Respected actor and one of the leading hunks in Nollywood, Saint Obi, is one thespian that hardly speaks, but whenever he does, feathers are always ruffled. After a long silence from the movies and pages of newspapers, the actor-turned director, in this exclusive interview with AZUH AMATUS, bared his mind on several burning issues revolving around Nollywood and the nation.
He also took a swipe on some corporate bodies for always celebrating mediocrity as well as not embracing Nollywood. Obi, a father of one, from Mbaitoli, Imo State, also spoke on his long awaited movie-True Color, how he was stripped at the airport, why actors must pay taxes and much more.
Enjoy the interaction!
What has been happening to you?
I’ve been quiet on the surface but very loud at the background. You get to a point in life when you don’t just want to settle for anything, but you want to make a mark, you want to up your game and above all, you don’t want things happening in your child’s life, you want to begin to enjoy the goodies now. Like it was said some time ago, that teachers reward are in heaven but teachers of nowadays want to enjoy it here and now and as well as beyond. In the same vein, acting in Nigeria unfortunately, at this time of our existence is not an end but it is a means to an end, unlike what it is in Hollywood and Bollywood. Those countries, acting and filmmaking are an end but here in Nigeria, people expect so much. A lot of times, we don’t do our homework very well. Another problem is that most of our predecessors that got carried away with the euphoria of stardom today are languishing in poverty. Some of us don’t want that happening to us, so that is why we have to make hay while the sun is still shining. I’m working on a lot of stuffs currently, mainly re-branding Nigeria, under an umbrella called, Project Image Nigeria. I am also working on my soon to come movie, True Colour, which is also an effort in stating who we are as well as entertaining Nigerians in a very unique way. Aside that, I am also working on tirelessly to see how we can put a structure on ground and help move the movie industry to the next level. So a lot of people are doing their stuffs but I am doing my own in a quiet way. It’s going to blossom and Nigerians will see what I am trying to do. As I said, it is to take the movie industry to the next level, especially in the area of distribution. That is the bane of the movie industry.
We would like to know more about your Project Image Nigeria, what is the concept all about?
I’ve been on this journey for a couple of years even before Heart of Africa started. Back in the days, each time I travel out, I get harassed and messed up because I am a proud Nigerian holding our beautiful green passport. In year 2000, I went to Slovenia to feature in a movie, when I got to their airport, the only thing that they did not take off was my pant. I was stripped. I had work permit from the government of Slovenia and I had my papers and every other genuine and relevant documents. I was so angry. I told the airport attendant that I have valid British, Schengen and United States of America visas. Why would I leave all these juicy places and come to Slovenia? That was just one of the numerous experiences. I was in Houston Texas and somebody gave me a cheque for a thousand dollars, I took this cheque to a bank and to my greatest surprise, I presented my international passport as mode of identification, they told me buddy, we don’t accept Nigerian passport as mode of identification. I mean your international passport is your highest mode of identification anywhere in the world. The guy said that was the bank’s policy. I was so angry; I had to get the money some other way. It dawned on me that our image is really, really bad out there. I said what do I do. Should I fold my hands and keep seeing these things happening? Because I know that there are so many good Nigerians out there. So why are we suffering this kind of terrible image? Then I said it is time to match word with action, in 2004, I went to make the movie, True Colour in the US. To sell our image, I need to go and give it to the environment where probably in the process of watching themselves; they would see the reality of who we really are. Because the truth of the matter is, less than 0.01 percent of Nigerians are into Internet fraud and other vices. Let us even say we are too loud, one percent. Is it enough to judge the other 99 percent? The problem is that the 99 percent of Nigerians who are on the other side of the fence have been too quiet and as they continue to be quiet, the one percent denting our image will continue to misrepresent our image and that is why the initiative of Heart of Africa and currently the re-branding by professor Dora Akunyili is a welcome development. There is a disconnection because there has been so much lack of trust with leadership and that is why a lot of Nigerians are not keying in with the re-branding initiative. They feel government is saying one thing and doing something else. But Professor Akunyili, is a splendid and wonderful Nigerian who most of us will die for. Leadership is a big problem to this fight. Because of that problem there is a little hitch but having said that, we should not lose sight of the fact that whether we like it or not, we are all part of this. Whether you are down there or up there, you are a Nigerian. And if you don’t stand up and get counted, you, as well as your children, and grand children will keep getting what is going on at the moment. Every society went through what we are going through. Nigeria is going through a phase. For the fact that some part of the leadership is not living up to its expectation, does not mean that we should discard Nigeria and our efforts to get it right.
