WHY IBB SENT ME TO KIRIKIRI PRISONS – Actor Ejike Asiegbu
Likeable actor and director, Henry James Ejike Asiegbu, is a man of many parts. Apart from acting where the Umuahia, Abia State born six footer has so far distinguished himself, the former Students’ Union president, unknown to many, once served as the Personal Assistant to late Ikemba Nnewi, Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. He equally laced his boots for NEPA, an Onitsha-based Division Four club side. All these, however, were before acting beckoned on the dark-skinned gentleman who is married to Ogechi, a Marketing graduate of the Federal Polytechnic, Oko (in Anambra State).
AZUH ARINZE pinned down the actor who is fondly called The Godfather by friends for an exclusive interview. The thrust, of course, has to do with his other side. Come with us:
Tell our readers about yourself…
My name is Ejike James Henry Asiegbu. I’m from Umuihi, Umuahia, the capital of Abia State. I come from a family of six. One is late. My father (Chief Sir J.U. Asiegbu) is a retired engineer with NEPA. My mother (Mrs. Comfort Egobeke Asiegbu) is into petty trading. I had my primary education at Santa Maria (now known as Constitution Crescent Primary School, Aba) and St. Mary’s Primary School, Lokoja. And for my secondary education, I went to Abdul Azeez Attah Memorial College, Okene. I left there in 1980 for Christ The King College (CKC), Onitsha where I completed my papers. I had my A-levels at the Institute of Management and Technology (IMT), Enugu as well as my OND. Although, I didn’t get to complete my OND before proceeding to the University of Port Harcourt, where I first started with a certificate course in Theatre Arts and majoring in acting. After that, I went in for my B.A in Theatre Arts. This time, majoring in directing. I finished in 1993.
At UNIPORT, you were the Students’ Union president and on several occasions you were pitched in battles with the school authority and even the government of IBB. Have you dropped that militant toga?
I’ve not changed. I still have my ideologies. The issue is that after graduation, I worked with Eze Igbo and Ikemba Nnewi, Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and after the Constitutional Conference. I wanted to identify with my first constituency, which of course is acting.
How many times did the government of IBB detain you and for how long?
Well, because of my vociferousness, my attitude, my belief, which titled towards the emancipation of the highly domesticated and marginalised students of UNIPORT and the masses of the entire country, I was never in the good books of my then Vice Chancellor, Prof. Kesley Harrison and consequently the former Head of State, Gen Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. And because of my position within the NANS circle then, that is as the co-ordinator of the highly volatile Eastern States’ Universities and Polytechnics, I was sort of a kingpin or arrowhead that must be cut down to create disunity and panic. So, I found myself being arraigned before a Justice Mary Odili Magistrate Court on holden charge of being a member of a secret cult and so on and myself, alongside 35 other students, were brought before a Special Military Tribunal where I insisted on my being innocent. It lasted for about 26 months and throughout, I was moved from Kirikiri Prisons in Lagos to Port Harcourt Prisons and then Enugu Prisons. I was never deterred because I saw everything as one of those divide and rule devices usually created by the government with a view to breaking solidarity. My brother and childhood friend, Chief Barrister Paschal Madu, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Chief Barrister Felix Ogbuagu, all came to my rescue and with His special grace and for want of evidence, I was discharged and acquitted after about 26 months in detention on a no case submission. These days, each time I reflect, I always remember Chief Barrister Felix Ogbuagu who did all he could to ensure that I was not further incarcerated.
So, how would you describe those 26 months that you traversed three prisons and what would you say you learnt?
Well, in the words of Ikemba Nnewi, I will say: I saw war and war saw me. But today when I reflect, I still thank the Almighty God for making me experience something special and another aspect of life which any person that intends to lead this country should experience because I know that if by tomorrow I find myself in a position of strength, maybe as a Governor, Minister, an Ambassador or even the President, I will be able to cut across, reach out to the poor and the rich, the haves and the have nots because I’ve been to the last bus stop. I have been through the darkest tunnels. Obasanjo can testify. Although, mine was worse because theirs was the VIP while ours was the ghetto. It’s true (Voice rises).
Do we assume that you abandoned unionism because of what you went through in detention or are you just tired of unionism?
