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Famous actor and comic star John Ikechukwu Okafor, popularly known as Mr. Ibu is one entertainer whose face and acts are antidotes for the depressed.
For almost three decades, the actor, comedian, and singer has endlessly dazzled and wowed comedy and movie buffs with his hilarious persona, making him one of the most popular acts in the nation’s entertainment industry globally known as Nollywood.
However, even though Mr. Ibu’s life revolves around entertainment and making people happy, the Enugu State-born thespian is a man with a bleeding heart and many hidden pains.
In this no-holds-barred and exclusive encounter, Mr. Ibu, for the first time revealed the agonies he went through in the hands of his ex-wife, whom he alleged made several attempts on his life and that of his immediate family.
“My ex wife and her cohorts planned and kidnapped my wife and child; they were later released after 10 days... That child later died a year after through poisoning. The fact later came out, but I don’t want to act on it now; I don’t want to massacre anybody…,” he told Entertainment Express.
The humour merchant and star of numerous blockbusters in this riveting chat also spoke extensively on other germane issues, including his battle with poverty, encounter with homosexuals, women and more. The interview, refreshing and fascinating, is a bird’s eye view and also a close up on Mr. Ibu’s world.
Let’s start with your recent trip to the US, what took you there?
Over the period, I was busy with a preparation for my American trip. I went there (US) for a movie which is a collaboration between Nollywood and Hollywood production. It’s a production that belongs to Nollywood. Basically, I’m the man at the helm of the production; I’ll play the lead role for the work. For the first time some celebrated Hollywood actors will be coming to Nigeria to make a movie. The title of the movie is ‘Ibu Runs Mad in America’. All through the movie I will be playing the role of a mad man- both the Nigerian and American parts of it.
You are used to playing the roles of an imbecile and sometimes a mad man; what efforts do you always make to fit into such characters.
The issue is that once you are a good actor, you can go ahead and interpret any character no matter how tedious. The role of an imbecile which I have played in the past in a movie entitled Agony is far different from the role of a mad man. Apart from bringing in my ingenuity as an actor to interpret any role, I also ask God for ideas to creatively interpret it beyond the ordinary.
While most of your colleagues are fading, you’ve remained evergreen in the industry; what is the secret?
That is what we call consistency in the profession. For you to remain relevant after many years in any profession there must be element of consistency. There must be something spectacular about you and you must be the kind of person that always seeks to improve. That is what I do every day, trying to improve myself, and I believe that is exactly what has been keeping me, and more especially, the grace of God.
Are you not worried by the emergence of many talents and younger faces in the industry which has practically displaced most of your contemporary?
It has only displaced those who are not consistent and don’t know what they are doing. If you are in business or topping your class in school, the admission of new students should not be a threat to you. Movie-making is not like football that you abandon whenever you get old. In this industry, one should even get better as he grows older.
For your fans that don’t know how the acting journey started for you, can you share with us how it all began?
I can’t really pinpoint anything physical that lured me into acting. However, I can say that my getting into acting was all about a spiritual realization. When I was growing up, I lived with my grandfather who happened to have had an uncanny sense of humour. I enjoyed him more than I enjoyed myself today.
I started acting on December 3, 1978. The issue is that I had never seen myself coming in front of the camera. I was initially involved in Continuity, not until the directors and producers started persuading me to come on board to act.
They saw my interpretation of movie roles to be better and more original. It wasn’t as if I was running away from acting, I only wanted to specialize in my Continuity job, being behind the cameras. So at a point I started acting once in a while. I later asked myself, ‘Ibu, wetin you dey wait, go and concentrate on the thing’. So I took the advantage of the opportunity from my Producers and Directors who loved me so much.
Even when I was in elementary school, whenever I commit any offence that deserved punishment, the way I would act, my moves would make everybody to start laughing. By so doing, I was escaping from lots of punishments in the school. Even now that I’m seriously into the game, I still go back to some of those things I used to do in the past; I only refine it to suit this generation.
Does that mean your grandfather introduced you to comedy/acting?
