The transition of Onitsha market literature to home movies, By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Nigeria’s burgeoning home videos have driven Onitsha market literature underground

The market town of Onitsha earned worldwide renown when market literature was all the rage. Now that home movies have taken over, Onitsha has shot ahead as the centre of the booming trade. The remarkable transition from the scribal to the audio-visual model demands considerable attention. According to a study published by the British Library in 1990, Market Literature from Nigeria: A Checklist, there was zero publishing output in Onitsha as at 1949 when Lagos could boast of as many as 19 titles. By 1950-54, Lagos accounted for 30 books while Onitsha had only seven titles. From 1955 to 1959, Onitsha gained ascendancy with 56 books as against 31 from Lagos. In the boom years of 1960 to 1966, Onitsha published a whopping 411 titles while Lagos had only 65 books. Of course the civil war years of 1967 to 1970 dealt a heavy blow to the growth of market literature in Onitsha, but that is another story.

Onitsha market literature was made up of inexpensive booklets and pamphlets comprising genres such as fiction, plays, verses, current affairs, language primers, social etiquette, religious tracts, history, biography, manuals, collections of proverbs, letter-writing, traditional customs and, of course, money-making. There is actually a title How to get Rich Overnight by H. O. Ogu.

Colonialism and its education somewhat “opened the eyes” of the authors of the market literature. Some of the soldiers who had travelled to Burma and other sectors of the Second World War came back with exotic ideas. The economic prosperity that followed the war provided extra income for leisure reading. As large numbers of rural dwellers trooped to Onitsha, the book market shot up especially as there was massive expansion in primary and secondary education after the war. The Onitsha publishers made up of a close-knit group of families from some surrounding towns were in effective charge of apprenticeships, sub-contracts and agencies while organising the distribution of their titles to all parts of Nigeria and indeed West Africa.

Sales of the booklets ranged from three thousand copies per title to 100,000 copies for bestsellers such as Ogali A. Ogali’s play, Veronica My Daughter. Scholars and writers like Chinua Achebe, Emmanuel Obiechina, Ulli Beier, Michael Echeruo, Ernest Emenyonu, Ime Ikiddeh, Bernth Lindfors, John Reed, Alain Ricard, Adrian Roscoe etc. have written extensively on the Onitsha market literature phenomenon.

A quotable quote from one of the titles, from the recently deceased Ogali’s Veronica My Daughter, goes thus: “As I was descending from a declivity yesterday with such an excessive velocity I suddenly lost the centre of my gravity and was precipitated on the macadamised thoroughfare.” The next character then says: “I hope your bones were mercilessly broken.” The reply from Bomber Billy of bombast comes this way: “Don’t put my mind under perturbation!”

Some titles to remember

Some of the more prominent Onitsha authors and their titles include: J. Abiakam How to Speak to Girls and Win their Love; Cyril Aririguzo Miss Appolo’s Pride Leads her to be Unmarried; S. Eze How to know when a Girl Loves You or Hates You; Thomas Iguh $9000,000,000 Man still says No Money; Highbred Maxwell Public Opinion on Lovers; Nathan Njoku Beware of Women and My Seven Daughters are after Young Boys; Marius Nkwoh Cocktail Ladies and Talking about Love (with Mr Really Fact at St Bottles’ Church); Joseph Nnadozie Beware of Harlots and Many Friends; Raphael Obioha Beauty is a Trouble; Ogali A. Ogali Veronica My Daughter and No Heaven for the Priest; H.O. Ogu Rose Only Loved My Money  and How a Passenger Collector Posed and got a Lady Teacher in Love; Rufus Okonkwo Why Boys Never Trust Money Monger Girls; Anthony Okwesa The Strange Death of Israel Njemanze; Okenwa Olisah Money Hard to get but Easy to Spend and Drunkards Believe Bar as Heaven; Speedy Eric Mabel the Sweet Honey that Poured Away; Felix Stephen Lack of Money is not Lack of Sense etc.

It is worthy of note that Cyprian Ekwensi actually started his prolific career as one of the pioneer writers within the Onitsha Market Literature ambit. His two early titles published circa 1947 were When Love Whispers and Ikolo the Wrestler and other Ibo Tales.

Most of the Onitsha market authors were quite prolific, and they had many pseudonyms to accommodate the many titles coming from their ever flowing pens. Among the more prolific authors are Anorue JC and Okenwa Olisah.

