Kenneth Okonkwo is best known for the major role he played at the age of 24 in ‘Living in bondage’ which is acclaimed as the first home video to birth Nollywood in Nigeria. Since then, he has starred in numerous movies, which he confided in PREMIUM TIMES that he has lost count of. But there are other ‘caps’, many of his fans, perhaps, do not know he wears.
Apart from being a trained lawyer, Mr Okonkwo also holds a degree in Business Administration and a Masters in International Law/Diplomacy including a post-graduate in Theology; though he prefers to call himself a minister of the gospel. A columnist with Sun Newspapers, an entrepreneur, film producer, preacher and public speaker, he also delved deep into politics in 2018 when he declared his intention to run for the position of governor in Enugu State.
In this interview, the 52-year-old veteran takes readers through his journey into stardom, views on current national matters of discourse which span politics, law, economy, Nollywood and his plans for the future. Excerpts:
PT: A long way from when you played the role of ‘Andy Okeke’ in the movie, Living in Bondage in 1992. How would you assess your personal and industry growth?
Okonkwo: It has been phenomenal. It is always a beautiful thing when you do your first job, and people are saying it is the best. These are things only the grace of God can do. You make a movie and everyone who has come across it is saying it is good. It is like going back to sleep overnight an ordinary person and waking up a superstar. The transformation is very phenomenal.
Professionally, it is funny that all the areas I have been in are all conservative areas. I was trained as an executive gentleman through the study of business administration at the University of Nigeria. I was trained as a learned gentleman from the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos. I was trained as a diplomatic gentleman through my masters in International Law and Diplomacy. I was trained to be a reverend gentleman through my exposure at the Bible School (Theology). The theological aspect is more about knowing about God and divine things. I do not like to be a pastor.
Somehow, when you have made a name, anything you subscribe to, people would want you to come and tell people your experience in that field. They believe that it could change some minds and that is how I started preaching. When people learnt that I am born again, they started inviting me. No matter what I tell them, they say no, even if you tell us your experience, it is a preaching on its own. That is why I prefer to be called an evangelist. You can also call me a minister of the gospel. Minister being a ‘servant’.
PT: You were never trained as an actor, formally, like many of your colleagues. Kindly share that aspect of your life.
Kenneth: On the issue of acting, that is purely a talent thing. I was not taught to act formally. Of course, in primary and secondary schools, we had acting clubs, dramatic clubs, etc. They take you because the thing (talent) is already in you. It was not done formally. Basically, it is a talent thing, I was born with it. When I was growing up, people were looking at me: the way I talk, the way I gesticulate, the way I walk and they were telling me I am an actor. So, they stand to watch me even before I appeared in a movie. I was already acting even before I took my acting professionally. That is why when people see me today, they think I am a professional actor trained in the best schools in the world. No, it is a gift from God.
PT: You left out your thoughts on the phenomenal growth of Nollywood…
Kenneth: I believe it is only God that has the power to create something out of nothing. Before we entered the movie world, there was no movie industry in Nigeria. People were doing a wedding kind of movie where they use wheelbarrows as cars as a form of comedy. They were using VHS. There was no movie industry at all. The mindset of people then was that whoever was in the movie was someone who couldn’t make it well in life especially in academics. It was not a respected profession then. People looked at comedians then as jesters. Parents were not encouraging their children to read theatre arts or to go on TV to act. The females were regarded as prostitutes, if they chose to go that route.
For me I didn’t see it that way because I knew it was in me. And I had gone to study one of the finest courses so people couldn’t say it was because I couldn’t go to school, that was why I was in it. University of Nsukka then even awarded me a certificate of academic excellence…
We all started with opera then. When I was done with my schooling then, it was only one opera that was on the network then. No network service then. When you show it, the whole world will see. I had already boasted to my people that I would appear on TV. I also told them that I was not going to appear on any opera that was not network. We had Ripples then. There was this nice opera- Checkmate, but they had issues with NTA. So, by then, when I came on, they had already started syndicating, it was not like opera. So, it was only Ripples. I went for the audition. I went to their office and told them I was an actor and wanted to act. I was invited to their audition; they gave me a script and I acted and they said wow. So, in order to retain me in Ripples, they created a role for me. It was three years on then on the network and I acted with their best staff: Barbara Soki, Keppy Ekpeyong, etc. And I was Capt John Mark, I remember. Chico Ejiro (prolific director) was a younger guy then. That was how I struck a chord.
