BEVERLY HILLS, May 16, (THEWILL) – Bob Manuel Udokwu carved a niche for himself after playing a role in ‘Checkmate,’ a television soap that graced the screen in the 1990s. His impeccable role interpretation and acting skills made him to stand out in the movie industry. In 2014, he made a detour from the movie industry when he got appointed as the Senior Special Assistant to the Anambra state governor, Willie Obiano on Creative Media, (Movie/Entertainment industry,) a position he has pursued with vigor and enthusiasm. In this interview with Shade Metibogun, he speaks passionately about the state of the nation, the entertainment industry and sundry issues. Excerpts:
You once contested for a seat in the Anambra State House of Assembly under the All-Progressive Grand Alliance, but didn’t win. What happened?
The party’s leadership told me that of all the people aspiring for the position in my constituency, I was the best-known candidate. They said I was the best person to put forward because they knew I would make a difference. But I didn’t get enough votes to be given the party’s ticket. Those who pretended that they were standing with me disappointed me. So I picked up, dusted myself and moved on. The governor was magnanimous enough to return me to office because I was already an appointee of his government before the primaries. I had to resign my appointment to go and vie for the State House of Assembly ticket. Some political appointees did the same thing and were immediately replaced, but he was magnanimous enough to give me back my portfolio as the Senior Special Assistant to the governor on Creative Media (movie/entertainment industry).
How do you assess your tenure as SSA to the governor?
Prior to my appointment, entertainment was not given priority. What people used to know as the Ministry of Culture and Tourism was changed to the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Indigenous Art Works, Culture and Tourism, in order to encompass all the aspects of the creative industry. In 2017, for instance, (Easter Sunday to be precise) we had one of the biggest and innovative concerts ever in Nigeria. We had top -10 pop bands of the 1970s in attendance. They list included Sweet Breeze, One World, Apostles, Funkees, Aktion, Foundars 15, Wings, Semi-Colon, Soky Ohale and Dan Ian with Wrinkar Experience. They performed live at Ekwueme Square in Awka which is like the Tafawa Balewa square in Lagos, just for you to know how big the concert was. Most people don’t know that the pop bands of the 1970s are still alive and playing good music. They were all assembled in Awka to play on one stage. There have been many shows and events in entertainment that has been going on in Anambra State. A lot of entertainment hubs are springing up all over the state. There is a tremendous boost to the entertainment industry as practitioners and creative people of Anambra origin have since gotten busy.
Why haven’t you considered collaborating with the Actors Guild of Nigeria to produce great feature movies on Anambra State?
Anambra State is always in partnership with the AGN. Although movie making is a business venture, the government has also created an enabling environment for it.
You have been exposed to government and its activities. Will you say your perception of government and governance changed when you became an SSA?
If you are outside government circles and you are looking inside, you will have a different perception about governance. But when you are inside, you will begin to see the actual way that government machinery functions. That is why people complain about bureaucracy in government. For instance, if you are applying for financial assistance from government, it takes a long time because there are several huddles to scale. So many offices and officers are given the responsibility to handle your request. But in the private sector, once you meet the Chief Executive officer of an organisation and he buys into your idea, he would do whatever you want because he has the authority. He does not work for anyone. It doesn’t work like that in government. There are many checks and balances. I wish people can change their perception of government and governance. I wish they can understand that government work is not what you can achieve with the snap of the fingers. There is a processes to follow. Unfortunately, in Africa, it is slow and difficult to achieve results fast.
Many Nigerians believe that politics is dirty. Based on your experience, would you say this is true?
It is unfortunate that people say such a thing. Politics is not dirty. It is the people who engage in the act of politics that are, perhaps, dirty. There is always lack of trust among political actors. The human mind has a capacity for a lot of mischief. And like they say, you don’t have permanent friends or enemies in politics, only permanent interests. A lot of people are there for their own personal interests and gains. I have been there and I have witnessed that, first hand. People will speak with you in the morning and smile with you, telling you that you are the best; but before afternoon, they will switch over to another person entirely. I told you about what happened to me when I decided to vie for an elective position. That is a firsthand experience from people who pretended to be working with me. They may just be the people working against you. The experience gave me the opportunity to really prove that human beings cannot really be trusted. But it has made me a better person in terms of understanding how the politics of this country called Nigeria works. What I don’t like about Nigerian politics is the issue of unethical attacks on individuals. Those who feel you stand a better chance of succeeding will descend to the gutters. They make up all kinds of lies against you and in today’s world of social media, people can stay in one small corner of their room, cook up incredible lies against you and put them on social media. You know many people love bad news. If providence smiles on you and your trajectory in life begins to go up, nobody wants to see that. Even if you put it on social media, they will just look through and move on. But if there is tragedy or negative stuff about you, a lot of people will become excited. This is one aspect that I find unsettling.
