The Nigerian movie industry was thrown into deep mourning on Tuesday as the news of the death of a leading actor, Justus Esiri, hit the air.
Esiri was said to have passed on at the age of 71 in his hometown, Abraka, in Delta State on Monday night after a brief battle with an unnamed illness – although it is speculated that he might have died of diabetes.
The passage of the seasoned actor is the fourth within one week, in a cycle of deaths the Nigerian entertainment industry has witnessed in recent times. Before him, singer Susan Harvey, aka Goldie, died of what autopsy reports have now established as hypertension. She died in Lagos on Valentine’s Day after returning from a visit to the US. Her death occurred two hours after a past secretary of the Lagos State branch of the AGN, Lugard Onoyemu, slumped and gave up the ghost at the National Stadium complex, Surulere, Lagos.
Also, another Nollywood actor, Collins Ifeanyi Chukwu, was reported dead in Abuja a few months after Peter Eneh died of a tetanus infection and Enebeli Elebuwa died of stroke in New Delhi, India.
Born in 1942, the late Esiri had his primary and secondary school education in Abraka and Warri, respectively, before proceeding to the Maximillan University and Weners Institute of Engineering in Germany between 1964 and 1968.
Having worked for some time as a newscaster with the Voice of Nigeria, German Service, he veered into movie production and had a stint with the Schiller Theatre in Berlin before returning to Nigeria in 1976.
The late actor played a key role in the production of Dr. Ola Balogun’s movie, Dinner with the Devil, as well as during the Second World Black and African Festival of Art and Culture in Lagos in 1977.
Esiri, who was awarded Officer of the Order of the Niger last year, died a few days to the public launch of his new movie titled, The Assassin’s Practice. The film was scheduled to be premiered in Lagos on February 22, 2013.
Perhaps, Esiri’s last major appearance in public was during the funeral of his friend and fellow Thespian, Enebeli Elebuwa, in Lagos last year where he paid a glowing tribute to the departed actor.
He was also part of the Nigerian delegation to the London Olympic Games, where he featured in the cultural aspects of the games, in July 2012. He also had an ugly experience in London as he was reportedly robbed of his belongings and some cash by thieves who broke into his hotel room during the Games.
Esiri has starred in many Nollywood movies and TV drama series. He has to his credit several lead appearances in several Nigerian television soaps, television series and serials; and feature films.
He played Chief Comos Aderibigbe Alli in New Village Headmaster, Chief Esuga in Supple Blues, Obierika in Things Fall Apart, Professor Ofori in Delicate Matters, Chief Williams in Every day People, Doctor in Mobile Clinic and many others.
Apart from that, he will be remembered for bringing laughter to many homes as headmaster in the rested television drama series, The Village Headmaster.
AGN, Nollywood actors react
Reactions from movie fans, Nollywood actors, musicians and well meaning Nigerians have greeted the announcement of Esiri’s death. Many people expressed shock at the sudden departure of the man, who, they believe, did so much for the movie industry in this part of the world.
While the likes of Chidi Mokeme, Emem isong, Susan Peters and D’banj sent condolence messages via Twitter, the President of the Actors Guild of Nigeria, AGN, Ibinabo Fiberesima, called on practitioners in the entertainment industry to come together and put an end to the deaths being experienced in the industry.
In a brief telephone interview with the PUNCH on Wednesday, Fiberisima said, “We are still in shock. We will miss the late Justus Esiri, especially at this time that we are working hard to put our house in order. I want Nollywood actors and actresses to keep praying to God for good health and long life. We need serious prayers. The younger actors should start taking their health and spiritual lives seriously. Life is not all about money. “
Jonathan, Uduaghan, PDP, NFC mourn
While other Nigerians continued to mourn the loss, condolence messages were still pouring in as at Wednesday afternoon.
The leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party, through a statement signed and issued by the National Publicity Secretary of the party, Chief Olisa Metuh, expressed shock over the death of veteran actor, Justus Esiri, describing it as a national loss.
The statement described Esiri as an epitome of virtue who used his talent to teach values and patriotism and urged the younger generation of Nigerians to emulate him.
The party said Esiri contributed immensely to the development of the nation’s movie industry, adding that his memory, especially his role as Headmaster in the Village Headmaster series, aired on the Nigerian Television Authority decades ago, will remain fresh in the hearts of Nigerians.
“The leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party received the news of the death of veteran actor, Justus Esiri, with deep sadness. Esiri was an epitome of virtue who used his talent to teach values, patriotism and hard work especially to the younger generation of Nigerians.
“He contributed immensely to the development of the nation’s movie industry and his memory will remain fresh in the hearts of Nigerians. The nation will indeed miss his wealth of experience and dedication to duty”, the statement indicated.
The Party commiserated with the Esiri family, the government and people of Delta State, as well as Nollywood and prayed God to give them the fortitude to bear the loss.
President Goodluck Jonathan, in a statement signed by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, described Esiri as an epitome of commitment, excellence and creativity.
Jonathan reiterated his belief that Nollywood had carved a positive image for Nigeria in the eyes of the international community, with the late actor contributing in no small measure to the creation and sustenance of that image.
The statement read in part, “President Jonathan condoles with the Nollywood Family on the passage of a notable member, mentor, pioneer and inspiring actor, and enjoins the younger members to keep Justus Esiri’s legacy alive by promoting higher standards in their movies. He prays God Almighty will grant the soul of the departed actor peaceful repose.”
Also, Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State described Esiri as a legend who brought prestige and honour to the movie industry in Nigeria.
“He was not only one of the pioneer actors in the country, the late Justus Esiri also brought uncommon touch and professionalism to his trade. He was renowned and honoured wherever he went. He was a legend,” Uduaghan said, in a statement issued by his press secretary, Felix Ofou.
Recalling that the late actor was one of the privileged few in Nollywood to be awarded the Officer of the Order of the Niger, the governor said Esiri’s role in the popular TV drama series, Village Headmaster, served as a reference point and an inspiration to scholars, actors and actresses, leaders and generations to come. He noted that the vacuum left by the late actor will be difficult to fill.
The Nigerian Film Corporation also expressed sadness at the death of the actor.
Reacting from the headquarters of the corporation in Jos, the Chief Executive of the NFC, Mr. Afolabi Adesanya, described the passing away of Esiri as a painful and irreplaceable loss to the Nigerian creative industry.
“The legendary actor was a great influence to all television and movie lovers. He carved an enviable niche for himself in the Nigerian motion picture industry as a character actor. He was always at his best on the screen,” he said.
Adesanya added that the good works of the deceased would continue to resonate for a long time to come, as one of the nation’s finest actors dating back to the 1980s when he played the lead role in the now rested Village Headmaster.
He was quick to add that Esiri’s role and contributions to the growth of the Nigerian motion picture industry was acknowledged and rewarded when he was conferred the National Honours Award of Officer of the Order of the Niger by the Federal Government in 2007.