John Okafor was once a butcher, hairdresser, factory worker, photographer and a football agent. He even taught Martial Art at a Girls’ Secondary School Onitsha, all in the bid to eke out a living. But it was in acting, the comedy genre that he cut his teeth. And since then he never looked back; he has been on a one-way street to the top. The comedian, popularly called Mr Ibu, bares all about his rags-to-riches story in this chat with Peter Anny-Nzekwue.
Who is John Okafor?
The same John Okafor you see every day. I am from Umunneukwu village, Eziokwe Amuri in Nkanu West Local Government of Enugu State. I grew up locally from nursery to elementary in 1974. In primary school people enjoyed me because I cracked a lot of jokes.
So Mr Ibu has always been a funny man?
This is something I inherited from my grandfather. He was a better actor, a better comedian than me. I lost him in 1971.
Being an intelligent boy while in Primary School, your roles in films are always that of a stark illiterate, timid and dull, creating this impression of someone who never went to school, or if he did, didn’t do well at all. How do you reconcile both personalities?
That is the professionalism. You have to separate Paul from Barnabas. When the real me is talking, you will hear a very tactical person, but when the idiot in the movie is talking, you are seeing mumu (idiot). I pity him each time I act the man. And when I watch him on television, I see a very deceptive person. In Agony, a film I did in 1997/98, I played an imbecile. I would say I surprised myself because to interpret an imbecile character you have to put a lot into it, like stiffening your tummy and distorting your body movement. One of the biggest challenges I had in the movie was the role. After this movie, a lot began to happen.
Now let’s return to your school days. You left elementary school in 1974.
Then I went to a Secondary School, a technical school in Sapele.
You grew up in Sapele? That may explain the Sapele-Warri comic angle to your comedy.
Then if you were in Sapele you must be a wise guy, wearing dagger on your legs.
What took you that far, from Eziokwe Amuri in then Anambra State, to Sapele in then Bendel State.
I lost my father. My elder brother was in Sapele then so I had to join him. When I came to Sapele my brother wasn’t doing that well so I had to do some odd jobs to make ends meet. I was a wonderful stylist, hair dresser. Where I was working, some of the girl-customers would not want anyone else to touch their hair except me.
Before you became famous were you still a stylist?
I wasn’t into hair dressing only. I was also into photography. I hate to remember things like this, but it’s good because now we can tell them as stories.
You were doing odd jobs to eke out a living and to train yourself through secondary school, were you able to go further after that?
I went to College of Education Yola, then Gongola State, but I left Yola due to financial reason. Then later I left Yola to Enugu where I gained admission into IMT, Enugu. I got admitted and while still in school I had to work in a Crate Industry. It used to be wooden crates, now they are plastic crates. I was also a fridge repairer. At the end I had to leave school. We were eight in number in my family I had to do what I could to help the rest. After sometime with Anambra Broadcasting Service (ABS), I left Anambra State. I was a Martial artist; I had my black belt in 1983. I went to Sapele, I went into Slaughter house to do the journey man thing. Then I went also to sawmill. I had to do anything I can to make money. I had a problem when I went into trading with some of my friends outside the Nigeria border in Niger. We bought fairly used stuffs such as shoes and shirts. Sometimes we bought capsules, injections or drugs that would do well in the market. I later ran into problem with the law because I didn’t have Pharmaceutical licence, eventually I stopped.
You said that you featured in soaps at Anambra Broadcasting Service (ABS)?
I was in Ogbu Anyanwu and Kwere Kira. These were before the debut of Living in Bondage in 1993.
Living in Bondage, it can be argued, is the Foundation of what is now known the world over as Nollywood.
That was the seed of Nollywood. I did not start with acting at the initial stage. I was behind the scene either as Production Assistant or Production Manager or Continuity.
Why did you not go straight into acting having been doing Soaps at ABS?
I didn’t have a choice then but to start wherever I was accepted. Again, to stay behind the camera was best for me because I know that one very well. Also, as at that time those in Living in Bondage were the big players who had all the respects and privileges, so one had to wait for the right opportunity. I had enough materials in me that can sustain me in the industry for a long time. Gradually, I began to dish out. When the producers discovered the comic flavour in my acting they felt they could harness it.
Which producer in particular?
He was Alex Ezeamaku, the Managing Director, Zalex Production. He is late now. He was shot and killed at his gate by hired killers. We were good friends. He loved my acting. There were other Producers who were keen on me. The comedy aspect of it was not out like we expected it until we saw Nkem Owoh with Ikuku. Nkem Owoh was the first person in the commercial movie industry to make comedy, apart from Zebrudaya and Co who are pioneers in comedy. But their comedy was clownish. In our kind of comedy we employ a lot of technique to make people laugh. We don’t even force people to laugh. We act it out. You won’t even believe that people are laughing by what you are doing sometimes. I walk on the street and people see me and laugh. What is wrong with my walk? I raise my hand to greet somebody people are laughing. What is wrong with my greeting? So I’ve just planted a very big virus in myself that people laugh when I am angry.