The minister’s initiative is a brilliant one and she is a Nigerian everybody knows. When she says yes, she means yes. But she needs people with genuine intentions for Nigeria to move to the next level. We want to partner with her because we cannot all be singing from different voices. We need a coordinating point. We all need to put heads together because Nigeria is for all of us. Anybody that has any positive idea should try and key in the minister’s initiative, we would then be the foot soldiers. I mean people with genuine intentions not those who are in because they feel there is a government largesse, but there is no largesse because the vote for re-branding Nigeria was the same vote set aside for Heart of Africa. So it shouldn’t be a money thing. When I went to make my movie, there was no Heart of Africa let alone re-branding Nigeria, so there was no money involved, it is just me spending my own money to see how I can better the image of my country.
In the same vein, don’t you also think the time has come for the re-branding of Nollywood?
Re-branding Nollywood, first, we have to get the industry together. We need a structure like MOPICON. But the way it is, that has been stalled at the national assembly level. When we had a stakeholders’ forum with the honourable minister, Akunyili, and she heard about what is going on in the industry, instantly, she set up a 5-man steering committee that would represent the industry at the moment, that would help to collate ideas, which is very key to the industry. That is the first step. The second step, which is piracy, is another thing, which we all cried out to Akunyili, now we want her to deal the some blow she dealt the fake drug merchants, in the movie industry. We believe she has the tenacity to take care of that aspect. Then thirdly, there is a lot of disunity in the industry. Now it is time for everybody to come together. This individual thing would not work. If we put heads together, we can become a very strong force. Entertainment anywhere in the world is a huge money-spinner. What people don’t also know is that we are one of the highest employers of labour. Do you know how many people have been taken off the streets, how many girls have been taken off prostitution, how many armed robbers have been taken off the road? The business is for both the skilled and the unskilled. Government ought to pay attention. I was listening to the chairman of Nigerian Premier League and the guy was analyzing how the British premiership became what it is today, that when they mooted the idea that Margaret Thatcher brought about 200m pounds to put the structure in place. So it is not just to throw crumbs at Nollywood, there has to be a conscious effort not just at the censors’ board or film corporation level, they have to realize that this is a huge money spinner and government has much to gain. Now we make these movies. It is not enough that producers pay stipend to censors’ board as form of censorship fee. Government can tax every actor in this country. Every movie you feature in whether you are an actor or producer, director, make-up, location manager, every facet of the movie industry must be taxed. Every production is documented. Government is losing so much but to enjoy those things, they must put a lot of structure on ground. I have always mooted this idea that when Babangida built SDP and NRC headquarters across every local government in Nigeria, they are still there, it can be done with Nollywood. Government can take the initiative by building multipurpose entertainment centres across Nigeria. We have 774 local government areas in Nigeria; let us start with half of them. When these movies are released they go into a chain through these theatres so that we can stop this home video because we lose money by going straight to home video. We lose all the money we are supposed to make from exhibitions, TV, cinemas and we now come to the last stage and that is why we are short changed. It is important that government put these structures in place and then lease them out. If we get it right, it’s going to be a huge spinner in the long run. Like I said earlier, the Honorable minister had started something. The five-man steering committee is not a one sided thing. People from the Yoruba, English, and theatre arts people, just name it, were on this body. It is a holistic approach, so that nobody feels left out. She has commenced that journey; let’s just give her a chance and see what happens.
As a big player in the industry, what do you think is the best way to rejuvenate Nollywood and make it compete globally?
The banking sector at a point went through a bust, then professor Soludo came and introduced mega banks, today banking is sweet again in Nigeria. I don’t’ want to let it out but I can assure you, we are not going to take one year to bounce back, if what I am working on works out. It will become a comprehensive blue print that will change the history forever. People are trying other ideas but the idea I am working on is foolproof.
