He acted as Bitrus in Cock Crow At Dawn, the popular soap opera that ruled the TV in the 1970s and 1980. The stage name has stuck so much that even at 68, most people don’t know Sadiq Daba’s real name as they choose to call him Bitrus. That is the power of television, said Daba as he sat on a couch in his living room, connected to an oxygen machine donated by Nigerian billionaire businessman, Femi Otedola, who recently took it upon himself to settle his medical bills. In his first interview since he returned from his medical trip to the United Kingdom, Daba speaks about his health condition, his role in Cock Crow at Dawn and his time at the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), in this interview with PAUL UKPABIO and BIODUN ADEYEWA.
You are known to have had some health challenges in recent times. How are you doing now?
You can see machines all over the place. But then, I still give God the glory. God has been very faithful. All praise unto Him. Just last night, I almost had a relapse. I had problem with my breathing, but luckily, it came out alright. I take each day as it comes (coughs). But I thank God for His mercy. My situation is such that the English say it does not just rain, it pours. I was first diagnosed with leukemia. Suddenly, prostate cancer followed. For those two, I was lucky to have been flown to the UK to come back early this year. I felt sick at some point again and thought it was malaria. I tried to treat that at home, but it didn’t work. The day after, it got worse. It was a Sunday and I called a doctor who had been treating me for my breathing problem. He said that I should be rushed to the hospital. Luckily, I was treated on time. Ten minutes late, according to the doctor, I would have died.
I did X-rays, CT scan, all sorts of tests, and I was rushed to the emergency consulting place. It was the beginning of my admission which lasted about three weeks. The doctors did a good job. I was all the time on oxygen and discharged on the basis that I have to have an oxygen machine at home.
As a retiree, how have you managed to cope with your health bills?
I have to thank Nigerians who have been there for me. Nigerians contributed money for me to pay my hospital bills and get an oxygen machine. And while that was on, Femi Otedola, I had never known or seen him in my life, sent a couple of people to my home, and they told me that he said he had been watching me on the screen while he was growing up. He recalled enjoying watching Cockcrow At Dawn and he wanted to help. In the process, he sent Doctor Oriafor and one of his business managers, Pastor Philip Akinola, who told me that they were sent by Otedola to see what help they could render to me. In the process, they arranged for a physiotherapist for me, got me a mobile oxygen converter which I can go out with. They also made available for me, supply of drugs that can help my process in the next one year. So, that is where we are, and I thank God. I wish I could see those who have helped me, even Mr. Otedola too, and thank them.
So, what is your main ailment now?
What I suffer from is called chronic obstructive venereal disease. It has to do with my lungs. The inside is perforated, making breathing and walking around difficult. If I exert myself, my heart starts pumping. I was glad because the first cardiologist in Ikoyi told me that if I do surgery, they are not too sure I would survive. So, I didn’t want to take the chance because some of my friends had died. I give glory to God. A couple of my friends battled with leukemia and died. Some battled with prostate cancer and died. But here I am with three of the ailments and I’m still alive. So, I give glory to God. How much do I get from my pension? It is less than N100,000. How could I have been able to solve my problems?
What have you been doing since you retired from the NTA?
Before this illness showed up, I was acting here and there and consulting here and there to keep body and soul together, but right now, walking around makes me to start breathing hard. I have to check my oxygen level all the time. I have the oxygen machine with me all the time. If my oxygen level goes below 90, it means I’m distressed and in trouble. All manner of inhalers are by my side; so I’m like a walking corpse.
Just a few days ago, the theatre industry honoured you with an award. How do you feel about that?
Yes, I was made a Fellow of the distinguished and acclaimed Nigerian Theatre Arts Association. It is humbling after all these years, doing what I know how to do best. Most people do not even know that I did not start out as an actor. Though I dreamt I would be one while growing up as a young man, then when there was a cinema culture where we watched cowboy films and Indian films and all of the other actors; that was in Sierra Leone where I grew up. And after the cinema outing, we used to act like one of the characters or most of the characters in the movie we watched.
Broadcast, for me, started back then in Sierra Leone where I used to listen to the radio. There was this man on radio who had this beautiful and wonderful voice; I admired him and started dreaming that one day, people would also listen to my voice on radio. In Sierra Leone, I only knew radio. It was when I came to Nigeria that I saw television for the first time. I got to Nigeria on June 28, 1968.
When you got to Nigeria, what did you do?
I came to Nigeria in my early 20s. My late father and most of my family members were in Sierra Leone. They were prominent people there. Some of them are still there, and I wanted to see where my father came from before he died. So, I pressurised him that I wanted to know his country. So, I came to Nigeria by boat, MV Dumura. I landed at Apapa, and since then I have been here.
What attracted you to Nigeria?
Sierra Leone is a small country compared to Nigeria. By the time I got to Lagos and started seeing all the high rise buildings that I wasn’t seeing in Sierra Leone, and seeing big nite clubs that I never saw in Freetown, I decided that Lagos was a free and better place to stay. I was dazed and wanted to see more. Life in Lagos has always been like that. If you don’t know what you are doing, it could consume you. There were certain things that couldn’t be done back there in Sierra Leone, but here, it turned out to be the accepted norm. By the way, it opened doors for me because I had a dream of wanting people to know and hear my voice.
Did you get into radio immediately?
No, I got my first job with Government Coastal Agency; that was towards the tail end of the war. I remember that I used to go and supply materials at the ordinance depot at Yaba. I remember the late Hassan Usman Katsina. He was a top army officer there and my desk supplied them with stock fish, beer and so on. I stayed there for some time and left for Kano to join the Nigeria Customs. I also went to Kaduna to visit some brothers of mine. They were army officers. One retired as a Major, Major Mohammed Daba, and the other was at one time a governor and a minister.
