Richard Mofe Damijo, the incumbent Commissioner of Culture and Tourism in Delta State, is one of the most celebrated actors in Nigeria. Today, he is also one of the decision makers in Delta State government . The prolific actor, politician, journalist and lawyer recently, in Asaba, talked about life as a politician, an actor among other things. Excerpts:
How did you become a commissioner in Delta state?
My governor was a willing vessel. He found me worthy enough to be appointed into his cabinet, which for me, was a great privilege to give flesh to his vision of a Delta state that should be a leader in the country. I started as special adviser for four years and subsequently I was elevated to a commissioner. I think to a large extent, we have supported his dreams to make Delta, a state to be proud of .
How’s life as a commissioner?
It’s a whole new ball game. It has planted my feet firmly on the ground and my perception of government and everything I knew before I entered the public service has changed. It has drawn me closer to my people and made me more internally focused in terms of knowing that life beyond Lagos is a whole lot different. The venire of life and the glamour of Nollywood and all that. Life here is way, way beyond that. Development, peace, security and making sure people’s lives are secured and their future guaranteed are my focus now. I am privileged to be commissioner for culture and tourism and my responsibility entails supporting Delta beyond the oil dream. We have embarked on a very ambitious project, which is the Delta Region Resort. It’s been a long time coming and we are hoping that we’ll be able to at least get to a reasonable stage before we leave. We’ve been able to get a whole lot of young people off the streets. That is what tourism does, it employs a lot of young vibrant people and the entry level doesn’t require a degree.
Can you elaborate more on your achievements?
We’ve tried to make sure that Delta state is a known destination. We have been able to first and foremost redefine Asaba. Outside of Abuja, Asaba is probably the conference capital of Nigeria right now. We have hosted every segment of the society in Asaba till date. In four years, we have turned it into a conferencing destination in Nigeria. We’ve also tried to use entertainment as a vehicle to redirect the energy of youths. Remember when we came, there were lots of youths and militant agitation and all that. We needed to diversify the economy to the point where young people have alternatives. Firstly, we organized a Delta talent quest, which explored music, dance, comedy and acting as means of engaging young people which we have done successfully. Some of our winners are right on the national stage now. A lot of young people emerged from the program and they are doing well. We’ve mentored youths in the entertainment industry by setting up a recording studio where we help young people in music and record their videos for them. We run workshops from time to time where we teach them camera skills, editing and all that. We do collaborations as well. In the process we’ve improved the content of our television programmes. Our major agenda is the Delta Region Resort. We’ve developed the Delta Future Resort, Olieri, which is in the Warri area and the Wild Park which is here in Ogwashiukwu. The Warri Airport is being expanded and of course the Asaba International Airport is already adjudged the finest airport in Nigeria. That’s why I said it’s a very ambitious project. Upon completion, it’s going to drive major tourism traffic to this part of the world, as we are putting everything in place. Right now, Warri is being upgraded in terms of aesthetics.
The Asaba International Airport is under-utilized in terms of flights coming here. Why?
It’s because it’s a new airport and construction is still in progress. We’re putting finishing touches here and there. This airport will be one of the busiest in Nigeria and the reason is simple. Most businessmen in Onitsha, Anambra state, find it more convenient to come through the Asaba International Airport and the minute the airport is fully completed with all the conveyor belts working, the arrival and departure halls sorted out and all other aviation requirements are in place, traffic will increase.
So, when will it be ready?
People tend to forget that there is nowhere in the world where you build and complete an international airport in four years. Heathrow and Gatwick International Airports that have been in existence for years are constantly under renovation or being improved . This airport is only how many years old? The fact that we are even landing planes here, speaks a lot about the pace of work at the airport.
Could you tell us about your first day in office?
I looked forward to it , because I had been in the private sector all my adult life. I was almost 47 years old when I got into government. It was just a day of observing and meeting the people I was supposed to work with. I had four people to work with. I introduced myself to them and they reciprocated and took me through some orientation or processes. It was rather quiet. I was just sitting down, feeling my way in and I learnt what needed to be learned. It was quiet, it was fun in the sense that I had never closed from work at four. In fact the staff actually closed at four. When they were about to leave they asked if there was anything I wanted them to do and that they would wait, but work was done for the day and I left as well. That was the earliest I had ever closed but the minute I knew what I had to do, of course there was no more closing hour.
