Nollywood actor John Okafor, who is better known as Mr. Ibu, is the toast of filmmakers and Nollywood enthusiasts.
Famous for redefining hilarious imbecility, Mr Ibu is arguably one of Nigeria’s most successful comic actors in recent times.
A multiple award winner, the 55-year-old actor is also one of Nigeria’s highest paid actors. PREMIUM TIMES caught up with him in Lagos recently and had him speak about his career, marriage and humble beginnings.
PT: Did you originally set out to become a comic actor?
Mr Ibu: I will just say comedy found me and over time I have found that I can’t feature in a ‘serious’ role because my fans may consider it odd. I have always been interested in soap operas and that was what inspired my career. I played cameo roles in a TV series titled Hotel De Jordan. I was passing by the set when the crew beckoned on me to be a part of it.
My scenes lasted a few seconds and I also had minimal speaking roles, but it was a big achievement for me at the time. So, its safe to say I officially launched my acting career on December 3, 1978.
I also starred in two series, Ogbu Anyanwu, and Kwere Kira, which were shown on Anambra Broadcasting Service in the late 90s. All these roles stirred my interest in acting.
PT: What movie would you say gave you your big break?
Mr. Ibu: Funny enough I got my big break after I played an imbecile in the late Alex Ezeamaku’s 1997 movie, Agony. He was assassinated in front of his house and that was why we couldn’t shoot the second part of the movie. I acted alongside Pete Edochie in the film. Other films like Mr Ibu, Vuga and Uncle Wayward also shot me to prominence.
The first Nollywood movie I acted in was titled Rolling Stone and it was shot in Onitsha, Anambra State. The late Solomon Eze produced it. The onset of my Nollywood career was very tough. I recall having to trek from Ajao Estate to Festac Town in Lagos State for movie auditions and rehearsals on a daily basis.
PT: What is the story behind your moniker, Mr Ibu?
Mr Ibu: I have always been called Ibu from childhood. My grandfather bore the name too and I took after him. When we began shooting Mr Ibu in 2004, we titled the film John Ibu Okafor and after some time, we changed it from Mr. John Ibu to John Okafor. I later settled for Mr Ibu and the name stuck after the film became a hit. I inherited my comic side from my grandfather. He was a better actor, a better comedian than me. He died in 1971.
PT: Not many Nigerians are aware that you are an ex-boxer? Why did you quit boxing for acting?
Mr. Ibu: It’s because I didn’t tell them (laughs) I used to be a boxer. I was doing well as a boxer until I went for a championship in Delta State. I was badly pummeled during the fight that I could not even be recognised after the fight. I almost lost an eye because of the punches he dealt me. That was the incident that made me quit boxing. Aside from boxing, I’m sure that you don’t know that I used to be a football coach. I coached the national team of the Actors Guild of Nigeria for four years. I was also a Karate practitioner; I got my black belt in 1983.
I practised Shotokan Karate for 16 years and I was a member of the Karate Federation of Nigeria. I am the first instructor that taught Karate in federal government colleges in Nigeria. I taught Martial Arts at a Girls’ Secondary School in Onitsha.
PT: Why didn’t you follow through on all these sports?
Mr Ibu: I was more interested in acting and thankfully it has paid off. Acting pays my bills and that is why I have begun to diversify into other arms of acting and entertainment.
PT: Are you venturing into filmmaking anytime soon?
Mr Ibu: I am working on a movie, which touches on Xenophobia. The production has seen me visit Ethiopia, Botswana (Gaborone), Zimbabwe, Liberia, and Ivory Coast for fact-checking. I am going the extra mile because I want to find out the truth behind xenophobia. I employed a writer who is currently scripting the movie. It has taken this long because the writer is also travelling to these countries for fact-checking. The script should be ready by May. The cast would be drawn from Nigeria, Liberia, Kenya, Ghana and Botswana. The film would be shot on locations in South Africa, Kenya and Botswana.
PT: Anyone who follows you on Instagram can tell that you are very fond of your wife. How did you meet her?
Mr. Ibu: Before I married her, I used to be quite unlucky with women. Whenever I fell in love with a girl, other men would snatch her from me. I steered clear of women after my first marriage crashed. I had nothing to do with any woman for six years before I met my wife. She won the Face of Imo State competition in 2004 and I was a judge at the pageant. That was how our paths crossed. We got married in 2015. We have five children. My ex-wife had four children. My first son is married with children and that makes me a grandfather.
PT: Your wife is also an actress….
Mr Ibu: Yes, she is an actress and we both have an understanding, so find a way around our busy schedules. As such, we are rarely on set together else the home front suffers. I am also guiding and mentoring her in her acting career.
PT: Do you find it odd that many people rarely take you serious because of your comic roles?
Mr Ibu: A lot of people think I’m stupid and foolish because of the roles I play in movies. Even when I have something meaningful to say, people don’t take me serious as they think I am just being silly.
Some people also think that I’m an illiterate but that’s not true. Thankfully, although I was already a star when I met my wife, she took me serious when I proposed to her.
PT: Tell us about your educational background?
Mr Ibu: I attended elementary school and stopped in 1974. I went to secondary school in Sapele, Delta State. Before then, I attended the College of Education Yola, then Gongola State, but I dropped out due to financial reason. I attended the Institute of Management and Technology Enugu for my tertiary education.
I couldn’t study full time because my father died quite early and no one was willing to sponsor me in school. My siblings and I fed from hand to mouth. That is why I sold firewood and practiced as a hairdresser in Enugu. I was also a photographer and butcher. As an undergraduate at IMT, I worked in a crate Industry and also repaired refrigerators.
PT: Do you have any concerns about your industry?
Mr Ibu: Nollywood really needs to put proper structures in place so it can attract serious investors. Ours is a very lucrative industry with a potential to generate more money for the country than oil if it is well managed.
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