On Who Owns Nollywood And Other Pointless Debates
I’m almost certain there is someone (or a few people), wondering about my choice of subject matter. I can almost hear them saying: ‘How is this the most important thing to talk about now, what about so and so topic?’ Or ‘This is an old story, no one is talking about ownership of Nollywood anymore.’ Or the gaslighting experts who would turn around to blame me for being the one who’s divisive, just for bringing up this topic.
Ordinarily, I’d agree with those who feel certain debates/arguments should be rested after a decent amount of time, but Nigeria and Nigerians make this impossible to achieve. No thanks to social media and keyboard activists, tribal baiting is very much alive. This needless tribal ‘war’ usually happens (more often) between the Yoruba and Igbo internet warriors. These pointless and needless arguments or debates happen almost every other week.
I personally believe (forgive the tautology, it’s needed for emphasis) there’s a dedicated government agency somewhere tasked with the job of creating ‘catchy’ or itchy issues capable of getting people all riled up very quickly. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, but give it enough time, it soon becomes about which tribe is better than the other. Here’s a recent example: ‘Hausas have Dangote. Yorubas have Otedola. What do Igbos have?’ A version of this example happens regularly but this next example, even by regular standards came out of left field.
On November 1, 2023, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s grandson Omorinmade (Made) Kuti married his fiancée Inedoye (Nedo) Onyenso. It was a very beautiful ceremony, or I should say ceremonies. I followed primarily on Instagram. I started from the account of actress Kate Henshaw, Bff to mother of the groom, Funke Kuti, and dived in from there. In all, I enjoyed seeing young love blooming. Meanwhile, back on X (formerly known as Twitter) which might as well be on another planet, a debate was already in full swing.
One tweep said something to the effect that Igbo men don’t marry outside of their tribe, that only Yoruba men marry Igbo women. To which someone else replied that’s because Igbo men are the prize. Is the bride Igbo though? Her first name sounds like a Rivers State name so I’m not sure whether she’s Igbo even though her middle name is Adanne. That may not be the point for those who call everyone from outside the South-Western states ‘Omo Ibo.’
But even if Inedoye were Igbo, what has that got with the price of cooking gas or bread? First off, as an Edo woman married to an Igbo man, the narrative that Igbo men don’t marry women outside of their tribe is simply false. Even if it can be argued that it’s purely about Igbo men not marrying Yoruba women, my brother-in-law Emmanuel has been married to his wife Olabisi, a Yoruba woman from Ekiti State for over 25 years.
I get that these examples are neither of non-celebrities nor famous people. So, in my response to the Twitter (X) debate, I cited the examples of Emeka Anyaoku, former Commonwealth secretary-general, and Maj. Gen (rtd.) Ike Nwachukwu, Nigeria’s former foreign affairs minister.
Anyaoku has been married for over 60 years to his Yoruba wife Bunmi and, by the way, Ike Nwachukwu’s mother was Fulani from Katsina. This means that as far back as 1940 when Ikechukwu Nwachukwu was born, Igbo men were already marrying non-Igbo women. And in continuation of that tradition, Ike Nwachukwu’s son is married to a Yoruba woman. I could go on.
Now, let’s look at the reason for this piece. No, I hadn’t forgotten. The long back story was necessary to paint a picture of where we are now with needless tribal wars, or banter as some call it. Sometime towards the end of August of this year, Yoruba actress and scriptwriter Aisha Lawal was interviewed by The Tribune newspaper where she was asked if Yoruba films were playing catchup or words to that effect.
Her reply: “We own the industry. Go back to research. The industry belongs to the Yoruba people. If you go back to research, you will hear from people like Hubert Ogunde and Ade Love. I do not want to go into details. But, if you go and research very well, you will discover that Yorubas own this industry, we started this industry. We messed up at some point, but we are not playing catch-up. We are there already. Now, everybody wants to shoot a Yoruba movie.”
