Did you ever imagine that you would end up being a broadcaster?
You got it right from there. It has always been my ambition, right from my young days in Freetown, Sierra Leone. That was where I grew up. I’d always wanted to be a broadcaster. I listened to radio and I was a fanatic, listening to the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America, Radio France and other local stations in Sierra Leone. There was this man, William Robert, who was actually responsible for my zeal to be on air. I used to mimic him.
One Christmas, my late father bought me a tape recorder, which I was using to record my voice. I would play it several times and learn from my mistakes. So, I’ve always wanted to be on air, not on the television though, because TV was not in Sierra Leone then; it was basically radio. So the fascination was that people should listen to me, and that was it.
How did you get to Sierra Leone?
I grew up there. My father used to travel a lot and his brothers and himself left Nigeria for Sierra Leone to settle down. That was how I got there. I went to school there and practically did everything in Freetown. After graduation, I was a teacher in one secondary school in the second biggest city in the country, Bo.
Why did you come home if you were making progress there?
I had to come home because this is my country. I’m an Hausa man from Kano. And because my dad and his people were all there, Sierra Leone was like home. But beyond that, I wanted to know where I’m from.
Anything could happen, say if my father died, I didn’t know where I came from, which could create a problem. One morning, I told him I wanted to go back to where he came from so I would know where I was also coming from. I insisted I wanted to come to Nigeria. Before then, some of my cousins had left me and I felt why should I be the only one there. He agreed eventually. That was around 1968 because there was civil war in Nigeria then. I guess I was about 15. I was a teenager. I remember the boat I entered that brought me to Apapa Port.
But did you have in mind what you were coming to do in Nigeria?
No, I just wanted to come home. I wanted to see my father’s home country and to join my cousins who were already here. It was getting too lonesome there, being the only one. The need to come back home and offer our contributions was at the back of our minds. Sierra Leone was a very small country, but by the time I saw Lagos for the first time, it was like seeing Manhattan (laughs).
How did you reconnect with your dream of being a broadcaster when you got here?
By the time I got to Lagos, that thing about radio had taken a back seat. My cousin was a soldier and I had reason to go to Kaduna. I was with him and I followed some friends to a hotel where I got talking with people, not knowing that there was a broadcaster, Baba Ahmed, on the table. He’s late now. He took interest in my diction, and he asked whether I had ever worked in a radio station.
I found it funny because I had never worked in a media house before. He didn’t believe me, so I thought he was just pulling my legs. He said I should come over to the radio station, Radio Television, Kaduna to see him. Out of sheer curiosity, I went to see him. There was an audition, which I participated in, and then I forgot about it. I went back to Kano where I was resident; I only went to Kaduna visiting. Two months after, there was a letter inviting me for an interview.
I was a young man enjoying myself, drinking and following whatever it was to be followed at that time in Kano. Then, my cousin came from Kaduna and was looking for me up and down with the letter. That day, I was practically bundled behind the back of a Land Rover and taken back to Kaduna to receive my employment. That was how it started. I had always wanted to be on radio, and it happened. Not only on Radio, was I part of television. That was the beginning of my life in broadcasting.
As much as you wanted to be a broadcaster, did you know that you would eventually be in the limelight?
That is the work of God. Na God win. (laughs) I wanted to be on the radio, but stardom and being known never came to my mind. But then, it happened.
At what point did acting come in?
God is wonderful. That was accidental. The man who got me into radio used to do drama on radio (radio plays) and he got me involved, but the real break as far as acting is concerned was when I left Kaduna for Sokoto and then I met Peter Igho who was in charge of drama at NTV (now NTA) Sokoto. He called me to come and take part. I did and he liked it. That was how it started.
How come you didn’t follow up your career as an actor?
I was not really an actor. In fact, that foray affected me professionally and career-wise because I was in the newsroom as a journalist. I was a reporter, editor and newscaster. So, when I delved into drama, it was like the proverbial saying of ‘what broke the camel’s back’, because on one hand, I was doing well in the newsroom and on the other hand, playing the role of being a naughty character as a Betrus in Cock Crow at Dawn.
My boss then, told me I could not merge the two, because in a moment, people would see me acting like a naughty Bitrus and about one hour later, I would be reading the news, with all seriousness. He said people would get confused and that people might not be seeing the newsman but Betrus.
So, I was quietly removed from news and restricted to the desk- reportorial, editing and such things. While doing that, the show, Cock Crow at Dawn, became so big that they needed me to be on set all the time. The base where they were shooting was in Jos, so, once I left the newsroom, I had to be on set. Sometimes, it was conflicting with my job, so, what they did was to transfer me to production. I was removed from news.
Did you see it as an opportunity to devote more time to it?
With that, I did not only become an actor but a producer and director. So, I let go of news. What I was doing then by acting was deemed as part of my job, and we were not allowed to do any other thing. If you go act outside NTA, it becomes private practice. That really was a setback because some guys were making money there, using pseudo names to direct movies, while we were busy collecting N3.50. It wasn’t lucrative then. Eventually, some of them were retired and some resigned. Back then, acting, directing and producing were being done by the NTA.
