At 60, Pete Edochie will let you know his life has more or less just begun. Which is why he is ready to take on not just the government, but also the industry where he has earned a living as far back as anyone can remember. He desires to make a change for the better. It should be an easy task for this multiple award winner and excellent actor. He told Correspondent Temitope Ojo his plans and take on sundry issues.
You turned 60 recently, how does it feel?
Well, I haven't celebrated it yet. I merely observed that I have turned 60. Every single day you spend on earth brings you nearer to your grave.
When I clocked 60, I thanked God; then I remembered what Sam Amuka said that what he used to do in a moment in the past now takes him all day. Most of what you used to do with agility then, you discover that you have to over invest energy now to be able to do it. That is if you even manage to do it at all. This is because you get a little weaker, you get more thoughtful, and you don't rush things any more. The good Lord allowed us three score and 10, I have just crossed the three score and I am hoping that I will eventually get to the 10 and possibly improve on it.
You were also honoured by the federal government with Member of the Order of Niger (MON). What's the feeling like?
I thank God for the award. For the president to have picked me from among the numerous people who are in Nollywood, and say this man has hit the pinnacle of his profession, I want to reward him. I think it's great. A few months earlier, I was inducted into the Hall of Fame and before then in 1999, I was given the movie personality of the year award by City People magazine. In 2001, I was Best Actor in Africa, in 2003 Best Actor in Nigeria by the Censors' Board and it was climaxed with the MON honour by the President; it is something that gives me extreme joy. I remember when we finished shooting Things Fall Apart the BBC flew into Nigeria to interview me and went back to America to interview Chinua Achebe and then placed us on split screen on BBC. I think it's the biggest honour I have received in my life as an actor to be recognised by the BBC. By the way, Things Fall Apart won an award in America then. I guess it is a deserved honour.
Was the MON long expected?
I wouldn't say that. I had merited it. I thought it would have come. But it is the president that dispenses the award at his own time. Anybody that works extremely hard expects a form of compensation. At the risk of sounding immodest, I know I have worked hard. I know also that I am quite distinguished in the profession, as I have spent 30 years earlier as a broadcaster before I got into the movie industry. I wouldn't say that I was expecting it and I wouldn't say that I was not expecting it. I think I like it because on the day I was given the honour, there were several people in the hall but the moment I got there to receive it from the president, he held me and we had some chat before I left.
How many years have you put into acting?
How do I start to answer that now? The very first time I went on stage was in 1962 when I was 15 years old as a student of Saint John College, Kaduna and we dramatised aspects of the Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. I have been doing that ever since before I got into broadcasting and then full time acting.
Would you say we have a movie industry in Nigeria?
We have a movie industry and there is no doubt about it. Although you the entertainment writers are not helping it grow at all as you say make just anybody on the tube look like superstars. You make them to entertain illusions of professional grandeur. Most of the youngsters in the industry are not disposed to learning because of the branding you guys give to them; whether they pay for them or they deserve them you alone know. Those of us who can pass for veterans do not think that they do well enough to deserve it. As a result of that, none of those interviewed ever gets to say who inspired them. No, they knew from the day they were born that they'd be superstars and thanks to those of you who are entertainment writers; you make them superstars overnight and as a result of that, they don't improve and that's not very good.
You can observe that the level of language in the industry is very poor. The acts speak very bad English. Our pronunciations are atrocious. We don't work hard on this things and it's because you people don't criticise us constructively. That's not very good.
What are you doing to correct the anomaly?
Nothing. If I am on set with them I talk to them and they listen and do as I say, which means they are disposed to learning. Maybe it is because the interviews are not in-depth that is why they think the sky is the limit. If you interview actors abroad they will tell you who inspired them, if you interview footballers they will tell you who inspired them.
I was inspired by actors outside the country and all of them are dead now. In Nigeria nobody inspires any body. We all wake up and become superstars overnight.
Is placing a ban the best way to discipline an erring actor or actress?
The people responsible for producing these roles are the ones that make monsters out of these people particularly the actresses. You find out that the moment you allow a woman the access to come in contact with so much money she becomes uncontrollable.
I am always for discipline. If the people break bounds they should be disciplined. Yes, they should be made to stay out for a period of time. But the person must be told what he or she did and why he or she is getting that kind of discipline. There was a time 10 of us were asked to step aside, up till now, no one has told us what we did. That is what we must try to avoid. If I am used to somebody and then the person calls and I tell my assistant that I don't want to see that person again, I owe the person an explanation on what made me take such a decision. But to tell her to turn the person back and go wondering what she did wrong is enough to hurt her. While I encourage discipline, I will also say that before you slap sanctions on anybody let him know what he did to merit the discipline.
Sometime ago you made mention of the fact that you will be doing your own movie. Give us an update.
I did one for the church titled Father Tansi. The other one I talked about is about the slave trade. That will be my legacy for posterity. I have not finished writing the script. I expect that in the next couple of weeks I will finish the script and I expect the government to handle it.
What other things are you doing now?
