“I have a friend who always jokes and says ‘isn’t life ironical? You that was born to play, you went to school to study and now they actually give you money for you to play the lead role'”
Sola Osofisan (S.O.): When I arrived here a moment ago, I heard you talking on the phone and I wondered, why is it that every business man’s office you go to, you hear that sort of conversation: Someone is not doing something right somewhere… And I thought what are you first, a businessman or an actor?
Richard Mofe-Damijo (RMD): I’ve been trying to find a proper definition for me. You know I’m just a restless soul. I’m an actor, that’s what I introduce myself as, but I moonlight as other things. I run a PR company. Whitewater is a PR company, so that in itself is the communication business, so that keeps me quite busy. But because my first calling is an actor, I usually will sometimes abandon this side and go do my first love, some more acting jobs.
But because of the level of development of acting here – or the theatre in general – I can’t do that alone. I mean I need to be juggling about three or four things at the same time. It keeps my adrenaline pumping.
S.O.: That you don’t do only acting, is that just because you need the adrenaline or (acting) doesn’t give you enough to take care of body and soul?
RMD: Well, it’s a combination of both factors. It doesn’t put food on the table the way it should, so you need something that’s a lot more regular. And over the years I’ve… I love a regular life as well. I love the setting of the 9-to-5, or the 8-to-5 as we say in Nigeria, or 8-to-4. It stabilizes me. It’s like what marriage does to me. I said to somebody that I would always like to be married, because it’s like a stabilizing factor.
The minute I left university, after like a year or two, I started running my own business. I even see myself not doing that anymore, not having an office, a place to come to every morning and take my bearing from there. I probably will not do a lot in this office today, but I come here to take my bearing and I say okay when I leave here, these are the things that I have to do. I have a satellite office now in VI at Coscharis Plaza where I now run RMD Promotions (http://www.rmdpromotions.com) which is like a breakaway from here (Whitewater). I decided early this year that this place can now run without me. Whitewater is like what…about eight years now, five years of effective business, so it can run without me. I’ve started RMD Promotions. This is basically promotions, theatre and entertainment.
S.O.: So how does the acting part of you facilitate the business part of you?
RMD: Well, it enhances my PR naturally. If I’m bidding for a job with colleagues, I’m not going to be starting from jumpstart. It opens the doors, it breaks the doors down for me. The first screen that people have to read all the marketing books and techniques to do, I don’t have to do that. That is already down, so it gives me easy access.
S.O.: Can you say at what point precisely you realized you had the talent and decided you wanted to become an actor?
RMD: I can’t say what point precisely, but I know that from playing house and hide ‘n’ seek and all that, I found out that I…I was quite endowed naturally as a child. I was bigger than most of my age mates and I played quite a bit.
Of course I took part in all dramas in school, especially the religious ones where I played Jesus or Peter and all that. In school, leadership was thrust upon me. In my secondary school, I was first a member of the dramatic society. I went to an all-boys school first and I started out playing female parts (laughing). I had a lot of hair at the time and they thought I looked feminine when I brushed my hair or when I let my hair grow and stuff like that, so it became a natural thing. By the time I got to form 4, I started doing a lot of martial arts and all of that so it looked just like a wonderful combination to combine martial arts and theatre.
And when it was time to fill my JAMB form, it was obvious. Everybody was like “Oh, you’re gonna do theatre arts”. That was the most natural thing to do and by the time I got to university, in my first year in university again, by some divine conspiracy leadership was thrust upon me. I remember the first departmental production where we were auditioned and all of that and the names for the parts came out the next day and I went to the notice board and I saw my name under the lead character, I ran straight to the Head of Department and said “I’m sorry, there’s a mistake. I’m a new student, but they put my name in the lead”. He said “no, you’ll play the lead”. I said but I just came in. I want to learn what… I thought acting was different in the university, but they made me realize whatever it is that I was doing then was what was needed. From my first production in school, I started playing leads. I guess I didn’t look back, as we say in Nigeria, I didn’t look back after that.
Same thing happened in Lagos. I came to Lagos…Ajo Productions was the theatre to work for and I got that… I went for the audition, I prepared and again, I got the lead character in that one. It’s just been… I guess when you’re humble that way, you can’t help but see some kind of divine movement in how things happened.
To answer your question again precisely, I can’t say precisely when I knew I had the talent, but I guess I have always ended up seeing myself in the eyes of my critics, of people who say “this is who you are”. I have a friend who always jokes and says “isn’t life ironical? You that was born to play, you went to school to study and now they actually give you money for you to play the lead role”. He’s a lawyer, so I ended up saying to him someday that I will be a lawyer as well. In another one year, I should be a lawyer.
S.O.: Thank you. Before we go too far, you mentioned Warri. I have read a couple of things where you talk extensively about growing up in Warri and how beautiful it was and how slowly the degradation entered. Can you recapture your childhood for my readers? What changed? What happened? Where did all the crime come from? Where did all these other things come from?
RMD: Warri…(Sigh). My friends tell me that I’m most passionate when I speak about Warri. It’s like one big theatre. It’s like some well-written script. I grew up…I was born in ’61. All my childhood was spent in Warri.