My grandfather was a better comedian than myself. I started living with him when I was four. I kept being marveled by the way he humorously related to people. He was good with herbs so he was always treating people with ailments. I saw his patients laughing in the face of their agonies, just because of the jokes he cracked. He was not a native doctor, but he knew and believed in the power of the leaves. So I used to stay very close and listen attentively to him. I later began using the name he was called which is Ibu.
He used to answer all manners of funny names including Nshi (shit), Otiokpo (boxer), Ibu, etc. So before I knew it, the man’s attitude hypnotised me. I became stupid (laughter). It was the stupidity in him that he imparted on me and he had everything that could make you laugh. And funny enough, because of the materials he imparted on me, sometimes people will begin to read meanings into my movements, my face, my eyes, whenever people look at me even without me doing anything they will start laughing.
That’s just the trouble I’m into today. I can’t walk on the streets. Living with my grandfather rubbed off on me and as I got on in life, I began noticing that uncanny sense of humour in me. This realization, which to me is spiritual, is what got me into acting, particularly comedy.
When you got your first movie role, what quality of yours was responsible for it?
I remember that my first commercial work was an Igbo movie shot in onitsha, it was produced by Solomon Eze. In that work, we had about 24 people contesting for that role. The issue was that each time I came out to read my lines, before I even say a word, everybody, including the producer would start laughing. All other of my colleagues still got it well, but the executive producer and other persons in charge of the production all said it should be me or no other person. Sometimes, I would be asking myself ‘how did I do it’. That is why acting has to come from the inside, if you fake it you might not go far. If you don’t have the content that can make people laugh, forget it, you are not a comedian.
Are you saying that the hilarious aspect of you is natural?
Are you also saying I’m naturally stupid? I didn’t start acting from my mummy’s womb, so it can’t be natural. But what I do is to properly interpret my roles. It’s that property of proper interpretation that made me the Ibu I am today. I feel if I must do anything I must do it well. I don’t do it to favour anybody, I just do it the way it comes to me. Names I answer today are just too many because I’ve almost answered all kinds of names in movies including ‘Bone, Flesh, Nshi, Shit, Ikwe’, several names like that.
So do you see yourself as more of a comedian?
I see myself as a versatile actor. It’s just that this stereotype thing has enveloped my person, but generally I can act anything.
With this your naturally funny personality, how do you cope with such serious roles as that of a bank manager? I’ve done a number of such serious roles in the past. But the issue is that will fans see me as a bank manager in such movie? They will be expecting me to do one or two funny things in the course of that movie, because there is a trade mark already. If I play the role of a Bank Manager the way it ought to be played, some people would start wondering, what is Ibu doing.
They will see me as faking it. That is the problem. As for me, I can act all roles. But I don’t want to keep them away from the ‘me’ they know. The only thing I try to change is the fact that whenever I act, there must always be something new, something different from what they’ve either seen from me or from any other actor. When I handle any script, another of me will appear. The movie we are about to release-Ibu Runs Mad in America-is another thing entirely; you will see me breasting another mad white woman with feeding bottle. All these things come up when I’m acting. They are not in the script, it comes naturally.
So many up-and-coming actors are struggling to rise to the top, what were the major challenges you faced while trying to rise to the top?
I don’t think this young generation can pay the sacrifices I paid in the past. I used to trek on daily basis from Ajao Estate to Festac. It was a daily trekking for me except when there was no auditioning or rehearsal.
Why were you trekking?
I was trekking round Lagos because after auditioning there would be about a week or two weeks rehearsals; any day you didn’t report for rehearsals might be the end for you in that movie; because there were so many others waiting to take over. But even whenever there was no production that I was involved in, I used to go there to see if I could see one or two producers. My slippers then had lots of holes (laughter). There was no need again for slippers because my toes were always touching the ground even when I was wearing the slippers.
Was your family that poor?
My family was the poorest in my village. When I lost my father, breeze pulled down our house and we became tenants in our own village. That was Umunekwu Village in Eziokwe, NKanu West Local Government Area of Enugu State.
Are you the first born?
We were eight in number; five men and three women. We were given a room in our maternal home; there we all slept at night as if we were in a cell. One leg here, the other leg there! (laughs).
What was your most memorable experience while growing up?
