Goodbye Justus Esiri aka Professor Okonedo…

YOU may not know how painful it is to lose a beloved one irrespective of the age until when it knocks at your door without warning. In the Nigerian film industry, better known as Nollywood, it is a double blow when death calls in middle of production which no filmmaker wishes to experience in his life time.

It was 19th Feb 2013, early morning, when three of my phones rang simultaneously while I was still in bed. I managed to scan through the screens because of the unusual coincidence. Two calls from respectable gentlemen in Berlin and the third from one of my artistes in Antwerp, Belgium. In that confused state, I held on the local calls and decided to answer the international Antwerp call first.

“Oga Izoya, please pardon me for this early morning call but I want to confirm if it’s true that your in-law that never was is really dead.” Knowing full well that I was lost with the word in-law, she continued, “I mean Professor Okonedo.” I knew immediately that she was referring to Justus Esiri’s character name in my first Nollywood movie titled Sinners in the House. I screamed and looked at my mobile calendar thinking it was April fool and warned her to stop spreading false rumours but to call me back in a few minutes to enable me call some reliable journalists and actors in Lagos for confirmation.

False news on Nollywood deaths and arrest is so common across Europe that many people look up to our website or direct phone calls for reliable information. Adding to my shock, the other two callers also asked the same question. I jumped out of bed in confusion of who to call first. I later settled for Charles Inojie, aka Suraju, who played Professor Okonedo’s gateman in the above-named movie which was so popular in Europe so much that it has become Christmas and New Year gift by Nollywood Satellite TV stations in UK even after ten years of its production.

It is a movie with open, unanswered questions which all viewers never stopped asking if Professor Okonedo was real. And his death will simply mean the hope for a sequel will be laid to rest forever and that is what his fans hate to hear. I hung up the phone on Charles Inojie unceremoniously and dialled my press manager, Fred Iwenjora, to double check the information flying around on Facebook. The confirmed news landed in Berlin and beyond like a destructive earthquake and I wish we had the jurisdiction to lower Nigeria’s flag or open condolence register book at the Nigerian Embassy in Berlin, nothing would’ve stopped us from doing that.

Justus Esiri’s popularity in Berlin is not a secret for at least two vital reasons. First, he studied in Berlin some decades ago. Some of his classmates are still around in Berlin asking me about him at every meeting. Secondly, the above movie was the first Nollywood film ever produced and premiered in Germany by Isaac Izoya and directed by Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen.

The premiere event that was well attended by the members of the diplomatic community and academicians within and outside Berlin including Nollywood Stars, Ngozi Ezeonu, Empress Njamah, Lancelot O. Imasuen, Kennedy Uyi Oviahon of blessed memory and the then His Excellency, Mr. Baba Wakil – Nigeria, His Excellency, Mr. R.I Alhassan Ghana, His Excellency, Lt. Gen, F. Simbamba – Zambia Ambassadors and Prof; Andrew Haruna of Humboldt University, among others. That event of 1st March 2003 and of course the success of that movie across Europe marked the beginning of Nollywood stars’ Europe’s exploit that subsequently led to Touring of EU countries with Nollywood stars, courtesy of Ehizoya Golden Entertainment till date. To say Mr. Esiri is a household name in Europe is simply an understatement.

I still remember vividly how he carried me and Empress on his laps in Lagos while on the set of Sinners in the House and told us jokes like a comedian while showing appreciation for my efforts and vision to take Nollywood to another level. Words will fail me to express my gratitude at the meeting of my Nollywood idol, the icon of my childhood NTA programme, The Village Headmaster. In fact, he made my dream come true with his down-to-earth simplicity of the man I thought was from moon as a child. I never thought I would ever meet him one day not to mention carrying me on his lap like his own child or being on set with him.

Almost a week after his death, I was still scared to report it in our official website thinking the dream will somehow fade away like April fool jokes. The acceptance of his death is still a hard pill for me to swallow…still like a dream.

As Nigerians are preparing to pay him their last respects in Nigeria, we in Diaspora are also preparing to honour a fallen hero, the same day in Edo House in Berlin, Germany. His contribution to Nollywood and Nigeria’s image in particular can never be forgotten. He lived a fulfilled life which his children will continue to reap from positively.

The concern of Nigerians in particular and Africans in general in the Diaspora over his death is nothing short of the Biblical saying in Ecclesiastes 7:1NW “A Name is better than good oil and the day of death than the day of one’s being born”. Though it’s hard to accept, I have no other option than to say thank you to Justus Esiri for inspiring me positively in promoting Nollywood across Europe. Thank God for the fulfilled life you lived….rest in peace Daddy Justus Esiri, aka Professor Okonedo …. We’ll surly miss you.

Isaac Izoya (Cultural Ambassador) Germany.

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