If you were to make a choice at that time between being in the newsroom and going to act, which would you have chosen, since some people acting were making so much money?
I would have stuck to my news. I couldn’t let go of the acting because I was first and foremost an employee. I was directed to go. It was either I followed that directive or leave the job. I needed the job.
Are you back into acting fully now?
I’m not fully back into acting. I act when my friends have a good script and they invite me. It’s not like my 7am to 5pm kind of work. I do it sometimes. For example, I featured in October 1. It was a fantastic script and I like the story. But then, you don’t see me doing ‘part one’, ‘part two’ and ‘To God be the glory’ kind of movies. I won’t do that. I cannot because people do it, then join them because I want money. In my house, I have stack of scripts, I pick and choose. That I want money does not mean I would sell my respect or my birthright because I have a duty to people. For some of those movies, it is tomfoolery from the beginning to the end.
Could that be the reason why you are not a part of Kannywood?
Kannywood? What do they do there? You tell me. They do alawada kerikeri. They don’t do movies. Asking me that gives me an impression that you people don’t like me. If I want to do an Indian film, I can go to Bombay and do Indian film proper.
If you want to do something, do it right. They have their followers, but I’m certainly not one. They won’t call me. And there is a thin line of divide between Kannywood and Nollywood. I don’t know where those funny names come from. Maybe very soon, we’ll hear Bayelsawood, and once you set a camera where we are now, we can have Alausawood. From my knowledge of ‘Wood’, it’s an area somewhere in California because of the trees there. But, here, they just adopted the wood and called it Nollywood. Why not Kannygroundnut?
What comes to your mind when you remember your days with Yinka Craig, especially when you were both doing AM Express?
I miss him so much. AM Express and Morning Ride; I miss my friend. He was like an elder brother to me. We took the morning programme to a different height in TV viewing. It became a must watch for people and we set the trend. Before most civil servants would leave for work, they would watch what was happening on the programme.
Today, I sit back and watch early morning programmes and I marvel. Outside Sunrise on Channels, there are two characters on one other TV station that act like they are going for beauty pageant. Kakaki is trying, but even my own mother station is now trying to revive, but on weekends, they go back to being stupid.
They call it ‘The Real Deal’. I don’t know what is real about their deal. When you look at the appearance of some of them, you tend to wonder. Your appearance on TV means a lot because you are reaching out to people and people watch you.
Don’t forget that your timeline of broadcast affects so many people. There are younger ones watching, and to some of these young people, whatever they see or hear sticks to their mind. So, you watch yourself; the way you dress, your diction, mannerism, etc. It’s a holistic thing. It’s a total package. You can’t run away from that.
How about the way some Nigerian broadcasters try to change their accent to sound American nowadays?
Thank God I’ve retired before such people came on set. I was telling somebody that broadcast has gone to the dogs. I remember in our days when we had people like Bode Alalade, Mike Enahoro and Kelvin Ejiofor talking to us; you cannot but be challenged to do the right thing. We had a Bible; the broadcaster’s bible. It’s a pronunciation dictionary where you must learn how to pronounce. If I cannot pronounce your name, I must ask you how you pronounce your name, otherwise if I pronounce it wrongly, I might be insulting you. But because they are illiterates, they look for short cut. Even over there in the US, you are only accepted when you speak good English and not I wanna or I’m gonna. Those things are not acceptable.
How serious was it then?
Then, our bosses would go to the bathroom with small transistor radios, and if you pronounce wrongly, you know you are in soup. As soon as you see the red light blinking, start packing your bag. But now, the more stupid you sound, the more acceptable you are. If you ask people like Soni Irabor, John Momoh, Bimbo Oloyede and people in that class, they will tell you those things are wrong. It’s not acceptable. That people do it doesn’t make it right. It’s the duty of journalists to see those things and write on the pages of newspapers and tell people that it is wrong. If those things are not corrected, they might influence the younger ones. If somebody is sagging, I won’t put him on my show. I get passionate about the things I do and about the society. I spent 35 good years on TV, talking and acting, acting properly and talking decently.
In your days as a broadcaster, were you ever embarrassed, maybe you committed a blunder?
I remember two occasions. The first one, I pronounced ‘schedule’ in a wrong way on the radio. I pronounced it like an American. My boss nearly killed me that day. He came to the continuity room and asked what I said. He spelt it out for me and told me to pronounce it again, I was looking at myself. I did, so he asked how I suddenly remembered how to pronounce it correctly. On another occasion, they brought a trainee for me and he made a terrible mistake on the television. It was very embarrassing. Not long after, my boss called me and said if he should see that boy on air again, I should consider myself sacked. It’s always embarrassing when you or the people you put on air make mistakes.
How do you feel when people recognise you on the street?
I don’t own myself again. My wife is always at my neck whenever we are going out and people recognise me. She would often tell me “Smile now, abi no be you dem dey greet.” The way some of your Igbo brothers would even hit me from the back and call me Nwanne Bitrus (which was my name in that old play), could be embarrassing. They tell me they see me on the TV. These are things I see every day. But there are benefits sometimes. By and large, it has been wonderful, and I don’t let it get into my head. I tell people I’m not a star. I stay in my house and enjoy; no stress, no hassles.
