By Uche Ugboajah
Judging him by the role of “Zebrudaya Okorigwe Nwogbo alias 4:30,” the character he played for over two decades in one of the most popular and pioneering sitcoms in Nigeria, he would easily pass for a mere jester. But you will be wrong! Chief Chika Okpala is a very serious-minded person, a deep thinker, cultural ambassador, and moral compass for a society still in search of its social trajectory.
He was born over seven decades ago in Ahoada in present-day Rivers State into a family of nine children with a polygamous father who had two wives but nonetheless treated them fairly. His early impression of his family was that of close-knit unit bound in love and harmony. He recalls that his mother would be making soup while the other wife, his stepmother, pounded fufu. His late father, a modest businessman, seemed to have the future of his son laid out. Maybe because of his own background in buying and selling, the father wanted his son to become a banker and did everything possible to keep him on track to achieve this goal. And part of the bigger plan was to send the young Chika and his other siblings back home to be with their paternal grandmother in his native Nnobi in today’s Idemili South Local Government Area of Anambra State, for acculturation.
That was how he started his standard (primary) education in his hometown Nnobi where he did his standard 1-3, before he was brought back to Ahoada to start his Standard 4. At Ahoada, he became a handful and with other children of his age, started playing truancy. He recalled how they would sneak out at night to go to the cinema to see films without his parents’ knowledge. On one such occasion, one of his co-mischief-makers got injured in the process they had perfected all the while to steal into the cinema house without paying. So, he had to hurry back home that night and lay down pretending to be in a deep slumber. When the father of his injured friend stormed their home that night waking his parents and asking them to produce their son, Chika, he knew there would be consequences.
A few days after the cinema house incident, his father concluded that he was enjoying too much freedom in Ahoada and parceled him over to Joinkarama, another village to go live with a driver friend of his who had a wife and toddler to be cared for. The driver who worked for a Baptist hospital wanted someone who could stay at home and look after their son when his wife went to the farm.
When Chika took his Common Entrance Examinations and was accepted at the Baptist Day School, Port Harcourt, and Prince Commercial Institute, Onitsha, his father was sure the latter, being a commercial school, provided the route to him becoming a banker; and the fact that it was in Onitsha—nearer to his hometown—was just an icing on the cake. Sadly, the war broke out in 1967 when he was in Class Four. He had to go back to Ahoada and not too long after as the war got more intense, Chika and his family ran back to Nnobi for safety.
As with almost all other Igbos of the era, the civil war reshaped his destiny and what his life has turned out to be today. A lover of his people, Chika Okpala tried everything he could to join the Biafran Army without success. He was rejected on account of age and height. The only option left for him was to join the Boys’ Company, child soldiers who supported the Biafran Army. But as the war raged, one of the returnees opened a French School in the village where they went to learn, not knowing what the future held for them. But as he recalls, one day someone knowing his burning desire to serve his beloved land in some capacity during the war introduced him to the Red Cross Organisation, which would change his life. At the Red Cross, he was happy to help others who sustained injuries in the warfront, while still attending his French classes.
Although he could easily be named as the grandfather of comedy in Nigeria, Chief Chika Okpala or better still ‘Zebrudaya’ started honing his acting talents in secondary school with his drama group. The boredom of the civil war, however, provided the environment for what has today become an illustrious career in acting, television production and advertising.
He told Ikengaonline how the journey began when one of those who also returned home because of the war informed him that he had written a play, “Torombosis,” which they could rehearse and act for the Biafran Army since they refused to allow them to join in the war efforts. That was how a drama group was coupled together. “But someone suggested that the army people may not understand the big grammar, ‘torombosis’ and as we were debating it, another person said he had a play called Okosisi (pronounced oko-sai-sai).” The young Chika was thereafter cast as the Okosisi, a man who returned from abroad and got conflicted with his cultural environment. “After acting Okosisi in the house of Professor Umeh, then a renowned scholar at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, we were always called to perform for the soldiers. At the end of the war the group was disbanded as many people had to return to their various bases,” he said.
The war did not just end for Chika Okpala; like all other Igbo families, the war left in its wake broken relationships with loss of family members, relations, and friends. It also consumed his father’s once thriving textile shop in the magnificent Onitsha Main Market as well as his dream to continue his education. He recalled how he used to marvel at how his father who had just Standard Two education transacted businesses with his customers some of whom were Germans, Spanish, French, and British. He noticed that his old man used to mix his Igbo language with his smattering English to form words while communicating with his customers from far flung places in a rare form of pidgin English. Fascinated by this unique language, Chika said he proceeded to use it in secondary school until the day his class teacher warned him that he would certainly fail his examination because that species of English was not correct and allowed. His argument that his father used it successfully in his trading business did not sway his teacher and principal who threatened to expel him should he obstinately continue to use the strange language. He said for instance, instead of writing absolutely, he would rather write “gbamsolutely.”
