By Bola BOLAWOLE
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In the early afternoon of September 11, 2023, my brother, Ademola Akinbola and I settled down to a business lunch at one of the restaurants at the Ikeja Shopping Mall (Shoprite); before long the topic drifted to our days at the PUNCH newspapers. When the decision was made to divert and elevate the PUNCH newspapers from its trademark entertainment newspaper (“the lively paper for lively minds”) to a serious- and business-oriented newspaper (now “the most-widely-read newspaper”), Akinbola and his friend, Orezina Agbodo (God rest his soul!) and other brilliant minds like Weneso Orogun, Arc. Tunde Imolehin, and Town Planner Moses Ogunleye (Property Desk) were some of the pioneers that I gathered as editor of the newspaper to blaze the trail. To them and their colleagues I remain eternally grateful for the success we made of the endeavour.
There is no discussing PUNCH without mentioning the name of Chief Olu Aboderin, the co-founder of the newspaper with his friend, Sam Amuka, now the founder and publisher of Vanguard newspapers. Neither Akinbola nor myself met Aboderin at the PUNCH; he had transited before we got there but we saw his larger-than-life photograph in the Boardroom and heard endless stories of him from our “seniors” at the newspaper. Immediately Olu Aboderin’s name was mentioned, an elderly fellow sitting quietly at the next table turned in our direction. “Did I hear you mention Olu Aboderin?” he asked and before we could answer, he apologized for barging into our discussion but hinted that it was impossible for him to hear Olu Aboderin being discussed and keep quiet. We worked at THE PUNCH, we told him, but never met Olu Aboderin there. And so began a long story of the humanism of Olu Aboderin, some of which we had heard from our “seniors” at the newspaper.
And then tears began to roll down the cheeks of this elderly man as he regaled us with more and more stories of Olu Aboderin and The PUNCH newspapers. “Pardon me”, he said again as he wiped tears. “I cannot discuss Olu Aboderin without shedding tears”. By this time, we had taken a closer look at him. Lo and behold, he turned out to be the one and only Dr. Ola Balogun, film producer extraordinaire! Dr. Ola Balogun is a pioneer Nigerian film maker who directed a long list of feature films over the past five decades, ranging from “Amadi”, “Ajani-Ogun”, “Aiye”, “Ija Ominira”, “Black Goddess”, “Orun mooru”, and “Cry Freedom” between 1974 and the present, in addition to a host of documentary films that were shot in several countries, including Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Mozambique, the United States, and France.
Since that chance meeting, I have hooked up with Dr. Ola Balogun and we have traded banters as well as exchanged posts. What you are about to read is one of them. Titled “the Lagos State Government US$100 million Epe film studio: Another major scam in the offing”, it is a warning to Gov. Babajide Sanwo-Olu to look carefully before he leaps and learn from the mistakes of those before him. It reads:
“The recent announcement by the Lagos State governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, that his Government has decided to begin work very soon on a film studio project known as the African Film City to be located in Epe at a whopping cost of $100 million dollars sounds eerily similar to an identical announcement that was made by Mr. Donald Duke during his tenure as governor of Cross River State, when he launched the ill-fated Tinapa film studio, which was supposed to form part of a giant complex of shopping malls, hotels and entertainment centres in the neighbourhood of Calabar at an overall cost of US$450 million! Then, as now, a shadowy Hollywood-based film company was announced as the overseas partner of the grandiose film studio project but nothing was ever heard again of the alleged Hollywood partner once funds had been disbursed! The sad epitaph to this ill-conceived film studio project (built without consulting film makers) is that only a single feature film was ever made in what eventually became a phantom film studio that has lain abandoned in ruins ever since!
