Popular notion posits that many who take leave of their professions to serve in government are almost never able to return to their original calling. Richard Mofe-Damijo speaks to Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha about how he broke that stereotype and his new role as brand ambassador for Johnnie Walker
On the ground floor of the South Eatery Social House at Victoria Island in Lagos, things were just beginning to get more casual. The period of posing prim and proper on the red carpet for paparazzis was over. Most people were drifting towards the bar to grab a drink. There were various Whisky cocktails in view and everyone was eager to taste them. A buzz of conversations, from excited individuals, now forming themselves into informal groups of twos and threes, was building up like a low rumbling tide across the eatery. They were mostly friends of Richard Mofe-Damijo cutting across his various vocations as an actor, politician, publisher and lawyer.
“What’s going on now?” asked a guest who had just arrived.
“They are just mingling. Getting to know themselves over drinks before we go upstairs for the proper dinner,” answered a lady who was in a black dress and looked like one of the organisers of the event.
Richard, better known as, RMD to many fans, is a folk hero-greatly admired for his achievements in acting in Africa, particularly in Nigeria. Dressed in a black dinner suit with satin facings on the jacket’s lapels and a comparable satin stripe on the side of the trousers, everyone wanted to pose for photos with him and he was doing well obliging; not that he could turn them down, anyway, as they were known faces.
At some point during the dinner, the jacket came off to reveal a double-breasted waistcoat which had gold buttons worn over a white shirt. He never went back to wear the jacket again for the duration of the dinner. Although one of the managers from Guinness Nigeria Plc who introduced him said he will be Master-of-Ceremony at the event he was being honoured, he did not appear in the least ruffled. His face softened in a smile, even as he bent over for courteous pecks on the cheek (from ladies). The mat of low-cropped facial hair covering a dimpled cheek which was once his signature mark of physical attraction looked like a tissue of soft white wool. He must have been amused at the dual role of host and honouree. The only thing that betrayed his anxiety was that he could not keep still; just sit until his attention was really needed. With the presence of former Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State who RMD served as a Commissioner and a colleague in that cabinet, Mr. Chike Ogeah, his subdued apprehension that things go well was understandable. But everyone in the gathering was distinguished in their own right. From brands expert Charles O’tudor, to publisher and politician, Dele Momodu; Mr. Emeka Mba, immediate past director general of the Nigeria Communications Commission; jazz promoter, Oti Bazunu; copyright lawyer Mena Ajakpovi; actresses Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde and Kate Henshaw; online publisher, Ono Bello; art and culture promoter, Ugoma Adegoke; media owner and film producer, Mo Abudu; THISDAY Style fashion director/executive editor, Ruth Osime; entertainment entrepreneur, Don Jazzy; and radio enterpreneur, Chris Ubosi, it was an all-star dinner fitting for Nigeria’s leading Prince of the Silver Screen.
The gathering of distinguished ladies and gentlemen was to celebrate RMD’s latest decoration as Johnnie Walker Brand Ambassador. He joins entertainment businessman, Don Jazzy, in this distinguished category. This was unlike the many awards he has won in over three decades of acting. It is impossible to say how many people believed when he said the story of Johnnie Walker is the story of his life. He will be halted more than once by a loose cannon of a banter fired by unidentified persons in the assembly. The teasing remark would provoke a round of boisterous laughter. Commending everyone to enjoy the evening, he ended his submission thus:“Where I come from, drink no dey catch person. When you tire, you stop.”
Everyone who proposed a toast to RMD experienced this barging with mockery. But the real salvo of sarcasm (largely from mischievous men) was reserved for the female staff of Guinness who had the task of demonstrating how to enjoy the Johnnie Walker whisky. “Swirl the drink around in your glass to open the flavor and it bring up to your nose. Sniff deeply. Inhale deeply. Take a sip and roll it around your tongue. Hold it. Don’t swallow just yet.” She had to raise her voice above the rising din to return attention to her. And then she would be shocked by their wicked sense of humour. But she took it all in her stride, laughing. The evening continued with much appetising foods, more drinks and lively music by the Lagos Jazz Series Band.
