Mrs. Roseline Odeh was the Director General of the National Film and Video Censors Board. Before her appointment to that position, Odeh had a fulfilling career at the Federal Ministry of Information where she worked as journalist, researcher, filmmaker and speechwriter to several Nigerian former heads of state.
At a time, she was the biographer for the heads of state with books on Buhari, Idiagbon, and a host of others. After her retirement as Director General of the NFCVB, Odeh decided to venture into a path that only she with her training is really qualified to tread. She turned her Abuja home into a research centre of sorts setting up Grotto Afrique, the Gallery of History where the lives and times of Nigerian heads of states and other leaders are chronicled.
She is quick to tell you that she dedicates the Gallery to Nigeria especially as it marked 50 years of statehood.
Odeh speaks about her new first of its kind venture, her life and times in the federal civil service, National Film and Video Censors Board and most of all declares that she wished all our heads of state and presidents including late General Sani Abacha had an autobiography because according to her, presidential autobiographies would save Nigerians several speculations about their persons.
Madam, do you still watch Nollywood films?
I don’t have time for movies now either Nollywood or Hollywood. I fall asleep whenever they are showing any films these days. When I was at the Censors Board, it was my job, we watched several films daily maybe to see those ones our producers may have gone to copy and change its name. Not anymore. I will readily sleep off.
Some people say Nollywood has gone comatose, do you share same feelings?
I don’t think so. I believe it is just changing. It will never be same forever anyway. The various organs are vibrant and doing their best in the circumstances they found themselves.
Filmmakers were against the way you ran the board, so what was their complaint?
The years I spent at the National Film and Video Censors Board were the most exciting years of my life. I still look back to that period with fond memories and happiness and I thank God everyday for giving me that opportunity to serve Nigeria again in such capacity after many years at the Federal Ministry of Information to gain another kind of experience at the board. If I had left regular civil service job without the experience at the other side of life like I experienced at the board, I would not have felt fulfilled. There would have been a little gap in my knowledge of another sector of Nigeria.
I am a firm believer that a spade should be called a spade. It is either something is right or it is wrong and as a human being who is in charge, you have to take charge. I didn’t have challenges that were bigger than I could handle. I recall two filmmakers who I felt were very unfortunate to have found themselves on the wrong side of the law. They couldn’t have been their own umpires in their own game. When they gossiped that I was not exposed to films, I laughed. They did not know that I had produced a film when I was seconded to the Better Life Programme. I wrote and produced a documentary film on celluloid, which won an international award in an international film festival for concept and content. I travelled through the length and breath of the nation to gather resources for the production of the film which was edited in London. But I tell you the industry called Nollywood has the greatest talents that could be measured internationally. I am talking because I saw them. Apart from the few who were errant, there were those who got awards for doing well.
You were a speechwriter for Nigerian heads of state, could you explain the job?
Every information officer in my time in the information department was a speechwriter. I was one of them. I also wrote books. I have an adventurous spirit I didn’t believe in saying na so them dey do am. I am on the move and if I fail, I would shift again. My first book that made the most sensation was on Buhari. The then Head of state threw a challenge and I accepted the challenge and the book went like fire. I also did one on Idiagbon.
How has life been in retirement?
It has been really interesting that I now rest very well, wake up when I love to even though I am an early bird. I travel when I want and rest generally. But I am still not tired. I am very retired really but I spend time running my pet project, the Gallery of History. I have been quite happy and believe that if you are retired you have to please stay retired.
I am very happy that I have played my part, paid my dues so to say. For me now, I have to face the Gallery. We started collecting data and other materials and even now, we are still collecting nominations and information about our history as a nation. We call the place Grotto Afrique. It is where we say; celebrate the old and develop the young. If you don’t celebrate anybody, it means you won’t ever have anybody to celebrate. Saying ‘thank you’ means a lot, recognition means a lot too. It is more or less, a pat on the back. If you thank someone for sweeping the house today, he will wash the plates tomorrow.
There is no 100 percent man anywhere. They don’t exist. One thing I feel we should imbibe in this country is more positivity than showering negative condemnation. We should accept that there are human limitations. If a man does some good things, hail him for those good things. If he did 60 percent good, and 40 percent bad, we should not continue to trumpet the 40 percent bad and not talk about the 60 percent of good the person may have done. Let us celebrate the good things done by our leaders. If in the 50 years of our life as a nation every leader has done one thing, then we would have gone further ahead as a nation. But unfortunately, no leader has ruled this country without the society not finding him evil. Everybody is bad. What we hear is that nothing good can come out of this country. I believe that we are better than that.
Why did you set up Grotto Afrique?
The Gallery of history is set up principally to celebrate Nigerian leaders and to push the idea that if a president or any leader for that matter, be he governor or minister, does only one thing during his reign which the people should weigh as monumental and significant enough to touch the lives of Nigerians, he should be acknowledged on that. That would encourage others to aspire to leadership. Let us learn to say that something is half full rather than saying it is half empty. I started my career at the Daily Times before moving to the Federal Ministry of Information. I got training at big journalism schools across the world and really travelled far and wide. While I worked at the Ministry of Information, I got exposed to the highest level of information know-how by writing speeches and books, producing films and documentaries and other creative things of that nature. I decided that I would file and document some of these facts.
Another reason we have not scratched the surface that made us set up Grotto Afrique is the motto; Celebrate the old and develop the young. It is to find different ways of developing our youths and not standing on one spot doing same things over and over. If we have spent 50 years and we have not achieved anything, common sense tells anyone that he or she should re-strategise and try different ways. If you fail, you also re-strategise again until you get the best. It is better than staying static on one spot like robots. That is the concept of the Gallery.
