By Godfrey George
Veteran actor, Leo ‘Spider’ Osuji, speaks to GODFREY GEORGE about his experiences in radio, and acting and how he survived the Civil War despite becoming a child soldier at 12
You have been acting for well over four decades. How has the experience been for you over the years?
I have been in the entertainment space since 1970. I started as a radio presenter. I have to pay tribute to those who brought me in but are no more. Some like Gilbert Ugbodiegwu, Dan Nkolagu of Radio Nigeria, Susan Obi and Lizzy Nwobodo are all deceased. I will say it has been a very good experience.
I was a civil servant even as I was into entertainment. I worked at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital and retired at Level 13. You can imagine combining entertainment and civil service. It was a very huge experience because I started and retired there (at UNTH) in 2011. There was a time I became fully involved in acting. Over the years, I have been working intermittently. It has been exciting. It afforded me the opportunity of meeting with my mentor, Pete Edochie. He was an idol I had even before joining the industry. We knew each other back in the 80s before I joined acting fully.
How will you describe your childhood and how did it prepare you for the entertainment world?
I was born and bred in Enugu State, even though I am from Anambra State. I made a lot of friends in Enugu. I loved the idea of coming together to share ideas as growing children. I grew up in a place that can pass for a populated area. I grew up in Coal Camp, Enugu, where we had the good, bad and the ugly. I was lucky to be on the good side of the divide. I grew up on my own, made an effort, and did all I could to make sure I was successful. Later on, I attended a higher institution and studied up to the level of obtaining a master’s degree.
Honestly, when I recall my experience in Coal Camp, I believe it influenced me to explore entertainment fully. I began to sing at the age of nine. It was music that made me popular. It was quite amazing. I sang the popular Igbo song ‘Obodo Emebigo’ which translates loosely to mean ‘The city is spoilt’. It was then I learnt how to play ogene music. Most people saw us as loafers because we played this kind of music, but we kept on pushing. We were not disturbed. When I remember those I grew up with, I am glad I have come this far.
Did your parents support your career in entertainment at first?
I studied Administration, but acting is inborn. In school, I entertained people and made them laugh without knowing what I was doing. My parents encouraged me. They’d laugh when people come to report me to them. At the age of nine, I could stand amid a crowd and perform. At 15 or 16, I was already getting paid for some jobs in Enugu, Kano, Abuja, and other cities. I had flights booked for me to fly at that age to go to emcee events. I didn’t call it anything. I just saw that I had something in me. At that time, when I went to Abuja, the organisers paid me between $10 and $15. I never counted it as anything. That was when Ugbodiegwu saw me. He had seen me in 1965, during my primary education. So when he saw me later, he recognised me and the potential he had seen when I was in primary school. He helped get into Radio Nigeria.
How easy was it for you to transition into acting from Radio Nigeria?
People who are on the radio have a great opportunity to act very well. When they talk to the audience, though they cannot see them, they can visualise and create an aura which shows that they are there with them. If you are able to act on a radio programme, the sky indeed would not be a limit, because it is your words that will tell people what you are doing. If you are sad, your words will let people know. Most importantly, I acted on stage and that really helped a lot.
Can you find parallels when it comes to life in the 60s when placed side-by-side with life now?
With nostalgia, I will say that far back, we saw ourselves as family. Wherever we lived, we saw ourselves as siblings of the same mother. I started working in 1975. I was posted from Enugu to Abakaliki, Ebonyi State. Can you believe that I didn’t know anybody there (in Ebonyi) even as I left Enugu? One man just saw me and took me in, and we lived together till we left that place. We lived as one family. We never knew this difference so emphasised now in the polity. Before the power supply was cut, w were given a day or two-day notice so we could prepare our minds. But, this time, I was watching a TV programme one afternoon and the power was interrupted and there was nothing one could do. In the 60s, people were not as afraid as they are now. There were robberies and some kidnappings, but they happened once in a while. But, these days, your next-door neighbour can be dangerous to you. I remember, also, when N1 was equal to $1. Things just kept moving till they finally got really bad.