As he was distracted by many who sought his attention, we secured an appointment for interview on a future date, which was just a few days after the dinner. This time, we met by a waterside resort inside Lekki Phase 1. RMD, 57, was wearing an Ankara top and trouser with leather slippers. His manager, Nina was with him. It is doubtful if she was born when he started acting. Not minding the age difference between them, he obeys her. without question. More than once, Nina moved the interview team around until she was satisfied she had a perfect background for photo opportunity. Nina is the head of the 11 staff who work for RMD. His workforce are in their late twenties and mid-thirties. Relating with the younger generation has always been easy for RMD. His summation is interesting. “I think that you are only as old as you allow yourself. I have an incredible team of young people. I don’t have anybody in their forties that work with me. The oldest is just a bit above 30. That way, they look at me in the eye and say, ‘Papa this is not right. This is how it works now’. With social media, I was very reluctant participant but I also got to see many values in it when it is used right. If I cannot stay in a church and teach Sunday School anymore or say something that will affect people positively, I can say it on social media, even if I have just two followers, those ones will probably see it and it will resonate. I speak most times from my personal experiences. They are purely life lessons.
“No matter the age, I’m never afraid to start again. For the younger people, I have been able to relate with them maybe because I had children quite early in life. Dealing with my kids meant having to understand people within their age. If I am relating with someone in his or her thirties, I’m relating with my kids. Same with people in their teens. That’s how I see it. When you are an actor, everybody sees you and thinks you are young even when they see your old films. There are people who see me and say ‘hi RMD.’ If I’m in close quarters, I tell them that should be ‘uncle RMD’ to you. Or ‘hi Richard’. I don’t take that. That’s where I’m different. I’m not American or British. You can’t call me by my first name if I’m older, unless I work with you in a space where we are supposed to be on a first-name basis. You have to earn the privilege to call me by my first name if I’m older than you. I’m 57, how dare you look at me and call me Richard? Did you give me the name? I try to make sure that I draw the line in trying to be nice and accessible to young people.”
His newest role as Johnnie Walker Ambassador places quite a few demands on him. A new TV series titled ‘Whisky Tales’ is in view. Whisky Tales beams the light on parallels whisky shares with everyday life. The award-winning actor, RMD, plays the lead role. The show will also deliver subtle whisky education to viewers.
He explains further, “It goes beyond just promoting drinks. More than anything else, it is the reward. It is more about striving above your situation in life. What I love about this whole Johnnie Walker thing is what the man’s life represents. It’s ironic that you have a man like Johnnie Walker and you can equate it with walking. It just symbolises man’s continuous progress. And they have succeeded in building most of their campaigns around progressing with joy. Whatever you do, do it with so much joy and passion even as you step from one ladder unto the other. It’s not about the drink or drinking, it’s about being able to rise above your situation. That’s why it resonates with me. At one point in my life, I was able to reinvent, it’s about not stopping. So you have prayed, washed your hands, prepared yourself, so move, take the first step. In Warri, we have a saying that goes ‘carry waka better pass carry siddon’. Because for the average Warri boy, if you sit down in one place, chances are nothing comes to you, but if you just keep moving, chances are you will walk into something or something will work onto you.
Along the way of life, RMD has been an actor, politician, writer, lawyer and poet, but he likes to keep it simple by insisting that he likes to be known as an actor, for it was the study of Theatre Arts at the University of Benin, going against the expectations of his parents as the only male child in a family of 17 that opened the opportunities for his other roles. “I’m an actor because that’s what everybody knows me as. I’m a qualified lawyer, a communicator. I do corporate communications, government relations, public operations and I give opinions on legal matters when it concerns trademarks and intellectual property. I’m that kind of person that must be juggling three or four things at the same time to maintain a balance.” However, RMD’s responsibility as a father and husband ranks high on his scale of importance, perhaps a notch higher or at par with his role as a Sunday school teacher. For him, it is very serious business when he is playing dad and hubby. He is not acting it. His family of five children and two grandchildren mean the world to him. And he is so grateful to his wife, Jumobi, who used to be an OAP at Raypower 100.5FM but now works at Globacom for making the personal sacrifice to stay at the background. “She believes that one star in the family is enough. Somebody has to step away from the limelight. She is just an incredible and indispensable part of my life. That’s the support system that I enjoy. She is constantly busy but she will rather stay away from the limelight. She wouldn’t even let me post her picture on social media pages. She’s just an amazing woman with a very clear agenda on how she wants to run her life as opposed to mine that is in the media.”
