Profile: The avenging advocacy of Iyabo Ojo

It may be her greatest performance yet. But it had nothing to do with fiction.

There was drama though. Plenty of it.

Early May, Nollywood actress, Iyabo Ojo went live on Instagram spitting fire, brimstone and then some venom. The target of her rage? One Mr. Yomi Fabiyi. It would be easy enough to call Ojo and Fabiyi colleagues- and multiple exchanges between the two suggest they consider each other comrades. But while Ms. Ojo has enjoyed crossover success with her career and is somewhat of a household name, Mr. Fabiyi who acts predominantly in Yoruba films only just scored his biggest audience. This through an act of infamy; his tone-deaf advocacy for a fellow who has publicly confessed to being a sexual offender.

The details are messy.

Another Yollywood actor, Olanrewaju James aka Baba Ijesha is accused of repeatedly molesting a child, first when she was 7 years old, and then seven years later. While there was widespread outrage and condemnation for Baba Ijesha, a one-time beneficiary of the kid’s foster parent, comedienne Princess, Fabiyi chose to identify with the alleged culprit. Hiding behind a thin veil of respect for human rights, Fabiyi threw blames at Princess and seemed to be more upset about the means deployed to catch the culprit than the actual act of sexual abuse.

The recoil was instant with celebrities calling out Fabiyi for his insensitivity and disregard for the rights of the victim. Media personality Toke Makinwa, called Fabiyi a “disgrace” while popstar Davido used more colorful, less graceful language. We could go on to write more about Mr. Fabiyi and his disgraceful ways, but this profile isn’t about him.

No one likes a mad woman

Anyway, Fabiyi’s behavior rubbed off the wrong way on Iyabo Ojo, hitting a nerve and dredging traumatic experiences long buried away.

To appreciate the power of Ojo’s 15 minutes Instagram mega rant is to watch it for yourself. Ojo puts up an aggressive front sure enough- classic Yoruba mother style. She curses and curses some more and then threatens to bring the house down. But she also revealed a disturbing personal angle that clearly drives her investment in the story and makes it clear that this is more than just another publicity stunt.

According to Ojo who has been vocal in the past about surviving rape, she had been assaulted by an adult when she was a child. She had to deal with this burden alone and did not open up to her mother until she was a mother of her own kids.

In a just world, Iyabo Ojo would not have to pull out all the dramatic stops to advocate or secure some form of justice for a sexually assaulted child. The law would put in place levers that would protect such a child and put in deterrents against future occurrences. Nigerian culture may frown on such behavior but the deeply patriarchal mindset that prioritises the needs and feelings of men above anyone or anything else, makes it more likely that a perpetrator gets away with their crime.

The culture of hypocrisy that surrounds sex and places shame on the female (no matter her age); would first of all make it almost impossible for such a girl to come forward. Even when she is brave enough to share her account, there will be deniers and enablers of odious behavior like Fabiyi nitpicking her account and questioning her credibility.

Nigeria is simply not a safe place for women. There is no sugar coating this. Women are exposed in countless mindboggling ways; from the physical to the cultural and even legally.

Take a look at the headlines today. The crimes against children and women are overwhelming. The biggest news story in the country presently is the tragedy of Iniobong Umoren. In Akwa Ibom state, a young graduate lady seeking gainful employment lured to her death by murderous folks. Her friend had to practically crowd source support on the internet before the investigation that eventually produced a suspect was launched.

On the day of Umoren’s burial, as if Nigerian institutions hadn’t failed Umoren enough, the police paraded the far from remorseful suspects before a bunch of hopelessly inept journalists. In Jos, Plateau state, residents of a community are protesting what they have perceived as police mishandling of a sexual molestation case involving a Lebanese man. Apparently, there is evidence that said man has been in the habit of luring girls to his home to molest them.  

These are just some of the most prominent accounts of the failure of social justice when it comes to matters of women and girl children. Ojo picking up interest in the way that she did was perhaps, inevitable for a woman with her personal history of sexual abuse. But it also speaks volumes about her ability to identify a loophole in terms of advocacy for a minor and her willingness to put herself out there in an attempt to demand justice and accountability.

“Blockhead”

Born Alice Iyabo Ogunro in 1977 Lagos, to a well to do family with origins in Abeokuta, Ojo was the youngest of three children. She was the quintessential daddy’s girl and has spoken fondly about the close relationship she shared with her father. She told Punch newspapers, “I appreciate my dad for the fact that we were more like friends. He also had me when he was young.”

Mr. Ogunro lived fast and died young, but the inheritance he left behind availed his children some soft landing and enabled Ojo begin her early business ventures. Apart from her prominent Nollywood career, Ojo has run a catering outfit, a spa as well as an event planning business. Not too shabby for someone who struggled academically and was once labeled a “blockhead.”

Having demonstrated some interest in performing while attending secondary school in Gbagada, Lagos, Ojo made her entrance into Nollywood when a friend, Bimbo Akintola- fresh off her success with the star making duo of Owo Blow and Out of Bounds– helped her register with the Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN). Ojo’s first role was a supporting part in 1998’s Satanic, an English-language film.