You eventually quit drinking and smoking after a long time, how easy was it?
It was not easy. I stopped and went back into it many times, until the day I landed in the hospital. The doctor brought out my X-ray and showed me my lungs and some other organs. He gave me two options, whether to continue drinking, die and be buried, or stop and continue living. I didn’t see a choice in it. I love life and I’ve seen my brothers and my friends go but I don’t want to. When you look around and see what people who are close to you go through, you don’t need to be told. But back then, it was a show-off, more so if you needed to track some girls.
How did you get into it?
It was peer pressure, and some of us did it to be able to chase girls. It gives some so called ‘courage’. But it’s all bullshit. Now I know.
You’ve been married for over 20 years, is it right to say that you got married late?
No. I got married when I was around 30. My current wife is my second wife. I had a wife that was ‘posted’ to me back then. My late mother thought I didn’t want to get married and that I was enjoying too much life. One day, I was in the office in Sokoto, when, late in the night, a guard came to tell me that I had some women visitors. I was eager, thinking they were likeable babes, so I told him to usher them in.
I went out to meet them, and I found my aunt with a woman she brought to me to be my wife. There was nothing I could do. There was a proviso to it anyway. I still told them when I see the person that I would wish to marry, I would still marry the person. So, we went home.
But God is infinite and merciful. The woman they brought to me and my people that brought her started fighting among themselves. One day, my mum told me to sack her and send her away, but I refused. I told them that since they brought her, they should sack her on their own. That was how it ended.
Does it mean you didn’t have a good relationship throughout her stay?
In that kind of setting, there is really no relationship. Neither of us was at fault, we just obeyed what we were told and we could not say no. I have kids with her, and we had to make the best out of a bad situation. But when she had issue with the people who brought her to my house, I had to wash my hands clean, and it all ended, until I found the woman I love, who is a Yoruba woman.
How did you meet your second wife?
I accompanied a friend of mine to go and see his girlfriend, so I saw this woman washing in front of her house. Cock Crow at Dawn was at its peak of popularity and I had a call card with ‘Bitrus’ inscribed on it. So, I flashed it to her. She looked at me and the card and just snubbed.
I asked why she did that, and she said, “You are Bitrus, and so what?” With what she did, I promised myself that I would get her. I did, and we did make up. When she finished her second degree, I met her father who gave me a very long warning that he would kill me if I didn’t let her graduate. She finished her Master’s before we got married, and today I’m the apple of the father’s eye.
Having lived in the North for some time, what are your thoughts about the insurgency there now?
Are you sure those things are being done by northerners? No northerner would like what is happening. When you refuse to tell yourself the truth, this is what happens. When you refuse to stop playing ostrich, that is what happens. Unless and until we can look ourselves in the face eyeball to eyeball and tell ourselves the truth, that is what will happen. When bunch of hypocrites say one thing and do another, that is what happens.
Half of those people doing those things are not even Nigerians. They are Chadians, Cameroonians and Nigeriens. Once you enter Nigeria, you are a Nigerian, and once you come into the South and you wear babariga, you are deemed to be a Hausa man.
Half of the people selling stuffs and operating commercial motorcycle in Lagos are not Hausa people. They are Nigeriens. If I speak Hausa to them, they won’t understand. But as far as southerners are concerned, all of them are Hausa people, whom they see as my brother.
No Kano man will sell sweet on the street of Lagos. Never! We are that proud. But, here, everybody that dresses like us is ‘aboki’. And our leaders over there have not been of help, but thank God for some of them now. Unless we tell ourselves the truth, it won’t work. I always tell them the truth, and that is why they don’t like me.
Is that why you didn’t align yourself with politicians during the last election?
Never. Once you collect their money, you can’t insult them again. Nollywood people invited me to Abuja several times, but I declined. Now that their man, Jonathan, is no longer there, some of them are running helter-skelter. I’ve not seen them on such demonstrations since that time. Some of them have been calling me. Hausa people say if you are digging a hole, make it shallow because you don’t know who would fall inside.
Apart from acting, what other things do you do now?
I’m a retired man. I do documentaries. The last one I did was on highlife music, that I had to go to Ghana, Sierra Leone and Liberia. I don’t do MC; I’m not a clown. If you get stories and the story is about Nigeria and how to move the country forward, I will act for you. These are the things I do now and I enjoy them.
Would you say you are fulfilled?
There is no human being that would tell you he or she is 100 per cent fulfilled. But if you ask if I’m a happy man, yes I am. I have children who are doing well and a wife who understands. I can eat three square meals a day. I don’t need to flood my compound with cars. I’m comfortable, even if I don’t have money in the bank. If I walk along the street, somebody will give me a lift. If I’m sick and I go to the hospital, honest people surround me. There are so many things to thank God for. I don’t have those millions that will not let me sleep. Put a smile on your face and you would be happy. If you smile, you won’t have wrinkles, but if you walk and look back, you are guilty. Why should I not be able to walk the street of Lagos?
Now that you are retired, do you still miss your days as a broadcaster?
I’m still a broadcaster everyday of my life.