Kenneth Okonkwo is a name to be reckoned with in Nollywood. He was brought to the limelight after featuring in the movie, ‘Living in bondage’, which also marked the turning point for the Nigeria movie industry. In this interview, he talks about his life as an entertainer and a lawyer as well as the need for good governance in the country.
You are an inspiration to many. Being a lawyer and an actor what was growing up like? - Growing up was basically academics and entertainment. I come from a family that places a lot of premium on academics, for my father you must go to school. We also had the freedom to engage in any kind of sports we like. So my growing up was a football thing, it was a table tennis thing and it was an academic thing. My father was particularly interested in my academic life and I think he reaped a lot of dividends from that.
By the grace of God by the age of 21, I had already graduated from the University of Nigeria Nsukka. I was the best graduating student in business management. As a matter of fact the University of Nigeria gave me a certificate for academic excellence. I went back to school after my first degree, because I was too young to claim that I had graduated. I accumulated almost about five degrees.
Apart from the business management, I had gone to a school of theology and I have my master in international law and diplomacy. Am a lawyer now. So what ought to be my passion became my purpose at the same time. Entertainment was my hubby and I wanted to be a professional - both worked. My play as an entertainer has worked, that graduated me into an actor and my academic works graduated me to an executive and a learned gentleman.
What made you to go into Nollywood? - While I was growing up, I and my elder brothers, we played a lot, we went to school and we played. So entertainment was part of us. I would read and after reading I will go and unwind I had that passion to ease up tension especially the one that comes from condensed reading. So what made me to get into Nollywood was that I was passionate about entertainment. I knew the flare was in me and I do not like to be serious hundred per cent of the time.
Even while I was in the primary and secondary schools I was in drama clubs, and also when I was growing up, people started noticing the way I talk, gesticulate and walk. They told me that I could really do well as an actor. But when I got to the university I wanted to make good grades because I was told that the first grade is very important in ones life. So my first four years in the university, I spent it on my academics. But immediately I stepped out of the university I went back to the movies.
So when I was at the NYSC orientation camp, I remember being the first person that opened the drama session with the song ‘old pirates’ by Bob Marley. After my service, I went to NTA to audition for the soap, Ripples and based on my talent, a role was graciously created for me to act amongst their best stars that included Keppy Ekpenyong and Barbara Soky. From there I was invited for the role in living in bondage and that was how I went into Nollywood.
Which movie would you say is the most challenging to you? - You know that living in bondage practically started Nollywood. The challenge has been there from day one and then after living in bondage successive movies were originating a whole lot of things in Nollywood. Taboo was very challenging, I think that was the movie that introduced songs into Nollywood when we did "ije nwa malu obi m", so every of my movies had its own peculiar challenge.
When I read your script, if it’s not challenging I wouldn’t do it in the first place. So I cannot tell you this one was more challenging than the other but it is important to know that living in bondage, being the first, had its own peculiar challenges. You had no body before then to teach you what to do.
How would you describe the industry back then and the industry now? - There is no reason for comparison because back then there was no industry, there was no guild for actors in Nollywood, there was nothing. Living in bondage gave birth to Nollywood and all the associations that are related to Nollywood. So what you can ask is what progress has been made? When we started we were shooting on super VHS but today we are shooting on cinema cameras, and some very powerful cameras, technology has improved. We now edit with digital devices not analogue devices.
And today, there are many movies unlike those days when there were very few home grown movies. The tree has grown to have more and bigger branches and they are accommodating more actors, actresses, marketers and producers. So it’s all good.
So what would you say are the challenges facing the industry? - Basically piracy, where your intellectual work is not secured. A lot of people who would have loved to invest are not investing. This is because they are scared that their investment may go into the hands of thieves. So the basic challenge is that of piracy and unfortunately you cannot take laws into your hands. So the duty to fight piracy is primarily that of the government. If the government is not doing what they ought to do then we are crippled. Infrastructure is another problem we have.
The problem with not having light is not just that you will incur alternative cost, of diesel or fuel, you also have the cost of environmental noise to contend with. When you go to a place to shoot movie and you are using somebody’s house and there is no electric supply. And the man just brought his sick elderly mother from the village, you cannot tell him to switch off his generator that’s why you hear a lot of background noise in most Nollywood movies.
Similarly, you cannot tell the producer that hired camera and equipment not to shoot for that day and maybe you have established to use that particular place. So you are now compelled to manage the noise coming from the generating set. That’s why infrastructure is really very important. Apart from piracy and infrastructure, you will discover that technologically we need to bridge the gap. We are advancing but compared to Hollywood, we are still far behind.
Of much worry is the recent unhealthy development of our artistes being kidnapped. This makes you not to be as mobile as you ought to be. Because when you go to the real environment, it helps you to interpret your role but when you are scared of going on location for fear of being kidnapped you will now be managing makeshift environment and that also poses some challenges to Nollywood. And you know the primary duty to protect our lives falls on the government, so the security situation has to be improved.
I know I enjoyed film shooting in Jos. When we shot one movie in Jos, it was such a wonderful place. I always love going to the mountains to see the dew coming down looking like white vapour. And I would feel so cold. I so liked it. But now when I hear about what is going on in Jos, my heart skips. And I remember the title of the movie we did then; ‘greatness’, how can such a great city like Jos collapse because of insecurity.
