Many call him 'Ajebo,' but his real name is Steve Eboh. The popular actor is the Vice President of the Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN). Since last year, he has been at loggerheads with Ejike Asiegbu, the president of the AGN, over the leadership of the guild. Eboh, who took Asiegbu to court, in this interview with CORRESPONDENT Kemi Yesufu, speaks on the crisis rocking the body and the movie industry as a whole. Excerpts:
Have you moved to Abuja?
No, I haven't moved to Abuja. I still live in Lagos. I only visit.
So, what brings you here often, is it politics or contracts?
I come to Abuja to see one or two people. But if there is reason to do some politicking or I am awarded a contract I wouldn't mind.
Have you withdrawn your case against Ejike Asiegbu since Kanaya O. Kanayo has been appointed caretaker chairman of the AGN?
The point is that Ejike Asiegbu has refused to be removed. The board of trustees (of the AGN) has removed him. He refused to go. The actors have rejected him. Even concerned observers have asked Ejike to go, but he has refused. He is still fighting on. My court case is still on. There was a time I told the court that I wanted to look into how we can come about internal peace, but Ejike thinks he can play a fast one.
You said that you told the court that you wanted to explore internal means through which you could find peace. Have you spoken to Asiegbu recently over your differences?
I can't go to him to speak on internal peace. The last time I went for a meeting arranged by people to discuss with Ejike he came along with thugs. I was beaten up and attacked with a machete. I won't allow this happen a second time. If not for the quick intervention of the policemen from the Bode Thomas Police Station, my story would have been different. Ejike is not giving room for peace or reconciliation. This is someone who went to the police station and said I collected N250 million from governors in the name of AGN. Do you know how much N250 million is?
You said you were beaten up and you're spending your money to pursue a case in court all for the AGN. Why?
I am one of those who formed the AGN. I have benefited so much from this industry. Steve Eboh is known today because of my being an actor. You are here to interview me because I am an actor. So I need to give back to a profession that has done so much for me. How can I pay back? I can pay back by making sure there is a viable industry for those who are coming behind. We cannot allow one man to ruin the future of the industry. The Actors Guild is integral to the movie industry. The AGN is the largest gathering of actors in Africa. Then one man wants to destroy this guild out of greed, wickedness and selfish interests. I tell myself it will not happen. Don't forget that I used to be the vice president of the AGN with Ejike as the president. But when our tenure expired, I told Ejike that we needed to organise fresh elections, let us give account of how much came in and how it was spent. I called for accountability and transparency. Because of that I started having problems with him. Nobody else wanted to ask him questions. Nobody!
Why wouldn't they ask questions, were they afraid?
Yes. There was fear. He has a terrible history. If you go to University of Port Harcourt or you ask those who schooled with him they will tell you this. But I said we have to confront this man to find out the truth. I started this fight to sanitise the guild early 2008. On April 16, 2008, he went on TV with Segun Arinze and Chima Onwudiwe, and they announced plans for a screen actors' guild award. I did not know about the awards until their appearance on AM Express (on NTA). How could the VP of a guild not know about an event it was organising? I called Ejike and Segun Arinze later and they both tried to make it look like it wasn't something that I should be worried about. But I asked them what they expected me to tell the entire South Eastern actors, whom I represented. So March 9, 2008, Ejike called a national executive council meeting where he asked that I be suspended for asking questions about the award show. I told them during the meeting that heaven would fight those who tell a lie. They asked that I give them two months to look into the matter. Two months passed by and nobody called me until May 1. By May 5, I wrote a petition to the AGN, other guild presidents, past and present, relevant government agencies and other stakeholders. Nobody said anything about the letter except for the Director General of the National Film and Videos Censors Board, Emeka Mba. He called me asking that I take things easy that he would speak with Ejike. This is why most of these stakeholders can't speak with me about peace, because they did not take action when it mattered most. Till date nobody called for a meeting from the AGN national executive. I refused that Franca Aida be suspended from AGN because she, like me, asked that we account for the monies that came into the coffers of AGN. People paid for ID cards; they paid for insurance. Where are these monies? So you see that this fight is one that will liberate the guild from a wicked individual, a man who operates the guild from his bedroom.
From what you said so far this battle of wits began from what looks like a personality clash. You called the AGN president to ask why you weren't involved in award ceremony he and the others said the guild was going to organise and then the problem started?
No, it did not start as a personality clash. I told you we disagreed during the national executive council meeting. As gentlemen, we can disagree over issues during a meeting but after the meeting we can have a drink and remain friends. Policy is something people can disagree on. We can shout at each other while debating programmes or policies, but when we leave the meeting we share a bottle of beer as gentlemen. It becomes personal when you take issues argued over in a meeting outside the meeting. Up till 2008, Ejike and I were still on talking terms. It was when we went for Lancelot Odua Imasuen's film premier in Benin that I noticed that Ejike has taken things personal. When I got to the film premiere, I was greeting friends and when I tried greeting my president, he turned his back on me. He instructed the Master of Ceremonies not to recognise my presence. He asked the organisers why they put me in same hotel with him. They had to lie to him that I got and paid for the room myself.
If Ejike Asiegbu is too difficult to relate with why did you support him for the AGN presidency?
