,” explains the 42-year-old.

This knowledge grew Maurice’s interest in intellectual property and he registered a non-governmental organisation – Centre for Intellectual Property Law, Advocacy and Research (CIPLAR) – in 2001.

“At the time, there were disputes of Kenyan items that had not been patented locally and hence Kenya could no longer claim to own them such as jiko and kiondo. This is what inspired CIPLAR. However, not much information on intellectual property was in the public domain at the time and the organisation struggled to forge ahead with what it had set out to do,” he says.

He then began doing pro bono work, representing artists in MCSK and claiming their dues on their behalf.

“At the time, MCSK was not making enough money to meet the expenses of the society and pay artists their dues. Many people did not understand this and there were accusations of the officials then squandering money, which led to the firing of the then CEO,” he says admitting that he was unaware that this same bullet would come to bite him a few years later.

At the helm of MCSK…

Brushing shoulders with MCSK then and understanding the issues facing the society came in handy for Maurice especially when the CEO’s position fell vacant and was advertised in 2007.

Since he understood the issues facing the society, he walked into the interview with a strategic plan of what he would do if he got the position. He emerged the best candidate for the job.

“That strategic plan is what I used to run MCSK from 2007 to the time I resigned, early this year. It was a well-researched and thought-out plan as in those years of my service, members increased from a paltry 600 in 2007 to over 10,000 by 2015, and revenue from Ksh 8 million a year to about Ksh 380 million annually,” he explains.

The society first embarked on public trainings and creating awareness on the need to pay for licenses to play local music in public spheres and during public performances.

Maurice’s knowledge in law also came in handy especially when coming up with measures to enforce the law in regard to copyright infringement and licensing.

One of the ways artists were able to earn revenue over time is through reproduction; that is when a user moves music from its original form to any other platform.

For instance, the Skiza tunes where mobile phone users download tunes and use them as their mobile ringback tones. Skiza tunes have become one of the biggest sources of revenue for artists.

However, it was this same matter that brought a tussle when some artists took an issue claiming they were not receiving their deserved dues earned from Skiza tunes through MCSK, leading to a court battle.

Maurice says his nine-year stint at the society was one he looks back with pride stating that his record speaks for itself, as it has been one of great accomplishment not limited to the aforementioned growth in membership, revenue and infrastructure.

There has also been a better understanding by the public of MCSK and the role it plays, hence support especially in paying for licenses to play music publicly.

“When I joined MCSK, many gospel musicians were not really part of the society partly because people did not appreciate their music. But we worked on an inclusive strategy to bring all musicians on board and today some of the biggest earners are gospel musicians,” he says.

MCSK over time introduced benefits to members such as medical insurance and as part of its corporate social responsibility, the society has in the past sponsored events that promote culture and also impacted on the lives of musicians as was the case in 2015 when they gave a cash donation to Mr Diego, a Kenyan musician who was going blind and needed surgery.

Maurice’s efforts did not go unnoticed as he explains, “MCSK has in the past been contracted on several occasions to offer training in various African countries and beyond, as one of the models of best practices having been successful in revenue collection from public service vehicles (PSVs) and public places.

They have put the country on the international map, as currently Kenya is among the top three countries in Africa who are best at collecting and distributing revenue to musicians after South Africa and Nigeria.”

In 2013, Maurice was appointed vice-president of the International Confederation of Societies for Authors and Composers (CISAC), a position held by a Kenyan for the first time. One of

the many roles of CISAC is to improve the quality of the collective management of rights of composers and authors throughout the world.

The aftermath…

So why would anyone want to taint all this achievement with corruption claims? “I have always taken pride in building the entertainment industry not just locally, but also internationally.

The false corruption allegations threatened to water down my contribution. There were interested parties in the Skiza callback ringtones as it fetched artists a lot of revenue and MCSK got rid of the other interested parties who were eating into part of the profits. As a result, I became an easy target because fighting me would equal fighting MCSK,” he says.

Although MCSK at some point released a public statement saying that Maurice was innocent, they later suspended him alongside two other officials early this year stating that their suspension from employment was pending an internal investigation as there were numerous complaints from the public and MCSK members about how royalties were distributed. However, Maurice opted to resign shortly after the suspension.

Why did you resign if you were innocent? “I felt it would be difficult to continue working with the board as they seemed to doubt my innocence. This was not an easy decision to reach as I loved my job at MCSK and gave it my all,” he explains.

Despite the case being thrown out of court in September this year, Maurice is aware that there are people who still believe that he is guilty.

All the same he says he is happy to have been vindicated and is keen to move on with his life and continue impacting positively the entertainment industry.

Recently, he got into the media space as the CEO of Cosmopolitan TV, which is part of an international media company –TVC – who are also the publishers of The Governor magazine.

The television station is focussed on providing entertainment such as local music, dance shows and runway fashion shows among many other forms of entertainment.

Maurice has also returned to practice law and runs a private law firm at Nairobi’s Valley Arcade.

On family life…

Maurice’s dad passed away just after Maurice had completed high school. “At the time, plans were underway for me to travel to India for my higher education. As a family, we felt the gap of dad’s demise but mum sacrificially ensured that we got the best of life,” he says.

His mum and two siblings all live in the US but he gets to see them whenever he travels abroad as well as during the festive season when they come home.

He has been married for three years now to Shamillah Khadija Kiptoo. Their wedding was a much-talked affair in 2013 when Maurice converted to Islam just prior to marrying Shamillah.

“This was yet another tough period of our lives, I am glad we got through it,” says Maurice.

The couple has an adopted son and they describe their parenting and three-year-old marriage as bliss despite the trials.

And oh boy! Haven’t they had their fair share of challenges? A year ago, Shamillah was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She describes the experience as a draining one but one that drew her even closer to God as she got to pray a lot.

“I went through the arduous cancer treatment and I am glad this is now behind us as I was declared cancer-free,” she says adding that considering everything they have gone through including the lawsuit, they now hope to catch a break.

Shamillah fundraises for various charity homes, one of which she has been working with for a long time in Kayole.

“Working with the less fortunate humbles you. It makes you realise everything you have in life is a God-given gift and there is nothing more satisfying in life as touching the life of another person,” she says.

Shamillah, who is a marketer, runs two businesses: Shammy’s Etiquette Boutique where she offers young ladies etiquette lessons and Shammy’s Handcrafted Organics, where she sells natural skin and hair products that she has personally made. The latter business was birthed after a not so good personal experience.

“For a long time I struggled with acne and at one time I lost a job over it. My employer then was concerned that I wasn’t presentable enough to interact with his clients because of the acne, which had really affected my face. He gave me two weeks to get something that would clear my face or else risk losing my job. I unsuccessfully tried every cream I had possibly heard of and as a result lost my job over it. It was then that I started trying out some home made products, leading to a research and lots of consultation. A year later, Shammy’s Handcrafted Organic was birthed,” she says.

The 32-year-old former beauty queen divulges that a lot of her clients are from a Facebook page she runs as well as referrals and spas.

As this interview comes to an end, Maurice insists he has no regrets about everything he gave towards MCSK and the turn of events.

“I truly believe in life you do well and go your way whether people appreciate it or not. I did my part to the best of my knowledge, which for me is good enough. I feel indebted to God because he vindicated me, and that despite the challenges I faced, my family and close friends stood by me,” he winds up

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