Richard Mofe-Damijo is still the epitome of cool. Enduringly charming, he welcomed me into his office with that trademark smile that has melted many hearts. Despite his foray into the murky waters of politics, RMD has not allowed his cool factor to slip.
Remarkably honest and always happy to discuss movies, literature, theatre, and you guessed right, politics; RMD is one celebrity who is not afraid to articulate his position on any issue. I have known him for over 7 years. I first interviewed him as a young reporter with Vanguard and spent time with him talking about movies and literature. What I love about RMD, is the fact that he is a complete antithesis to what you might imagine.
SU: How easy has it been making the transition from the creative industry into politics?
RMD: Well it hasn’t been a walk in the park, I must confess. But like every new venture I get into, for me, it is a challenge. I guess the circumstances around which I joined politics also made it imperative for me to be at my best. My mentor is the governor and if you get an opportunity like that, there is a tendency for you to want to burn the midnight candle and surpass your mentor’s expectations of you. I’ve done that twice. When I worked with Soyinka for the first time after the Nobel, we went for a festival, before he took me into his troupe, he was of the opinion that television had corrupted me. So, I said, I will prove him wrong. From the first day I started working with him, I realised I was over prepared, so to speak, because it was a festival where you go and get your lines and do the rehearsals within the festival before you present the play. I was ready; line perfect, everything, because I wanted to make sure that I proved him wrong. So, I found myself in a similar situation when I got into politics, even though this is like new territory for me, I have not let down the guy who has reposed so much confidence in me. This has helped because I went in blazing with all cylinders pumping. And it has worked for me, as I have been able to settle in faster than I would have if I was a reluctant recruit or rookie so to speak. I was an enthusiastic one and that helped me to overcome whatever transitional crisis I might have experienced. Now, the downside is that the waiting time is a bit longer for politics to translate from paper into reality because of issues associated with budgeting, bureaucracy and all that. For me that is the biggest challenge. It’s a compulsory waiting time.
SU: Lawyer, theatre artist, consummate actor; would it be right to describe you now as a politician?
RMD: Well, in a sense. I don’t like to reject the tag of being called a politician. It’s just that the word politician conjures images of fraudulent persons, somebody who lies from both sides of his mouth. I want to believe that I represent the new breed of politicians who are making the transition from being technocrats to become politicians. Now, the kind of politician that I am is the type that wants to see efficient service delivery. I believe that is what is gradually becoming obtainable today as good governance in different parts of the country, from Lagos, to Delta to Rivers State; and all that is as a result of young men who want to redefine the meaning of the word politician. So the word politician, if you call Fashola or Uduaghan a politician, they will not object to being called that, but their good works will speak for them. So, if you call me a politician, yes, I am a politician because I’m trying to learn the ropes, making sure that the people come first. One of the first things I noticed is that for so long, my people, when I say my people I mean my extended family and people from my local government area, didn’t have access to me. Now I am home, I have never had to deal with so many people on every given day in my entire life like I have done since I’ve been in government. If somebody trips over and falls down in my local government, I might hear the report. That gives you a whole new kind of responsibility; it places the burden of leadership on your shoulders. So that is what defines me now, responding as fast as I can to the cries of the people that I represent.
SU: Now, in that regard, would you say it has been worth your while, considering how busy you were before you got into politics. Has it been worth your while?
RMD: It has been worth every second of my time because I think I have touched quite a bit of lives that I can see directly. It’s different when you are told that you do good work as an actor and inspire a whole generation of young people with what you do. I have people who inspire me. They might never know or meet me in their lives. But there are the ones I inspire now that I see on a daily basis. They come up to me and say look, I’ve always admired you all my life, I never had the opportunity to see you everyday; can I spend just five minutes in one week with you just to talk with you. So I have opportunities to steer people, gainfully employed people, in the right direction. It’s a lot more direct from here. I can see the impact of my work more directly.
SU: Coming from a very successful background in terms of what you’ve achieved in the arts and your star status, are you treated differently compared to other people in government?