Which movie would you say gave you the breakthrough in Nollywood?
Agony, the film owned by Zalex.
What was your role in the film?
I was an imbecile.
Were you the main act?
No. I was attached to the body of the story. My elder brother was Pete Edochie. The story line was about money-making that was connected to a sickness. But then it wasn’t reveal in Part One, so the Part Two was about to be shot before the death of Zalex.
So there was never a Part Two?
Apart from Agony which of your other film(s) you really enjoy?
I enjoy so many of my films.
Before you made your breakthrough in the film industry, there should be one or two people, perhaps in the comedy genre, you see as your role models. This person or persons may be your contemporary in terms of age, but they had their breakthrough before you.
I must tell you that my grandfather was the first. Then I came into movie world to discover Osuofia (Nkem Owoh), then Zebrudaya.
So you can count Nkem Owoh as one of your role models?
He is always my role model. There is also a lady, Chinelo Ndigwe, a little girl, but she’s spectacular.
I don’t think I have seen her in any movie.
You may have seen her work, but because she’s in the background you will not notice her. She wasn’t there for long. She got married and left the industry.
Victor Osuagwu seems your very good friend, especially in movies because you often act together. Is he really your close friend outside the set?
Yes, very good friend.
Were you friends before you came into the movie industry or you met in the industry and became friends?
We know ourselves outside film, but one job brought us together and ever since then we discovered we could blend well. We shot Our Daily Bread. I played the role of a stutterer. We did Home and Abroad together. It was shot in Berlin, Germany and other parts of Europe and Nigeria.
When you are given a script, what is in it that makes it a good script; that motivates you to accept it?
First, it has to have a good storyline. Funny enough, there is this spontaneity in comedy that if you came across some certain words or scenes it would strike you to think, “What if I do it the other way round?” Some directors accept it, others don’t but would rather prefer you give them what’s in the script. But sometimes after giving them what is in the script, some may still request for the improvised version. When they got to the studio they would compare both. And in most cases they will prefer the improvised version. So apart from the story line, I will put the body of the story inside me and take myself as if I am the same person in the story. When you succeed in seeing yourself as the character it will give you the opportunity to call on the spirit of improvisation; where you are not supposed to say a word that man might say a word and nobody argues. And If I read your script and it had no water at all, no case at all, I would call you and tell you that though I liked the money the story couldn’t take us anywhere. If you didn’t mind we could re-work the script. When we finished making the changes, we then came back to the body of the story and put it on the foundation we laid. There would be a difference. Some would agree, others would refuse and in that case I would have no other option but to reject the script. I don’t want to work because of money. I work because of my face and tomorrow. If you do a job and your fans out there are criticising you, it is not a pass mark.
Apart from other people’s scripts, do you write and produce your own movies?
Yes. I produce once a year because I don’t want to distort the acting that I am known for by producing often.
When you produce your films do you feature in the movie?
Mention the movies.
Naomi, Allegations, Frontpage, Inheritance and Bora.
With these movies, plus the ones produced by others that you featured in, you must have made so much money.
I’ve see money, but I tell you, the Pirates eat a lot of that money. We don’t get much. A week after a movie is in the market the pirates will produce and hawk them at the bus stop like “gala.” It is not good for us.
Still you are paid good money.
Yes, I am paid good money. I am not hungry, but I’m not rich. However, we thank God for today.
Now let’s talk about your immediate family. I guess you are married?
Yes, I am happily married.
Yes, I have five kids. I’ve been married before, but it failed. I recently got married again.
This is your second marriage then?
No, it’s my third marriage. My family married the first and second one from my village, but they failed. I then asked my mother and my brothers to leave me to find my wife myself.
So now you finally found the woman of your choice
Is she Igbo like yourself?
Yes, she’s from Mbaise, Imo State, Nigeria. A very wonderful woman.
What was Mr Ibu looking for in a woman when you were searching for the third wife?
I was looking for a core African woman, someone who is respectful, who has regard for man and life, who is contented with what we have and will praise you even when you are in pains. A woman who will welcome you with her whole heart, a woman that will never lie to you, who will never pretend, never mince words whenever she wants to say something and a very transparent person that will represent you even when you are not there. That whatever she says is your word. That is the woman I was actually looking for. Physically, I was also looking for beauty: fine, slim and tall woman. I found all these in my wife.
Let’s look at this objectively. Your previous wives may want to argue that you were the problem, not them.
Funny enough, I wasn’t the one that chose them. My mother and my siblings chose them for me.
So it was the problem you had with the marriages?
