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Nigeria still work in progress – Kenneth Okonkwo – thewillnigeria


November 21, (THEWILL) – Seasoned actor, Kenneth Okonkwo, is many things rolled in one: Actor, lawyer, politician, administrator, father and husband. He speaks to Shade Metibogun about the state of the movie industry and the nation. Excerpts:
You are one of the lead actors in Living in Bondage, which was produced in 1992, and the 2019 remake of the film titled, Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, as well as many other movies. How does it feel being relevant in Nollywood?
The story of Living in Bondage about Andy Okeke, which I was privileged to have portrayed, is a thing of grace. It is what only God can do. Out of about 200 million people, God counted me worthy to be chosen as one of the people to act in that movie, which started Nollywood. I feel so grateful for that opportunity. I was also called again after some decades to act in the remake of the movie. It means the movie has remained relevant historically as the story that started Nollywood. Apart from that, it has remained relevant as an entertaining and educating movie, too. You can imagine how gratifying it is to be called twice to feature in the movie. It has reinforced the belief that the movie is blessed. I feel excited, privileged and gratified. I can only say that to God be the glory.

For the benefit of those who do not know, what were your roles in both two movies?
I played Andy Okeke in both movies. In Living in Bondage, Andy Okeke was a ritualist, but he later converted and became a pastor in Living in Bondage, Breaking Free. My son experienced the same thing I experienced as a cultist (in Living in Bondage) so I went to assist him. The second movie is a continuation of what happened in the first one.
As one of the pioneers of Nollywood, how much progress would you say the industry has made since inception?
We started in 1992. Today we are reckoned as the third biggest movie producing nation in the world. The entrance of Living in Bondage sums up all aspect of entertainment in Nigeria. After the movie broke into the international scene, young people became bold and creative enough to use our indigenous culture and language for everything entertainment. Within a few decades, we became a global power in entertainment. I can say that we have made progress in terms of techniques. We are on all internationally recognised networks. Our shooting methodology has improved. Also, there is improvement in terms of equipment. The depth of acting, the artistic prowess and technical finish – have all improved. I can say that we have made all-round progress.
Many up-and-coming actresses complain of being asked for sex in exchange for roles. What can be done to curb the excesses of some producers?
In all honesty, I can only speak for Living in Bondage. The producer of the movie would not even choose you, if you were not good enough. That is why everybody involved in the movie did a very good job. People were chosen for the movie because of their talent, skill, competence and capability. Things were not like that in those days because producers were private businessmen who wanted to make money. They concentrated on the beauty of what they would present so they could get positive returns on their investments. But now, I can say that the industry has grown and we have a lot of producers and directors who have sponsors. They are not the people providing the capital invested on movies. So they are not concerned if the sponsors get good returns on their investments or not.
Having said that, the issue of sex for role can be considered in two ways: Is it the actresses or actors that are giving sex to get roles that they are not qualified for or is it the producers that are asking for sex to give out roles? In all honesty, I cannot say for sure. As an elder in this industry, I have confronted some producers about it on set. I told them, ‘I heard this thing about you. Are you doing it or not?’ The response I got was no. They said that the people accusing them should come out and also confront them. They said they were ready to face anybody. But nobody came out.
It is either that the sex for role is an enticement from the actor or actress or it can also be an inducement. I wouldn’t know which one to say. But an adult that consents to do something cannot come out to complain that he or she was intimidated to do so. You only felt that you needed to use it to get what you want, which for me is prostitution.
If nobody comes out to say that she was raped, then, it is prostitution. It is a mutual thing. As a lawyer, if you take this issue to court, you have to produce evidence. The only thing I can fight is rape and when you are denied a role. But you must have the evidence to show that you are qualified for the role, but you were denied.
In 2019, you indicated interest in the governorship election in Enugu State and later shelved your plan to contest. If given another opportunity, would you try again?
I did not contest because I felt it wasn’t the right time to do so. Anyway, I had my own condition. When you say you are bringing change to a system, you have to maintain your own standard. If that standard cannot take you through, you should be gentle enough to quit. I aspired to that position, but did not contest. I am in politics, but politics is not about being in power; it is about being influential. Leadership is the ability to influence people through any situation. I want a platform that I would be able to use to inspire my generation and even the next generation towards positive change. You will hear from me anytime that I am ready. Be rest assured that I am going to let you know. Except God says otherwise, I have not shown any interest to contest for any elective office in 2023. But I am in politics because I am interested in bringing about change. If you are not governing, you should be interested in people who will govern you. We must be able to choose the right leader if we are not presenting ourselves. I am not the power drunk type but the change agent type.
Why did you change your mind?   
All I will say is that I aspired for the post, but eventually did not contest. When the time is ripe, I will aspire and contest. You know that there is a time for everything. It is not yet time for me to contest. It was time for me to aspire and I did. In Nigeria, politics evolves. You cannot get into politics one day and expect to get to the post you desire immediately. You have to grow and be patient enough to get there. Whatever happened to you must have happened to other aspirants, too. We cannot pretend that in Nigeria we have come to a level where in internal democracy, someone can tell you that the most influential person will win. A lot of factors come into play. You should be able to know the environment you are dealing with so that you can make wise and reasonable decisions. I just felt that it wasn’t time to contest because of the things happening around me. That is why I did not contest. You just have to make an informed decision after venturing into certain things.
How would you describe your perception of politics between the period you aspired to be governor and now?
