ERIC Babatunde Ojora Coker is one of the elderly artistes who are still active in Nollywood. He has featured in over half a dozen television drama series and has been in the industry for over a decade. In spite of the challenges, the 60-year-old thespian from Lagos State, who is simply known as Tunde Coker, has been able assert himself as a force to be reckoned with in the Nigerian film industry. But besides being an actor and a businessman, he is also a politician. In this interview with TONY OKUYEME, Coker expatiates on his belief that 50 years after independence, Nigeria's culture sector is still like a toddler. He also recalls how he started and the role played by Wale Adenuga in his career in modeling and acting.
At 60, Eric Babtunde Ojora Coker still carries the image, character and zeal of a man in his 40s. He is soft spoken, humble and urbane.
Born into the Coker family of Lafiaji, Lagos Island, Babatunde a full-blooded Lagos indigene. His father was a retired court registrar while his mother was a trader from the Oluwa and Ojora royal family.
“I started my primary school at St' David Primary School, Lafiaji, Lagos. Later I attended CMC Grammar School, Bariga, and National High School, Ebute Metta, Lagos. Immediately I left secondary school, I got a job at the then Lagos City Council which now consists of about eight or nine local government areas. I was in Lagos City Council for about 12 years before I left as a clerical officer,” Coker says, adding that though his love for the art dates back to when he was in primary school. He went into private business, soon after leaving the civil service.
“When I was in primary school, there was a children's programme, entitled: Auntie Ebun and Musa, on NTV, Lagos. We used to go there with Chief Femi Asekun who was then working at NTV as a presenter. Because he was a close person to my family, he used to take us along with some other friends to Television House, Lagos, where we normally did children drama. It was there I got my first experience in acting.”
According to him, years later, when he was in private business, his chance encounter with his childhood friend brought him back into acting. “While I was into private business, I met a long time childhood friend Wale Adenuga who was then the publisher of Ikebe Super, Binta and Super Story magazines respectively. I joined him and started modeling for the magazines. Later when he went into television drama productions, he encouraged me to go into acting. That was how I became interested and decided to go into acting professionally.
“The first television drama I did with him, in which I featured, was Binta My Daughter, the first edition of the pro gramme. I played the role of Landlord to Binta's father. Later, I featured in Super Story and Papa Ajasco television drama productions generally. Since then, I have not looked back.
After sometime, I joined the Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN) and the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP). I have taken part in many soap operas, among which are Binta My Daughter, Papa Ajasco, Super Story, include Family Ties, Face To face, Zenith, among others. In Zenith, I played the role of Chief Bamidele.
Apart from acting and modeling, Coker reveals that he is also a politician. “As a politician, I am one of the king makers in my area which is Ifelodun Local Council Development area, under Ajeromi Ifelodun, in Lagos State.”
Asked if looking back now he could say that acting has been worth the while for him compared to what would have been the case if he were in other professions. He was silent for a brief second, then guffawed and said in slow but confident note: “I have to thank God because acting has assisted me greatly. It has given me fame. Many people, at times when I am going on the street or entering the market or go into a party, the kind of recognition and respect I get, I thank God. I have a lot of fans, and when they see me they are happy, and I am happy too. As I said, I am also into modeling. One of my modeling works is the Dalsat billboard,” he says.
On the challenges he has been facing so far as an artiste, Coker went philosophical. “There is nothing you do that will not have ups and downs, its negative and positive parts. It is left to you to have the courage to face it. I thank God that the negative part of it is not something that carried me away, I did not because of the challenges leave the industry. I summoned courage to continue.; there is nothing you do that you do not need courage. You must have courage. I thank God for given me the courage.
Also speaking on why he is yet to hit stardom in the industry like some of his colleagues, Coker laughed and then remarked: “Maybe it is because I did not at the early stage get fully involved. It was on and off.”
Given his experience, would he encourage any of his children to be an artiste? You ask, and in his characteristic presentation, he hinted with subtle emphasis that he is not one of those who would dictate for their children what they choose as a profession. “With me, I will never dictate for my children to do something. But whatever career they choose, whatever they want to do I will definitely support them, including acting if they chose it.
Coker insists that those who still share the notion that artistes are irresponsible people are not being fair. According to him, people are judging from outside. “That is what they think, if they come inside they would see that all the kisses and romance we normally perform on set in the film is just the character in the script. It is not what you are in real life. For instance, when you play the role of doctor in a film does it mean that you are a doctor in real life? Or when you play the role of a judge, it does not confer on you the status of a judge, so that when people see you they should begin to address you as a judge.
Anything that you want to do you must devote yourself to it; you must see that you are committed to it. So when you master your scripts definitely you will perform well when you go on set.
On his being listed among the thespians for special award by the National association of Nigerian Theatre arts Practitioners (NANTAP) Coker enthuses that it was a pleasant surprise. “ I did not expect it. It came to me as a surprise, and I welcome it. I did not know that there are some people watching me, I only do my job as an artiste doing the best I can. I did never expected it but I thank God for it,” he said.
However, Coker believe that 50 years after independence, the culture sector in Nigeria is still far from development. “We are still crawling, and by the grace of God, we will get there. But it is a matter of time,” he said, adding that the reason for the slow pace of development is bad leadership. “It is management, the people at the top, how they are managing the country.”