Once you are poor you are poor. You will be forced to see so many things from another angle. My father stopped training me when I was still very small. He died in 1975. That was how we became fathers to each other and to our mum. I was training myself in secondary school. I was doing all sorts of odd jobs. I sold fire wood, I did hair dressing, I was assembling wooden crates of minerals, I was involved in the snapping of wait-and-take pictures; I was a butcher; if you want to kill a goat, cow, pig, etc, I would do it for you, cut it to your desired sizes, and take it to your place. That was how I was surviving.
It was from those petty jobs that I got money to see myself through school. My elder brother later came in when he began earning money. When I was picking up my admission form to study Mass Communication at the Institute of Management and Technology, IMT, Enugu, my brother told me to choose part time, because it was going to be hard if I should enter full time. There was no time for rest because it was struggle all through; struggle to go to school and struggle to feed ourselves and our mum. We lost two members of the family along the way. My brother, I had a poverty-ridden growing up experience.
In the face of all these difficulties, what was your consolation, and what served as the catalyst that propelled you to limelight?
I believed that one day there would be a turn around. I did Karate; I was teaching Karate on the black board at the Federal Government College, Onitsha; just to put food in the stomach. At a point I even went into boxing. My intention of going into boxing was because boxing was becoming lucrative then. Unfortunately, the first day I entered the boxing ring, people around had to carry me home (laughter); the idiot that was my opponent nearly killed me (laughter). That was how my boxing career ended. My fellow man used hand and scattered my face. Nobody told me to quit boxing.
Apart from the Ibu we see on the screen, who is the real John Okafor?
John Okafor is a tactical, calculated and an organized human being who does his work strictly without offending anybody. If I offend anybody in the course of my work, I used to apologize once I notice. But if you offend me and you are claiming right, I would only go my way. The fact is that anger is a small madness. When I’m angry I don’t do anything. If one does anything when angry, what it would cause could be more than what caused the anger. So before you see me nagging or angry with anybody, that person must have pressed me against the wall.
How do you let people know you are serious whenever you intend doing serious business?
I don’t have to put off people by trying to be serious. I always want to make them see me as that comedy man; this allows me to carry them along even when I’m doing such serious business.
At what point did you see yourself as having been financially liberated?
The issue is that nobody is rich in this industry, but we are not poor. We are not hungry. The reason we are the way we are is simply because we are still lacking in a whole lots of things. Don’t you think it’s a shame that as big as Nollywood is we still don’t have a secretariat? Not even a film village, for a giant of Africa like Nigeria. It’s a shame that no government has made it a priority to set up one or two structure and call it film village.
Yet government collects forty thousand naira (N40, 000) for each movie on censorship. If you produce up to part four, that is about N160, 000. With all the impact the system has created, government is not looking at the industry. Now we have a deadly virus called piracy. These pirates are still Nigerians; all they do is to wait for us to sweat and shoot movies; they even eat more money than the owners of the work.
Tell me, why won’t God punish them? God will punish anybody anywhere that has an interest to reap where he never sowed. Why can’t government set up a body to manage piracy? They set up a body for corruption (EFCC); they set up a body to manage fake drugs (NAFDAC), why not piracy? I still believe that one day, somebody will hear our cry.
What mistake of your past would you love to correct?
The past for me is already a past. All I look forward to are the things ahead. All the mistakes I have made in the past are now in my past. And I don’t regret my past. The only thing I will never pray to happen to me again is the kind of poverty I experienced while growing up.
Wouldn’t you have loved to remain married to one woman?
I have come to understand that marriage issue is a spiritual thing. You will suffer if you marry who is not your wife. I keep telling the young generation, pray if you want to marry. If you are not good in prayer, learn it whenever you want to marry. As I talk to you now, about 18 girls and 18 men married through me, they trusted me and I looked for partners for them; till today, they are still living happily. If you marry who is not your wife as a man, you are finished. I’m talking out of experience because I have experienced a failed marriage. I don’t want to go into it because now I’m happily married again.
Does it mean that your first wife was not really meant for you?
The answer is yes.
Was it infatuation that lured you into the marriage?
