By Okoh Aihe
THERE was one appellation I could never call him, even grudgingly, Mr. Prolific. But that never adulterated my respect for him. Mr. Chico Ejiro who exited the stage on Christmas day morning was a movie maker of note, a guy with a mission which, as it has turned out now, had little time to accomplish it. It was the frenetic activities cramped between life and permanent departure that made some of my friends to stamp that rubric on him.
A few years ago, at an Association of Movie Producers, AMP, event in Lagos, executed by the restless Zik Okafor, I saw Chico for the first time in about ten years. We looked at each other hard in the face, with mutual suspicions diminished over the years.
We exchanged very warm pleasantries, and I told him he has done well for establishing himself firmly in the industry, and churning out works as he has always done. He simply just smiled. Where have you been Okoh?
Let’s try and situate the story. Once the Nigerian movie industry, later known as Nollywood, got its tipping point with Living in Bondage by Kenneth Nnebue in the early 90s, so many creative bystanders jumped into the sector to drink from the fresh hope the bourgeoning sector offered.
There was an opportunity to explore the prospect of something new, create raw entertainment and also make some good bucks while having fun. I will limit myself to Zeb Ejiro and his younger brother, Chico, and Amaka Igwe – the last two have gone to discuss other creative opportunities with God; Amaka was the first to go, April 14, 2014. Zeb who started life on television had been frozen out by the antics of the NTA which was the only channel for the creative community at the time. For instance, Ripples ran for an incredible period of five years with miniscule evidence of prosperity by the Czar, Zeb’s moniker, before fading out in 1993. Things happened in the TV sector in the early 90s.
Government had partially commercialised NTA to move it away from its stultifying programming and to begin to infuse some lively colour of public acceptance, although in very open enigma it kept hold of its ownership. Amaka Igwe was one of the early beneficiaries. As an independent producer, her Checkmate hit NTA with rippling excitement in 1991.
Living in Bondage was shot straight on video in 1992. Then, the dam broke and so many generations are still drinking from its water of comfort and creativity. Nollywood for which that film is a precursor is more than a name. It is a kaleidoscopic approximation of the raw energies of our creative youths which has overtaken the world with such a daunting force that even academic communities globally are still trying to understand the images coming out of Nigeria. The gathering at Georgia Tech, Atlanta, in 2011 bears clear evidence.
Then a conspiracy of the elements was unleashed to permanently alter the hue of broadcasting in the country. Only a few now remember how punishing it was to watch NTA from 5.00p.m to sometime in the night, perhaps before midnight, and all you watch is the kind of platitude and frivolities that still distinguish NTA from the lot today. Reason. In August 1992, the Federal Military Government promulgated Decree No. 38 establishing the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, which effectively deregulated the broadcast sector for the participation of private citizens.
That Decree has since become an Act of the National Assembly, the National Broadcasting Commission Act, Cap. N11, Laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 2004. You only need to look around and ask, where TV would have been without AIT, Channels, TV Continental, Silverbird, Arise TV and even Multichoice, just to name a few.
The point here is that it was not only the movie market and Nigerians that were reading for an emerging world which Chico and others would step into, the broadcast industry was also readying the airwaves to accommodate those with some streak of genius.
Initially the power hubs of Nollywood were based at Surulrere, Ikeja for productions while the markets were based in Idumota and Alaba Market, all in Lagos, followed by Iweka Road in Onitsha, Anambra State. The Ejiro Brothers operated from Surulere, and my God, they were the real deal, churning out movies like biscuits from a factory. They never liked me when I make such remarks but I had a job to do, a movie critic, and they had theirs, and we were both responsible to a hungry public waiting to sponge up the latest news from the entertainment sector.
While writing for the newspapers then, Vanguard was gracious enough to let me run a TV programme on the side, Movie Half Hour, produced from Amaka Igwe Studios. That turned out to be very conflicting.
We had three fellows with great intellection on the screen every week dissecting the movie industry – Wale Obadeyi, who I am sure by now would have welcomed Chico home, Lillian Agbeyegbe, now a health specialist in the United States and Chris Paul Otaigbe, who remains a practicing journalist. They were masters of the act. We had a job to do.
The industry was young, all the players – producers, directors, cameramen and all the others responsible for creating content, and the media had to accommodate each other’s lousiness, stubbornness and even brilliance to create a lasting industry. And we are nearly there! To be frank, Chiko cemented his place very jealously in Nollywood – a director, screen writer and producer. A writer will need a full column to list his works – Silent Night, Tears in My Eyes, Night Bus to Lagos, Outkast, Agony of a Mother, Blood Money and so many more. Some fellas have ascribed to him as many as 86 films. That’s what earned him the name, Mr. Prolific.
In my little journey in the arts, I know there are those who just want to create masterpieces, art for art’s sake, something for the connoisseurs; while others want to throw in a little splash of commercial interest. Chico belongs to the latter group but in the process, has bred a generation of Nigerian stars who have since developed a life of their own.
The place of the Ejiros in Nollywood is so well secured. Each time I try to look at them dispassionately what comes to my mind is the story of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, two cousins and co-owners of the Canon Group who took Hollywood by storm after making a mark in their native country, Israel, in the 70s.
In the prime of their business before the eclipse, they featured stars like Sean Connery, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Charles Bronson, among others.
Here awarded full credits of being a Nollywood pioneer, Chico nurtured a line of stars and featured them in his galaxy – Ramsey Nouah, Joke Silva, Segun Arinze, Pete Edochie, Alex Osifo, Zack Orji, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Ejike Asiegbu, Sam Dede and Kate Henshaw, just to name a few. You need to have some creative juice in you and some level of chutzpah to squeeze a commanding performance out of this lot. Chico did, always. And the industry respected him for that.
This is where the victory in death comes from, and where one can begin to extend some nourishing balms to the hearts that are grieving at the moment – Zeb and Chico’s immediate family, that Chico did more to stamp a positively impactful imprimatur on Nollywood in order to bring smiles and hopes into fatigued homes, and is leaving the world much better and richer than a thousand politicians fused into one can ever dream of. May his memory continue to be a blessing to a nation in dire need of prayers.