The illustrations in the books are accompanied with full-blown moral instructions to help the reader along. For instance, an author that goes by the pseudonym of “Strong Man of the Pen” in his 52-page Life, Money and Girls turn Man Up and Down displays the picture of wretched man with the following words: “Life turns man up and down, my brother. Man falls several times before he becomes somebody. Some times, you will have no chop money and rentage fees and this will make your landlord to insult you every now and then. You will keep on borrowing money from friends and relatives. As you keep on borrowing the money, so will people talk about it in your absence, spoiling your name. You might have seen a man who owned a private car after some time could not own a common bicycle but later regained his riches after dramatic fall and rise.”

The attention that Onitsha Market Literature has earned across the globe is strongly underscored by the following excerpt from the treatment of Marius Nkwoh’s Cocktail Ladies by the Universityof Kansas, United States: “This pamphlet is compiled from broadcasts made by Nkwoh over the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation network. According to the introduction written by V. C. J. Mbah, these broadcasts, a combination of an editorial and a talk show, were deemed fairly controversial. Nkwoh’s positions on these issues, however, were considered to be well informed. Each chapter is a separate broadcast and the pamphlet’s title comes from the second chapter about ‘cocktail ladies.’ This broadcast discusses a group of women known as cocktail ladies, a class that Nkwoh purports to be career women who have abandoned the idea of marriage and live off of sugar daddies and big men. Nkwoh describes them as ‘human parasites, lazy drones, and good for nothings.’ (19) Deceived by feminism and the promises of a fleeting beauty, these women ‘infest’ every walk of life they now occupy. (22) Nkwoh points to feminism as the main culprit, for it misleads ‘cocktail ladies’ into thinking that women can and want to do everything that men do. (18) As a result, these women have become ‘birds of passage or changelings to every big man,’ according to the author. (21) In pursuing their ‘radical’ lifestyle, cocktail ladies contract diseases, lose husbands, serious boyfriends and jobs, and fail to play their true and proper role in society as dutiful assistants. Nkwoh explains, ‘Women are made to help and not to nag, sap or impoverish men. They should not be a burden, nor nuisance, nor articles of commerce. There is still plenty of time for our women to think twice.’ (24) However, he continues ‘they should now face the facts around them and consider their life past, now and to come […] Nobody can ever cheat nature . . . I am advising those of them that are youthful enough and still marriageable to go now and marry.’ (26) Other chapters include broadcasts about night marauders, hypocrites ‘in our midst,’ road accidents and superstitions.

Marius Nkwoh incidentally was among the early graduates of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

In the audio-visual age of today, what Onitsha has lost in market literature it has more than gained in the production and marketing of home movies especially at the celebrated 51 Iweka Road, Onitsha. The most famous address in Nollywood resonates across Africa and indeed the world. It is as though no home video comes out of Nigeria without the ubiquitous address on its jacket: 51 Iweka Road, Onitsha.

It used to be a house meant for the selling of electronics. Not anymore, for the rise of the Nigerian movie industry has meant a shift of focus by the importers of the electronics. The business these days is the production and marketing of home videos.

The building is some 60 metres long and three storeys high, with more than a thousand shops, mini-shops and sheds scattered across its entire length and crannies. Makeshift staircases lead to some of the shops in the backyard. The house belongs to the famous Modebe family of Onitsha, and a young member of the family was so full of joy introducing himself as the most prominent landlord of Nollywood. Crowded, almost bursting at the seams and stuffy, the house is definitely not an architectural masterpiece. A major tenant in the building, Ugo Emmanuel, a proprietor of Emmalex Associates Ltd (SEE BOX) comes to the building’s defence by stressing that the oyster that produces the beautiful pearl happens to be very ugly.

Chief Rob Emeka Eze, CEO of Reemy Jes Nigeria Ltd and chairman of Association of Film/Video Producers and Marketers of Nigeria, is a key player in the industry who made the successful transition from importing electronics into producing and marketing home videos. “Concentration of video producers and marketers is high in Onitsha but very understandable,” Chief Eze says, adding: “The majority of the materials needed in film are consumables of electronics. As an importer, most of my goods must first come here. Most of the investors are here.”

Iweka road migrates to home video

Onitsha, or more specifically, 51 Iweka Road has since become the major centre of the booming film industry of Nigeria. About 45 movies are produced in Nigeria every week, and 51 Iweka Road provides outlets for bulk purchases and retailing. An attempt by a group known as the Filmmakers Co-operative of Nigeria (FCON) to break what it called the monopoly of the likes of the key players at Iweka Road in film distribution did not yield much fruit. The group set up an elaborate marketing plaza in the heart of Lagos, but it could not rise up to the efficiency of 51 Iweka Road.