Yet, like other great men, Chief Chika Okpala dared and took a decision he never contemplated for even one minute. The decision to go to Enugu after the war opened a new vista in what has become an eventful life. As he puts it: “One morning I saw many people rushing into a lorry going to Enugu and without thinking I joined. I realised that I didn’t have anything in my pocket except my Red Cross identity card. And as God would have it, very close to where the vehicle stopped in Enugu, there was a Red Cross office. I walked in and showed my ID card. The officer there welcomed me and placed me in charge of the kitchen clinic where I was serving all the war returnees. After an hour I was asked to sit down and have my own ration.
According to an Igbo proverb, “a cow without tail relies on its god (chi) to chase away flies.” The young Chika was elated when Ogonna, a member of his local drama group, walked into the Red Cross office that same day. What a coincidence! Ogonna was staying somewhere in Uwani area with his in-law. In the evening Chika said he followed his friend home and from there began to launch out.
A truly humble and honest person, Chika Okpala said his real metamorphosis began with a chance meeting with James Akabogu (Gringory), creator of the Masquerade drama series. A less honest person could distort the story, but he fully credits his entry to professional acting to Akabogu. When he got information that the Rehabilitation Commission was starting a drama group, he quickly went and joined their rehearsal for a play “Sons and Daughters” written by J. C. De Graft. From there news filtered in that another rehearsal was going on at the British Council at Ogui Road. That was how he met James Akabogu who already had established the Hilltop Arts Theatre. After one their rehearsals, Akabogu told him of his radio show, “In the Lighter Mood,” and the Masquerade, which was on television. They were both running at East Central State Broadcasting Services (ESBS). In both series, Chika was given the role of “Natty,” “a skinny character who always shows up whenever food was served.”
Fortune smiled on them while performing “Sons and Daughters” before the Administrator of East Central State, Dr. Ukpabi Asika, who was said to be so thrilled that he fell off his seat. The stars began to align for the talented Chika Okpala. As Asika promised, he took the drama team by a “white train” to Kaduna to perform at the Army Week. The young Chika did not believe his luck; at that young age, he was lodged alone in a suite at Hamdala Hotel in Kaduna and at the end of their performance each member of the team received generous gifts from the top brass of the Army.
As their reputation and stories of their scintillating performances began to spread nationwide, two weeks after, the head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, sent a jet to ferry them from Enugu to Lagos for a command performance. While in Lagos, they were individually lodged at the prestigious Federal Palace Hotel and performed at four different locations before returning to Enugu. “When we came back, I told myself this acting that took me via a ‘white train’ to Kaduna and I shook hands with all the Generals who fought Biafra during the war; made it possible for me to be flown in a special jet to Lagos to shake the hands of General Gowon and those of the high and mighty; there is something really in it for me.”
Back in Enugu, Chika Okpala was to metamorphose into a popular character, ‘Zebrudaya’ by mere providence. When James Iroha (Gringori) had problems with the person playing his lead character, Chief Josephat Okoro Nwogbo on the radio series “In a Lighter Mood” and Chief Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo alias 4.30 in the TV programme, “The Masquerade,” Chika Okpala was asked to leave the role of Natty and audition for the two roles. It was difficult to get a replacement especially because of the special pidgin English the role required. Even the legendary actor, Pete Edochie, was among the many who tried out for the role but did not make it. In the end, it was as if the role was in fact created for Chika Okpala; and the way the name Zebrudaya seems to have overshadowed his real name eloquently testifies to this position. His father’s special brand of English with which he was transacting his trading business in Onitsha Market came in handy. That’s how he became Chief Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo alias 4.30 on television. And when NTA was established in 1977, there was a drama competition at the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos. The 5000-capacity venue was always filled to the brim for the two weeks with an audience that trooped out to watch the Masquerade, ‘Zebrudaya,’ recalls.
Not long after, Chika Okpala (Zebrudaya) had to step up to take over the production of the programme now termed the “New Masquerade” with another member of the cast, Davis Offor (Clarus), when the creator, Akabogu, quarreled with the management of NTA and left in anger to join Imo Broadcasting Service, and Mazi Ukonu, the NTA manager in Aba, invited them to ensure the programme continued.
Okpala and Offor wrote the scripts and managed to keep the cast and crew, which included the late Claude Eke (Jegede Sokoya), Lizzy Eveome (Ovularia), the late Chief Mrs. Christy Esien-Igbokwe (Apena), the recently deceased Romanus Amuta (Natty), and later Tony Akposheri (Zakky) just to mention a few. Okpala believes they took the programme notches higher. He captures the transition of the “Masquerade”: “When James Akabogu was producing, “Masquerade” was set in a bungalow, but when I took over, it was then set in a duplex with new gadgets introduced into it.”
He does not also forget the role of Mr. Peter Igho, the General Manager, National Programmes, of NTA at the time in creating competition among other programmes like “Samanja,” the “New Village Headmaster,” the “New Masquerade,” and “Hotel de Jordan,” which helped in strengthening the “New Masquerade,” that never repeated a single programme while it was running. He was to proceed to Ibadan for a training on production, leaving Davis Offor to carry on with the programme. In 1980, ‘Zebrudaya’ joined the cast of another blockbuster series, “Cock Crow at Dawn,” created by the legendary Peter Igho as Baba Asabe.