I was lured into the marriage by my mum and my younger sister. She was trying to consolidate an old friendship the family had with the other family; not minding the lady’s attitude and so many other things. I don’t want to go into that.
When the marriage crashed, we felt it was the usual celebrity kind of marriages that don’t last. I think I’m the best husband in the world; when you marry good wife you will “chop beans and mess in your house.”
Basically, what attracts you to a woman?
I like good things. I like natural women. If you are black you must remain black and if you are light skinned you must remain one. I don’t like this idea of women putting silicon to increase their breasts; I don’t like such fake women. As Mr. Ibu is ugly now, I won’t go for a surgery to enhance my face. I also like slim tall girls with good hips and moderately endowed breast-wise (Laughter). My kind of girl must be flexible with her body and dresses smartly.
I don’t like heavy weight champions, I don’t like loquacious women. I like clean girls because I can’t condone odours. Odours from women get me angry.
So how do you cope with the large number of female admirers that flock around you?
Women will always admire and flock around any man who is successful in his chosen career. This is normal and found in all spheres, not just movie stars like me. I’m happy that a lot of the female folks have fallen in love with my acts.
All I do is to play with them and diplomatically relate with them. But ‘I dey run o!’.
I understand you are running because you are married; how many were you able to ‘combine’ as a single man then?
I’ve always had a policy that has been guiding me. Upon my ugliness, I’ve always had a choice.
How does the first woman you had a romantic affair with as a wretched man see you now that you are famous and rich?
The very first woman in my life. I think her name is Jen, from Delta state. We were dating until I got admission to IMT. I left to process my admission, but by the time I came back after two months she was already pregnant for another man. That was how the relationship ended, after four years.
How does she see you now?
I’ve not seen her for some time; she must have been married by now. She must have been looking for means to reach me anyway. The affair was as far back as 1993.
Hope we won’t hear any story of divorce again from you and your new wife
We pray for devil’s work not to come to pass; because we don’t need it. Many things have happened in this marriage. My ex wife and her cohorts planned and kidnapped my wife and child, they were later released after 10 days. That child later died a year after through poison. The fact later came out, but I don’t want to act on it now; I don’t want to massacre anybody. Only God in heaven knows. I call my current wife a first class wife because I haven’t encountered so many women like her, I saw something different in her. If you see how my wife treats me, you will be surprised.
How were they eventually released?
It’s now a past thing; I paid the ransom. I dropped the money where they asked me to drop it. I did and they asked me to go and I left. It was 12 hours after that my wife and son came home.
Does it mean you actually parted on sad note with your ex?
Definitely, but I don’t want to go into it. You will be surprised the day you will hear what happened.
We heard that your separation was because her family wasn’t in support of the marriage.
You will hear it when the day comes. I don’t want to massacre anybody; I don’t want to spoil anybody. God has everybody’s case file.
We also thought the kidnap case was because of your wealth.
No, it was planned. I was even thinking they were going to kill them. Thank God they were released after I paid certain amount of money.
Why are you not fully involved in the activities of Actors Guild of Nigeria?
Some of the members are diabolic; that is why I’m not fully involved. I’m not interested in anything involving fetish practices.
It‘s widely believed that there are homosexuals in the industry; you must have encountered them, so share your experience with us.
One idiot came toasting me o! That is true as funny as it would sound. Something is happening in this Nollywood. These up and coming actors are being used by some of the established producers who are gays. If you want to get a job as an up and coming actor, you must sleep with them. You must be sexed to get a job. We are no longer in the era of the female actresses suffering from sexual harassment; it is now man to man. Abomination! God has a lot of things to judge.
Man to woman is also bad, but we can easily overlook that. Why not put your penis in the right place. There is something spiritual in that thing (frowns). Why would you bend down for one idiot to penetrate you, thereby destroying your future? You left God and bowed to devil…by the time you get up, you get up as a woman, while the idiot that penetrated you walks away majestically! Their payback is sudden death, and it keeps happening.
What else would you have become if you were not an actor?
‘I don’t try boxing, e no work, I no go fit run, I no go fit play football. Militancy na attempted suicide. God knows very well that I would have been something else. I dey suspect say I for dey village dey drag land’ (Laughs).