The key players, notably Chief Ossy Affason, Chief Rob Eze of Reemy Jes Production, Ugo Emmanuel and Alex Okeke of Emmalex etc. have a hand-on approach to the production and marketing of movies. Schooled in the workaday life of trading, these proprietors have established vital links in the trading chain across the nation which come I to ready use in the distribution of their films.

They almost always chorus that they need “an enabling environment” from the government for the production and distribution of films. According to Chief Eze, “The government can help us by making things easier for us. Once I applied a police helicopter for one of my productions and I was made to wait for six months without getting any helicopter. I went to Sierra Leone and it took me only three days to get it.”

He argues that the cancerous activities of the pirates can only be curbed by the government. “We hardly ever recoup our investment because of these pirates,” Eze says, adding: “There ought to be special loans for filmmakers at low interest rates. The funds ought to be easily assessed without bottlenecks.”

Even without the needed loans, the tycoons at 51 Iweka Road are not doing badly at all. Ernest Ezenweinyinya, a major fan of Nigerian home videos, says: “The tycoons at Iweka Road deserve all the credit for undertaking the bankrolling of Nollywood which has turned otherwise hungry Nigerian actors and actresses into big players in the money world.”

The strong republican spirit of the Igbo is generally said to translate to extreme individualism in business. This way, single proprietorship is almost always the line of business practice. Partnerships and joint-stock companies are said to be few and hardly ever successful. It is therefore quite exemplary to see the successful partnership Ugo Emmanuel Ikechukwu and Alex Okeke in the charged business sphere of Onitsha, especially in the competitive film market at 51 Iweka Road, Onitsha. The owners of the trendsetting Emmalex Associates Ltd teamed up in 1991 to found the company which takes its name from the combination of the names Emma and Alex.

Emmalex was registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission as a limited liability company in 1994, a year in which it also got its certificate from the National Film and Video Censors Board. The company started out as a movie distribution and marketing outfit before embracing core moviemaking in 1996 with the production of Compromise, starring Bob-Manuel Udokwu, Kate Henshaw and Sandra Achums. Emmalex has since produced about 40 movies, scoring its first major hit with the 1998 production of Confusion, starring Liz Benson, Kanayo O. Kanayo and Sandra Achums, which sold 150,000 copies in a matter of weeks.

Subsidiary businesses under the Emmalex Associates Ltd include: Emmalex Productions in-charge of story development, field production of movies and audio-visual promos; Emmalex Studios responsible for camera and edit studio rentals and sales of moviemaking materials; and Emmalex Consult for media and management consultancy services.

Sitting behind his work table at 51 Iweka Road, Ugo Emmanuel says: “We don’t like producing films for the sake of producing them. We insist on proper entertainment, education, information and morality. The message we put across enables us not to debase society. We are doing something we love, not for the money.” A stickler for discipline and professionalism in the film industry, Ugo stresses that many producers have complained bitterly about the indiscipline and lack of professionalism exhibited by many artistes. The much-advertised ban on some popular actors such as Richard Mofe-Damijo, Genevieve Nnaji, Jim Iyke and Ramsey Noah gets the following words out of the personable Ugo: “I don’t know about any ban. That word is alien to my ears. You can ban a product, not talent.”

He likens 51 Iweka Road to the ugly oyster that produces the beautiful pearl and argues that only the government can stop piracy. “It takes government to say that this thing will stop and it stops,” he asserts, adding: “In the Francophone countries you cannot try piracy.” He wants the video clubs to be regulated and to pay proper royalty, and maintains that on the average one video tape is watched by a thousand people.

That Emmalex is now a household name in the Nigerian film world is beyond question, but the young Turks behind the company remain as humble as when they started out in 1991.


1. Compromise 1 & 2

2. Irony

3. Closed Chapter

4. Confusion

5. Obstacles

6. My Cross

7. Chain Reaction

8. Not your Wealth

9. Crisis

10. Hit and Run

11. Cornerstone

12. Opportunity

13. Self Defence

14. The Suitors

15. By All Means

16. Dangerous Game

17. Sweet Revenge

18. Death Warrant

19. Rumours

20. Terrible Sin 1&2

21. Smooth Operator

22. Long John 1&2

23. Slow Poison 1&2

24. Amadi the Running Man

25. No Nonsense

26. God’s Money

27. Family Friend

28. Passionate Evil

29. Dangerous Affair

30. Mr Trouble 1&2

31. Intruder 1&2

32. Arrows

33. Living Dead

34. Indulgence & Heritage

35. King of the Jungle

36. My Desire

37. Annabel

38. Friends & Lovers

How Nollywood seized Onitsha

The Nollywood phenomenon being celebrated globally today started most inauspiciously. A few Nigerian dramatists and comedians in Lagos and Onitsha had recorded and sold some of their plays via the VHS format until the advent of the Igbo language home movie Living in Bondage which launched forth the revolution. At the heart of the making of that breakthrough film is the story and tenacity of one young man known as Okechukwu Ogunjiofor, popularly known as Paulo, after the character he played in Living in Bondage. Okey, that is short for Okechukwu, needs to be quoted at length on how Living in Bondage came about.