If you have the opportunity, will you vie for an elective position again?
Of course, yes. You see, the people who are there are not better equipped educationally or more experienced than I am. The truth is that the process of selection of those who represent us in public life in Nigeria is seriously flawed. You find people, who are not competent enough to manage public affairs, I charge because they have the financial muscle to push their way through whatever means and foist themselves on other people.
Your appointment denied your fans the privilege of seeing more of you in the movies. Isn’t this true?
My appointment did not affect my appearance in the movies. My appointment came in 2014. By that time, decline had already started in Nollywood. Today, I wonder how many of my class, A-list movie celebrities, that you see in movies every time. Since the decline in movie productions, which is more noticeable now because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Nollywood practitioners have been out of work. Our job is a person-to-person job. It involves body contact and that is something to avoid due to the pandemic. It is only now that vaccines are available that people are beginning to produce movies again. Secondly, my portfolio in government is SSA on Creative Media, with emphasis on the entertainment industry. If I don’t go out there to know what is happening in Nollywood, how can I make an impact with that portfolio to actualise the vision?
What are your plans for the future now that your principal’s tenure will end soon?
My career is not tied to the government. It is the other way round. The governor realised the impact that I have made in my own industry (like other political appointees) and decided to make me a part of his government. Besides, I run away from discussing my plans and the things I do because we are in a society where people steal each other’s ideas without blinking an eye. I have done something like that before, revealed my plans for production and events that I wanted to handle and before you put your things together, somebody else is already running away with it! I don’t want to do that again. Suffice it to say, there is so much to be done both in terms of the creative industry and in terms of being part of the political establishment of my state and my country.
Would you say the changes that Nollywood has undergone between that period and now has been for good?
Nollywood is less than 30 years-old. I wonder why people compare it to Hollywood which is more than 100 years-old. There was no Nollywood when we started. It is the job that we were doing in the film industry of Nigeria that gave rise to that name Nollywood. If you talk about the early days of moviemaking like when we did Living In Bondage, Circle of Doom, Taboo and all that, things were done more professionally and a lot of people were involved in production. If they were not professionally equipped, they probably would have been attached to performing theatre groups and they would have been trained on areas like television production for a long time. So there was professionalism. Don’t forget that back then, there were no cell phones. But we were able to communicate with the production teams and all concerned. Things were done properly almost by the book. Unfortunately today, professionalism has been thrown to the dogs. All kinds of characters are now practitioners in the industry. You will find out that people long to see the people that were in the movie industry from the beginning. People looked at our films with nostalgia unlike what is happening today. The people you see in front of the camera today are hardly trained. They have no knowledge of script interpretation, character analysis, internalisation, lines delivery and vocal modulation, not to mention acting. These people go through all kinds of shortcuts to land roles on movie sets. You find people who didn’t go to school at all and they can’t read scripts properly. They can’t tell bad English from good English, yet you see them in front of the cameras. These are forced on the viewing public who really don’t have a choice or who may feel that they don’t have a choice.
I will also say that government has failed Nollywood in terms of support. When you hear that government wants to support the entertainment industry, it is on camera, television news and in newspapers. If they tell you that millions of naira have been earmarked for the movie industry, make an attempt to access the funds and let us see what happens. It is all talk and no actions. Making motions where there is no movement and so the public is left with wishy-washy productions. People are attracted to the industry because there are no jobs anywhere. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the entertainment business is not where you ask for certificates. It thrives on performance. Nollywood is being sustained, right from the beginning to date, by private entrepreneurs, businessmen and women who risk their personal money to invest in the film industry. Now they also have to look for profits. Therefore, if Bob Manuel Udokwu charges N1.5 million, for instance, for a film and puts up a great performance, all will be well and good. The same executive producer will look at using that sum of money to get five additional artistes and churn out a wishy-washy production just for his company to be seen as one that is still producing films. Who loses in the end? It’s the viewing public that is shortchanged. Even those younger ones who are coming behind, people with genuine talents, don’t see role models like us to help them to hone their own skills.
Comparing the industry in the early 1990s when we started till now, I see a huge gap. The quality of production, in terms of performance, has dropped. And that is referring to the human input. Now, in terms of technology, it has advanced so much. The quality of pictures that we have nowadays is great. There is state-of-the-art equipment, which doesn’t cost a lot of money, that is being used today in movie production and production of musical videos. In terms of technical input, Nollywood has come a long way. There is serious improvement technically.
How do you think some of these challenges can be tackled, with regard to artistic decline in the movie industry?
The answer is just to give core professionals the enabling environment and encouragement to bring in their training and experience and share it during production. That is all.
What happened to the reggae songs you once recorded through Orits Wiliki?