I am a change agent. The only constant thing in life is change. The more you are exposed to politics, the more you will understand the real problem we have with leadership in Nigeria, the more you will realise that our problem is not the North, South, East or West. Our biggest problem is the manipulative tendencies of our leaders. If we can tackle corruption and insecurity successfully, we will have enough for ourselves. Nations that are not blessed with natural mineral resources are ruling the world economically. You can imagine how we would have been on top of the world if we had been managing our resources very well.
Our problem in Nigeria is not our diversity, religion or geography. It is bigger than we think. You will discover that a lot of people like to boast publicly, but you will also note that it is all grandstanding. You cannot tell me that the Yoruba or Hausa doesn’t like me. The first movie I appeared in was shot in Yorubaland, but it was an Igbo language movie and everyone liked it. We were asked to subtitle it. It was because of the love of the people who are not Igbo in Nigeria that they insisted we must subtitle it. If we had a problem with tribes, the people who are not Igbo wouldn’t love the movie.
Sometimes when some people complain that somebody does not love them, I feel it is because they are not bringing out good products that other people can patronise. Once they don’t have good products, they will be blackmailing the products of others who are getting patronage. I think excellence is the greatest antidote against primeval sentiment. Once you do something that is good, people will appreciate it, irrespective of their religion, race or ethnicity. That was what happened to Living in Bondage. The movie had acquired an international standard. That is why the remake was produced in the language that many people would understand, not just Igbo language. You can see how the whole world accepted it. One Nigeria is better for all of us. We would be able to annex our resources and diversity.
Let us talk about Nigeria. What is your take on the state of the nation?
My opinion is that all will be well. Every nation of the world has its own challenges, including the United States of America where a sitting president is alleged to have instigated an insurrection. If it had happened in Africa, they would have said that it can never happen in a developed world. Every nation has its own challenges. God is going to arise and the enemies of the nation shall be scattered. Soon we shall witness the dawn of a new era. We have to entrench peace by putting an end to any kind of insecurity. We have to entrench justice in our country because if you want peace, there has to be an end to conflict. There must be justice. We have to be able to accommodate each other and give one another a sense of belonging. Nigeria is still a work in progress. We should be patient enough to manage the work in progress. We will be able to attain a nation of our desire one day. We should be grateful to God that we are alive. We have survived the Nigerian Civil War and the Boko Haram insurgency, as well as many challenges and we are still standing as one country. It is something we should be grateful to God for. Afghanistan, for instance, has been fighting a war for more than 20 years and it has not stopped. We have to be grateful to God that we are still together as a nation.
As someone aspiring for elective office in the nearest future, what is your advice to our leaders?
They should work hard and watch their utterances so that peace can be firmly established in Nigeria. The prevailing obsession with money and power should be radically modified. They should work on those two because they are some of our greatest challenges. Insecurity is aggravated by the insincerity of our leaders and their failure to apply wisdom in their utterances. Corruption, which is the abuse of public office for private gain, has its root in obsession with money and power. If they can work on these two, Nigeria will be a greater nation.
You graduated from law school in 2009. What inspired the decision to study law?
I had graduated from the university before taking off as an actor. I am a trained manager of organisations. I studied management in school. I am an expert in business management. I entered the movie world as a hobby. It was not meant to be my profession, but it became so successful that people wanted more. A lot of people wanted more of me as an actor because they thought acting was my profession and the other ones were my hobby. I just did not allow it to swallow up my profession. I love to learn. I love knowledge. I kept multiplying degrees. I have degrees in Theology, Law, International Law and Diplomacy. Basically, I am an academic, but the movies are the way I want unwind when my head is full. My first love has always been administration. You can see why I am in politics, but I can also say that I love acting. I am passionate about it. We didn’t have an industry that encouraged people to see acting as a profession back in the days. Luckily, we entered into it and we broke through. That is why people now aspire to be actors and actresses. For me, it is a gift from God. I have never been to a school of Theatre Art. We are grateful to God for that.
Which would you choose between acting, law and business management and why?
I would choose all of them. That is why I am doing all of them. I don’t do things I am not passionate about. Nobody pushed me to do any of those things. They all have to do with adding value to humanity. As a lawyer, you are an advocate. As an entertainer you are an advocate. As a manager, you are also an advocate. I love to be a gentleman. I am trained as an executive gentleman, which I got from management. I was trained as a learned gentleman in law. I was trained as a revered gentleman in Theology.  But all work without play makes Jack a dull boy. When I attend court proceedings and if any of my colleagues does not remember my name, they call me “barrister actor”. I am enjoying all of them. I know there will be a time that I would have to drop some. I cannot delegate my acting roles because I have to be there myself. So, I believe that the time has come for me to focus on other aspects of my life so that I can achieve the reason for going into such a field.  In acting now, I am more interested in establishing a movie academy to train the next generation so that I can be practising management.
Your law chamber, Supreme God Chamber, could easily pass for the name of a church. Are you planning to unleash the theological side of Kenneth Okonkwo very soon?
The best use of theology is to impact you first. If people who claim to be Christians in Nigeria were truly Christians, the country would be in a better condition by now. Going into theology is first for me. If you become prosperous and you do not serve God with it, you will use it to kill yourself. Some celebrities use their status to kill themselves just because of the absence of God and godliness. However, if you profess to be something, people will want to hear from you to know the reason for your action. That is why I preach the gospel at my convenience. I am also a minister of the gospel. It is only the fear of God that will help you to focus on whatever you do. Theology is first for my own sanity and redemption. The future is in the hands of God. For now, I am not a pastor but a politician.

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