The Sheikh of Nollywood
The name, Zeb Ejiro, is synonymous with Nollywood, though the name predates the Nigerian movie industry that is known by the latter. He goes by the sobriquet of The Sheikh, but did not give himself the nickname. An entertainment magazine gave him the name to reflect his role in an industry in which he was one of the pioneers, with about 80 per cent of the big names known to have learned at his feet.
Ejiro came into limelight in 1993, with his release of Nneka, the Pretty Serpent, what was then considered a blockbuster in an area of entertainment that was an offshoot of television in Nigeria. That was after Living in Bondage, Kenneth Nebue’s 1991 film, had signaled the advent of what was to become the home video industry.
Ejiro followed it up at different times with the release of Domitila, Sakobi and Intimate Strangers, to begin to stamp his authority in the fledgling industry. Other equally popular movies that came out of his production line were Love Without Language and Fatal Desire.
The interest that home video generated among Nigerians saw boys and girls with passion for acting swarming Ejiro’s Aguda, Surulere, Lagos, office, turning it into a mecca for would-be actors who were keen on earning a living in the world of make-believe. By the middle of the 90s, Ejiro had succeeded in making stars out of the likes of Kanayo O. Kanayo, Ngozi Ezeonu, Hilda Dokubo, Ramsey Noah, St. Obi, Sony Macdon, Sandra Achums, Okey Bakassi, and many others.
It wasn’t long before Ejiro began to wield considerable influence, becoming one of the handful of people that determined what happened in the movie industry. For instance, he became the channel through which Delta State indigenes, notably those from his Isoko tribe, made their presence felt in the industry.
The Amata brothers – Fred and Jeta – owe their emergence and prominence in Nollywood to Ejiro who is credited with forming a community of Isoko indigenes that came to be known as the Isoko Mafia in Nollywood, acting as leaders and decision makers in the industry. Through his inspiration, his two brothers, Peter Red and Chico Maziakpono, joined him to fly the family flag in Nollywood.
Ejiro, a Mass Communication graduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, describes as sheer luck his entry into entertainment and, by extension, the movie industry. While at home one day, in 1985, he saw an announcement by the Nigerian Television Authority for people who could write 30-minute play scripts, with indication that successful candidates would be employed by the authority.
He wrote a play titled Put My Ring on My Grave, a horror piece. To his amazement, he was among the 27 people that were selected out of the over 5, 000 that submitted entries. They were trained at the NTA and BBC.
Ejiro worked for the NTA after his training. He left after some years, but continued to write plays for the authority. He was involved in the writing of Village Headmaster, Second Chance, etc. A restless person, he soon got tired of writing and decided to do something more challenging by delving into television production.
He created Ripples, which ran on national television for five years – the longest running soap on television. He followed up by creating an equally popular soap, Fortunes, later changing the name to Mega Fortunes.
Ejiro has spent more than three decades in the entertainment industry, moving from television play script writing to production, and then to movie production, mentoring and training actors in the process. It is hardly possible to mention any star in the industry that did not receive tutelage from him.
Alex Osifo-Omaigbo, Richard Mofe Damijo, Liz Benson and Genevieve Nnaji and many others owe their success and status to him. In fact, he did not only create stars in Nollywood, he helped some of them attain international status. For instance, he facilitated Omotola Jolade-Ekeinde’s entry into Hollywood, arguably the ultimate destination for any movie actor in the world.
After so many years of writing, directing, producing movies and creating stars, Ejiro recognized the quick passage of time, and decided it was time to try his hands in another equally important aspect of Nollywood – grooming new stars to take over from those that are beginning to fade from the scene.
He built a film academy in Delta State, called Film and Broadcast Academy. The academy is an avenue through which he impacts his God-given talent to a new generation. The institution offers courses in script writing, production management, directing, and anything that has to do with the movie industry.