People didn’t know how close I was to Chico. Then he was an undergraduate. He was the one that used to bring information to me in school about opportunities personally because then there was no GSM…
PT: Tell us more about the legendary ‘Living in bondage.’
Kenneth: When they were doing Living in Bondage, they invited every actor on TV and every other person who could speak Igbo to the National Theatre because the movie was in Igbo. Every known actor then was invited. We were all given scripts and we acted. At the end, the man (director) felt I was the best and I was given a role. The man never met me before. He was a perfectionist, dedicated to excellence. He looked at me and said to us ‘when I was writing the script, it was this guy I had in mind, call him Andy’. That was it.
The man was so foresighted, he went abroad and brought in a new set of equipment that had never been used. So, we migrated from the ordinary VHS to the Super VHS. When the super VHS came in, it was a set of equipment Nigerians had not seen. So, it was a high level of quality. People saw it and said wow. Because it was good in pictures, artistry, delivery, props, costumes, location and everything that makes a movie superb to meet up with international standards then. They saw this for the first time with the Super VHS. Then we were shooting in ‘U-matic’ which when you finished then, you converted to VHS and U-matic was of low grade and when you convert, the quality would still drop, but now we were shooting on Super VHS. Then we were getting the quality direct. Immediately the movie came out, we shook the world.
Let me tell you why I will always love Nigerians. It was due to that movie. This first movie that came out was not subtitled in English. It was shot in Igbo language. When it came out, there was a national cry about the movie. Hausas, Yoruba, Fulani, everybody loved it: in the raw Igbo form. They then insisted we must subtitle it so they could understand the ‘ingredients’. Then it was taken back to the studio and subtitled. It now came out again and struck a cord with everybody. It became a Nigerian thing. People never remembered it was originally shot in Igbo. See why I will always love Nigerians….the spirit of excellence is the antidote that destroys every primordial sentiment. That was what happened with Living in Bondage and that is why it is still regarded as the first movie acted in Nollywood.
It was after that that the industry started growing phenomenally. It was now seen as an industry that could also become a commercial success. It started attracting investors from other areas and when competition steps in, you will discover that people will start inventing and creating. Other players stepped in. NTA had a monopoly then. Licensing private broadcasting was not available then. But people could be in their homes then and through the home video be entertained.
I remember in Ikeja, one theatre I went to then, you know what was pasted at their entrance then? ‘Local videos not allowed’. Within a few years, that changed. Living in Bondage destroyed the appetite of Nigerians for foreign movies.
PT: Is Nigeria currently exploiting the economic benefits in the Nollywood industry?
Kenneth: No, we are not, like we are not in other areas. Can you imagine the level of poverty in Nigeria? A nation that has gold, oil, and others. A nation like Rwanda, about 20 years ago, experienced slaughter and from the ashes of that genocide, by mere leadership, they are today reckoned as one of the best nations in Africa, a tiny landlocked nation that was hopeless. Compare this with Nigeria, with abundant human and natural resources. You are not tapping all and you are poor. And the few you are tapping you are wasting it. The evolution of oil is the greatest example of our leadership failure.
Oil alone, even by comparative advantage, was enough to make every youth a millionaire. Have you ever imagined what we would have gained if we had been refining our oil and selling to others? But the government cannot even build and maintain a refinery on the product you have and you are buying the refined product of the raw material you sold. And people are smuggling the one you imported to the borders. When you could have been refining it and providing jobs for the people refining it and exporting it, earning foreign exchange which would have made your currency the most powerful in the world.
There is no secret to a strong currency. A strong currency is predicated on a strong economy. A strong economy presupposes a productive industrial base and a steady export market. Nigeria has all these things and would have been the number one country in the world.
I now make a comparison with Nollywood. We did not need to excavate minerals. We did need raw materials. It was simply creativity. 100 per cent Nigerian and the whole world is jumping up. You can imagine if we put in that zeal into the things that God has given us. For Nollywood, we just exploited the abundant human resources and in Nigeria alone we were able to create millionaires without exporting to other countries. The world will demand, your own is to supply. In Nigeria, for you to understand the challenges, in your laws, you monopolise everything, when you know you cannot manage it. You monopolise the oil and say individuals cannot refine when you know you cannot. You monopolise telecommunications, you remember the NITEL days when you know you cannot manage it. You monopolise the airlines, broadcasting etc.
Nigeria started breathing when it adopted liberalisation and commercialisation as a major policy of governance. If we do this in all our sectors, all our problems will be eliminated. The problem of Nigeria is the government, not the people. Our problem is leadership and we need a radical change.
