Baba Ijesha: What Yoruba Nollywood owes us

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Since the news of alleged child sexual exploitation by popular actor, James Olanrewaju Omiyinka, aka Baba Ijesha, broke, some Nollywood actors of the Yoruba genre have exchanged insults and rebukes among themselves. I have no wish whatsoever to litigate their differences but hope that this matter would be a wake-up call to realise they have more work to do as cultural ambassadors. I say this because there seems to be a profound ignorance among Baba Ijesha’s fans who think the manner he was apprehended was a “set-up.” Some of them even raised exceedingly dumb questions about the alleged victim. With such steeped ignorance, you know those ones will run into trouble at some point.

 

One only needs to scroll through the comments section of many news media sites to realise these folks do not have the faintest clue of how the law operates. Their ignorance is one of the reasons rape is prevalent in Nigeria. Admittedly, some people are rapists because they are psychopathic, but so many others also rape because they are deeply uninformed about the parameters of what is allowable in relationships based on sex. Nigeria itself is partly to blame for that problem.

For far too long, sexual relationships have had varied codes in Nigeria. The refusal of 11 states in northern Nigeria to adopt the Child Rights Act of 2003 has left a window open for men with paedophilic instincts to abuse children in the name of religion. In other places through Nigeria, the ignorance of what the law entails and the unwillingness of state officials to even consistently enforce it has allowed paedophiles operate without fear of being apprehended. Licentious adults that should know better freely walk the streets without being tagged sex predators.

As a cultural industry, Nollywood can do better to educate the public on the legal dimensions of sex and sexual relationships. When Baba Ijesha’s colleagues cease barracking at one another, they should take up the challenge of instructing their audience about reality beyond the tawdry ideas of good vs. evil they frequently espouse in their films.

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First, for all those who think a grown man who touched a child inappropriately was set up, only one thing matters and it is the age of the alleged victim. The ignoramuses with highfalutin opinions on the issue had better absorb this lesson as quickly as possible before they learn the hard way. It does not matter if a minor invites an adult male (or vice versa) to her house, removes her clothes, and jumps on him. The onus is still on the adult to extricate himself from the compromised setting. There is nothing like a “consensual” relationship with a minor or that the young woman could have resisted or the man was entrapped. Unless they tied his legs, he had the option of walking away.

One cannot say for certain whether Nigerian law officials carry out routine Internet sting operations to entrap people who harbour paedophilic intentions, but elsewhere, the law allows the use of deception to discover people who could have committed the crime. In western societies, there are many men in jail who were arrested while soliciting sex with a minor online. These men thought the person at the other end was a child, but it was a police officer. The moment they were given an address and the men carried their legs to the location, they were already halfway to jail. Once the law establishes that the men took a “substantial step” to meet the girl, it is taken for granted that they would have gone ahead with the crime anyway. It does not matter that there was no actual victim involved or that they had noble intentions in going to meet the supposed young woman, the fact that they did not cease communication immediately is enough to get them locked away for a very long time as a potential sex offender. Child sexual exploitation is a serious matter, and those making excuses need to wake up.

 

Second, after reading reports of how Baba Ijesha supposedly predicted his current predicament in a previous film, Ilu Awon Obirin, I sought the video of the film to see for myself. It was a typical Yoruba film -didactic to death and barely ever nuanced in its representation of the world. Ilu Awon Obirin was the story of a sex addict who came to a sticky end, expectedly. The story truly prefigured his present predicament. It was life mimicking art; kudos to the journalist that made the connection. But beyond that, it was terrible to watch. The film had some deeply revulsive moments, like the part where they pimped a woman with a disability to Baba Ijesha’s character because he was horny. But what was the point of the woman being disabled other than explore her supposed condition for cheap laughs? One thing about Yoruba films that never ceases to irritate is how they turn otherwise serious issues into fodder for slapstick comedy. How sick do you need to be to think disability qualifies for a joke? This film industry has existed for decades but still lacks a basic habit of reflexivity.

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When the actors finish pecking at one another over Baba Ijesha’s case, they need to have a serious conversation on the kinds of stories they tell and the type of impact they want to make with their work. In a society where women have been drugged and murdered in hotels by sick men, should they represent such stories on screen flippantly by presenting the women as caricatures? By the time some female characters in the film encountered a misfortune, their poor fate was barely made to matter. They were supposedly fallen women and hence discardable. Look, women have often been victims of brutal violence in our society, and films like Ilu Awon Obirin contribute to the ideas that underwrite the misogynistic violence.

Watching the film, I wondered if the trending discourses of “feminism” that Nigerians have all the time on Twitter percolate the consciousness of these actors at all. Do these gender critiques make these filmmakers ponder how they represent gender dynamics in their films or they still double down on these pejorative depictions of women? Ilu Awon Obirin is a story about a man (and other men) with an uncontrolled sexual habit. Half of the time, the women in the story were mobilised for no other useful purpose than to satisfy the male libido. In the other half, they were supernatural beings preying on the men that preyed on them.

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Yes, flipping a narrative to make women punish errant men should be a feminist delight but should we not move beyond these tired tales to a more rational exploration of ideas? Why resolve sexual addiction only through supernatural means -at first, a pastor and then spirits beings? Whatever happened to pointing your viewers to exploring therapy by trained professionals for sexual addiction? Even if they must resolve the plot through supernatural means, they could use more realistic methods to build up to that denouement. Nigerian films should explore more of secular reality and leave the overdrawn ideas of the supernatural behind unless they have something more creative to show. Unfortunately, they will tell you that they are educating the public and teaching the public morals by telling such stories but, Baba Ijesha’s viral video shows how far their morality tales go.

Our stories can do better to explore how rational aspects of life like law, medicine, psychology, forensics, and so on work and present them to the public in nuanced ways. Artists should not just represent reality; they should also reimagine it. Art that cannot push beyond the bounds of familiar reality is useless. For instance, sexual addiction should not just be treated on screen as a matter of a mere lack of self-control that is curbable only through supernatural encounters. They could have asked professionals in health, law, and academic institutions about the dimensions of the problem and build these perspectives into a story. That is a better way to “educate” people.

 

 

 

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