In retrospect, the bogus Tinapa film studio can best be described as emulating a long series of monumental scams that have been carried out over the past four decades under the pretext of establishing a film industry in Nigeria. This series of scams can be traced back to the bogus launch of a non-existent film laboratory that was inaugurated in Port Harcourt with great fanfare by General Olusegun Obasanjo just before he left office as military Head of State in 1979. This supposed film laboratory, allegedly constructed at a cost of several million dollars, vanished without trace directly after it was inaugurated without ever processing a single foot of film!
Following this bare-faced scam, a Managing Director of the Nigerian Film Corporation succeeded in convincing the Federal Government that the best way to establish a film industry in Nigeria was to establish a film laboratory in Jos, Plateau state. This film laboratory was accordingly built and was equipped at a cost of several million dollars but, not surprisingly, it ceased to function almost directly after it was commissioned, having only processed a single film by Brendan Shehu himself entitled “Kulba na bama” to justify the humongous expenditure.
Closer to us in time, the Lagos State Government under the leadership of Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode announced in May 2017 that it had commissioned a total of four stage and movie theatres located in Igando, Oregun, Epe and Badagry. The four theatres (were) built at an undisclosed sum believed to run into several billions of Naira. The Oregun theatre was commissioned with fanfare by President Muhammadu Buhari on April 24, 2019 while the one at Igando was commissioned by Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode himself on May 15, 2019, followed by the one at Epe a few days later. The theatre located at Badagry was never formally commissioned!
Out of the four theatres, only one is currently known to be functioning as a venue for the screening of mostly non-Nigerian films while a second one is said to have been sub-let to a church entity for religious services! The theatre located at Oregun has never functioned at all! In each of these ill-fated ventures, the same pattern can be observed whereby individuals in government, under cover of wishing to benefit the Nigerian film industry, colluded with unscrupulous partners to launch sham projects at gigantic sums of money, with no benefit whatsoever accruing to the people.
Will the proposed $100 million Lagos State-funded Epe film studio turn out another one in the long list of scams perpetuated under the pretext of providing support for film production? Ironically, the much-neglected truth is that sprawling buildings and expensive equipment do NOT constitute what is required to set up a film industry, as can be observed from the examples of the British Film Institute, the Swedish Film Institute, la Cinémathèque Française, the Australian Film Corporation and other similar entities that have been set up in various countries all over the world for the purpose of providing support for home-based film industries. Rather than film laboratories and empty buildings, what is, in fact, required is a transparent process whereby film budgets are made available in a non-commercial context to fund the production of high-quality films”.
It may be too late already for Gov. Sanwo-Olu to back out of this film project but it is not too late for him to take advice and ensure that he does not fall into the same pitfall as his predecessors. From the long list of examples given by Dr. Ola Balogun, it would appear as if the film project has become a low hanging fruit for those intent on defrauding the government. I deliberately edited out names of individuals and organizations fingered by Dr. Ola Balogun as participants in what he described as bare-faced scams in which millions of dollars that could have been better utilized elsewhere went down the drain.
Gov. Sanwo-Olu owes it a duty to guard against a recurrence. To be forewarned, they say, is to be fore-armed. Or else, he may, even after his exit from office, begin to do what the then governor of Cross River State, Donald Duke, does today whenever his Tinapa project is mentioned. Tinap gulped huge sums of money. Tinapa held out so much promise! In fact, it was one project that gave so much visibility and recognition to Donald Duke. It will not be out of place to describe Tinapa as Donald Duke’s signature project; but where is Tinapa today? Where are the resources pumped into it? What really went wrong?
Some have said that poor or wrong conception killed Tinapa. Donald Duke himself says politics killed it. Whether poor or wrong conception or politics, none must be allowed to kill Sanwo-Olu’s Epe film project! These are no times to fritter scarce resources. Our leaders must take pity and have mercy on suffering Nigerians! E s’aanu wa! E s’aanu aje!
- Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-chief, BOLAWOLE was also the Managing Director/ Editor-in-chief of THE WESTERNER newsmagazine. He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and TREASURES column in New Telegraph newspaper on Wednesdays. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.