Since his return last year to Nigeria to organise a concert, the one-time leading reggae icon Victor Essiet has traipsed from one trouble to another. Yinka Olatunbosun reports
The Nigerian reggae icon, Victor Essiet, of the Mandators fame is embattled for many reasons. When he returned from the USA in 2014 to stage the mother of all music festivals in Nigeria, Africa Meets Reggae on November 29, he was arrested right inside the venue for the mega show by armed and uniformed men whom he later identified to be men of the Nigeria Police. His show was stalled. He was battered and detained for days by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad on the allegation of a reported financial crime.
Again, Essiet was reportedly kidnapped in the early hours of Saturday, June 27, which was precisely two days after the burial of his late elder brother. He revealed the details of this bizarre encounter to pressmen in Lagos, recently.
“They came in a convoy, numbering 15 with mask on their faces, armed to the teeth and forcefully took me away from the company of my friends and family members who were with me on the way back from the wake keeping of my late brother at our family compound, near Uyo,” he narrated. “This incident happened in the middle of the road.
“Since this incident happened, I have not ceased to ask myself questions such as, ‘Why would the police as an institution mask their faces if their intention were not to abduct and kill me? Why would riffles be given to some civilians and be made to be in the company of the police?’ I am saying so because I realised that they were not all members of the Police. I was able to spot two of them. They had difficulty trying to identify me from my other friends, who were in the vehicle with me and also had dreadlocks like me.
Although Essiet couldn’t say precisely the exact number of the assailants, he pointed out that three of them were clad in police uniform. He also insisted that those three policemen were present at National Stadium at the night of his arrest prior to the Africa Meets Reggae concert.
Curiously too, the attack took place just two days before his appearance in court in the suit he instituted against the Nigeria Police to seek redress for the violation of his fundamental right to be presumed innocent before proven guilty by the court. As if his arrest or abduction was not enough, his lawyer was allegedly threatened on the day he was to appear in court (that was on June 29) by an anonymous caller.
It is for this reason that Essiet believes that his life and those of his family members as well as those of his associates are at risk.
“At this point, I would like to let the world know that even my attorney was threatened on June 29 by an unknown person,” he complained. “He had to go to Human Right Commission to seek company. If anything happens to me, my family members and associates, the Nigeria Police should be held responsible.”
It would be recalled that Essiet’s woes began when a certain individual wrote a petition to the Nigeria Police on the allegation that the reggae artist had defrauded him of a huge amount of money in a truck purchase business. Essiet had claimed that he was just a middle-man between the buyer and the truck company based in the US, where he lives. Essiet insisted that the aggrieved man still owes him a sum of $5,000 which he claimed he had lent to him to buy the first truck. According to Essiet, the buyer decided to deal directly with the truck company on line and was swindled. The truck buyer had allegedly used his influence with the Nigeria Police to kill the Africa Meets Reggae concert which was worth N200 million.
The implication is phenomenal for the entertainment industry at large. The audience for live shows and concerts had dwindled in the age of digital entertainment platforms which are generally cost effective. When the security of venues for shows is no guaranteed, it becomes even more difficult for organisers of music festivals to convince fun-seekers to pursue pleasure beyond the comfort of their living rooms. Essiet’s argument had always been that the Nigeria Police should live up to its duty of protecting human lives and property and not be used as instruments of intimidation and attack on the citizenry.
The dreadlocks-sporting musician used to be very famous in Nigeria. Ardent TV viewers in the 80s would easily remember The Mandators. Then, they used to be featured regularly on Clapperboard TV alongside the likes of Daniel Wilson, Blackky, Ras Kimono, Evi Edna Ogoli, Alex Zitto and Orits Wiliki. Essiet is the surviving member of the group which had his late ex-wife, Peggy Umanna as the female lead vocalist.
It would be no exaggeration to affirm that he contributed his quota in making reggae popular in Nigeria. And to think the 80s was a time when iconic acts like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Yellowman and Culture were ruling the waves!
This Akwa-Ibom native’s career came to an abrupt halt in the 90’s in Nigeria for numerous reasons. One of these reasons bordered on the economic climate, which forced many recording labels to close shop. Consequently, artists like him, who were vocally against the military government, were forced to embrace self-exile. It would be recalled that the late Lucky Dube did the same in South Africa when the sledge-hammer of apartheid government was coming for his head. He continued singing his protest songs while away from Africa.
Last year, Essiet had in a brief encounter with the press at the Oriental Hotel in Victoria Island, Lagos, enthused about his homecoming. This was even as he relived the circumstances that necessitated his sojourn to the US.
“I love Nigeria,” he had said. “I left the country in 1993 in the heat of the annulment of the June 12 election. First of all, I went on tour. M.K.O. Abiola had just won the presidential elections and the results were annulled. There I was going to America, leaving the country in an uncertain condition. Things started falling apart. I went back to America to see how I could cool off.
“We were so hopeful having supported M.K.O. Abiola. We were campaigning for him. We believed that the country was about to turn around for good. Even the kind of music that we played then confronted issues that were the concern of every citizen and we engaged the authority. It was like ‘dashed hope’. So we ran away to live to fight another day.”
While he was away, ugly rumours flourished to his detriment. He was reported to have been a cab driver and at one time, homeless.
“I am a musician,” he reiterated. “Since the day I left this country, I have been playing music. I got signed on by Heart Beat record label. It is a subsidiary of Rounder Records based in Massachusetts. But that relationship did not last long because there was a lot of stuff that I disagree with. I left the company to form my own record company. I was there for two years.”
Also, while he was away, he had started his own record company called Mystic Records, which was the official sponsor of the botched festival, Africa meets Reggae. “I started this company in 1998 with a bookings and management arm. Then I started booking all my shows and concerts while managing my affairs. I have been performing and I also won an award as the 1999 Best New Entertainer of the Year at the International Reggae World Music Award. I will show you the plaque next time so that you will know that when I left this country, I tried. Initially it was very difficult for me but I kept trying.”
Apparently, his ordeal with the police was not just a Nigerian problem. Even in the US, he was also a victim of the prejudice that black people are subjected to. The air of constant, if not mutual suspicion, between the police and the black male individual tend to be very stiff, as he would later recall. But every cloud has its silver lining, he had added.
“I never really faced much prejudice from the society except the police,” he said. “When they see you drive a car around they’d ask, where did you steal the car from? How much drugs did you sell to buy this? But as an artist, I was committed to work my butt up. But the police would look for one reason or another to try to beat you up in the streets. That was the only prejudice I suffered. But the average American is a very supportive person. We started doing what we do in Nigeria we’d perform in places where there would be only white people. And they will come out to shows to support you. I also had a good relationship with the print and electronic media. I think I am one of the few artistes that have left Nigeria that has enjoyed so much publicity.”
Essiet had deplored the tendency in the media to give credence to rumors and stressed the need to investigate information before publishing or broadcasting.
“If a man or a woman comes to tell me that I just saw a press man walking around naked, in this day of cell phones and technology, I’ll say if you can’t give me a picture, then I ain’t talking to you. Our media people like to drag people into mud. If I was actually driving a cab, I would have been very happy because I was earning a legitimate living; not stealing from anybody. If I was homeless, I will be happy as long as I am not stealing from anybody. But none of those reports was true. Talk to Majek, talk to everybody, they know who I am. I am well established in America.”