I will never regret helping Ejike to become AGN president. I don't regret my actions. I always tell people I don't solve past questions. I don't discuss old matches. I move on to the future because you cannot replay the past. Before I do anything I must have thought it through. I also wanted to be president the time Ejike vied for the office. But some people came to me and said let's allow Ejike run for presidency. I stepped down for him and settled for the Vice President (South East) office. He actually had a good manifesto then. But he ended up not doing the things he promised to. Ejike started out well, but he lost it when he became greedy and self-centred. He mixed up his vision with self-centredness. If people blame me for supporting him for the presidency I say I have no regrets. When people fought him during our two year tenure I stood behind him because he was still the elected president. I never fought Ejike throughout his reign as the elected president of the AGN. He is no longer the elected president. He is an appointed president because from when he asked the national executive to extend his tenure so that he can organise elections and they obliged him, he became an appointed president.
You worked in the same executive council with Ejike Asiegbu as the Vice President; you cannot say that he did not achieve anything?
For the two years that he worked as elected president he did not achieve anything for the guild, but for himself he achieved a lot. He bettered his lot probably. When some people say that under his tenure the AGN rented its office and got an official car, I laugh. How can you rent a three bedroom flat for two years with N15 million in Surulere, Lagos, not Asokoro in Abuja? That same amount can buy you a house in Surulere. Besides he took a loan for the rent without the consent of the national executive council of the AGN. Between 2005 and 2009 nobody knows how much AGN has made. He just said he bought a car. The same car was actually donated to the guild by Universal Insurance Plc. Since 2005 things have been going down for actors. Most actors are not doing fine. Productions are fewer than what was obtained in 2005. Since he took over fighting has become synonymous with actors. Ejike as the president expelled three state chairmen and three Vice Presidents plus other executives. He expelled the FCT chapter chairman of the AGN, Mr. Bushman, Remmy Ohajianya of the Lagos AGN, chairman of Bayelsa State chapter, Favour Ogunsi, Hakeem Rahman Vice President South West, Franca Aida, Vice President North Central, and me. At a stage he said the board of trustees of the AGN stood expelled. Some people say nothing was given Ejike when he took over AGN. But I don't agree. A united Actors Guild of Nigeria was handed over to him on June 27, 2007, at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, by Sam Loco Efe. Today what will Ejike hand over to the person who takes over from him? Is it a factionalised AGN with uninterested members that he will hand over? In fact the AGN of today is made up of Ejike, his wife, Chima Onwudiwe and Ebo Oyinbo a.k.a. Lolo. Who else is on his side?
Aren't there bigger issues confronting actors? Like you mentioned few actors are getting roles due to dwindling number of productions. Some are even complaining that Ghanaian actors are taking over Nollywood.
Ghanaian actors getting roles over Nigerian actors is not an issue. The industry is big enough to accommodate talents from whatever part of the world. If the AGN is well managed if you are coming to act in Nigeria, we will lay down the rules which you must abide by. But now I can even bring in my mother to act in a film if I wish. The guild is not functioning. If the leadership of the guild spells out its rules everything will fall in place. Another problem is that the government is not involved in the affairs of the industry. It is only Afolabi Adesanya of the National Film Council and Emeka Mba of the Censors Board that called and sued for peace. Sorry to say this but the Minister of Information and Communications is not interested in what is happening in the movie industry. She is more interested in the NCC selling this or that licence. Rather it is someone like Otunba Segun Runsewe of the NTDC, who is not under Information and Communications Ministry that called severally and asked that peace returns to the guild.
But the Minister at different fora has mentioned Nollywood as a veritable means through which Nigeria can be re-branded. She should be concerned.
She can mention Nollywood in fora all over the world, but does she know that there is problem in the AGN? Does she know that they almost killed themselves during the elections of the Association of Movie Producers (AMP)? Things got so bad that they shaved somebody's dada (dreadlocks), that they (producers) took themselves to Court and that they went to police station during the elections? But she knows that there is problem in NCC. If government does nothing, very soon people will come from Afghanistan and take over the movie industry. In one of our appearances in Court, the judge spoke to Ejike after which he spoke to me. He mentioned the films we had appeared in and asked why we are fighting. This shows how important Nollywood is, but government does not care if the industry thrives or not.
I wanted to ask why celebrities like actors beat Kanayo O. Kanayo; why AMP members as you said ripped off as reported in the media Dickson Ireogbu's dreadlocks rather than pursue their grievances through legal means like you?
We are members of the same society where lawmakers have fought themselves while some of them took things calmly. So we are all human and therefore have different ways of reacting to situations as they arise. I am a gentleman. I come from a family that is very much concerned about its image. I wouldn't want to move around with thugs because Ejike does so. He used thugs to remove Remmy Ohajianya. He used thugs to fight me. I am in court to show what good leadership is about. I am in court because I believe it will interpret our constitution. And once it is interpreted the future leaders of AGN can refer to the ruling if need arises.
Are you interested in running for presidency of the AGN?
Yes I am.
So wouldn't it be right for the embattled AGN president to conclude that you had an ulterior motive in your fight to remove him so as to take over?
I don't care what Ejike thinks. What I care about is doing what is right. If Ejike thinks I have an ulterior motive, is that the reason he has overstayed his two-year tenure. Is that why he did not give account for his stewardship? I am a member of the AGN. That gives me the right to contest for the office president. The most important people are the actors. If they believe in me, if they trust me, they will vote me in. An individual like Ejike cannot determine what I become in AGN. To be honest when I started fighting for fresh elections my plan was to re-contest as vice president. But when it became obvious that the plan of Ejike was not to organise elections I fought him with my time and resources. Before I knew it, people started asking that I contest for the presidency. I am tired of saying no to people. I know that some actors have indicated interest in the AGN presidency.