How did you get your role in Tinsel?
I didn’t audition for Tinsel. Before the governor was re-elected, you know there was a lull and a change of cabinet and all that. I didn’t have a job. After four years, I didn’t have a job. I got a letter from a young friend of mine who was a member of the crew of Tinsel that a lot of my young friends are working there that they would love me to come and breeze in and just shake hands with them. I went and when I got to Lagos, they took me round. We shook hands, we talked and took pictures but I didn’t know there was a small set-up or surprise. At the end of the day, one of the line producers gave me a script and said, my bros, look at this. I read it and I said oh, I like it and he said bros, will you like to come in with us even for a few episodes. I said yes, why not and that I wasn’t currently doing anything. It was very hectic because it was not something I had plans to do; their recording schedule was quite professional and very hectic. So, I went on doing it. It stretched beyond what was going to be a few episodes. When I was re-appointed, I had to stop. I work in Asaba and doing all that traveling all the time was tasking, but they didn’t kick me out. I’m hoping that when I have some break I will go back and do some more work.
You once published a male magazine called Mr . Do you intend to do publishing later?
I don’t know if I will. You never say never. I love publishing totally. We did it at a time when technology had not really taken off, when the Internet wasn’t what it is now. Perhaps in the future. Publishing is a lot easier now than what it was then. There are a few more liberal people around now who will gladly invest in a good venture like that. It was my first time in journalism. I gate-crashed into journalism first as a features writer. I started writing in 1985. I was acting intermittently too. I graduated in 1983 and I came to Lagos in 1984 and was acting. I didn’t really want a regular job, so in between acting it was Segun Adeleke of The Punch at that time that got me into writing. He came to watch a play that I reviewed. I had about five minutes to review the play. He liked what I said and he asked me if I could repeat what I said in writing? I said yes. I read Theatre Arts,so I could do it and he published what I wrote. Subsequently, Ben Tomoloju and others kept encouraging me to keep writing. Overnight, I became a reviewer of plays. The late Steve Rhodes read some of my reviews and he invited me every time they had a show to review. I wrote musical reviews, theatre reviews and that was how my journalism started. I left for England after a while and subsequently , I joined Concord Newspapers as a reporter. Mike Awoyinfa was my editor then. Awoyinfa sharpened my skills and he was one of the most patient people I have ever worked with. I worked for him as a staff writer. When they started Weekend Concord, I met my late wife. I later on wrote for her. She left Quality Magazine at a time and she wrote columns for Weekend Concord before we started Classique.
What do you plan to do next, are you going to the Senate or the House of Representatives ?
I can’t tell you unfortunately. I’m not one of those that will tell you this is my next ten- year plan. I don’t know if it’s a character flaw or if it’s just overdependence on God. I really don’t tend to over plan my future. I’m sure when the time for the next logical steps come, it will just come. I give God the credit for everything I am today. It’s all the grace of God. He’s the only that can move me to the next level. I’m still excited about working with one of the most visionary governors in Nigeria today. Hopefully, when we are done here, I will declare what I want to do. I can simply say right now, I’m not interested in running for elective office.
At what time did you become a politician?