The Warri environment from which RMD emerged to become one of Nigeria’s authentic and enduring superstar is too complicated to produce a controversy free hero. Is the essential RMD character without blemish? How does he handle the strong pull between him and female fans? If they were to start a #MeToo movement in Nigeria, would he be mentioned? Without mincing words and barely waiting for end of the question, his response was rapid. “I will only be mentioned absolutely in glowing terms. I produced two films in my very active years. I was more in front of the camera. I get cast like any other person. Only Norbert Young and Dede Mabiaku, have done less films that I have done until date, in spite of the fact that I have spent 34 years in this business, I have not done 100 movies. That’s what some people do in six months. I have always chosen deliberately well. I just don’t jump into a role because it is offered to me. I have probably turned down 20 times more roles than I have accepted. I’m not afraid to say that. I wasn’t one of those who were in a position to sit down and say ‘oh I need to cast you in a film but before I will cast you, I need you to visit me somewhere’ I think that by having the fear of God, I have conducted myself in a way that I will never be ashamed in this industry.”
“Have you ever abused a woman?”, we asked.
“I have never had the need to. I’m not saying this to be boastful. I think I was well brought up by my mother. You don’t raise a hand on a woman. You will be provoked just like any other man. I’m happy to say that I have conducted myself in ways that I can never regret. I want to be able to look at my children and not be ashamed. I’m a strict disciplinarian when it comes to my children. They know I don’t mess around. I will roll on the floor with them, do high-fives, my kids do the ‘hi dad’ too. But when it comes to the bad sides, they stay in line because as cool as I am, my values are old school. For me when you get to your liberation stage, you can do whatever. I have kids who are in their 30s. The last one is 13 years old. I don’t have any qualms in saying that I have never abused a woman.”
The most interesting part of this story should be how RMD was able to take leave of acting and then make a come-back as if he never went away in the first place. But it may be frustrating to those who do not believe that there is a Higher Force that orchestrates what happens to man. RMD who has switched his place of worship from Rev. Chris Okotie’s Household of God to Rev. Sam Adeyemi’s, Daystar Church does not believe that one thing just leads to another. For him, there is an undeniable God-factor.
This narrative illustrates it. “I had gone on a routine health check. Part of the things that happened to me in Asaba (where he served as commissioner in Delta State for eight years) was gradually turning from a very physically active life to one of working round the clock and eating midnight food. My entire lifestyle changed. I had gone for a routine health check and I was overweight. This female doctor looked at me and said ‘RMD what happened to you. I used to have a crush on you when you were younger. With your family history and the way you are going…’ That day, I left the Delta State University Teaching Hospital at Oghara, on the drive home, I resolved to change my lifestyle. I started dieting.
“This also happened towards the end of my stay as a commissioner in Asaba. People started saying all kinds of things; that I’m terminally ill. In Nigeria, when you are in a certain kind of position, if you are not fat or chubby, then you are suffering, even if I kept saying I was in the best shape of my life, nobody wanted to listen. Something dramatic also happened. When I started to diet, I got an offer to shoot a Niger Delta story about a reluctant militant and I had turned it down because I was serving. I didn’t see how I was going to…but we got a special request from the presidency that they wanted me to be the one to shoot it. So, I got the permission and I went to shoot it.
“For me, it was like a turning point. It was divine, because after that everything just turned around. More artistic things kept happening to me. I was having this walk one day and I heard it very clearly ‘My son, you are done here’. It was very clear to me so when my boss asked me what I wanted to do after service, I said as you are leaving, I am leaving. I’m happy to leave. As we left, it was as if the script were all piled up and waiting for me.”