How did you acquire all the materials you have at the gallery?
I have always had this passion of keeping libraries because I love books. I have always also loved arts and had always collected good ones. Just before my retirement I started nursing thoughts about dedicating these to Nigeria. I also started collecting statistical data and information about Nigeria and its leaders and later used these to set up an archival home for the history of our country with emphasis on the economics of each era and the leaders.
We just turned my house at the War College Area of Gwarimpa, Abuja into the Gallery of History and threw the doors open for the public to come and relish. We have photos that would blow your mind. We collected all these to show the coming generation about their history, which they are fast losing. If even 60 percent of the leaders are bad, we capture the 40 percent that is good. Recently, we also opened the new art gallery at the Grotto to exhibit works of art by young and promising artists. It is our dream that the Gallery would remain for life and the dream must come to pass by God’s grace.
When is the gallery open and for whom?
It is open everyday to the public and for school children and students. A guide would take them round the entire sections of the gallery if they register and book for their visit. When we first threw the doors open, we didn’t have a guide and our prized possessions started missing so we set up a restriction. I am also happy that some former information ministers have visited to encourage the gallery.
Having seen a lot of our civil life, would you beat your chest and say that anything good can come out of Nigeria at 50 years?
Yes, very plenty. The problem is that it is not recognised and celebrated. Let me tell you, Nigeria is a place where you do not hear anything good about. If you go to a prison and there is an armed robber preparing for his execution, he would tell you that the government is corrupt. Chasing corruption is now our full time job and we are celebrating it because if someone says someone has stolen N20b, he would be a hero in his village because they know he is with such cash. Everyone will be trying to get at least N10 from the booty. But if they say Roseline has stolen N100, I may not even return to the village because they have nothing to get out of this. As you tour the gallery, you would see the picture and profile of two men who were military governors in Nigeria at a time and were found innocent of a probe panel.
But they are not celebrated today. No one remembers them. Are they the movers and shakers of Nigeria today? The answer is no. But we celebrate those who are found guilty. We must start to celebrate the good if not there won’t be motivation to continue being good. I may not start to enumerate all the good that has come out of Nigeria in the last 50 years. Let it be said that the gallery is there for those who do unique things that are good and positive so we can begin to sift the grain from the entire chaff. I think that is my basic inspiration.
There seems to be a bookshop in the Gallery?
I believe that there is no way you could know about a nation without books. How they think and how they feel. We now have a section of the gallery where we have bestsellers written by Nigerians on display. I expect our leaders to also write so we can hear from them. Right now, we are hearing only one side. We should not continue to rely on third parties like journalists. I am so lucky to have collected some of the books of Prince Tony Momoh who is one of the most prolific writers of our time. We have them on display because we saw them and collected them. What about several others that are not written or which we never get to see? For instance, every Nigerian would love to read about our leaders or those in authority in order to know what transpired when they were in power or its corridors. It would make us learn a lot. You would imagine what would have happened if Abacha had an autobiography.
I really wished Abacha wrote his autobiography. It would debunk several of the myths and rumors about his person. Poor Yar’Adua, if he were alive to put pen on paper to tell what had happened in his tenure? Imagine if Turai decides to put pen on paper to write her memoir or diary of events within the family’s period of trials? These would be best sellers anytime. At the Gallery we want to see best sellers. It would be more authentic than all the newspapers combined. It would be a legacy to children yet unborn. Let history know your experience and knowledge. If our fore fathers had a way of writing instead of oral tradition, maybe we would have produced better physicians and doctors now. May be we would have had better administrators by now. I strongly believe we are hearing one side. Whether you are a victim or a conqueror, just write your legacy down because it will teach us better and it would be more authentic.
It must have been very challenging to gather the statistics when we know that Nigerians are not good at keeping records?
It is one of the most challenging things we did at the gallery, getting the facts right. We sought and got the facts from where they are and presented them the way they are. We broke down each leader’s basic pluses presenting his budget, what he got as income and his expenditure. I think we should develop a new merit culture in Nigeria instead of these adjectival words that we use. We often love to say “he is dynamic, God fearing, rare gem etc.” Let us be numeric and develop a new merit culture where we are exact in facts and figures. In the Gallery where we have our leaders, we have economic statistics from the era of Zik and other Presidents whom Nigerians like to heap blames on. We give a page of information with statistical data. Tell me, is there any President that Nigeria has praised? None. If he is not from your tribe, that has condemned him first. If he didn’t give you money, or make a road into your village then he is not good. Even if a Nigerian President cuts off his head and places it on a platter and serves it to everyone, he will still be condemned. If we continue like this, nothing good would ever come out of here because we have said so. It is like a child who is saying my father is an armed robber but I am a born again Christian. You must be a petty thief at best or a pick-pocket.
Running the gallery must be capital intensive…
It is money guzzling and has cost me so much to set up. But I am not worried about this because I am really inspired to do this. You see for a country as Nigeria not to have such a gallery is a shame so if it cost me so much to set up such an edifice for Nigeria at this time of my life and that of Nigeria, then I don’t mind what ever it costs me. I feel that it is a great legacy from me to Nigeria. I think the gallery should be a motivational centre, a place for moral rejuvenation and belief in Nigeria. It inspires those who want to do good to say; well even if I don’t make money, somebody would remember that I did this and that. The soul feels happy when it is remembered.