Let’s talk about your long-awaited big project film, True Color
Why it is not yet released is because I want to raise the bar. It took me about a year to bring the movie back to Nigeria. After shooting the movie, I left my rushes in the bank of America; I was planning to go and edit the movie there, so I just came back. When I got back into Nigeria, there was a lull so I had to do other things. A year later, I now went and collected my rushes. Eventually, we edited and anyone that knows me will tell you that with all sense of modesty, I am a perfectionist. I shot Take Me to Maama in 2001, I released it in 2003 and when I released it, by the special grace of God, we broke almost the whole records in terms of publicity and getting corporate endorsements. We had Coca-Cola identifying with our movie, NTA, the first time, they will promote and market a Nigerian film and the Catholic parishes across Nigeria supported my movie and although I am not a catholic. So to get it right takes time. If I were into all those shoot one week and release the next week, I will be making those trickles but it won’t serve my purpose. I am looking for that thing that would raise the bar for Nollywood, take Nollywood towards where it ought to be. Whatever Hollywood and Bollywood are enjoying today is because of the seed the pioneers planted. So it is important to know that what we are doing is for generations unborn and it is only that way it will outlive all of us. So if we don’t do it right, people are not going to take us serious. Another factor is waiting for the right moment to drop the movie. I am trying to get my partners to come on board full time. Once they come on board, we are as good as out there in the market and it is going to happen in a few months time. We want to do premieres, cinema shows, home video, TV distribution, we want to squeeze and make sure we get the most out of this movie. That is what it ought to be. When an American makes a movie, the same movie keeps bringing in money for years. We are waiting for the highest bidder. The way it is now, we have spent so much money on the movie. My movie is not a movie to be sold in Nigeria only and that is the mistake most of us make. Nollywood is a global phenomenon in the sense that our market has gone beyond Nigeria. We are in many countries across the world. What we have to do is to harness that market. What Bollywood did was look at where it has concentration of Indians and start with that so we started with that look at people with similar culture, North Africa, Middle East, the Muslim world. If you go to the north till tomorrow they still love Indian movies. It is for us to identify our market. It’s a global market and once we change to that market, trust me, N500m will be too small as proceeds the moment we get it right.
So, in a nutshell what is the story of True Color all about?
It is a love story. It is a story about a Nigerian guy who leaves Nigeria for the good life overseas but on reaching there, he realizes that it is not a bed of roses out there, which is one thing I’ve been trying to tell our young ones. We all need to put our eyes towards Nigeria. We need to look inward to begin to believe that we can make it here not fraudulently but legitimately. Down the line, he meets this white girl and they get to know each other but this guy genuinely was friends with this girl, no strings attached. In fact, he even helped her pay her school fees but when he now got in touch with the girl’s parents they liked the guy because they are no racist but when they heard he’s a Nigerian, the story changed. The movie is all about trying to take out that misconception about Nigeria. It is a fusion of love, tragedy and the image problem we have. To be fair to the Ministry of Information and Communication, the Federal government has endorsed my movie. Government is saying, you did well and I feel honoured. Government can’t do it alone and there is also the economic downturn and you need the private sector to also assist in things like this. We want individuals and corporate bodies to come and support the government good ideas. If you want to make a change, do it selflessly. Some corporate bodies are trying their best for Nollywood, but like Oliver Twist, we need more from them.
How do you intend battling the rampant issue of piracy once your film is released?
