BY ‘SEGUN ODEJIMI
When Charlton Heston, the late American actor famed for his part in Planet of the Apes (1968) at Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos state in 1959 during the premiere of Ben Hur expressed his disappointment at the fact that Nigeria had no film industry, little did he know that a teenager from Abor in Delta state was interested in changing that reality.
Yesterday, at the age of 78, two days before a scheduled surgery that was hoped would extend his life, that chap died in a Lagos hospital. But not before he helped changed the narrative. Nigeria now has a film industry that is comfortably in the top five in the world when it comes to production volume and that chap will have a few paragraphs dedicated to him whenever its history is written.
Eddie Ugbomah was born on December 19, 1940, and he was educated and grew up in Lagos. The streets of Obalende and Lafiaji were playgrounds for the young Eddie. From St Matthias, Lafiaji, Lagos to City College School, Ugbomah picked up some of the knowledge he would be needing for his journey in the arts. As with a handful of young Nigerians of that era whose dreams were to go abroad and add to their knowledge and exposure, Ugbomah traveled to London for some more education. He was interested in journalism and so that was what he pursued.
Ugbomah’s mind was vast though and it didn’t take long for him to add drama and film to the mix of his studies. Nigeria would be thankful many years later for that decision – he was awarded an Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) national award by the Nigerian government. He definitely deserved even more. While he was still in London acquiring knowledge, Ugbomah was also performing in and directing plays for the British stage. Stoke Newington in North East London witnessed “This Is Our Chance”, one of such theatre productions.
In 1975, he returned to Nigeria. Soon after, he created a filmmaking company – Edifosa and in 1977, his first film was made.
The tractable society the British left behind when Nigeria gained her independence in 1960 had given way to crime, corruption, and political foofaraw. There had been three coups d’etat and Nigerians were beginning to face terror. One human who had a field day with terror in Lagos, Nigeria was Ishola Oyenusi who operated one of the deadliest armed-robbery gangs the city had seen spilling from the late 60s to the early 70s before his end came on September 8, 1971. Six years after Oyenusi’s life was ended by a firing squad, Eddie Ugbomah released The Rise and Fall of Dr Oyenusi, a 16mm-35mm-120 minutes satire of not just Oyenusi’s horrible crimes but also of the menace of armed robbery which was on the rise. The filmmaker played the title character in the film. This marked the beginning of an iconic filmmaking career that lasted four decades.
Eddie Ugbomah’s next film would be The Mask (1979) which was a cultural and historical satire. The Olusegun Obasanjo-led military government had hosted the world in the infamous Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture popularly remembered as FESTAC ‘ 77. This festival’s symbol was a mask alleged to have been stolen by the British Colonial Government in 1825. So, Ugbomah’s second film was based on this mask.
Oil Doom (1980) and Bolus ’80 (1982) followed. The late Eddie Ugboma continued in mirroring society and taking prevalent issues as themes for use in his films.
In The Boy is Good (1982), he predicted the menace of fee fraud which has morphed today into internet fraud. One of the filmmaker’s friends had returned to the country with a Ph.D. but could not find a job. He thought advance fee fraud would be a good alternative for him and he kicked it off. This then inspired Ugboma to make the film.
Another big hit came with Death of a Black President (1983). It was triggered by events surrounding the assassination of Murtala Mohammed who ruled Nigeria between 1975 and 1976. The film was all shades of gutsy. Its poster featured the photograph of the assassination scene. According to several reports, he was the only filmmaker who was allowed to take the photo. The film also highlighted major ills of the political class in that period.
Eddie Ugbomah went on to make Vengeance of the Cult (1984), Esan (1985), Apalara (1986), Omiran (1986), The Great Attempt (1988), Toriade (1989), America or Die (1996). In 1988, he was appointed the chairman of the Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC).
His health issues began many years ago. He was reported to have been suffering a brain ailment and had visited about six hospitals in Lagos. In 2018, he cried out via The Nation and asked for financial help. Help didn’t come quickly enough and Ugbomah had to consider selling his works to raise money. The Delta state government reached out to him earlier this year and it seemed he would get the medical treatment he needed.
But yesterday, May 11, 2019, at the age of 78, Ugbomah died in a private hospital in Lagos two days before he was scheduled to undergo surgery.
May his soul rest well.
Photo Credits: Film Centenary Project