OKEY BAKASSI: THROUGH MANY BRIDGES OF FATE

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Though political satire and sarcasm got him his nickname and, arguably, fame, Okey Bakassi has crossed many bridges of fate, as an actor, comedian and television as well as radio host; to log a silver jubilee as an entertainer, which he celebrates this month. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports

Not many people know his real name, Anthony Okechukwu Onyegbule. Most people call him Okey Bakassi. This moniker by which he is better known was not planned. It came by chance and he did not even like the sound of it at all, in the beginning. The more rejected, the greater force the folks around him echoed the name, until it stuck. Those were the early days of his entry into entertainment industry when he, along with other wannabes, hug around the Zeb Ejiro studios in Surulere-Lagos. He got his first acting role as a bodyguard to the Johnsons in Ejiro’s hit series, ‘Fortunes.’ As there were a couple of others who went by the name Okey, it became necessary to distinguish one from the other. Incidentally, the hottest topic in town at the time was the seeming impending war between Nigeria and Cameroon over ownership of the Bakassi Peninsular. This provided enough material from which he presented political commentary and satire every day.

That was how this Okey became linked to Bakassi. And his popular name changed to Okey Bakassi. But that was not the nickname he coveted in the beginning. The end credit in the early films he appeared identifies him as Okey McAnthony. The need to have a separate identity that he could pull out of a hat underlines the necessity to be sure footed if he wanted to stay in the entertainment industry. The alias would save him from embarrassment if he did not succeed as an entertainer and had to quietly slip back into his real self as an Agriculture engineer.
Today, Okey has lost his anonymity, perhaps forever. And he proudly told me that his various roles as an actor, comedian, radio and television host can all be rolled into one package; making him an entertainer!

“Most of the things I do are related: the TV hosting, the television series, the stand-up comedy and movies are all aspects of entertainment. To choose one over the other is a bit difficult,” Okey said in an interview on the set of ‘Flat Mates,’ a television series on Africa Magic Urban. “From being around the country, I notice that in some places that I go to as a comedian, they know me more as an actor. If I go up north, lots of them have only seen me in the various movies that I have featured in over the years, which is more than 70 movies but probably have not seen me on stage performing live. You have those who see the television series and they are fans of that but have not been to a concert. But those who follow comedy and go to the shows and view Youtube to seek out jokes, identify with me as a comedian. Either way, they are all right, as long as people are getting entertained and they are happy.”

That was not the punch he hoped to deliver. I was on a couch next to him, but he shifted to make a movement that would grab my attention. He took note that he wanted to make an important point.

“I am an entertainer. I don’t just say I am a comedian. I am motivational comedian. I do not perform comedy for the sake of laughter. Mine is comedy that you can listen to and laugh over and still find something inside that you can use.”

Though political satire and sarcasm got him his nickname and arguably fame, Okey has only been launched on bigger platforms like Channels Television’s ‘Other News’ and Lagos Talk Radio 91.3FM ‘Okey is OK’. If these are avenues for political expression, he did not admit that it was peculiar, even if he served in the government of former Governor Ikedi Ohakim of Imo State as Senior Special Assistant on Entertainment. “Man is a political animal. There is politics in all of us. If you understand the simple definition of politics as a collection of processes that people apply to get what they want. What many people may not like is partisan politics or party politics. But politics generally is a way of life. I was actively involved in politics between 2008 and 2011. After that adventure, I took a break from partisan politics to focus on entertainment. I do political commentary. I do political satire.”

The Ohakim years may be linked to infamy by some, but Okey boldly came to his defence. Expectedly, he said he would have served again given the chance, if his principal had won a second tenure. “There were certain things about his style that I like. When you are in position of power, people do not see everything that you represent. In politics, when the lives of people are not improving according to their expectation, no matter how much you talk and the nature of the rhetoric, they are not satisfied.

It doesn’t take away from the fact that the person on the seat at that time may have things that they are doing correctly. In the case of Ohakim, he is a man who knows what he wants. He is quality conscious. And he is open to superior ideas.”