PT: In one of your recent public statements, you said ‘no Nigerian has any reason to be poor.’ Can you shed more light on this?
Kenneth: Not even in the range of it (poverty). Not even in the neighbourhood of it. Many youth who followed in my footsteps in Nollywood are not poor today. The government is not doing anything for them. If we had been refining all the oil we excavated in the Niger Delta, do you know how many people would have escaped poverty. Can you imagine if we had maintained security in the north and many people are farming, how many people will remain poor? Is it because the farmer is not giving his balance sheet and looks dirty (that you think he is poor) Why is it that we have never had food shortage in the past or food skyrocketed then with massive importation? This was because the farmers were going to farm and were not affected by international prices.
No matter how the leadership was doing before, we never had a food shortage. But now that they have failed to provide security, we are beginning to sense food shortage. Any government that does not address the problem of food shortage has no business being in power. Food is primary…
PT: How will you assess our electoral cum political process and ongoing secessionist agitations?
Kenneth: We just need one person, just one person to make a change, and ‘these’ will be making incremental changes. Our general election is not what it used to be. It is improving. From where I come from, they say when bad things last for one year, it becomes a culture. So once that bug… Nigerians know how to catch a bug, once they catch it, it becomes phenomenal. You can see a lot of agitators now and they are becoming more enlightened than in 1966 when they would only be talking about going to war. Now people say let’s go to the table and they will present superior reasons.
That is why I like what the southern governors did, beautiful. That is why I said incremental changes. If you destroy the whole foundation, what can the righteous do?
In a democracy, the more the merrier, united we stand. You negotiate, you dialogue and if you want to win anything, the secret is simple. Cohesion among your own people and collaboration with other people. The south will perpetually remain in the minority if they do not cohere. Even when they come together, they are still in the minority compared to the north. Then you can imagine when they are divided. The opposite of the north is not east or west, the opposite is south. So, if the south will not come together, let them not complain about being ‘democratically inferior.’ It is about numbers. I like the issue of rotation (of power). Not that it is ideal but it is ideal for our time.
On agitations, what is one of our problems? Suspicion of domination. Democracy is built on agitations. Every major progress in America was done through protests. So, whoever says you should not agitate is telling you to carry guns. Agitations are good things. The head of state is only one person. There is no way he would know the culture of more than 500 ethnic groups. Agitations would make him more knowledgeable about the culture of those he governs. He would know what are their grievances and even know if those giving him advice are giving him the right advice. What we are just saying is that there is a democratic way to agitate. Keep within it. And if the law is what is the problem, use the democratic way to change the law.
PT: What do you think of those asking that 1999 constitution be jettisoned for effective change and not amended as being done currently by the lawmakers?
Kenneth: First, let me say anyone who says the 1999 constitution does not need to be amended is not honest. Anyone who also says it has to be discarded before we can have solutions to our problems is still not being honest. If we had men of integrity, 1999 (constitution) contains some of the best sections. Let’s talk about the federal character. Are you saying if any Nigerian leader had been operating the federal character principle as the constitution says, there would be agitation at all? There would be none.
The constitution says to share equally among the federating units every post. And it mentioned it whether military, political, elective, appointive, it mentioned it clearly. Do you know that the constitution also tells political parties that their officers must reflect two-third of all the federating and geopolitical units? Two-third of elective posts. It’s clearly mentioned zoning and rotation.
Do you know that INEC has the right to make (enforce) laws to ensure that we have internal democracy in parties by the 1999 document? 1999 constitution wipes out every form of discrimination and domination, wiped it out completely. So, telling me you can’t start with such a document is telling me that if you have the best document in the world with this crop of leaders who don’t have integrity, that automatically it would change Nigeria. If you like, have the best constitution in the world, if we don’t amend our character first, we are going back to zero.
PT: What changes would you like to see in that document?
Kenneth: State police. It is imperative; this is because ‘each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it’ (Frantz Fanon). The federal government cannot obviously manage the insecurity problem. This is because you are talking of the IGP being the only power to oversee (curtail) all the criminals and all the policemen in Nigeria. But when you have state police, you now have about 36 or 37 independent policing organisations fighting crime. You will wipe out all these criminal elements within a month. Because they (governors) know where the thieves (suspected criminals) are. If you go to any governor, they will tell you where they (suspects) are but they don’t have what it takes to go and take the thieves out.
PT: And the governors would not abuse the new powers?