Other film roles would follow but not at the consistency that would make her a household name. In any case, she soon got pregnant and shortly after, tied the knot with her husband and father of her two children. Little is known about him as Ojo who also took his last name has been quite hesitant to venture details except that at the time he was a movie marketer.

Despite her initial excitement and attempts to make it work, the marriage was a loveless one. Ojo once revealed to Vanguard newspapers, “I got married and on my wedding day I discovered my husband did not love me. On my wedding night he said, “I did not love you, I only married you because you are pregnant.”

With the writing on the wall clear as day, the newly wed made the tough decision familiar to women all over the country. She decided to stick it out and make it work for the sake of her baby boy. The couple drifted further apart and the arrival of a second child- a girl this time- could not save the marriage. Ojo rationalised the situation this way, “I felt disappointed that I got married at a young age and did not get to study the man I got married to and whose name I bear now. I still profited from it by having two wonderful kids. It is more than any other thing in life.”

Ojo returned to work, finding in film sets, the space to direct the energies that were missing on the home front. It seemed that the time away from work did her little favors when she returned to acting. Roles were hard to come by and when they did, often required that Ojo travel down east and away from her children. The Yoruba branch of Nollywood began to look more attractive for an actress in her situation as it was familiar as it seemed to provide more support structures.

Ojo’s Yoruba-language debut was in the 2012 film, Baba Darijinwon. She joined the famous Odunfa caucus- home to the likes of Yinka Quadri, Funke Akindele and Abbey Lanre. Producing films made better sense economically and put more agency into her hands; so Ojo threw herself into this role, starting with 2004’s Bolutife.

She has enjoyed a consistent run through her Fespris World production company churning out titles such as BofebokoOlolufe and Okunkun Biribiri. In 2015 she even had a crossover big screen project with the self-produced English language heavy Silence in which Ojo starred alongside Nollywood heavyweights Tina Mba, Joseph Benjamin and Alex Usifo Omiagbo.

In Silence, with its major themes of domestic and child story of a domestic and, Ojo dug through her traumatic past and put up an emotional performance as a woman battling demons of repressed trauma and sexual exploitation. The movie was a critical and box-office dud but Ojo was watering her return to mainstream filmmaking.

While Iyabo Ojo is no Funke Akindele– indeed no one is- she has managed to sustain her mainstream recognition by keeping her feet planted in both Yoruba and English-speaking Nollywood. Alongside her Yoruba films, Ojo recently joined the cast of House Job, the upcoming television series by Inkblot productions.

The advocate

Throughout her career, Ojo has been able to put her stardom to use supporting causes beyond herself. She has done this through her charity work but more powerfully through personal example. Shunning the conservative tradition of remaining tight lipped about bad news, Ojo has been quite vocal about her life experiences, happy or tragic.

When it wasn’t considered fashionable to speak about failed marriages- it still isn’t- Ojo was quite upfront about hers and publicly reflected on the reasons why it did not work out. Rape is considered a taboo topic and victims are often stigmatized in horrible ways but Ojo spoke up publicly about the multiple times she was raped. In doing so and seemingly without much fuss, she helped in her own way to rejig the culture of secrecy that surrounds such issues. Her feminism and brand of activism might not be as eloquent as those of her slicker colleagues or well-funded NGOs even, but Ojo has been just as effective, perhaps even more so.

It is hard to find any other celebrity of Ojo’s status, willing to constantly put their voice and resources out there for causes that they are passionate about. Ojo leads with the force of example and while her methods may be up for debate, her sincerity has never been in doubt. That Ojo would stand up to her colleague in this manner should not be so surprising. She has been doing it for a while. People just weren’t taking notice.

They are now.

There is nothing like a mad woman

Since her outburst, Ojo has been called several names online, from troublemaker to attention seeker But it is the mad woman label that seems to have stuck. Interestingly, not in the negative way that it was originally intended.

Ojo has reclaimed these two words, stripped them of their negative connotations and owned them in a useful, more meaningful way. These days when Iyabo Ojo is described as a ‘mad woman,’ it is with a sense of admiration and an air of grudging respect for the combination of bravery and stubbornness that she brings to her advocacy. This ‘mad woman’ is the kind whose voice is as loud as it needs to be, brooks no nonsense and gets stuff done even at great personal cost.

In the environment that patriarchy has legitimised and feels most comfortable in, the sane woman is the good woman. She knows her place, keeps her head down and calls no attention to herself. In this world, the sane woman has no voice, belongs to a man and speaks up only when the man grants her permission to do so.

In Nigerian society, with each passing day, social justice is pushed further out of the reach of the regular citizen. The sane woman in this bleak house is one who understands that the powerful and privileged are expected to prey on the weak. The sane woman does not speak up in the face of oppression, especially when speaking up is likely to upset the balance of power: with men at the top and the girl child at the bottom.

The sane woman remains helpless in her subjugation and is sometimes complicit enough to maintain this status quo. The trouble with this false order is that anyone bold enough to demand they be treated fairly is shunned, shamed and shuffled off. They are pushed to scream, shout and force doors open to demand for even the basics. Rights become privileges and people descend to madness trying to fight for their due. Everyone knows one such mad woman.

If Iyabo Ojo is a mad woman. Then we made her that way.

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