We are sipping Gold Blend Espresso in her apartment in Ikoyi, the most salubrious neighbourhood in Lagos. The decor is pleasingly minimalist. This day in February is her 70th birthday and she’s in an expansive mood.
In her early 20s, she was a tour guide at the UN headquarters in New York. When she was in her early 60s, Nigeria’s then president Goodluck Jonathan invited her to be director-general of the National Centre for Women Development in Abuja.
In the 40 years that elapsed between these international and domestic public-service stints, Onwenu became an acclaimed TV journalist, composer, singer, actress, author, activist and politician.
A Squandering of Riches – a 1984 collaboration between the BBC and the Nigerian Television Authority – transformed her into a star. In typical renaissance-woman style, Onwenu researched, scripted and presented this documentary, and also wrote and sang the theme song. The programme provided audiences with a vivid snapshot of Nigeria in the wake of the 1970s oil boom, and highlighted the chronic dysfunctions that characterised the civilian government of Shehu Shagari, who was then the head of state.
The film, accessible on YouTube, features literary luminaries Chinua Achebe and J.P. Clark. It was an instant hit. It focused on corruption, economic mismanagement, infrastructure decay, poverty and angry Niger Delta victims of the hydrocarbon industry. Onwenu counts it as the biggest triumph of her career.
“Ten years later, long after he had been ousted by the [Muhammadu] Buhari/[Tunde] Idiagbon military coup, I bumped into Shagari in South Africa, at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. He lost his temper and confronted me,” Onwenu says.
“I think my reply stunned him,” she says. “I told him that I stood by everything I had said in the documentary, but regarded him as a good man surrounded by bad people.” All was forgiven, and a friendship ensued.
Onwenu’s eventful life has included colourful encounters with extraordinary people, such as the revered Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He asked her to join his harem, and he shrugged philosophically as she politely declined his proposal.
She also wrote a song for Winnie Mandela. “Winnie broke down in tears when she first heard it at a command performance in her husband’s honour in Nigeria, shortly after he was released from prison,” she says. “Some journalists told me that it was the first time she had ever cried in public. I admired her so much.”
Then there were the controversies, the most striking of which revolved around her appearance at a concert linked to the nefarious ‘Million Man March’ that was organised in 1998 to support General Sani Abacha, a brutal military dictator.
My Father’s Daughter
Onwenu says she was misled into participating. In a nutshell, a fellow musician sold to her the concert as a fundraiser for the national football team. She provides more details about this toxic drama in her 2020 autobiography, My Father’s Daughter.
This book is a jolly good read and covers her early childhood as the adored daughter of a distinguished father (educationalist and politician D.K. Onwenu), his premature death when she was only four years old and her traumatic experiences as a teenage nursing aide during the Biafran Civil War.
It also gives insight into her time as a student in elite US universities, her relationship with her feisty mother, how she became a queen of African pop and Nollywood, her clashes with various institutions, her refusal to tolerate nonsense from obnoxious individuals, and numerous other personal and professional stories, including an account of years with an emotionally abusive spouse.
When asked the name and occupation of the husband who caused her so much anguish, a man about whom very little is known – even to folks who have worked and socialised with Onwenu for decades – she says: “I won’t, because I am a very private person!”
Given that celebrities attract endless investigations, gossip and exposés, it is remarkable that someone so high-profile has been able to conceal the identity of the father of her two now adult sons, who she refers to as “my greatest personal achievements”.
She is at least willing to share the hell that the mystery man put her through before she finally realised the situation would not improve, no matter how hard she tried to be a ‘good wife’.
“He chose to marry a famous woman, then punished me for being famous. He said that he felt belittled by my aura and assured me that nobody else would want me when he had finished with me.
Not one to rest on her lush laurels
“He tormented me in so many different ways and didn’t contribute financially or appreciate my efforts, even when I begged influential contacts to help him when he got into trouble with the authorities.
“But the thing that hurts me most is that he was truly evil to our innocent children and coldly rejected their loving attempts to relate to their dad,” she says, visibly shaken by the painful memories.
She says she quit bending over backwards to placate him, and divorced him to save herself from physical collapse and a mental breakdown.
Onwenu is, at the end of the day, an indomitable diva of substance and not one to rest on her lush laurels or take the view that ‘surrender is the best policy’ when old age is creeping up on you.
Despite having tried and failed to become a local council chairperson, she continues to be vocal and politically active. She swears that she will not vote in the 2023 presidential election if a candidate from her marginalised Igbo ethnic group from Nigeria’s south-east region is not on the ballot.
“The situation in this country has worsened so much since he [President Muhammadu Buhari] took over from [Goodluck] Jonathan in 2015!” she says.
Meanwhile, she is still an immensely popular entertainer, and a TV series based on her book is planned. For Onwenu, it ain’t over till the slim lady sings.
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