Kenneth: No, that is why I said Nigerians are getting enlightened. It would be abused. There would be a possibility that the state police will be abused but you have powers to seek redress if it is a governor who abuses it. The abuse we are going through now through banditry and other crimes is much more than the abuse we will ever go through under state policing. Some of the governors are going to abuse it but the people will checkmate them.
Also, INEC should conduct all elections including local government elections. Then separate the account of the local governments completely. Of course, the judiciary should be truly independent which is already reflected in the constitution. Any issue of hindering INEC from determining its procedure in terms of election modalities defeats the whole idea of the independence of INEC which the constitution guarantees. INEC should decide the mode of voting at each turn of events that suits the situation…
PT: What is your view on the controversy surrounding the recently PIB especially the 3 per cent allocated to host oil communities from projected revenue and 30 per cent to frontline basins?
Kenneth: I am from Enugu state. It is not an oil-producing state. So, the state is at a disadvantage like any other state in Nigeria. There is not even a prospect now that I know. Perhaps Anambra… The issue of 30 per cent earmarked for exploration for me, with due respect, is a fraud. For a Nigerian to contemplate that, it is either the Nigerian is not living in Nigeria but living in one utopic place. My first question is why make it a law? This is something that could as well have been a policy. And when it is a policy, an internal matter within the company, then it must not be done when it is not convenient. If it is a policy and you earmarked this amount this year and you did not realise it, you roll it over to next year. If it is a law, you must abide by it whether you like it or not.
In Nigeria, where people know how to steal money, with great respect, this is the kind of law they like because you have the opportunity to dive into the money. Even when there is no viable place to explore (for oil), they create such a place in order to get the money. You see why it is a fraud. It is a fraud. It is not meant to help the north, the south, it is not meant to help them. Nothing in the law stops a (oil) company, if they see a viable place, to go for it. You just need a board meeting and showing the ‘ogas’ the viability of such a thing so why make it a law? It is a fraud, a dangerous one.
Second, is it not laughable that you are debating whether you will give someone 3 or 5 per cent on the one that you are seeing, a place where oil is already being gotten and you know the environmental degradation there and you are debating whether you will give the communities 3 or 5 per cent.
And the one you are not seeing; you are appropriating 30 per cent. Assuming without conceding there are even patches of oil there (basins), what is the future of hydrocarbons? The one you are producing now, are you selling all? When there is oil glut, you talk about reducing exports. The world is trying to rule out hydrocarbons, as a source of energy. Electric cars are being considered globally and you know if we also go into the production of electric cars, there will be an oil glut. And you are talking of 30 per cent to search for oil and the one you have; you have not maximised. And you are a poor country borrowing to do everything. And you are earmarking 30 per cent to begin to search for oil when you are not lacking oil. It is a fraud. On the issue of 3 or 5 per cent, it shouldn’t even be debatable…five per cent should be given to the host communities.
PT: What is your take on power shift as championed by the southern governors recently?
Kenneth: They are just repeating what the constitution has said. Section 14 (3) is very clear on the issue of federal character. It said the conduct of the affairs of any government and the composition of that government should be done in a manner as to reflect federal character so there will not be any assumption, real or imaginary, of domination of a particular ethnic group, section, person on any matter. So, the constitution abhors the likelihood of domination.
The elite came together and said the best way to achieve this, let there be, at least within this early stage of democracy, let there be zoning of offices and rotation. The federal character principle made it such that appointments by the government should be shared among the 36 states and Abuja in proportion. It specifically mentioned the issue of ministers. If the appointments are not up to 36 or 37, the law says it be drawn in geopolitical zones. Meaning geopolitical zones have been recognised by our laws. Equally, so their position is constitutional. And what the law says is that anything that has been brought out from Chapter two (Constitution), becomes justiciable.
The issue of rotation is not justiciable yet because you can zone without rotation. But the rotation is done now to avoid what happened in 1966 (pre-civil war). You need to have a country first before you start talking about good or bad laws. Rotating the presidency will make sure we have Nigeria first.
And one good thing about this rotation is this: have you thought about this that when the power shifts to the south, it is the north that would determine who gets there. If it is the north that would produce the president, it is the south that will determine who the person will be. The two sides are learning to know that you cannot do without each other.
PT: Do you see a problematic transition in 2023?
Kenneth: 2023 is pregnant. I have not made up my mind that I am contesting for any position. I was surprised to see some articles in the media saying I would be contesting in 2023. From the Arise interview I had recently, some people when they heard me saying ‘I am not leaving politics, as a matter of fact, I am just starting’, concluded that I said I would be contesting again. No, I did not say that.