The way I have designed my own marketing strategy, there would be less room for pirates to exist. For instance, in America, a lot of people, Nigerians, Ghanaians, among others own homes that are just pirating our movies. The first thing you do is to have your movie copyrighted in a particular country where you want to sell because if you are not there legally, you don’t have any legal say and that is what happens to our movies. They just buy one or two copies and export them to different countries and pirate them. My movie is copyrighted in America, so if anybody messes with my movie, I will thank God, in the sense that he would be speaking with the FBI for a long time to come. It is also copyrighted here in Nigeria as well. There are incentives that you will gain and enjoy when you buy the original copy. We designed a unique hologram. We also designed a scratch card. For you to win, you must buy the original copy. I am talking with my partner, ABS Limited based in Abuja. We are working with them. If you are a pirate and decides to print one, two, three, you will discover that it is a wasted venture. Talking about piracy as a whole, the minister has pledged to fight piracy head on. We know she would do it. I also want to proffer my own solution. I have said at different fora, to end piracy in Nigeria is very simple. If you catch this guy with his fake products, once you confirm that these are pirated works, say if his entire wares are worth N5,000 or 10 grand, as the case maybe, you tell the guy to pay government N200,000 or he goes to jail for one year. Of course you know he doesn’t have that kind of money, so by the time he goes to jail and comes out, he will not go near piracy again. What you also do is to trace the origin of that pirated copies that the hawker has. You reach the manufacturer and confirm that he is the one producing these fake things, assuming the entire plant is worth N500m, you tell the company to give Nigeria N2b or N3b as the case may be or all the top management staff whether they are 50 or a hundred, they all give Nigeria five-year jail term each. Catch two people and piracy would be gone forever. When Idiagbon and Buhari shot the first set of drug peddlers, drug peddling became a history in Nigeria. At this stage of our development, we must create some draconic laws as a way of cementing our development. When we get to that level where we are stabilized, when people understand that it is good to buy original, then we can now relax the laws. But these laws are very necessary at this time of our existence. Some people might not like Sharia but it works. So you need such draconic laws to keep your society in check.
Let’s talk about your other plans for the Image Nigeria project?
Apart from my movie, I developed a flyer called Nigeria Again. That flyer has two concepts. One is for Nigerians; I am going to circulate it so that it helps us to stop bad mouthing Nigeria. Bad mouthing your country is like insulting your own mother. Whether you like it or not, you and I are products of Nigeria. The soil your father comes from is from Nigeria, so when you bad mouth it whether government is working or not, you are insulting your own mother. You can criticize the leaders but don’t belittle your mother because when you do that outsiders will sweep her into the gutter and that is the information that comes when we bad mouth our nation. We are the envy of every black nation in the world. We are the giant of Africa. We are the most populous black nation in the world. People want to see us look small, like we don’t know what we are doing but of course, we know that Nigeria has produced some of the best people in the world. And that is why the world is scared of us. We know that we can do it. Any facet of life, we have the pedigree, manpower and resilience to move ahead. The foreign leg of that same Nigeria Again is a flyer that I developed to sensitize the world to understand that the sins of a few people should not be translated into a blank cheque of the entire nation. That one or two Nigerians are bad does not mean that the other 99 are. You can’t judge the whole country based on the sins of less than one percent of the population. I also say that if they want to do business with Nigerians, don’t fall into the temptation of fraudsters because people who come through the back door are people who fall prey. The Nigeria embassy is almost in every part of the world. Liaise with Nigerian embassy before you know whether the man you are talking to is a fraudster, so that you come legitimately the door is wide open and Nigeria is the most lovable place to be. That is why when people come to Nigeria; they leave with a big surprise. To me aside good people, great country, another slogan for me is, Nigeria, expect a beautiful surprise.
What is your take on the UNESCO rating of Nollywood?
Unesco said we have the second largest film making industry globally. It is a good omen in the sense that the fact that UNESCO is researching on Nollywood shows that we are a global brand. It is no longer Idumota brand. For you to think Nollywood is not real, you are living in the past. Nollywood is the future as well. I was speaking with one of those very top Nigerians and the guy told me why Nollywood is still the way it is, because some very rich people have not come into the equation. You see, if some of the billionaires in this country put in N500m into this industry respectively and groom it properly, the industry will move to the next level. We are second in terms of quantity and not quality. If UNESCO has said we are second, we should also gravitate towards quality so that when these movies get into the international market, they would not look at them as, wow, what kind of crap is this. We should look at them with some respect. Yes, it might not be an American movie, but it’s done with quality because we don’t speak one language, bring whatever language you are bringing on board, but do it with finesse and quality and that is the difference between the good and the bad of what UNESCO said.
We would also like to have your views on Emeka Mba’s distribution framework policy, do you subscribe to it?