I met my governor through a program I was runing. I used to run a franchise called Made in Warri. It was a comedy I created in response to very silly things comedians said about Warri. I grew up in Warri and that was not the image of Warri I knew. For me at that time, it was important to say to the world that everything that is Warri is positive and that was my message. Some of the most brilliant people are in that little town. So, I started Made in Warri as an image-laundering programme for Warri and at that time Governor Uduaghan was the SSG . It was important for me to get the governor of the state to attend one of the shows at the time. So, Ahmadu Ikime and I met at the airport. Sometimes, it’s amazing how God does things. He was with a former CNN correspondent who is a friend of mine. Even before he joined CNN, he was writing for Reuters. We met at the airport. Ahmadu was with him and we started gisting. Ahmadu asked if I knew him and I said yes, we had been friends forever. He accused me of not visiting Delta often and I told him I used to, that I just traveled home to see if I could see some of the people in government. He said don’t worry , when next you come to Delta I will introduce you to the SSG. He did and right there at his dining table, I mentioned Made in Warri to him and he became interested. He said there were many negative things said about Warri and he was glad I was doing it adding “Maybe with this, we can correct a lot of bad impression” and I invited him to one of the shows in Lagos. He came. He climbed the stage and cracked jokes and that was how our friendship started. Later on, I discovered he was going to run for the governorship of the state. Of course, here was a man that has supported me so much, because of the vision he had for Warri at the time and I knew anything good coming out of Warri means something good coming to Delta. So, I pitched my tent with him and got few of my colleagues to support him also. When he won, he was gracious enough to invite me to join his cabinet and the rest is now history.
What’s it like working with Gov. Uduaghan?
Fantastic, I have learnt a lot . Being in government is so different from being outside looking in. It’s always better to be inside looking in, then your perception changes. It’s a wonderful opportunity and a privilege to be here.
I’ve learnt there are a lot more to do for my people. I’m more interested now in developing my people and my area. I have done more things now in my village and in my local government. I apply myself to make sure that I’m available to the young people in Delta State, especially in my local government . There’s so much to be done and once you get it right with the younger people then you can guarantee the future. I try to pass on the little knowledge that I have to as many of them as possible, so that they can navigate through life. There are people that are able to get jobs today, go to school today on account of what I have done for them. That gives me joy.
So who has influenced your life most? Your mum, dad or your teacher?
My mum is my heroine. It may be because I’m her only child. I spent all my childhood with my mum. I’m 52 today and I still feel there are things that I want to do today. I could hear my mum’s voice and could remember what my mum would say. Once in a while, off guard, I say my mum will kill me if she sees me doing this. Undoubtedly my mum has the greatest influence on me.
Also, Wole Soyinka is another great influence in my life. I love intellectuals. When I discovered Soyinka, as difficult as he was, people ran away from Soyinka in school but for me, it was different. I’ve read a lot of his plays and poems. There are plays people ran away from but I went back to discover the essence of the man. When I left school, I was privileged to work with him after he won the Nobel Prize. I traveled with him to Italy, we did a play and I was privileged to be under his direction. We spent about 28 days in a remote village in Italy. It’s an unforgettable experience.
As an only child, were you over pampered?
Not in anyway. My mum will lift you up with your ears if you misbehaved. She used to tell me “You’re my everything”. At age 9, I was cooking. I could cook for the entire house. Those virtues I had imbibed all my life. She taught me to be humble, respectful and be sensitive to women. My mum told me “You don’t ever lay your hands on a woman”. These are things she taught me that I would never forget. I wasn’t spoilt at all. Since she knows that I don’t like to be embarrassed , my mum will wait for my friends to come before she starts screaming at me. I will be begging her and saying these are my friends now and she will say, “Yes, let them know how you are treating me”.
You dress impeccably, what’s your style?
It’s largely based on my mum’s influence too. My mum sold fabrics (wrappers). She wasn’t very rich at all. She never owned a car until I bought her one but she was very stylish and she was the one that bought me clothes. Since she sold clothes, she always reserved at least two yards of clothes for me whenever I needed it. So I never lacked clothes. I grew up loving to wear new clothes, shoes and everything. It’s true when they say style is innate, but you learn it, you pick a few along the way. I have loved clothes all my life and I picked a few things on the way and when it was time to publish a magazine, I actually sat down to start sartorial elegance. What a man should wear to work, what forms complete dressing and good dressing and all that. That was why Mr was such a hit , because I could tell men then that you could wear a suit without lace-up shoes. Then, I went to study law where you must dress up , you must be fit and proper. You must be elegant. All my life, I have always felt the need to dress well and I learnt how English people dress.