Popular notion posits that many who take leave of the professions to serve in government are almost never able to return to their original calling. If it were an artistic role, RMD would be the first to break that stereotype. To him, it was a most natural transition that he did not struggle with. “It will be arrogant of me to say that I just did one thing or had this plan that I executed. No, it’s pure grace. I am also aware that I love what I do. I began a movement many years ago when one had become even much more than an actor by standing up everywhere at every time there was an opportunity to say I’m an actor. That’s what I am. Even as a politician or as somebody that served in the government, when people see me, they say, ‘ actor’ I wanted to give it a definition that did not in any way denigrate it or me or put me in a certain box. When you say someone is an actor, you don’t mean somebody who is a less achiever or who hasn’t achieved anything. I should be able to stand up and sit with my peers in whatever profession they are. Whether they are engineers or businessmen or entrepreneurs or whatever, I should be able to stand up where all my mates have gathered when they are introducing themselves, I should be able to stand up and say I’m an actor and nobody will look down at what I do.
“Coming back to the profession that I love, I guess the passion and respect that I give to the expression, also enables me to carry it with a certain grace and dignity because that’s my work and because I carry it with all that passion and grace, God blesses it. I didn’t for one minute pause to think that why should a former commissioner for eight years come back to be an actor? No, because in my head I never made any switch to say that being a commissioner is a more noble thing than being an actor. So you have to understand that. When I made that peace within myself, I walked back right into what I used to do because if I didn’t have the visibility that I had as an actor or a theatre practitioner or a creative mind, I wouldn’t have been seen or head-hunted to come and serve in the first place. When you see or say RMD, what everybody will remember first is an actor. So what is there to hide or be shy about?”
When he was commissioner, RMD was portrayed in some quarters as snobbish and not much of a help to his colleagues in the movie industry. Now, he tapped the table strongly and was willing to take a bet if he was not seen as having left an indelible mark. “I think I have to just address this. In Delta State, I ran the Delta talent quest for music, dance, for acting and comedy. All of these things were done by Sammie Okposo, Nobert Young, Ali Baba, Opa Williams, Patrick Doyle, as many as possible. They all came in. There is no major Nigerian musician…I think we had more concerts in Asaba than any other state including Cross River State. We hosted more events in eight years than any state and I stand to be corrected. We had the best venue in Asaba. Delta State was the Mecca of every musician and comedian. Till today, when they see me, they cry that they haven’t been to Delta State since we left. Uduaghan (former Governor of Delta State) was a lover of entertainment and the arts and he proved it by making sure that there was always some kind of engagement. Outside of ‘The Experience’, ‘Delta Yada’ was the other biggest stage for gospel artistes.”
Although, this conversation took place by a serene waterside and it was sundown, there was no whisky to indulge in. All the same, he went over another seeming happenstance that strengthens his faith in God. “I was at a bar in Las Vegas with Kemi Adetiba. And she took this lovely picture of me. After she sent me the picture and I posted it, she said this picture was like an advertising picture. These people should make you a brand ambassador. We laughed about it. As at that time, I didn’t know or had not met anyone in Johnnie Walker. One or two years down the line, I got a call to be among the people that will go to Scotland and be an influencer for Johnnie Walker. That’s how it started. So life imitated art as it were. When I think about it, I just smile, it’s really been an incredible journey when I remember this whole thing. I have an elder cousin that I lived with. His name is Whiskey.
For some reason, my Aunty used to sell whisky and other alcoholic beverages. So, as I grew up and started hobnobbing in the social circle, I have been very blessed in the kind of company that I keep. I have had a very rare privilege of moving in certain circles where people who appreciate finer things of life have allowed me into their circle. I have picked up some habit like loving fine dining, good things and fine wines.
When you are a creative mind, you get to meet some of these people and some of their habits rub off on you. I have always been a big fan of Professor Wole Soyinka. All I wanted to do was have a house in the middle of the forest like him and be on the world stage and command the kind of respect that he does and to be able to appreciate fine dining and all of that. I’ve had all those influences in my life and I appreciate it. These things have availed me in my everyday interaction and engagement.
“Flashback to many years ago when I published Mr. Magazine. I had a column called ‘Wines and Spirits’. I have written about drinks all my adult life and I have kept most of the civilised company you can find. I have been taken to cellars, deep down underground, places where not every mortal go. I like to do the wine trail when I go to South Africa. I have done the whisky immersion in Scotland. Johnnie Walker is my drink of choice.”