RMD: Well, from the point of view of my governor, I don’t think so…
SU: And being a star does not affect…
RMD: I think that whatever it is that you are becomes less significant when you’re seating in the exalted chambers and making policy decisions for over four million people. Perhaps where the preferential treatment would come are in areas that touch on my expertise of culture and tourism, because I run that portfolio. Naturally, everybody would defer to me. But in terms of being treated differently, I don’t think so; a lot of respect for what I represent and bring to the table yes, I think that my boss would not have brought me in if he didn’t have any kind of regard for the quality of work that I had done in the past before he brought me in. in terms of that, I feel that I enjoy some form of respect from him because of where I am coming from. But again, it’s the same thing for the health or works or sports commissioner, because you must have something in you that makes you suitable for the job.
SU: With the restiveness of the Niger Delta, what difference have you made in Delta state to attract investors and tourists to Delta state considering the rich cultural heritage of the state?
RMD: Well, I think that I’ve been blessed in that regard because I don’t think it has anything to do with me or having to put some special paper in place or anything. One of the most ambitious tourism project in Africa is about to berth in Delta state. It is a water theme park; there are about five of it in the world, and the sixth one is about to berth in the Warri area, in Udu local government area actually, which happens to be my local government as well. That and a wild life park which is being built in the Asaba area, the Uzo-Ugwashuku area of Delta state, which we call the Asaba Hilltop game reserve and they have a big file of animals. So, once that project takes off, that would be perhaps my biggest contribution to the tourism industry. Apart from that, having to create a buzz in the industry, a lot more movies are being shot in Asaba, whether it is something I do or not, it is under my watch. Naturally, the credit goes to me and the governor has created a wonderful picturesque little town. He has converted Asaba from a very sleepy town to a bubbly town that is very hospitable and cinema friendly, either during the day or at night. I started a programme called Delta Time Quest which is aimed at young people. Somebody described the creative art as the core of youth attraction, modern media and all of that, today’s youth want to embrace creativity or the performing arts. So what we have done is to do a hybrid of American Idols but extend it to comedy, dance, music, and acting. We’ve done two….music and comedy, we are about to do acting. All of this, for me, is not so much as to take away the guy who is an agitating youth (I don’t like to use the word militant) in the creek, but to stop others from going in there, to creatively engage those who might find themselves idle. It is at that point of making the choice to go left or right that it is more critical to give the person the truth. So, we hope that this has given people some form of choice. My simple argument is that the guy who is on television will most likely not want to go do anything that is criminal because he knows that he would be recognized. Since my coming to Delta, the number of reality shows that want to come on, events in Delta, live shows, comedy shows, music shows, have increased and improved. So, in a whole lot of ways, I am happy that under my watch there is an upward swing in this trend.
SU: You mentioned the water theme park, any particular reason for taking it to Udu, is it part of bringing democracy dividend to your people…
RMD: It was supposed to be sited in the Warri area. But Warri like you know is congested and we just happened to find the right land and the body of water in that area and it was not up to me at all, it was up to the investors. We actually gave them three choices and of all the choices that they were offered when they came to visit, they chose the one at Udu. It’s near the Delta Steel Complex, which again was an attraction because of development around the area. They also needed a place that was not too far from the airport, say a maximum of 15 minutes drive from an airport. So that was what informed their choice.
SU: So it was more or less not informed by the proverbial Nigerian factor?
RMD: That wasn’t what was driving the choice of location. As a matter of fact, they had come before I got into government at some point, and they were offered a place just off the express road leading to Delta Steel Complex. But before they came back, 3 years later when they came back or so, which was when I came in, that place had been earmarked for something else. So we just moved further afield, because they said they liked the area and want to move further afield and that was what happened. But I’m glad, for my people, it has now turned to one of the dividends of democracy which their son is pioneering.
SU: Do you miss acting?