Music has always been part of me. It is just that people don’t know that aspect of me. Some of the songs were written a long time ago. When I checked through my song book, there were many that I wrote more than 20 years ago. I was beginning to make some consultations for the videos of one or two tracks when the lockdown came. That is what delayed the official release. It is something that has always been with me by nature. I am not one that talks about what I want to do. I just want people to see it when I do it. That is what performance is all about. It is performing art, it is not written and it is not learnt. If I had not done the recordings and I mentioned Orits Wiliki, people will be like “what is he talking about”? Last year, one or two DJ’s asked me to give them some of the recorded songs to play for my birthday and I obliged them. As soon as I do one or two videos, I will officially release the entire album.
Let us talk about the state of the nation. What is your view on recent events in the country?
I am surprised that my fellow entertainers are not speaking up. The country is gradually dying and if nothing serious is done about it, the country is moving irreversibly towards self-destruction. The bloodshed in this country is up to high heavens. How can anybody be talking about entertainment, sports or even any other field when the country is on edge? You can’t travel safely anymore to any part of the country through any means. Just one tiny ethnic group, incidentally where the President comes from, is terrorising the whole country. Why? And the body language of the Federal Government is to shield these people. If we can’t call them terrorists, the whole world has designated them as the fourth topmost deadly terrorist group in the whole world. I see that the country’s leadership and the northern elite are supporting these terrorists by their silence. It might be in the name of Fulani herdsmen or Boko Haram. Boko Haram is succeeding in their deadly mission to shut down schools through sheer terror. We were told that Boko Haram means “Western education is an abomination” in lslam. I have friends who are Muslims and they tell me it is not true. That aside, if that is actually the case in lslam, why is it that places like Qatar, United Arab Emirates, have become so advanced in western education and technology? What about Saudi Arabia, the birth place of Islam? Nigeria, a once promising country and the hope for Africa has allowed itself to descend to the level of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Somalia. Nigeria, due to bigotry, greed, nepotism and religious intolerance. The country has allowed itself to be overrun by Islamic terrorists and government seems to condone it. If there is no official connivance, why does the Army seem to be helpless against the terrorists? Once terrorists strike and kidnap people, they collect ransom and use the money to rearm and embolden themselves the more. More schools are shutting down in the North. Boko Haram is feeding on western education in this country. They kidnapped some students and demanded the sum of N100 million and 10 motor-cycles. What does that tell you? They will use the money to arm themselves and use the motor bikes to run through the bushes as they strike repeatedly. The cycle of violence, carnage, bloodletting and terrorism continues. If government officials are not complicit, how can you go to an educational institution, kidnap 300 students from their school and take them into the forest. With what means of transport? And there is not a single police or military check point on the roads? State governors have been attacked in the North. They have been attacked in the middle-belt. What else do we need to see to know that the country is under siege from bandits, criminals, armed herdsmen, or any other fanciful names that authorities have chosen to give them? When you say that government is failing, they will call it hate speech. Everyday people are dying in this country. Life has become too cheap and meaningless here. Nigeria is not officially at war with any other country yet we have so many internally displaced persons, refugees much more than when Nigeria fought Biafra in a civil war! What does that tell you? Why would anybody in 2021 desire to supplant people from their ancestral homes, hoist their flags and plant their own people, with the aim of having a jihad so they can force those people into their own religion? And somebody is presiding over it? When you say that some people in government are sympathetic to terrorists and terrorist groups, you are branded an enemy of government and they would send operatives of the Department of State Security after you. The economy has already collapsed. Playing the ostrich wouldn’t get us anywhere and pretending that everything is alright will only make things worse. Things are so bad and expensive; people are living below a dollar per day in a country that God has blessed with almost everything. Why would a sitting president in a country that is multi ethnic, multi religious as Nigeria find only people from his own part of the country good enough to work for the nation. Not just people from his own part of the country, but also people from his own ethnic group. You can’t beat a child and ask the child not to cry.
What do you think should be done differently?
The president knows what to do. We all know what is right and what is wrong. Let me tell you, what we have now is military dictatorship in civilian clothing. There is no difference. I was a teenager when the current president shot himself into power through the military. I was aware of what obtained then. This time around, some of us thought that he would make tremendous difference and write his name in gold. Solutions have been proffered; the man knows what to do. There is an agenda which he is championing. Nigeria under his leadership is moving very fast towards self-destruction. We are not fighting any external enemy but today, Nigerians are more impoverished than during the civil war. Things are very tough for even the rich, not to talk of the poor. If I have the opportunity, I wouldn’t employ only the people from Anambra State in my cabinet. I wouldn’t employ only my relatives in my government. I wouldn’t send people to speak in favour or defend those who have been accused of showing sympathy for terrorist organisations. I wouldn’t tell people to live peacefully with those who come at night to murder their people and set their home ablaze. Those are some of the things I would do differently.