I came into politics to seek the soul of Nigeria. 2023 is going to test us and we can survive it by sacrifice. APC was able to defeat (Goodluck) Jonathan because of sacrifice. People were called to make sacrifices, right from the national APC leader, Bola Tinubu. That is how a nation advances. 2023 is pregnant. It can give birth to a monster that would consume us. It can give birth to an angel…that would begin to teach us what to do. I am going to deploy my ‘evangelistic power’ more than my political power ahead of that time.
PT: We can’t end this conversation without taking a quick look at Enugu politics especially knowing that you contested for governorship once. What is going on back home at present politically and how do you fit in?
Kenneth: We have had peace in Enugu politics because we have maintained strictly the political rotation arrangement. There are three senatorial zones that are the basis of the ‘federating units’ in the state. Enugu east produced the first governor, Enugu west produced. Enugu north has produced. Now we are moving into the next level. There are two opinions now.
Some people are saying ‘we have finished the first rotation so no zone is first, or preeminent than any other zone. They should throw it open so that any zone that wins it, fine, it will now rotate in that order. That the justice is that it must rotate in the three zones before you move to the next level’.
That school of thought is saying we should pick the best anywhere it is coming from then rotate from there. There is one advantage to that. There was a type of zoning we had in the earlier one that would never allow whoever was once deputy governor to ever become governor if we strictly maintain that process, we had been operating. And you know for institutional memory, it is sometimes good for the deputy governor to succeed the governor. But under the arrangement we have now if we do not allow the process to reshuffle itself, that means a deputy governor in Enugu will never become a governor, I mean succeeding immediately.
When the power was in Enugu east, the governor picked someone from Enugu north to be his deputy. When he was leaving, he took the power to Enugu west, rather than allowing his deputy to succeed him. When the Enugu west person came, because Enugu north produced the last deputy governor, he couldn’t say let my deputy come from Enugu north, he now picked someone from Enugu east to be the deputy governor. When he now finished, it is only Enugu north now that is remaining (to produce governor). When the Enugu north person came into power, he wouldn’t say he would pick someone from the east because the last deputy governor was from the east, he picked somebody from Enugu West. So, there is no way the deputy governor can ever succeed the governor under that arrangement. And it is not good enough.
The other opinion is that we should maintain the arrangement strictly, we rotate it as if that is the inviolable formula. Each side has its own merits. Now the elders of political parties and leaders of thought should sit together and determine which is the best option. But for me, we need to alter that arrangement in order to make sure a deputy governor can succeed his boss.
PT: On a milder mode, some people have accused you of breaking the hearts of ladies both on-set and off-set. Is that true?
Kenneth: I mend their hearts now (laughs). I was not a good guy from birth. That was why I needed God to help me. I wouldn’t know if I broke some hearts when I was a bad guy. Of course, I wouldn’t be mending hearts then. Every (love) relationship has to end one way or the other. But I can tell you that this is part of the things helping me remain steadfast in my confession that I need the help of God.
You know when we did Living in Bondage, I was a young guy, I wasn’t born again. It was impossible to know how to manage the stardom overnight. Gradually, as you grow, you begin to say, ‘I need this, I need this…’ and then I knew I needed God at a point and He has been faithful…
PT: What should fans be expecting from you soon, plans, upcoming projects…
Kenneth: At this stage, I am winding down my entertainment life. I want to proceed to the level that would allow me to impact their (fans) lives. They have been too good to me. It is their love that sustained me this while. I should be able to give something back to society apart from entertainment. I will also have the opportunity to practise other things I have learnt along the line. Otherwise, they would all be a waste.
PT: So, how do you keep fit and look this young even after the 50-year mark?
Kenneth: By November 6, I would be 53. I was born on November 6, 1968. The fans are looking at it this way. When they first saw me, I was too young, but I had carriage. I was 24 when I did Living in Bondage. I was 24 then but because of my carriage, some of them thought then I would have been above 30 then. So, they now build on that 30 and when they see me now, they think I am above 60 and still looking this young.
Anyway, someone that is in his or her early 50s is still very young. How I keep fit? You have to be disciplined on what you eat and drink. Then you have to be spiritual and prayerful. There are a lot of things that come to you by sheer spirituality and you can’t explain. Four goodies: good God, good food, good exercise, and good rest. Those are the secrets and my family has also given me peace and love.
PT: Thank you, Dr Kenneth Okonkwo.