RMD: I do, especially when I sit down and watch a production. One of my desires is to start an elite theatre group in Asaba. Time and funds haven’t given me the liberty to do that. But what I derive joy from now is making sure that people are behind the camera and wanting to get a new pool of actors and actresses and all of that. I just did a 26-episode soap opera called Inner City which was completely shot in Warri. I’ve been looking forward to it been exposed so that people can see a slice of life in the inner city of Warri. I’m very passionate about Warri and so I try to tell the story of the place that gave me a life. There are more things to come from that area. I’m going be telling a lot of slum stories.
SU: So are you going to combine politics and theatre?
RMD: Yes. That is never going to go and I’m happy that I’m in the cultural and tourism ministry so that brings me back. And at every opportunity I have, I try to make sure that I stay within the theatre. I’m like a volunteer teacher at FABA. FABA is the Film and Broadcast Academy in Ozoro run by the Ejiro brothers. I’ve done my first lecture there, so I intend to do that. I also hear about Emem’s Royal Arts Academy and see how I can come in there and do a summer thing with them, teach some people and just pass on the knowledge of what I have. So it gives me a chance to get in touch with my first love.
SU: Films like the Figurine and Ije have been taken to the cinemas in Nigeria and festivals around the world. Do you really think there has been an improvement in the quality of films churned out?
RMD: Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a remarkable improvement in movies. But, there is hope and the hope is those little sparks that you just mentioned. Ije and Figurine. I just saw Memories of my Heart by Ini Edo and you know how you get to a place and you say, I would do 20 or 30 minutes out of respect; but I sat through the entire movie and I enjoyed it myself. I had the opportunity of seeing her in a new light and the lighting was very good. most of our films that are shot in English, people hardly make correct sentences. So, it was such a delight to just be able to sit back and watch a movie that I had no stake in and have a good laugh. And that was exactly what happened. So, those little sparks give you hope. I like the editing of Ini Edo’s movie, a little bit rash in some areas but the overall look and feel of it, the stylistics of it, you can see work in progress and you just know that given more opportunity, this person can do better. It’s like what is happening to musical videos, the likes of Clarence Peters go to South Africa and get some good education, come back home and kick butts. Alabi is doing the same thing; there are young boys all over the place, you know, and there are rare cameras and different kinds of cameras that ordinarily you would need a South African or an American or European that would do the directing or part of it. But our boys, young boys, straight up the streets, apprentices, straight up the streets are holding the cameras and doing wicked stuff with it. I mean, it’s just completely delightful and I see those sparks multiplying in the nearest future. But just now, there is no quantum leap for us in terms of marked improvement. In fact, there is like a silent protest, a lot more young directors and actors are not working right now because there is a complete breakdown in terms of quality of what is coming out. So what is emerging is a new market, a new flow, a new Nollywood, which like every other development takes place. It’s like the rise of the independence that happened in America. It’s just that we’re seeing it in a different light here. If these people would not take us seriously, if they would not look at the scripts and pay some attention to details, let us break out and show them how it is done. I did that 13 years ago with Out of Bounds. It was that same outrage that we can do things a little bit better. So they said okay, you go out and do your own, let’s see what you would come up with. And so you go out. So, you have an Amaka Igwe, an Emem Isong, tomorrow you have an Ini Edo, everyone is directing or producing their movies. You know, it’s good for the business, I just hope that a lot more people would do that and then we would begin to see the emergence of a new Nollywood.
SU: Who would you like to work with, who is that one actor you admire…
RMD: Without a doubt, I don’t need to think about it, it’s Denzel Washington, because I think his intensity on and off screen is amazing. He’s an amazing guy and it translates into everything you do. If it’s not him, I would love to work with Will Smith because he combines a deep intellectual background with his comedy ability and that has also made him a wonderful star, big box office draw and credible actor. The body of his works, from Fresh Prince, to In Pursuit of Happiness, Bad Boys, I Am Legend, you know, his body of work is incredible and that comes with an industry that is alive and well, where the division of labour is highly planted on the ground. All of that will begin to emerge, there are people who are writers, and known for writing and hopefully we would begin to deal with those people, take their scripts and focus on creating a new Nollywood.