The actor and comedian who hails from Ahiazu Mbaise in Imo State, recalled his first encounter with the former governor. “I was at a forum of Imo indigenes in Lagos, which he came to. Before that day, I had never heard of him and I was not into politics. I made a contribution and proffered solutions. He saw it as a bright idea and invited me to work with him. I thought it was a joke. In the course of working with him, I discovered he was very quality conscious. Let me give you an example, we were having an event at the stadium to which we expected a very large turnout. We had gone to the stadium and made all things set, I was about going to bed around 12 midnight and I got a call from one of the governor’s aides who said the governor was going to the stadium to inspect the venue. I had to get ready again and rushed out. Fortunately, I got there before them and he arrived and went on an inspection at 12 midnight, just to make sure that things were properly done. Guess what? He was able to pick out that refuse bins were not strategically placed for the kind of turn out that we were expecting. We had arrangement for the place to be cleaned up but it would have been easier to have refuse bins. For a governor to come to that place and still pick out that minute detail shows the kind of person that he is.

He was very meticulous. May be it made the entire process slow. I believe he was a man who was misunderstood. I was Senior Special Assistant on Entertainment. He was the first governor to create that kind of office.”

A whole lot of things happened to change his perspective of government and governance. Arguably, Imo State has the highest number of A-list actors and Okey desired to tap into that to create jobs and fire the aspiration of the youths. However, the organised bodies of musicians, PMAN, and the Actors Guild in the state were torn in a bitter rivalry. He considers it one of his biggest achievements for being able to bring them back as one. He emphasized that no other governor of Imo State had galvanized the entertainment industry like Ohakim. “It was the first time that the MBGN left Lagos to any other state in Nigeria. The Clean and Green Initiative of the government was working and Owerri was adjudged one of the cleanest state capitals in Nigeria. It was beginning to emerge as a tourist destination, so naturally the pageant took an interest in coming there. It was the first time that the Nigeria Music Awards was hosted outside Lagos.

Even comedy concerts like the famed Night of a Thousand Laughs came to Imo State. Before then if you talk of any major concert, once you do Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, that was it, the next place in the east you wanted to go to was Enugu, but when Ohakim was in office, Owerri was like the capital of the South-east. This is a state with five institutions of higher learning in one small space bubbling over with lots of youths, we needed a sector that is vibrant to reduce the burden on government. Fortunately, at the time, they had the Imo Finishing School Project, which was about taking young graduates and polishing them up to become job worthy.”

Nearing 50 years, Okey was nostalgic about festive seasons when he was in government. A few states like Rivers and Cross River had made a huge capital out some seasons that attracted people from around the country, including Imo indigenes. He longed for something that re-enact the communal feelings of the yore. “We created the biggest platform for people, the Ichu-Afo Festival. It was a once in a year mega concert in Imo State that provided up and coming young people that big stage that they so much craved. It happened on December 31. Ichu-Afo is like sending forth the previous year and welcoming the New Year. We turned it into a tourism event among some other things that we were doing at the time like the Oguta Lake Carnival, just to market tourism in the state and encourage young people to embrace their talent.”

Regrettably, none of these things survived the Ohakim administration. He thinks posterity would be fair to him and his principal, while condemning the all-conquering attitude of Nigerian leaders at every level. “What happens in this clime is that when a government is in power, they pull down everything that is emblematic of the previous administration. It does not matter whether it is good. It does not matter how much effort you have put into trying to enshrine it.”

Okey who celebrates his silver jubilee in the entertainment industry this month with a Comedy Masterclass at Eko Hotels and Suites, Victoria Island-Lagos is concerned that the stand-up space is becoming more difficult and crowded by the day. “The economy has affected everybody and it has become more difficult. Technology has made it difficult for stand-up comedy but easy for comedy generally. These days you go to a concert and everybody pulls out their phones and start recording. People just go to shows and harvest content. They even go and stream the show online for people at home. You create content and you use it once and then it goes viral. It is not good for stand-up comedy. It is good for the audience but it is not good for the artiste. You want to do a joke, they say we have heard it before. Before you leave stage somebody has posted it on Youtube and they are gathering views and probably making money off your sweat.

Social Media is killing stand-up comedy; while it is spreading the humour of comedy, but it is killing the art form called stand-up comedy. Before now, we could go to bars and freestyle new material but now you don’t even want to freestyle any new content in a public place. How do you check the potency of those new content if you don’t try it in the public space? But if you do that, someone will broadcast it even before you start using it. Some other people will latch onto it and create drama skits around it and become online comedy sensation off the back of your sweat and nobody gives anybody credit.”