How were you able to balance family with work?
There is a secret to it. I worked for many years before going into acting. When I started work, I told my wife what my salary was. I told her with style, “Dear, see what they cut in my salary o!” I just wanted her to see my net salary. She also doesn’t hide anything from me. If you begin to lie, obviously there’d be a lot of problems. Tell your spouse everything so they plan with whatever comes in from both ends. My family understands me very well.
Where will you say Nigeria got it all wrong?
The problem is that of a ‘sit-die syndrome’. How can I remain in office when my sons are out there jobless? Go check history; when a Nigerian goes abroad and returns, they are treated as an angel. There would even be a party to celebrate their return, and the next thing is that they join the civil service or politics. Now, a young man of 18 or so will go abroad and in a matter of years, come back and do very well. Our intelligence is not greater than theirs. The youth should be allowed to take over governance and bring out the ideas they have to help this country. Some people at the age of 26 have done very well for themselves. If such a person can do so well at such a young age, having big companies, don’t you think that if we leave the governance of the nation to them they will do well?
I would be an idiot if I were still at work and my child is out there looking for a job. If you have people who are lettered in government, things will work out fine. Go to a country where PhD or bachelor’s degree holders rule, think of those people who have travelled far and wide and watch the way they govern their nations. I am 68 years old now. I will tell you, without fear of contradiction, that anyone my age who is still aspiring to govern should get out of that place. Allow the youths to do what they can with the youthful blood running in their veins. They will achieve more than the elders can ever imagine. That is my belief. I don’t know what others may think.
Some sections of the country feel less represented in government. What are your thoughts about # the agitations from the different sections of the country?
Whatever I am going to say now is within the limits of human imperfections. If we are agitating for something and we get it, the best thing for us is to divide things equitably. Don’t you think so? Things like these will come up when people don’t feel satisfied or when someone feels cheated. That is what gives rise to agitation. There should be a roundtable conference to listen to people and know their problems. It will go a long way in solving the issues. I do not want my children to suffer, to die for what they don’t know. If they ask me, I would call on us to sit down and talk to find the way out. If things are going well, why should anyone be talking about agitations? I sang a song titled ‘Is Nigeria for sale?’ when I saw the way things were going. I remember I said, “I would rather be a free man in my grave than live the life of a slave or a puppet in my own country”.
Did you experience the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 directly?
Of course, yes. If I remember vividly, it was an era that did no one well. On two occasions, I cheated death. We had two places known as Biafra One and Biafra Two. In Biafra One, there were lots of things to eat. As a child, I travelled on foot from Biafra Two to Biafra One to buy some things to eat. On one of those occasions, as I was walking back from the market one day, just right behind me a bomb fell and shelled the entire place. When I was going back after travelling for almost three miles inside a trench without meeting anyone, I met a captain who asked me, “Small boy, can you go back?” and I told him, “Sir, with you, I can go back”. As small as I was, I joined the (Biafran) army. We were the young recruits. I was only about 12 or 13. The soldiers chased us out because we looked very small, but later, when things became hard, nobody told us to leave the area. A lot of that experience, one would not love to re-encounter. That is why I say it is better to sit down and talk.
We are already in a war of thoughts, not a war of actions. Politicians should take it easy, and the media, too, should be careful of what they say to avoid brewing violence. I am aware that trained journalists like those we have at PUNCH newspaper are very cautious with the things they put out there. Most of the problems we have are from naysayers. What I still maintain is that, if only we can come together as a people, we will do much more and things will become easier. We are sitting on a keg of gunpowder. If we don’t handle this with care, this whole thing will be blown up, because we cannot afford another war. My sincere prayer is for us to have one love. People agitating should listen and those they are talking to should also listen.
Looking back, what will you say you are grateful for?
I never took a penny from anyone in the form of borrowings and it gives me joy that I can help people with the little I have. One of my most popular movies, ‘Dangerous King,’ still resonates with a lot of Nigeria because of my performance and I am grateful for all the opportunities I have had so far.