I subscribe to the framework but it is not hundred percent perfect. It’s a good idea and much better than what we have before, but we must keep moving forward until we get it right. No one singular person has the magic wand at this moment but in the light of what is going on, you release movies, you don’t know how many copies are sold and what have you, Emeka Mba led censors board came out with this idea. It’s a way forward and anything that is a way forward for the industry, I am up for it. As we go along, we perfect it and we get better. I am not going to say, my idea is perfect. We all need to marry ideas so that at the end of the day we will all be the better for it. The market and distribution network is here, it is just for us to marry the ideas and move the nation forward.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Nollywood as well as the solution?
The biggest problems facing Nollywood are piracy and lack of scientific marketing. What we do here is we think marketing is all about buying and selling. It is not trading. We currently have people trading in films, we don’t have marketers. I told them at some point to employ professional marketers, people who went to school to read marketing, to address them, give them a blue print in which they can get it right, they thought I was talking bullshit but today it dawned on them that what I was saying is right. So that aspect is a major problem. We also have the problems of too many quacks that are constantly thinking of how they are going to make one stupid N5m and move to the next level. Filmmaking is not trading, it is an art and art is priceless. There are some Picasso works that are today worth about $150m, when that guy was drawing it, let’s say 80 something years ago or 100 years ago, he didn’t know it is going to be worth that today, may be, he even died a poor man but he took his time to paint those pictures from his heart and that is how painting should be seen. Sound of Music was made in 1965, you have watched it, I have also, your children have seen it, my son will also see it, and people are still watching it. If they have rubbed hand over the movie, I wouldn’t have seen it, you wouldn’t have seen it. You must gear towards perfection. That is what art is all about. Then lack of governmental presence, is also killing us. Government needs to come in and match words with action. There has to be a conscious structure. South Africa won an Oscar. The government spent over $20m making that movie. Government needs to help see how we can have stable power. Of course, I know they are working on that. Once power comes on, the industry will also blossom. Government needs to do its own part, help to elevate standard of living. If the Nigeria’s standard of living is okay, we won’t be settling for anything less. This craze to buy pirated copy will reduce. There is another problem of lack of unity among filmmakers. People who pioneer things have always gotten it wrong because of their own selfishness. People who have taken the movie industry higher have messed it up. When I released Take Me To Maama with Coca Cola, I left filmmaking for one year. When people were collecting N400,000, I raised mine to N1m, you can ask, as a way to discourage anybody from disturbing me because I wanted to concentrate and make sure that Coca Cola would get the mileage and every kobo they invested in my movie. So we must be selfless when we get to such a point so that we can move the industry forward, and for the ones coming behind to benefit. In terms of solutions, we need to have a different orientation.
What are the major challenges you are currently facing as a top player in Nollywood?
There is a lull financially in every part of the world, and to execute some of those things because you need money to oil them, that in itself is a fundamental challenge. The bottom line is that the vision must be accomplished. It doesn’t matter how fast but how well. We have a couple of people who are talking with us because what we are talking about is global. Film is a communication vehicle. A lot of these brands don’t understand that we are a communication brand. A good Nigerian movie is seen by a minimum of 20-30 million Nigerians. That is good number for any brand.
As a famous entertainer, how do you cope with female fans?
When people call you doesn’t mean they want anything beyond friendship. A lot of them know that I am married. Even before I got married, most fans love what we do and they just want to appreciate you for what you are doing and not that they want to sleep with you or anything like that. They are just appreciating your effort in making them happy, making their family members happy and that you are doing your work diligently.
As a famous face, why did you opt for a quiet wedding?
We all have our styles. I usually don’t talk about my family as a matter of principle. It’s all a question of style. What is important is not how loud it sounds but how well it lived and for me I’d rather live it well than have it loud.
So, how are you coping and juggling married life with the showbiz world?
One is that I have not been shooting too many movies but basically I am a home guy. I am not your regular guy you see at the bar or clubs. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with people who patronize those places. It’s just that before and now, there is no difference because I am a home guy.
And how is fatherhood treating you?
It is a beautiful experience. When you wake up and see a life unfold in front of you, then you will understand the miracle of life. You then understand why God is unbeatable.
We would like to know more about your family background?
