We join millions of Nigerians in mourning the death of Nigeria’s pioneer filmmaker, Eddie Ugbomah, who passed away on the May 11, 2019. He was scheduled for a medical procedure on May 13, but he did not make it. Although he was 78, his death was a shock to many.
The exact cause of his death is unknown, but he was said to have had a titanic struggle with a brain ailment which his doctors were unable to contain and it was his plan to try doctors abroad. Not only was Ugbomah severely ill, he was also behind in his hospital bills, which forced him to eventually cry out for public assistance, especially when the hospital threatened to discontinue caring for him. But six weeks after and having received no substantial help, he resolved to auction his house and car which still fell short of the N50 million he needed. Ugbomah, like most pioneers, made films before Nollywood was invented, before the industry became the gold mine it is today. But his credentials, output and legacies are set in stone. He seemed to have set his professional gaze on Charlton Heston both as an inspiration and as a role model. It was Heston, who at the premiere of Ben Hur, the American classic, inspired him at the Glover Memorial Hall, Ikoyi in 1959, when Ugbomah was 18. Heston had expressed regret that there was no film industry in Nigeria, which to young Ugbomah sounded like a challenge. It, indeed, became his lifetime challenge.
It is easy to draw parallels about both men. Heston went on to become the premier historical actor in Hollywood starring in hundreds of movies such as Moses, in the Ten Commandments, lead actors in Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, ‘Caesar and Cleopatra, Thomas Moore, and Planet of the Apes. Almost all of Ugbomah’s films were historical and he starred in nearly all of them. Heston marred his reputation when at the end of his career he became the President of the notorious National Rifle Association, the gun lobby partly held responsible for mass shootings in the United States. Ugbomah, in contrast, remained dear to Nigerians. The Nigerian Film Corporation described his death as “shocking and painful.” It also stressed that the creative industry had lost an irreparable rare gem whose creative ingenuity had been a source of pride and inspiration to other filmmakers. Ugbomah was the pioneer chairman of the film corporation and led it from 1988-2001.
He was born in Ashaka, Aboh, Ndokwa East LGA of Delta State but he was raised in the Lafiaji district of Lagos where he attended primary and secondary schools. After finishing from the City College, he went abroad and was trained as a journalist, dramatist and filmmaker. After his studies, he worked with the BBC and played minor roles in several plays, Dr. No, Guns at Batasi and Sharpeville Massacre. He was a member of an African-Caribbean drama group and directed some of its plays, one of which was “This is our chance,” staged at the Stoke Newington Theatre.
He returned to Nigeria in 1975 and soon founded the Edifosa Film Enterprise, a film production company. Between 1977 and 1996 he made 13 films: The Rise and Fall of Oyenusi (1977); The Mask (1979); Oil Doom (1980); Bolus ’80 (1992); The Boy is Good (1982); Vengeance of the Cult (1984); Death of a Black President (1984); Esan (1985); Apalara (1986); Omiran (1986); The Great Attempt (1988); Toriade (1989); and America or Die (1996).
President Muhammadu Buhari in his tribute stated that Eddie Ugbomah was not only a gifted storyteller but a social commentator and an activist. The President was apt for Ugbomah used his films to tell the story of Nigeria. Those films have been described as “didactic,” “thought-provoking” and “enlightening.” Each was based on Nigeria’s social, economic and cultural reality and the need for change.
He turned those movies from celluloid to HD and DVD. We hope that his organisation and friends would use the occasion of his transition to reissue his works and make these memorable movies available once more for the benefit of both the new generation and older fans. Eddie Ugbomah’s place in history is secure given his imperishable works, but we urge the Federal Government to immortalise him for his patriotic contributions to the development of the nation’s film industry.