In the ’70s that I can remember more, there were no geographical or ethnic boundaries in Warri. In my compound, for instance, my father was a landlord and we had Ijaw tenants, we had Isekiri tenants, we had Igbo tenants, we had Edo tenants and all of that. It was such a big melting pot for all the ethnic groups in Nigeria that we didn’t relate to people on the basis of where they come from. It was just a place where we all found ourselves and it was one big family. My father, if there’s a stubborn child in the compound, it’s the landlord that handles the child, not the parents of the child. I remember because in my place, I have a lot of cousins and brothers and sisters. My place was like the… They used to call me “the king of boys”. My place was the meeting point for all the young people and we would play, kids would sleep in our house for weeks, for days, their parents just knew that they were in my house. So, it was that kind of …You know, my grandmother used to cook for the entire street as it were. I remember that when I went off to the boarding house, people would usually still be in my room and my mom usually would take care of them like her kids. I have a friend called Peter Gaghoro. He lived with me…His mother was down the street and he lived with me for like eight years. And it was funny because I had cousins also on the same street who moved to my place. And I would leave them. I went to university, they would be in my house and my mother treated them like her own kids. That’s the kind of place that I grew up in, and so to go back there and see…
Now, what happened, I guess you know, I guess the turn in all of these is because gradually the people began to realize they were getting a bad deal. And when politics gets into any place, it begins to divide the place and tear it – it rips it apart. That is exactly what is happening to Warri. So, the issue of overlordship, you know, that it doesn’t make any sense to me in the first place because the place… The little portion of land that they are supposed to be struggling for, nobody pays overlord monies to anybody anymore. The Land Use Act in Nigeria bestows all the land on the government. I don’t see what overlordship fight anybody would be fighting anyway. All of that got mixed up in the exploitation and of course the revenue sharing formula and people realizing that they’ve never… The Ijaws for instance who are, they realized they’ve never bought fuel – this is the analogy that some of them use – they’ve never bought fuel from day one for the actual price because the pipes run from their place to the refineries. And when they need to buy the refined product, they paddle their canoes to Warri, buy the fuel and take it back to their people to sell at a slightly higher price, okay? These are people that with politics and all of that, there’s some kind of re-awakening. But unfortunately, it impacted on Warri wrongly because the people now, in the process of trying to fight for their rights, they destroyed their own environment, apart from the pollution and all of that. It is just one hell of a place right now because there are contending interests and nobody now can sit down and say this is the genesis of it all and this is how it will be resolved.
I have just been made the national coordinator of a Warri Peace Initiative and its frightening the kind of things that we need to tackle. And in the midst of planning all of that, you get phone calls telling you “don’t ever come to Warri”. You know, “we don’t want it to ever get that dirty where you will be killed, but information is that don’t come right now. Whatever the thing you’re planning, please don’t come yet”. That’s the kind of place that is has turned into where… I usually ask, “so what happens to Dede Mabiaku and I now? He’s Itsekiri. What happens to me?” In some places, they think I’m Itsekiri because all my names are Itsekiri. My parents usually…if they want to discuss and cut off everybody else from the discussion, they speak Itsekiri and they are not Itsekiri. My great grand parents migrated from an Ijaw village to farm in Aladja where I now come from. So when they want to worship their ancestors, they go back to the Ijaw village to worship their ancestors. So, who am I? Itsekiri, Ijaw or Urhobo?
It’s that kind of thing – and that kind of tie (is what) you find in most Warri boys. It’s all these contending interests and then people are now exploiting it for their own personal interest as well and gains because you can’t build a house in Warri anymore. By the time you do your DPC, you pay money, you want to roof you pay money, you want to deck you pay money, there are all kinds of things. I consult for a group – an oil company and they just moved a house boat to berth in Warri and immediately the thing berthed, they just said – the area boys came and said it’s 150 (thousand Naira) for parking. (He laughs). And it was Independence Day. I was on the phone for almost 2 hours trying to raise money in Warri. And they’ve become so unreasonable. The banks are not open today. Where do you expect me to get a 150,000 Naira. They say to you, “we don’t care. If we don’t get it, we’ll vandalize this boat”. And you’re dealing with something that’s almost a 100 Million Naira.
So, its that kind of thing now. Its very sad, but those of us that were born in the 60s, we’re not losing hope. We’re saying that we’re going to invest time and money into the place and see if we can re-educate all the young men and women there to see that there’s a change in that place.
S.O.: This is obviously something you feel very passionate about about. In passing now, you mentioned that you do some consultancy work for one of the oil companies –
RMD: Oil services companies.
S.O.: Is this again in the area of –
S.O.: PR. How do you reconcile what you do for them with what’s been claimed in some places that the oil companies are actually responsible for some of the problems of that area?