Here is Okey’s story: “I would want to start by saying that when I left TV College, Jos in 1987, one of the challenges I had then was that my parents were confused as to what I went to do in the university. I went to Jos because I had admission to study law. That year, on October 1st, we had a very terrible accident that left me in the hospital for eight months. I broke my legs, and so I was in the hospital when the others matriculated and it never occurred to my parents and uncles to go and defer my admission.”

The young Okey got out of hospital only to see that his admission to the University of Jos had lapsed. He had to do the JAMB University exams all over, and could no longer pass the exams. It was against this background of incipient failure that his uncle advised him to take advantage of the advertised Nigerian Television (NTA) College course on Television Production “instead of staying and wasting away at home.” He found his niche in the course, but had to make do with hawking at National Theatre in Lagos on completion of the course.

Other theatre artistes such as Frank Vaughan, Ruth Osi and Wale Macauley who were rehearsing at the theatre could not understand why he should be hawking after his training. The personable Ruth Osi gave Okey a note to meet Kenneth Nnebue who was into the marketing of Yoruba movies on VHS.

On meeting Kenneth Nnebue who would eventually provide the funding for Living in Bondage Okey said he needed N150,000 to be able to make the film. Kenneth told him that the amount was enough to make three Yoruba movies. The self-assured Okey instantly did an analysis of how Kenneth could quickly recoup his money on the investment. Kenneth then told Okey to bring along his certificate to prove that he was not some nobody. He went home and came back with his certificate. As Okey had said he was not willing to shoot on VHS, Kenneth told him he would make a trip to Japan to procure cameras.

Kenneth then told him to put the story together while he made the trip to Japan. Okey went back to the National Theatre, and began rehearsals without any script whatsoever. Okey who had been under the tutelage of the ace director in the NTA Chris Obi-Rapu could not but bring the great man into the project. Since Chris was still in the employ of the NTA he could not append his real name to the project.

According to Chris Obi-Rapu, “What made the Nigeria home video industry to take-off was the input from Okey Ogunjiofor and my direction. Nobody had wanted to do anything in Igbo or Yoruba among television producers around then because they felt it was degrading. There had been some shootings of Yoruba and Igbo videos. Mike Orihedimma recorded Igbo home videos in Onitsha, while NEK (Kenneth Nnebue) was recording and marketing Yoruba videos in Lagos. They were poorly produced and directed. It is a known fact in filmmaking that it is the direction that makes the film. If I had not shot Living in Bondage and Taboo there could not have been any Nollywood. This film business really took off because Living in Bondage was well shot as at that time. If I had not stood my grounds the financier could have influenced the production and direction in a negative way. I resisted him because I knew that he lacked the knowledge of filmmaking. It was a deliberate directorial effort that brought about the home video revolution. It was not accidental.”

The making of Living in Bondage, according to Okey Ogunjiofor, marked “the first time some people were paid in thousands of naira to act on a film. I got N500 because I had not made a film then. People like Bob-Manuel (Udokwu) and others were paid a thousand naira. As a producer and an actor, what I got was only N500.”

Okey stresses that the formula that pushed him on was that unlike in the western part of Nigeria where the Yorubas always went to the theatres to watch movies the easterners, especially the Igbo needed the movies to be brought to their homes. For whatever it is worth, the young man’s dream has materialized into a phenomenon that now holds the entire world in thrall.



Coronavirus factsheet


PT Mag Campaign AD

Support PREMIUM TIMES' journalism of integrity and credibility

Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.

For continued free access to the best investigative journalism in the country we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.

By contributing to PREMIUM TIMES, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.


TEXT AD: To advertise here . Call Willie +2347088095401...

BE THE FIRST TO KNOW! Subscribe to our newsletter

* indicates required


Now available on

  Premium Times Android mobile applicationPremium Times iOS mobile applicationPremium Times blackberry mobile applicationPremium Times windows mobile application

All rights reserved. This material and any other material on this platform may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, written or distributed in full or in part, without written permission from PREMIUM TIMES.