I’m not tired and I can never be tired. Unionism is a lifetime process. My problem with the society is that people are sycophants and are unable to call a spade a spade because somehow their persons are involved. We still have a lot of tribal sentiments in this nation. We still glorify money. And it is very disheartening and sad.
All those while that you were in detention, how did your family take it?
It’s only natural that they should be disillusioned. They were not happy, but I encouraged them and when they saw how strong I was and when they found out that I didn’t do anything, they stood solidly by me.
But between you and I, were you at any point a member of a secret cult?
I was not a member of any confraternity or cult. It’s a long story. My case was like that of Joseph in the Bible whose brothers sold to the Egyptians. My travails started immediately I won an election as the Students’ Union president and having not come from Rivers State, the V.C rejected me. And because he was pro-government and had other ulterior motives, he moved to thwart that. The first election was conducted and I won. He cancelled it. When there was a re-election which I also won, he cancelled it again and even went ahead to ban students’ unionism. All these because his candidate did not win and that I did not come from Rivers State. I took the path of reasoning by petitioning the Governing Council through the Senate, which after all investigations instructed that the ban be lifted and that I be sworn in. He unbanned the S.U, but refused to swear me in. Atop this, he instigated his candidate to go and get an interlocutory injunction restraining me from being sworn in. Again, I got it quashed. And to his shame and chagrin, I got sworn in and thus began his secret plans to nail me.
But the belief is that for one to become a Students’ Union president, he must belong to one family (cult)?
Well, it might be the belief in all universities now that cult activities have escalated. But in our time, it was not so. There were confraternities quite alright, but they had nothing to do with the leadership of the students because whatever one will be was based on his capacity to deliver, represent the students’ interest and posses the dynamism required of such an exalted position.
They said you were also a very good footballer then. So, let’s talk about that too…
Yes! I played football. I captained my primary school in Lokoja. Even in my secondary school days too, I played for both the junior and senior teams. In fact, we won the Governor’s Cup during my time. This was either ’75 or ’76. I played for CKC briefly. Then IMT during NIPOGA. The last time I played football was with a Division Four club side based in Onitsha – NEPA Football Club. I played both as a striker and a defender. This was between 81 – 83.
What are your likes and dislikes?
I like good-natured people. I like straight-forward people. I like nice people. I like people who are truthful and I cherish loyalty a lot. I hate liars. I hate pretenders and I hate backstabbers.
Do you have any regret?
Of course! Every human being should. Personally, I have lots of them. For example, when I remember my past life, things I was not able to do then etc, I feel bad.
What are some of these things?
Oh! There are a lot of them.
Do you have any happiest day?
Oh yes! (Shaking his head). My happiest day was the day I wedded. That was February 13, 1999.
Why did you choose your wedding day as your happiest?
Because that was the day I married the woman I love with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my body.
What about your saddest day?
(Countenance changes) – That was sometime in 1996 when I lost my elder sister, Claudia. She trained as a lawyer and her twin is a magistrate in Abia State.
How do you see life as a married man?
(Adjusts his bulky frame on the sofa, clears his throat and begins) – It’s been very exciting, interesting and exhilarating. It’s been a different school entirely, learning new things, appreciating new things and seeing each other in true light.
Are you saying that you don’t miss anything about bachelorhood or what?
Do I really miss anything? (Thinks) Maybe hanging out with the boys.
So, how did you meet your wife, Ogechi?
I met my wife on the set of a movie titled Pregnant Virgin in Port Harcourt. Then, she was doing her I.T and had come to the set to see somebody and also see if she could be part of the production. The rest is history. But of course, she swept me off my feet (Laughing).
What year was this?
So, what attracted you to her on that first day or what made you say to yourself: ‘Men! I’m gonna woo this girl?’
(Thinks for about 5 seconds) – Her innocence, her carriage, her beauty, her decency, her comportment and because she had this aura of a mother, this aura of maturity, this aura of goodness, this aura of simplicity and above all, she looked reserved.
What was the first thing you said to her when it dawned on you that you had been swept off your feet?
(Laughing) – I knew she was looking for where the other members of cast and crew had gone to eat. So, I directed her and after that I became excited.
Like a little boy that was just falling in love for the first time?
No! Like an old man that had finally found his missing rib (Still laughing).
So, how did you toast her?
Azuh! I didn’t toast her.
Interesting! So she did?