RMD: They’re part of the stakeholders. For instance, in our meetings, when we were trying to put something together to go back to Warri, most people said “exclude the oil companies”. I said no, you can’t. I mean they are stakeholders. Yes, they have been accused and they are guilty of all kinds of things, in terms of playing one party against the other, and all that, but these are also victims of what has become of the politics of the place. And to exclude them from any peace initiative would be wrong because they’re not going to go away anyway. The place in itself needs for the natural resources that it has been endowed with to be mined or to be extracted so that some kind of progress can come back there. The Federal Government will not stop to drill the oil because that is part of our source of wealth. What needs to be done is a re-education, a re-awakening of our sensibilities so that you do not kiss the goose that lays the golden egg. That’s all that needs to be done. Oil companies can play all the politics that they want, but they are wiser for it now because they know they are losing business. Our people have been better also with the politics of oil now. Negotiations are done on hard drawn lines now. Workers struggle and get what they think they deserve. The pays are better. The payment packages for most of the workers are better. I think that overall, we can’t just draw a bad line across the oil companies and say they’ve all done wrong, no.
The people have been… It’s funny that one can draw some kind of analogy with what happened in the slave trade period, but the people have profited from it, from playing the oil companies against GRO(?) people. Some leaders of communities used it for personal gains. The oil companies paid what they’re supposed to pay and the monies don’t get where they’re supposed to get to. They are supposed to be corporately responsible to the environment they work in, but they also pay to the Federal Government. They pay their taxes. It is not really their business to provide infrastructure for whatever place that they exist. Now, that is the work of the Federal Government who is supposed to be responsible, who is supposed to ensure the quality of life – to the people. Now, the kind of constitution that we have guarantees all of that, but in terms of how – because these are not justiceable as it were, you cannot take the Federal Government to court for not ensuring that your quality of life is better – unfortunately. Maybe in time to come, all of that can be done so that we can probably say like the Americans I’m a Nigerian, you can’t touch me. So, it’s a very complex situation. People need to understand the politics of it all. The Federal Government has failed woefully in those areas. The story is that the people who went to do the mass protest in Abuja, when they got to Abuja from the oil riverine areas, and they were told that “this is all our money anyway: the oil money built this place”, so you can imagine the disparity between an Abuja and the rest of the places where the oil is coming from, so it’s something that it will just go away from our major discussion. It’s an area that I’m researching into and it’s a new world out there and the politics of it is frightening. I mean (Ken) Saro-Wiwa died. It is the opening of his eyes…I guess at some point, you can actually feel him. He was overwhelmed by the enormity of the injustice that was taking place there. That was why he was ready to go to the extreme and lose his life for the process of trying to get his people a better deal. And I can assure you a lot more things like that are going to happen.
S.O.: Considering all the risks, are you still willing to delve into this?
RMD: What life am I living? I mean I can’t pretend that I don’t come from there. I can’t pretend that my roots are not there. It will always be home. It gets to a point where the way we live our lives in Nigeria, it gets to a point where a man begins to trace his roots back home, so what am I going to do there? My village Aladja is bursting at the seams. My village is just like 10 minutes from Warri or 5 minutes from Warri. Housing there is terrible now. All of these are going to impact negatively on all these little communities around Warri, you know. So, if things are not done and peace is not restored back so that people can go back there, it’s going to keep getting worse and people are just going to keep running and running. The fight is going to get here someday. In fact, it would have gotten here if not for the intervention of community leaders, because Ijaws heard in Ajegunle that OPC members had gone to fight on the side of Itsekiri, so the Ijaws were going to fight the Yorubas here. Now, when it gets to that level, its complete break down of law and order. You go to Warri now and you’ll find militias. You’ll find a road…You’ll get to the half-point where the police cannot go to the other side, that when you cross to the other side, you see militias, with guns and everything. These are things you read about South America. You see there are places in Warri where the law does not hold. The people who maintain whatever law and order there are the people who are the militias in those areas. That is how bad it is. And this is the same country where there’s a police force, government and everything.
When you know that things like these started on small scales like these in Liberia and Rwanda and all those other places… because very soon, the sentiment, this ethnic sentiment is going to be played higher by the politicians and before you know it the thing is going to escalate.
RMD: Well, the poet is still there. He’s incubating. The last time I brought out my collection, I gave (it) to Odia Ofeimun and did some work on them. I also gave to Nduka Otiono and he did some work on them, so I’m hoping to do an anthology soon. Maybe 2 books at the same time. I still write. My wife now collects them. That’s her pastime now, so she’s combing everywhere because you can find them in my question paper or my answer scripts everywhere. I still write.
I still run a column. Before now, I used to run a column in a magazine called Noble People, but it’s been rested now, so when The Sun came out, my former editor asked me to do a column which I do now. It’s called RMD’s World.
Publishing, I don’t think I’ll still ever publish… If I will ever publish again, they will be issue oriented things. I think there are enough publications on style and even though none is really doing it in style, they’re more… Everybody because they see that Ovation is making money, everybody wants to do an Ovation (LAUGHING). So, really, there is still no magazine on style conceptualized the way Mr. was in the past. People still tease me once in a while “are you going to ever do something on style again?” Maybe. I don’t know. If I do end up making a lot of money, I probably will, just for the fun of it.