No. When I married them I took time to build love, to love them, do things that could make them happy. Then in the process some things they did were not to me alone but to the family. It was obvious to all that these women were wicked. I was actually receiving the torture, but I left it for my family, for the people who love me in the village to react first.
All these things were happening before you became famous?
Could it be argued that being famous must have contributed in no small measure in putting serious strains in your two previous marriages?
No. Most of those things happened when I wasn’t famous. The last one happened actually when I became somebody. What she wanted was to have about 99.99 percent control over me. She was diabolic and she was being sponsored by her mother. She diabolically made me to be serving her. I became nobody. I was calling my wife, Aunty. I was like a houseboy. That’s the worst thing that can happen to a man.
Was she older than you?
No. She was a small girl. That tells you how the juju got into me.
Can it again be argued that she was feeling insecure; being popular she was scared that other women out there could snatch you from her?
No. I was always with her. She has about seventy-five per cent of me, apart from the location thing.
Finally, you got your choice of a wife now you are happy?
Wow, you can say that again!
How long have you been married to your third wife?
Three years now. We were not in a hurry to have babies; we just had one in South Africa. He is a boy. He was born on 4 November 2009. His names are Emmanuel Mandela Mpumelelo Nkemjika Ugochukwu Okafor.
As a very busy man, how is your wife coping with your being away always?
She was an actress and a model.
So you stopped her?
She’s still nursing a baby. She can always work. She knows the intricacies in our job so she can’t stop me. We talk on the phone every day. I have about sixty per cent away and forty per cent with them. Within this forty per cent I roll in and out. I try as much as I can to make sure they don’t lack.
Where is your family based?
I am based in Lagos. I can go to any state to work.
Marriage is not an easy thing especially with famous people like you. Your job comes with a lot of pressure, especially from female fans. Women being what they are would always want to get a slice of you, bombarding you with text messages. In all honesty, how is your wife taking all that?
My wife knows I am in front of these women everyday even before we got married. We laugh over this. I don’t really know where these women get my number from that is why I have to change my number often. Some will call me and talk rubbish, “Ibu, ha ha, you no dey call us?” And I will reply, “Call you, I know your number?” Some will say, “Ibu, I love you o. I want to see you.” One day, I told one to come to a supermarket with her brothers and I will organise gifts for her. When she came, she’s about two inches and she’s old: “what do you want me to do with you?”
You are John Okafor, but through your famous career you have gathered many aliases such as Uncle Wayward and Mr Ibu. Which of these is your favourite?
Professionally, I am an idiot. You can call me any name: razor blade, knife, desert, snake, block, cement, bedsheet, roasted yam, anything. I will answer you. I must have to confess that my position in the society today I don’t regret it because it opened hard doors for me. People love me so much, and I love them too.
Mr Ibu, what are your likes and dislikes?
I hate lies and pretence. And you must be a good liar before you can pretend. When I am on stage I tell women that everything about them is a lie. The nails are artificial, lie. The eyelashes are not theirs, they are lying. The hair is nama (cow) tail, they are lying. The face, with pancake and all that, is a lie… Anything about pretence and lying don’t go down well with me. Bad food is another of my dislike. If you don’t know how to cook, I won’t like you. Another thing I hate is insult. If you insult me in public, I might walk away without saying a word, but I don’t like it. I love talking to the crowd. I love jokes. I love playing draught. Driving is one of my hobbies. I love watching football.
What is your fashion sense? Many fans accuse you of dressing down?
I love rugged dressing. I don’t like over dressing. I like jeans and boots.
Has fame denied you anything?
My only regret is that among my fans they are people who hate me, busy giving me a knock on the head, pulling off my cap and giving me a hard knock on the head.
Yes. “Yeah, Ibu,” then a hard knock on my head and a curse, “thunder fire you.” I don’t like the knock at all.
The three important things in your life?
My family, my mother, my fans.
What is your philosophy of life?
Whatever you are doing, anything you want to do, focus on it, don’t deviate. If you want to touch a wood, tell God that’s what you want and at the same time make an effort to touch the wood. You will touch that wood.
What’s your message to your teeming fans?
The message I have for them is me. Let them have the whole of me. I am not keeping any part in the warehouse, the whole of me do I give my fans. Use me and do whatever you want to do.
Plus the knocks?
No, not the knocks. They should keep that in my zeros account. The conking will come no more. One girl met me in Warri and said she promised himself that anytime she met me that she was going to give me a slap and she gave me a slap, a very bad slap. That day music was playing in my ear until I got home. For those who are busy hating, stop hating because if you hate your own business will not grow. If you love yourself and love your neighbour your business will grow. Have a good wife and husband for yourself. Have a good family. Have love for God almighty. Give yourself the trust and tell the truth all the time and your business will grow. This is my spiritual advice to my fans.
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