No! No!! No!!! I saw her and she had all the qualities I was looking for in my dream woman and by the time I spoke with her, it was already a forgone thing.
Be sincere. What do you hate about her?
Ah! I like her o! (Voice rises) I like her. In fact, I love everything about her.
So, how will you describe her to somebody that has never met or seen her before?
(Laughing) – Azuh, you be foolish boy o! But that’s a good one sha! For somebody who has not met my wife before, I will say my wife is a very interesting person. I married the most beautiful woman on earth (Shows me the wife’s photograph on his table). She is a very, very friendly person, very respectful, very loving, very caring and her smile is capable of disarming any man.
Who are Ejike Asiegbu’s role models?
By virtue of my training, I don’t have any particular role model. But I try to improve everyday in my art as an actor and also a director since our profession is a learning and creative process.
Which colour or colours are your favourite?
Red for T-shirt and polos; chequers for shirts and blue for trousers.
Which brand of cars are your favourite?
I love Mercedes Benz and I love jeeps too.
What about music?
I love Barry White, Teddy Pendegrass, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, etc.
I’m not a drink person. I love fruit drinks and tonic water. Although once in a while, I take Stout.
What about food?
I have two bests: Jollof rice served with chicken and vegetable and okazi soup served with either eba or fufu or semovita.
What’s your phobia?
As someone that once worked with Ikemba Nnewi, Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu as a Personal Assistant, what kind of person will you say he is or how can you describe him?
He’s very humane. He’s somebody that wants things done properly. He’s very thorough. He’s highly principled. He’s a loving boss. He’s kind. He’s straight and the wife (Bianca) too, is a very nice lady.
How will you describe the relationship you shared with him then?
I had a father/son relationship with him. He taught me so many things I never knew about politics. He taught me to be firm, to be rooted, to be purposeful, to have drive, to be strong-willed and above all, loyalty.
How did the relationship start in the first place?
He had come to my alma mater to give a lecture. And here I was, an actor, to present before him, himself. And when I did, he liked it. That was the first impression. The second time I had contact with him was during the launching of his book – Because I Am Involved – at the National Theatre (in Iganmu, Lagos). I was not invited, but I thought of equally contributing to the occasion by making an appearance. This time, I took him down memory lane by rendering some of his war speeches and some of his antics and mannerisms. He liked it! I made his day and equally that of those in attendance. It is on record that I was the only actor that performed for him on that day. And so on graduation, when I heard that he needed a P.A from one of my aunties, I applied and he recognized and remembered his old but lost and now found friend and that was how I got an automatic employment.
Why did you part ways with him?
We didn’t. I left him at the tail end of the Constitutional Conference. He granted me leave of absence because I told him I wanted to get back and pursue my Master’s degree. Although, I later changed my mind about that to practice as a home video actor.
What is your candid assessment of Nigeria’s movie industry?
I must candidly say that the industry is on the threshold of exploding because Nigerians have been awaken to the appreciation of our socio-political situation through the many stories that have been written and acted.
What is your definition of acting?
Acting is the expression of the inner recesses of the mind. But literally, acting is the make-believe of a particular situation. To act means to represent another person’s character, traits, mannerisms and behaviors as it affects him in a particular environment in relation to everybody around him.
How did you come into acting?
At both primary and secondary levels, I found myself acting as a member of the Dramatic Society. Also, when I was at IMT, I was the president of the BAS Theatre founded by Mr. Umeayo Madukwe, one of my lecturers. It was from there that Uzor Amadi saw me and invited me to be part of his programme at ABS – Beyond The Realm. And within a short time, I became popular in the state because it was a weekly thing. While still doing that, Paul Worika, the then director of Basi and Company saw me, invited me, and that was how I became part of Basi and Company too. From there, New Masquerade came, followed by other productions.
So far, which of your roles can you single out as your best and your worst?
I have said it countlessly that as an actor and a professional too, no role is better than the other. I do justice to any character I find myself playing and leave the judgement to the viewers to appreciate and criticize. That way, I learn, bearing in mind that my profession is a learning process which is subject to improvement.
What about the highest and lowest fees that you have collected as an actor?
I don’t discuss my fees, but I give glory to the Almighty Father for His benevolence. I thank the producers who have found me worthy of taking part in their productions.