Expectedly, this generated a heated debate online. Just off the cuff, how does one “own” an entire industry? Although I do believe, depending on the original language which the journalist used to conduct the interview, some meaning may have been lost in translation (or transliteration). Then again, Hubert Ogunde and Ade Love (filmmaker Kunle Afolayan’s father) produced stage plays and made films on celluloid. While Ogunde, who died in 1990, was active as far back as the forties, Ade Love, who died in 1996, started his career in the sixties.
The journalist should have asked Lawal the following question, instead: What is Nollywood? First, let us be clear that Nollywood is not the same thing as the Nigerian film or cinema industry. Cinema in Nigeria predates Nollywood. And if we hearken to Lawal’s advice to “go back to research,” the first Nigerian feature film on record is “Palaver: A Romance of Northern Nigeria,” shot in 1926.
As the title suggests, that was in Northern Nigeria and in 1926, Hubert Ogunde was 10 years old while it would be 14 years before Ade Love, who was born in 1940. Despite concerted attempts to denigrate, rename and now co-opt Nollywood, industry watchers believe “Living in Bondage,” directed by Chris Obi Rapu and produced by Kenneth Nnebue in 1992, is the first Nollywood movie or home video. This is because it was the first pan-Nigerian home video, and it was in colour.
There had been a few other films in Yoruba language from the late eighties. Nnebue himself produced a couple of Yoruba films including “Aje Ni Iya Mi” (1989) for Ishola Ogunshola. According to actor Jide Kosoko, it was “Living in Bondage” which put the glamour in the industry then, and its commercial success only helped to attract many more people to the industry.
Nollywood also helped to revive many a dead career. That is another story. As for the name Nollywood, Norimitsu Onishi, a New York Times journalist, christened the then emerging home video industry Nollywood in 2002.
Quite a bit of the foregoing took some desk top research. Now here is some history I did not really need to research. I have been in journalism since 1987, first as a youth corper with The Statesman, published by Imo Newspapers and later became a full-time reporter with The African Guardian in 1989. I also have a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. All this to say that I am old enough to recall that in the beginning, some of those now claiming Nollywood wanted nothing to do with the name.
These people thought the name Nollywood was pretentious, uncivilized, even uncreative to have a name created out of Hollywood and Bollywood. A lot of respected statesmen granted interviews to denigrate Nollywood, which was seen as belonging to illiterate Idumota traders. Even though every ethnic group in Nigeria does trading, illiterate traders is like a shorthand for Igbo traders.
Then there were the cinema purists who insisted that what Nigerian filmmakers were creating in Nollywood was not films because they were not celluloid. I was on the set of the “Funmi Iyanda Show” on NTA as such a debate involving filmmakers Ola Balogun and the late Amaka Igwe raged circa early 2000s. Back then, my opinion, which has not changed, was that home videos as moving figures telling a story are movies.
So why is Nollywood suddenly attractive for the ownership claims? Nollywood success? The fact that anyone but the Igbos?
What came before the ownership claims were rebranding and renaming attempts. There was a time the craze was for certain people in the industry referring to themselves as New Nollywood. How else could those who consider themselves cinema royalty and better than the illiterate traders differentiate between themselves and the ‘usurpers? Meanwhile, claiming to be New Nollywood did not deter these people from going after benefits specifically meant for Nollywood.
At times like that, no one wanted to claim being new Nollywood or different. No one was too sophisticated for ‘awoof’ money. Case in point, Project Act Nollywood, initiated by the Goodluck Jonathan administration to give funds to selected film projects. We did not see the owners of Nollywood refusing the free money.
Just like the saying that success has many brothers, people have now moved from looking down on Nollywood to claiming its ownership. What is the special benefit of owning Nollywood? Why must anyone own an entire industry? Other countries are busy working hard to promote the film industry as their national pride while some Nigerians are tearing their hair over ownership.
It appears as if some people must belittle one ethnic group in Nigeria for another ethnic group to shine. This entire philosophy revolves around “My own is bigger, better than yours” which is a version of the “I better pass my neighbour” Face-Me-I-face-You lifestyle. But what are we really fighting over?
The tragedy in all this is that only a few people are benefitting from theses pointless debates.