Not so much has been heard of veteran Nollywood actor, Babatunde Omidina, aka Baba Suwe, for a while now.
Though in this new interview with Tofarati Ige and Joy Marcus, the actor spoke on his career as a thespian, his ordeal in the hands of the NDLEA, his late wife and other issues
Read excerpts from the interview below:
Can you recall how you started your career?
I started my career when I was in secondary school. I was born in Inabere Street, Lagos Island, and that’s where I began my career. I started in a small way but at a point, I was told to register with the Association of Nigerian Theatre Practitioners. When I got there, I was told that I was too young to be registered.
They also said I had to join one of the experienced theatre practitioners and learn from them. I then went to (join) the Osumare Theatre Group. I told them that I had a group that I had been performing with prior to joining them and I was asked to bring members of my group. I then took my boys and we always joined them for rehearsals.
After we had spent some time with the group, I decided to leave with my boys and we continued having our rehearsals at the place we often used before joining Osumare. In the course of our rehearsals, more people joined us and we grew. Subsequently, we had our first major stage play titled, Baoku, at Amutan Playing Ground in Lagos Island. There were so many people in attendance, even more than we expected, and we got a lot of acclaim and commendation.
From there, we moved to LTV 8. While at LTV 8, we had gone for a stage play, and after the performance, some people walked up to me and asked if I was the one in costume that just left the stage. I told them I was the one and they asked if I could perform at their station, which was NTA Channel 7.
They also invited me to the National Theatre where we used to have 10-minute performances. We were then told to perform at their station. Their producer then was called Gani Kasumu. They really loved our first performance and we ended up recording 13 episodes of the programme. That was how the ‘world’ got to know about Baba Suwe and we became very popular.
People loved to watch the programme, Erin Keke, at 7pm when it was usually broadcast. My fame spread outside the country and people began calling me from different places in the world for different projects. There is no television station in Lagos I didn’t perform at in those days.
Did you start wearing costumes from the beginning of your career?
Yes, I did. My mentor was Baba Mero and I really liked him. I recall that back then, whenever people saw my posters at NTA Channel 10, they were often confused as to whether it was Baba Mero they were seeing or someone else, because we dressed alike.
How did you come up with the name, Baba Suwe?
I was inspired by Baba Mero and other actors who added the prefix, Baba, to their names. I had a girlfriend then called Suwe; so, I decided to give myself the name, Baba Suwe, and it was well received by my fans.
Did your parents support your acting career?
My father went to do some spiritual findings to know if the profession would be favourable to me. He was then told not to stop me from acting.
Did anybody serve as a guide to you when you started acting?
There was nobody that put me through. Even when I was with Osumare Theatre Group, they were doing traditional plays while I’ve always been a comedian.
Considering your young age when you started acting, didn’t anybody try to take advantage of you?
There was never anything like that. I have been very blessed by God and he gave me such a wonderful gift that wherever I performed or rehearsed, people always loved what I did.
I recall that we used to have our rehearsals at the National Museum in Lagos, and whenever we were there, we used to attract a huge crowd.
Can you remember some of your contemporaries when you started acting?
I recall that I acted with Lere Paimo at Glover Hall on Lagos Island.
Which movie led to your breakthrough?
I would say the play, Baoku, was my breakthrough. I loved it and people also enjoyed it.
Can you recall the first time you travelled out of the country?
I was at home one day when my wife, Omoladun, told me that some people wanted to take me out of the country. I initially said I wasn’t going because I wasn’t sure of their intentions. They came back again and said they wanted to take me for different performances in London.
I still refused but they convinced my wife and she started begging me to follow them. I eventually gave in and followed them. We were about eight actors, including Idowu Phillips (Iya Rainbow), on that trip. When we got to London, they also liked me there.
Shortly after I returned to Nigeria, some other people came and invited me to America. Since that time, I have gone to so many countries on different occasions. As a matter of fact, I was recently in America.
A lot of people regard you as a stereotypical actor because you only acted in comedies. Did you at any point want to act other kinds of roles?
I never felt that way because people really enjoyed my brand of comedy. Back when we used to have stage plays, there were usually a lot people in attendance. When I started, I didn’t know that I could grow so big but I am thankful as to where God has taken me to.
You often act as a butler or gatekeeper in movies. Can’t you explore other roles?
I have played other roles such as a king and other serious roles.
Is there any role you would love to play but have not had the opportunity to?
There is none. I have acted in so many movies that I cannot even recall them all. There are even many that I have forgotten about.
Who are your favourites among the young actors making waves now?
I believe that the sky is big enough for all the birds to fly. I feel like all the actors are trying. There is none of them that I don’t like. There is no one I cannot act with and they all respect me because they know I am a master in the game.
Have you ever acted in an English movie?
Yes, I have. I recall that there was a time we went to Calabar to shoot a movie though I cannot remember the title of the film now.
It is believed that Nigerian English movie actors often look down on Yoruba actors. What do you think about that?
They can only do that to you if you don’t respect yourself. There is nothing they do that we cannot do. There are lots of Yoruba actors that can even speak better English but they just decide to do more of Yoruba movies.
How many movies have you produced?