I act, I produce commercials, which is what I am doing in Lagos now. I intend to contribute positively to the growth of the tourism industry. This year, I am 60 years, the country gained independence in 1960. I am older than all the serving governors including the president and his deputy. Therefore, I think that it's about time they heard my voice on some issues.
What do you have in mind for the tourism industry?
Since the creation of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, they have had no blue print and no direction. Nigeria boasts of having the largest concentration of blacks in the world, do we have any annual event that compels people to assemble here? The answer is no. Let us begin with integrity whenever there is a football match; referees are drawn from every part of this continent except Nigeria. That means we have no integrity. That means that every move of ours is suspect. I remember that the former secretary of the American government, Collin Powell, once described Nigeria as a country of scammers. Apparently it has stuck. Why don't we get invited to officiate in football matches? Because there is this general impression that Nigerians do not posses integrity. That is very tragic. Now, if we must promote tourism, we have to create circumstances within the country that will beckon on outsiders to come and see what we have.
Our streets are very dirty. None of the governments of the federation ever considers refuse disposal a major assignment. The only state I have visited that is clean is Cross River State under Donald Duke; I hope they continue like that. All the other states in the federation are very dirty. For God sake, if people come in here and are assailed with this offensive odour, how do you want them to come back.
We have not shown that we are ready to entertain visitors. I think that before long, I will like to discuss with the secretary to the federal government and the new minister of culture.
Some of us who are in the movie industry should be invited to give advice on how to run that ministry. The first person who was put there was a lawyer and when she was asked what she has done, she answered, 'nothing.' And I am quoting her. For as long as they keep putting politicians there, we will never have a ministry. By the way, Nollywood has no business being in the Ministry of Information. Nollywood belongs in the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Pull us out of information and put us into tourism. In the 1970's I was privileged to interview Ogbemudia because I went to Ogbe Hard Court, which was a lawn tennis tournament. An annual event that was attracting lawn tennis players from different parts of the world. When you have events that attract international presence you are opening up the country as news makers will come and that is an aspect of tourism.
What's your view on the sale of the National Theatre?
It is unfortunate that (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo's government was bent on selling practically everything that gave us a national identity. I don't know why but whoever may have advised him deserves a guillotine. The National Theatre should be an arm of culture and tourism. They should create programmes that will keep that place occupied. If the government feels that they must sell the theatre for reasons best known to them, then sell it to the government of Lagos State. They can now manage it and ensure that it is put to effective and maximum use. I also read that the government intends to sell the Tafawa Balewa Square and the Trade Fair Complex. There is no problem, they can sell all that but not the National Theatre.
Unfortunately, theatre has died in Nigeria but we should have a place where people will come and perform. Most of the celebrated black acts do not want to come to Nigeria, they prefer to go to Ghana. We require cleaning up our image and that is the duty of the Ministry of Culture. You don't sell a national monument like the theatre because it shows that we still patronise the arts.
Is it that the problem lies in putting round pegs in a square holes?
Unfortunately, only politicians get appointed into ministries and once you become a politician there is no way you can be of use to the country. When I interviewed Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, he told me that his passport carries journalist. I asked him why not politician and he said because politics is not a profession. You can't appoint a politician to do an assignment with diligence. The problem we have is that as long as anybody who is given an appointment is a politician then it will be difficult for us to manage our affairs properly. But you never can tell; when I was reading The Presidential Papers, it said that the president of America needn't be a very intelligent person, all he needs is to appoint intelligent people around him to do the work then he can go to sleep. But you have to be an intelligent person to appoint intelligent people.
I still insist that we should appoint those people whose profession are relevant to the ministry they will head.
Let us know your view on the fight against corruption especially among government officials and former governors.
It's good but Nigerians are a problem unto themselves. You catch a man, accuse him of money laundering, you charge him to court then some people will come out and say why only him? Charge the other person to court. The fact that other people steal and you alone were caught does not exculpate you. No matter how you look at it, you are still a thief.
If the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) will be allowed to do its job, I think to a very large extent it will deter the serving ones from dipping their hands in the till.
Is any of your children taking after you?
My last son read theatre arts, the one immediately before that read architecture while the one before him read fine and applied arts. Two of them have already joined me in the industry; Link and Yul and they are very fine actors.
What are your wishes for yourself, Nollywood and Nigeria?
For myself, I wish that I would continue to conduct myself in a manner that does not estrange me from the people who believe in my capabilities. I also wish to leave a fine legacy for posterity as an actor. For Nollywood, I tell you, except we begin to shoot collaborative films with our transatlantic counterparts we are never ever likely to grow. Don't kid yourself that we are doing our best. We are merely recycling themes. For example, we have not done one film on any progenitor of any state and this is not encouraging people to invest in the industry. Except the government takes constructive interest in what we are doing, people are persuaded to invest and we expand the scope of our themes, we are not likely to have a good impression in Hollywood. The technical aspect of our production is very poor.
And for Nigeria, let our interpretation of democracy be as it is accepted conventionally around the world. We don't have to keep toddling and say we are still learning. Nigeria has been independent since 1960; I was in class one then, now I have seven grand children and Nigeria is still toddling. That is a tragedy. We are not learning; each time we do something wrong we say we are still in the learning process.