By Tunde Oyedoyin
The amiable Prince Mike Abiola wears several hats – media manager, community advocate, culture enthusiast and arts supporter. But he will most probably be known to the people as the publisher of the London-based weekly, African Voice newspaper and founder of the annual African Film Awards, (AFA) formerly known as the AfroHollywood Awards.
You could say that the crowning glory of Abiola’s entrepreneurial ventures is AFA. He is not only the pioneer of the epic idea, but the astounding success that he has brought to bear on the yearly event has established the African Film Awards as a trailblazer.
Almost a decade before anyone ever thought of rolling out the red carpets for the stars of the Nigerian – and by default, African – then small screen industry and institutionalising it, he took a leap of faith and set his stall after a chance meeting with a Lagos-based video producer. In other words, he started out in 1994 to glamourise the stars of Nollywood before the name was even conceived. Ahead of the 21st edition of AFA, which took place at the Stratford Town Hall, in East London in November 2017, he went down memory lane with Tunde Oyedoyin, at his Brixton office and narrated how the journey started more than two decades ago.
When asked when the AFA began, Abiola recalled: “It was “during one of my travels back to Nigeria that I had a chance meeting with a movie producer, called Alade, who approached me for technical assistance that will enable him boost the quality of what he was doing and to also expose him to the UK (United Kingdom) market. After that, we realised that there’s a big potential in the video industry and that people were interested in what was going on at home and they also wanted to read stories about the private lives of the actors and actresses. Hence, we commenced the publication of the 40-page glossy Nigerian Videos Magazine, which went to bed in September 1994.”
Asked what made him start the publication, the soft-spoken Abiola replied, “I think it was my passionate interest in culture from a very early age.” This itself, he said was due to growing up in Lagos in the early 60s, in the vicinity of the legendary Nigerian filmmaker, the late Chief Hubert Ogunde.
“l grew up in Lagos near where the late Hubert Ogunde, used to live. I then attended the nearby Yaba Methodist Primary School, so I was influenced by his troupe.” The passionate journey, he continued, started way back then. So, two years after the chance meeting with Alade, l decided that at that stage in 1996, that we will not just be producing the monthly Nigerian Videos Magazine to keep people updated about happenings in the Nigerian –then – home videos industry, we’ll also celebrate excellence in the industry. “We felt we should institutionalise the industry and that was what gave birth to what we then called Afro Hollywood Awards, now the African Film Awards.”
Explaining the rationale for coming up with the name Afro Hollywood, Abiola, who is married to the veteran Nigerian actress, Golda John-Abiola, said: “At that time, we were looking at what the African Americans were doing in Hollywood, so we felt that to generate interest we needed to coin a name that is similar to what they were doing.” But as change is the only permanent feature of life, “over the years, we realised that we needed to change the name to African Film Awards.”
For all his foresight, though, unlike the Greek physicist, Archimedes, whose ‘Eureka’ – I’ve found it – moment came in his bathroom, the Osun – a state in Nigeria – Prince doesn’t remember when he knew he had to start AFA, when asked where he was and what he was doing when the idea came. “I cannot put my hand on the exact date or time,” but “over the years, my love for the arts had always been there and a love (of) publishing. And coupled with the fact that l now trained as an aviator and was doing a lot of traveling. Anytime l was flying back to the UK from Nigeria, people used to ask me if l brought home videos from home. At that point, l realised that there was a huge interest in the industry even though it may be crude and technically backward and needed improvement. But It was obvious that there were a huge following and interest in it.” He noted that “the videos also served as nostalgia for those – Nigerians – who had been in the United Kingdom for 10 to 15 years. It was then l realised also that the interest l have in the industry should give birth to a publication.” That was the beginning. More importantly, Abiola said he then saw that the new product was well received in Nigeria. “l saw that it was well-received and was getting reviewed in publications like the Guardian and the Punch newspapers. Besides, other Nigerian newspapers too were dedicating one or two pages to reviewing our magazine, which was in fact, strictly dedicated to the Nigerian home videos.