What would you describe as the turning point in your life? - Academically, when I graduated from the university, but the real turning point was living in bondage. The title of the movie was living in bondage and thank God I was delivered even in the movie because my life turned after the movie all doors were opened for me I became protocol free. Because of this movie everybody is running after me to hear what I will say, if my turning point is living bondage? Can you imagine such favour that God has put in my life that historically you will be reckoned with as the first person that acted the first movie that started Nollywood.
You can’t ask for a better award in a country that has 160 million people so my turning point is actually living in bondage. People regard living in bondage as the first movie that started Nollywood because it is the first movie that awakened the consciousness of people that now we have arrived. I really feel privileged and I think that is really my main turning point.
What stirred your career in law? - When I was a child my father wanted me to read law or medicine. So the spirit of law has always been hunting me. I was good in the art and I was good in science but I choose social science. I entered for business administration as you can see there is always a business angle to what I do. So I finished my business administration and became an actor, my family was still drumming it into my ears that I am supposed to be a lawyer.
As a matter of fact my elder brother is a lawyer and my younger brother is a lawyer, we are actually five lawyers in my family, from the same womb. When I went to University of Lagos to do my master in international law and diplomacy, that was when I was exposed to law. After that, I applied through direct entry to study law and I was granted admission. So I read law and finished.
What was the reaction of the judges when they saw you in their law court? - Judges are very conservative people, but some were very open about it. They started questioning me about living in bondage right in the court. Some will warn me that they hope we are not shooting movie in the court. Some lawyer, at the initial stage couldn’t believe it so it was a funny experience but a very wonderful one.
Whenever you are in the court people will want to hear you out, to know what you have to offer in law. They will want to know whether people in the entertainment industry have something in their head or just entertainment. All those inquisitiveness gives you the opportunity to show who you are. It gives you a wider horizon to operate in.
You are not just a lawyer but also a public analyst, what do you have to say about corruption in Nigeria. Has it ever been so bad? - You should rejoice that corrupt people are being exposed. Before now we had greater corruption but nobody was exposing them, nobody was talking about them. Lawan Farouk, from what I heard is involved in 6,200 dollars (about N3.2 million) graft, then Charles Soludo,what I heard they said N750 million scam, people are talking about them.
During military regime you heard about that over $4 billion was stolen by the self-styled maximum ruler, and who talked about it. It only came to the fore just before he died suddenly. That means people before him may have stolen more and nobody talked about it. So we should be grateful that we are now in a country where it can be talked about, that they are being exposed does not mean that it is worse today than yesterday. As a matter of fact it means that it is getting better. Because a problem well defined is half-solved.
So even if today the state we are in is exposing corruption, it is still movement because as a way of life a lot of people will not want to be indulged because they won’t want there name to be smeared, even if they are going to be freed legally. Because you and I know that to be freed legally does not mean you are not guilty in the court of public opinion. So as a matter of fact it is a thing of joy that corruption is being exposed now.
Amongst all the anomalies that our society is facing, corruption is the worst. We all know that the problem of corruption in Nigeria is persisting because it moves from the leadership down to the followership. Permit me to say that I have a hero called Muhammadu Buhari, the reason being that for a man to have held the office of chairman of PTDF, minister of petroleum, former head of state in a country that is adjudged one of the most corrupt, and he finished serving in all these capacities and came out publicly in tears to say that he has never taken any one kobo of money that belongs to the public and nobody has been able to prove him otherwise, he is a man that should be my hero.
In fairness to him, when he was the head of state, corruption went on an endurance trek out of Nigeria. Within a year plus, we were exporters of oil, you can imagine the volume of oil we are importing today. Within a year plus 95 kobo was equating to a dollar, within a year plus we were queuing up to get anything we want, under war against indiscipline. That means if we can get one person like Muhammadu Buhari, it is possible that we can take away corruption. So as long as the leadership remains corrupt, corruption will be difficult to fight.
The people that are being exposed now are leaders, heads of parastatals they are heading or have headed, Farouk Lawan is the chairman of the probe committee, the highest authority of that probe committee. Soludo was the governor of central bank. So obviously when the leader is not corrupt, it trickles down to the follower. If the leader is corrupt it trickles down to the followers.
For crying out loud, I do not hold the business community responsible for corruption. No they are playing by the rules if there is corruption in the country and it is not being addressed by the government, what it means is that it becomes an unwritten rule in that line of business. So if you are not playing by that rule you will get out of business. So business community cannot be held responsible for corruption.
Why is it that the same corporation that operates in Nigerian and joins the corrupt system, will operate in other climes like the Unites States, Europe and will not be corrupt? - All these multinational oil companies, they maintain a higher standard when they are operating outside Nigeria but when they come to Nigeria they don’t. I want you to understand that the business community operates within an environment, so it is either you follow the environment or you drop out of the environment. So if our leaders decide today not to be corrupt, Nigeria will not be corrupt.
What would you say is your most outrageous experience with your fans? - I think one thing that made me to stop entering Okada was one time I was on Okada and a fan that got so excited about seeing me pulled me down from an Okada. So I stopped entering Okada since then. So such attitude also made it hard for me to enter public transportation.
And your fans don’t want to know whether you are in the mood or not. Another experience was in Lagos, I was driving and another driver on the road drove so ungentlemanly.
I forgot who I was and I drove my own Lagos style for him, then the man came down from his own car and came knocking on my glass with a smiling face.
I wound down my glass and he said "Andy, you didn’t do well," then ranted in vernacular "O anyi yiba ala isolukwuanyi yiba ala," meaning: "If we are running mad will you also join us in running mad?" I have always wanted to be as natural as I was before living in bondage but from that day I realized that I can no longer be.