Yet, the essential Chief Chika Okpala (Zebrudaya) is not so much about the brilliance in the delivery of his lines. Beyond that, he is a purist, a man who believes in putting his profession in defense of the moral fabric of his society. Hence, despite all the entertainment in the “New Masquerade,” the “show also incorporate plots about teaching morals and the consequences of some of society’s problems if they are not corrected,” as Timothy-Asobele, a researcher, observed. It is this principled position of the artiste as a moral compass for his society that has made Chief Okpala reject several Nollywood roles no matter their financial rewards and set him in direct conflict with the marketers and producers in Nollywood.
“Right from the outset, I started telling them about their storyline. I am a comedian; my own comedy is not about juju. I can’t act anything-goes. Because of that they blacklisted me for criticizing them and I don’t care. For me, it is about teaching the new generation the right way to go. It is not when somebody quarrels with his wife you bring it on television. Let there be a message in a story and let there be a lesson to learn in a story. I handpick some stories and take part in those that are okay with my conscience; stories that have values for us today and for posterity,” Okpala told Ikengaonline.
“Whatever you see on TV has impact on the lives of the public. That was one of the reasons the ‘New Masquerade’ was very popular. We avoided ritual stories those days. You have to work hard to make money. Yahoo-yahoo and Mkpurumiri are taboos that we don’t have to show on our TV because children who don’t want to work hard will copy those stories,” he added.
Chief Okpala’s fine mind and indomitable spirit are also evident in his love for education and the ways he assiduously strove to acquire it. Although his education was interrupted by the civil war and the subsequent death of his father, today the Chief has earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s, one in mass communication from Enugu State University (ESUT) and another in Business Administration (MBA) from the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN).
He had earlier earned a diploma in mass communications from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He said he had tried earlier to do a degree in theatre arts when the late Dr. Nnanna Ukegbu established what would have been the first private university in the country, Imo Technical University at Imerienwe and gave him and Davis Offor (Clarus) study grant. “That dream was dashed by Buhari in 1984 by abolishing the institution,” Chief Okpala added.
What is very inspiring of Chika Okpala’s exploits in education is the fact that while he was schooling, he was working and fending for his family; and guess what, some of his children had already graduated while he was struggling for a degree. He told Ikengaonline that while he was studying for one of his master’s degrees, his son was also pursuing a master’s degree in a Belarusian university. For him, age can never be a barrier to acquiring education, particularly when it is something that could enhance one’s capacity and personality.
Chief Okpala is not an admirer of politics, especially the brand played in the country. For him, most Nigerian politicians are not trustworthy. He says there is really nothing to admire in people who are rich in hypocrisy. “They say one thing and do another thing. Look at the one ruling us today in Abuja, all the things he promised he would do if voted in 2015, has he achieved anyone?
“Look at insecurity everywhere. The politics of today is not good unlike in the NCNC days of the First Republic. Politics is for serving the people and not for yourself. Governors were jailed for corruption, and you go and release them; what are you telling other governors – to go and steal? Meanwhile you came with the promise of fighting corruption. The only politics I like is the politics of talk-na-do,” Chief Okpala, or rather ‘Zebrudaya’ declared.
Chief Okpala is angry at what is happening in the South-East today. He said he would not blame the young people who are being punished by Nigeria for whatever offense their fathers had committed. He said this same Nigeria refused to teach the young people in the East the history of the civil war. “After managing to get degrees there are no jobs for them and the one speaking up for them you locked him up because you think he has nobody. And you, when there is a little scratch in your body, you run to London for treatment because the hospitals are not working here. Let the government dialogue with the young people in the South-East. Release their leader for them, that’s their demand. If you do that and they continue to misbehave, then you have a case against them. I demand the release of Nnamdi Kanu because what he is asking for is for our people to be given their rights. How is that an offence?”
Although age appears to have slowed him down, Chief Okpala is still working. After the “New Masquerade,” he set up Zodiac Brains & Films, a movie production and advertising outfit. He is a registered member of Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON) and Nigerian Institute of Management (NIM) among others. He is a recipient of two national honours, Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) and Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR).
In 2017, he won the African Magic Viewers Choice (AMVCA) Industry Merit Award, an honorary award presented by MultiChoice through Africa Magic for lifetime contribution to the development of African cinema. He holds the traditional titles, Ezeonunekwuru Ora of Nnobi, Ezekwesili of Akabo Mbaise, and Ezeonunekwuru Oha of Aba.
A true family man, Chief Chika Okpala is very close to his wife and two children, a boy and a girl who are now married and have their own children, thus making him a grandfather. “As I am speaking with you, my wife is by my side. Sometimes when I cannot drive, she drives me,” he teased. A jolly good fellow, Chief Chika ‘Zebrudaya’ Okpala loves swimming, driving, and reading.