Mike Abiola, flanked by Olu Maintain
But he was quick in pointing out that “I remember people were asking me if there was a film industry at home and if it could sustain a 40-page publication.” Even though the magazine got rested many years later, Abiola said he saw what others didn’t see. “Because we saw the potentials, we saw the talents that abound in the industry, I just kept on publishing. Two years later, I realised that we needed to bring them here to celebrate and offer them the opportunity to be exposed to a culture that is different from theirs and to also give them the opportunity to improve the technical content of their work.” And he’s been doing that. “Each time we bring in the cinematographers, producers and the likes with the actors, we took them to places like BBC studios in order for them to learn more.” Not surprisingly, “a lot of them do come back to improve themselves in film schools around the UK.”
Asked if he remembered who the first recipients were and where the awards were held? The prince came on livelier, saying, “I will never forget that because it’s part of the memories l keep and does cherish. The first edition was in 1996, at a hotel in Hampstead, North London.” Those were not the days of social media or Instagram, and neither was the Internet what it is now. So, “we placed advertisements all over the place that we were going to bring in A-List Nigerian actors and actresses.” He recalled also that “what we had then were video shops where people could borrow Nigerian videos and return them. In fact it was not yet identified as Nollywood at that time. “
Besides, “the top names then were Liz Benson, Segun Arinze, Richard Mofe-Damijo, Kanayo. O Kanayo, Sola Fosudo, and Golda John – his wife.” These, according to him, “were people who had never been celebrated before in the industry.” Of course, “there was scepticism, that the actors and actresses will come. With a sense of accomplishment, Abiola said, “we delivered.” “And because that maiden edition was a grand success and what we then did the following year was to build on that success.” 21 years later, he is still in the business of rolling out the red carpet for –now –Nollywood stars and running the hugely successful and pioneering show.
With over two decades of the awards going on, Abiola fingered the 1999 edition as one of the most memorable, when asked which ones do stand out the most.
“I can never forget 1999, this was the year we celebrated Zebrudayah, KWAM 1 (Fuji innovator, King Wasiu Ayinde I), Moji Bamtefa, and others. We also celebrated producers and those behind the scenes too.” The reason it stands out for him is because of the fact that it sold out for the very first time. “The whole road of Docklands (East London) was blocked. The hotel manager came and said we’ve got to shut this thing down. Both the police and the fire brigade also came and asked who is the celebrant? The police came to me and said we’re giving you 10 minutes and if that road is not cleared, we’re going to shut down this event. It was amazing and a grand success. The hotel had a capacity for 1,000, but not only was it filled, but the lobby was also packed and we had about 500 people outside as well. People came out en masse to celebrate our Nollywood stars.”
Asked if there were any rival or recognised awards in Nigeria before he started Afro Hollywood.
“To start with, there was no publication dedicated to the film industry when we started producing Nigerian Videos Magazine in 1994. Even when we started the awards two years later, they were pioneering awards and it took us running till 2005 when other awards came up. So, it was almost ten years after we launched out before someone else saw that there is something to be celebrated in the industry.”
Continuing, Abiola stated that one of the things that makes him beat his chest with pride is not just the fact that AFA “recognises and celebrates excellence,” but “that some of our past recipients are still practising is a testament to that. People like Richard Mofe-Damijo, are still practising and still very active. So also, are the likes of Zack Orji, Jide Kosoko and Ramsey Noah.” This, he said, “only goes to show that we discovered – and celebrated – some great actors quite very early.”
*Tunde Oyedoyin, is a writer and freelance journalist. He has been the London correspondent of the flagship of Nigerian newspapers, The Guardian, for over a decade.
The author of a novel, Mothers Unite Against Rape, he has also published two non-fiction books; Grand Slam Winners and The Money Intelligence Handbook: 113 Questions & Answers About Your Personal Finance. He is a passive blogger, but regularly tweets about the #diary of a working dad.
(Mike Abiola’s photo credit; Ade Omoloja – African voice online)