I cannot remember them all because they are over 40 but they include Alfa Nla, Ayedun, Baba Jaiye Jaiye, Baba Londoner, Eku Meji, Ojo Ale, Agbefo, Oju Oloju, 2 ge 4, among others.
What were some of the challenges you faced while producing movies?
All my movies made great impact when they were released and they always did better than other films that were in the market at that time. As a result of that, there was often a lot of hate from other people in the industry. When you rise in your career, there will always be people who don’t like you; and it’s still happening till date.
I have been trailed by a lot of rumours. At a point, they said I couldn’t walk and was being carried about.
Piracy is also a very huge problem and we have cried out over it many times; the government really needs to come to our aid. These pirates don’t allow us reap the fruits of our labour.
It’s been a while you’ve appeared in movies. Do you still get scripts?
It just happened that way but no condition is permanent. Very soon, you will start seeing me in movies. You know when one is ill, one would need to rest properly. However, whenever I go out, people still show me so much love. To those people, it’s like they see me every day in movies.
I recently went to Osogbo and the crowd that greeted me was overwhelming. And that’s the same thing that happens everywhere I go.
At the height of your career, you appeared in most Yoruba films. How were you able to manage your time at that period?
I was just doing my job, and that’s why it’s good to work in a field you know about. There’s no time anybody ever called me and I turned them down; provided they were ready to pay good money. I am always prepared to act, even at short notice.
It is believed that the pay in the Yoruba movie industry is poor. Was that your experience?
There are people who are friends; and when I was ill, I knew my real friends and enemies. There are some people who will only come around you when the going is good.
However, if your friend calls you to shoot a movie, you may not want to charge them as high as you normally do because there would have been things they had done for you too in the past.
Is it true that you don’t make use of scripts when you are on set?
Once the director explains what I’m supposed to do, I deliver on it.
You often use a lot of slangs in movies. How do you come up with them?
It is all by the grace of God; they come naturally to me.
An actor, Yomi Fabiyi, raised an alarm that you were critically ill last year but you denied it. Why would he say you were sick if you were not?
He is my son and I don’t know why he did that. People told me about all what he said. There is nobody that cannot fall ill; we just pray that God shouldn’t visit us with a problem that is bigger than us. Truly, I was sick, but it wasn’t as bad as he painted it. As you can see, I am very well now. There was never a time when I was carried around.
What was the nature of your illness?
I am diabetic. As a result of that, my blood sugar level usually fluctuates but things are normal now. There was a time when I could not even talk. Very soon though, everybody will see me in another dimension in a movie.
Did your detention by the NDLEA contribute to your illness?
Yes, it did. I believe I was framed up in that particular case. That wasn’t my first time of travelling out of the country and I had never been arrested for something like that. They took me to a lot of big hospitals and laboratories but nothing was found in me. The judge who handled the case later told the NDLEA that if they did not retrieve any illegal substance from me, they should let me go.
On the day I was arraigned in court, the crowd that came to witness it was so massive; you would have thought they came to see a movie. At a point, I couldn’t bear it anymore and I shed tears.
I was made to sleep on a bench in an office at the airport throughout the time I was in NDLEA’s custody. I usually ate three times in a day and I excreted more than 30 times while I was there; yet they couldn’t find anything. I was even taken to a place where they flushed my insides with water and they still came up with nothing.
But it was reported that you refused to eat regularly while you were in NDLEA’s custody.
That’s not true; I always ate three times every day.
A Lagos High Court ordered the NDLEA to pay you the sum of N25m as compensation. Have you received the payment?
I have never gotten a kobo from them. The case has practically been forgotten after my lawyer, Bamidele Aturu, died.
Aturu was determined to see the case to a conclusion. When he first took on the case, he called me aside and asked me to confess to him if I really committed the crime. But I affirmed my innocence to him and he believed me.
The people close to me knew that I was innocent. I had never seen cocaine until I got to NDLEA office. My job as an actor was enough to take care of all my needs, and I didn’t need anything else. Through my job as an actor, I have been blessed by God and I am well loved and respected.
But the NDLEA insists that its scanners detected the illegal substance in you. Some people even said a juju priest must have assisted you, which is why you did not excrete the drug. Is that what happened?
If there was a juju priest that could do that, I’m sure the person would be a millionaire by now. What could I have used that made them not to find anything in me; after all, they apprehend people every time. I have always stuck to what I know how to do best.
Did the NDLEA apologise to you in any way after your ordeal?
I never saw them after I left their custody.
Did your colleagues in the movie industry support you during that time?
We better leave all that to God because He is the only one that can judge. There are people who you think cannot speak ill of you but they are the ones that would be at the forefront of spreading false stories about you.
When you are successful at what you do, some people would think that you have added something else to it. It is people like that who weren’t happy that you were progressing that would capitalise on such an incident to dent your image.
In what specific ways did the incident affect your career?
It really affected my career and that is to be expected. Till this day, a lot of people still believe I ‘trafficked’ cocaine. Meanwhile, I am totally innocent of the allegations.
Did people, who used to work with you, stop associating with you after the incident?
No, that never happened.
Have you considered making a movie of your NDLEA experience?
Yes, it will be out soon. The title will be, Oya’gbe ti.