My name is St. Obi. I hail from Mbaitoli local government area of Imo State. I grew up in Jos, Plateau State. The Jos worldview is what I have so to speak. In Jos people are selfless, quiet, easy going, forget about what you see these days. It is quite a shame. All my life in Jos, there was no single violence. I left around 1996. I was born in Port Harcourt. I love what Amaechi and Ohakim are doing including Fashola. We need visionaries like these guys to run places.
I have 8 sisters. I am number seven down the line. When I was little, most of those female games, I did with my sisters as the only boy in their midst. The luck I had was that at some point, during my secondary school, something happened in my home and I realized, you are the man in this house. From that moment, the man ceased to play with the girls. I read Theatre Arts, served in Makurdi, myself and Gbenga Adeyinka were same set. I was the platoon leader. I played football (goal keeper) for so many years for Plateau state. I played division three back in the days. I am 6 feet, 2 inches tall. I’m not one of those people who claimed I am a sports man meanwhile they never saw a pitch. Then my sister said she would get me scholarship in America, I started playing basketball, it didn’t work out and I thank God, it didn’t. At that time stupidly I felt bad and I didn’t know that my old boy didn’t want me to go because I was the only son. My dad died
22 years ago. My mum is still alive. My biggest regret about my father’s death was that he didn’t see me get into the university. Just the year he died was the year I got into the university in 1987.
Do you intend going into partisan politics?
I don’t want any political office. I am a social crusader. I don’t want to see myself in politics. I want to see what I can do to better Nigerians because that is my major constituency and better humanity at large. My foundation. The St. Obi Foundation is coming very soon. There is so much to life. We are going to be dealing with life, children, social justice and all other good cause for humanity. I am also in the fight to change the Osu caste system in Igbo land. I have always say that if 80 percent of Igbos are Christians today the fact that the Osu caste system still exist, we should all hold our heads in shame because the Bible says ‘ love thy neighbour as thyself.’ Have we loved ourselves as our Osu brothers who by the way are Osu for no fault of theirs? The fact that you are on the other side of the divide does not mean that you made yourself at the other side of the divide. These guys find themselves where they are not by their own volition or making. It is like just the way you find yourself where you are. It’s just like whether you are a Christian or Muslim, we should have mutual respect. That you are a Christian today is 90 percent because of your parental lineage. When you see that man from Saudi Arabia why do you think he is going to hell because you are not seeing it from your own side? We should learn to tolerate one another as long as we all worship one God.
Tell us more about your life as a footballer
I love football. I think that the NBC have done a great disservice to this country by allowing the premiership on public TV. By bringing premiership to public TV, they’ve killed Nigerian football. It will take 50 years for us you wake up. We need to protect ourselves. We need to understand that we must build our own. You know the money people spend to get rights to show premiership? It is ridiculous. Today, you put Nigerian league, people just hiss. We need to regulate it. If you have your money to watch it, go and pay and watch but don’t bring it to public TV because people who are supposed to go and watch the local league will not go and watch it because they are getting something better and it shows the senselessness of some corporate bodies. I don’t know if some of our corporate bodies are suffering from inferiority complex. I stand to be corrected. I don’t know what it is that they are so crazy about out there. You go to India, they had Indian Idol, I didn’t hear any English song on the show. But here, the story is usually different. You can never be better than a fake imitation. So when some corporate bodies leave the things to support and begin to support mediocrity, it’s a shame not only on the people who are bringing the ideas but brands that are supporting these wishy-washy productions. Can’t we create our own? Must you always bear the imitation of other people? Once a programme is a hit overseas, somebody wants to suggest it here. Nigeria is a country of brilliant people, we can device and create our own ideas. In that vein, I think that some of these people in the corporate circle who are sponsoring most of these things, I don’t know if they are not seeing. But please channel your effort towards home. Let’s groom that which we can export. Till tomorrow, Fela is still selling; Sunny Ade is still selling because these are original Nigerians. You can never rap better than an American no matter what you do. Even when you go outside, you will rap within Nigerian audience. These are the realities. These are the hard truth. I feel very angry when I see some of our corporate bodies who ought to lead the way romancing mediocrity.
First published, June 2009.