It was while I was visiting them that I went drinking at Hamdallah Hotel and met this gentleman, he is late now, Alifah Baba Ahmed. We were on the table talking and I didn’t know he was noticing the way I talked. He asked if I had ever worked in a radio house and I told him no. The nearest I had got near to a radio house was in Sierra Leone where I just passed by the radio house. He asked also if I had worked in a television house and I replied him that I had never seen one in my life. He told me to come to their office, RKTV, that is, Radio Television Kaduna.
So, how did it go?
To me, it was a beer parlour talk. However, I went there the next day and I was tested in what they called audition. I put it behind me; it was all fun. That was the first time I entered a radio station. While I had forgotten about it, a letter had already followed the audition, sent to my cousin’s house. It was an offer of employment and I was in Kano. But they came looking for me, brought me back to Kaduna and I started working in 1973. I was there from radio to television and then moved to Sokoto where I was fully in television. I met another young man, Peter Igho, who introduced me to drama, because he started what was called Cock Crow at Dawn. When we started that, I think I was approaching my mid-20s. But I’m 68 today and some people are still calling me Bitrus!
That surely was one of the longest-running programmes on TV
Yes, it was the longest running drama on television apart from Village Headmaster which was before Cock Crow at Dawn, closely followed by Masquerade, which also ran for quite some time. For me, it broadened my scope, opened a bigger vista outside my core profession, which is broadcasting, and pushed me headlong into acting. Roles came, challenges came, and from the small television, we went on to big screen cinema, ‘Moment of Truth, ‘Soweto’ and finally, some years ago, Kunle Afolayan came with his ‘October 1st.’ And that was when I first got appreciated nationally, because ‘Cock Crow At Dawn’ had already exposed me internationally, ‘Soweto’ had also done that. But on a bigger scale, Kunle Afolayan’s ‘October 1st’ opened a bigger market where I won the best actor nationally and several awards just came tumbling in. To God be the glory.
Do you still see some of the cast of ‘Cock Crow at Dawn’?
inducted at the NANTAP event. Her name is Lantana Ahmed. She was the wife to Uncle Gaga. She was in ‘Cock Crow at Dawn’, which was shot in a village called Gurum. It was a fine location way out of town.
When you look back to those days, what comes to your mind?
Nostalgia. For me, television is unique; a unifying thing. For us, ‘Cock Crow at Dawn’, brought us together. We had a policy, rather Peter Igho’s policy. His belief and vision was that it must bring people together. It had to do with the entity called Nigeria. For example, my sister in the drama series, Lanre, was played by a Yoruba girl, Tola Awojobi. She is late now. May her soul rest in peace. Eni Oloja is Idoma and she played Zemaye. She is from the Niger Delta. The man who played Papa Bello, who was Bitrus’ father, is an Urhobo man but was called Bello. So, it was all interconnected. It was about the viewer seeing himself or herself in that play.
There is an Uncle Gaga in every family; a Zemaye or a Bello in every family. So, when you are watching the programme, you can relate and say this particular thing happens in my family. That actually captured the essence of what we were trying to show. When I look back, I feel happy that we gave something to the people.
Have you ever been embarrassed?
One day, I was at Eko Hotel. It was the second year of Cock Crow at Dawn. I was drinking beer and had a cigarette in my hand. One boy, about 10 in age, walked up to me and knocked me on the head. I turned, and he said, ‘Are you not Bitrus? Why are you drinking and smoking?’ I didn’t know this boy’s father was standing somewhere and watching. I told him sorry, I am not drinking, I just wanted to taste it and find out how it tastes. After the boy had gone, the father came and said thank you.
About six months later, we were on break and I came to Lagos, and at Ebute Metta, I was driving and this boy was upstairs. He shouted: Ah, Bitrus omo ita (Bitrus the rascal)! I looked at myself and said, Me Sadiq Daba being called omo ita because of my Bitrus character in Cock Crow at Dawn. So, that was how infectious the programme became.
We came to Lagos to the National Theatre to do some things and the man who played Uncle Gaga was in Lagos too. Would you believe that people stoned him and he had to run? You know, we later found that it was because of his character of a wicked man in the drama series that he was stoned. We had to start begging people. They said no, that he was always beating Bitrus! We had to start telling them that it is acting; that he is not a wicked man (laughs).
Did you marry an actress?
No, I didn’t marry an actress. I met her while I was working in Jos. She was studying at the University of Jos. Usually then, we went to that campus to look for girls and I saw this young lady.
How long had you been going there before you met her?
We had been going there for about one year or so. Boys were boys. I had this complimentary card and written on it was Bitrus. So, I went confidently over to her and said, ‘Excuse me, how are you doing?’ She looked at me and continued with what she was doing. I told her here’s my card. She collected it from me and looked at it, and I think she tore it! So, I said to myself that it would be both of us in this Jos, and I left. I began to pursue her. It took all of seven years. Until her father came to visit one day and I followed her to her father and told him that I wanted to marry his daughter. The father said, ‘You this yeye man'(laughs).
Well, to cut the long story short, we eventually got married. Today, by the grace of God, we have remained married for more than two decades. Her name is Bolaji from the Oluwa family. She is from Lagos State, a royal family, while I am from Kano. One of our children is in the UK. He read Computer Science. One is on holiday now; he schools in Ghana where he is studying Computer Science, while one has just finished his Post-UTME going to the University of Lagos and wants to study Computer Science. The only girl I have is married.
What was life like at NTA?
NTA was NTA, a wonderful and fun place to work. From Kaduna to Sokoto and then to Lagos when the Federal Government took over all TV stations and NTV Sokoto became NTA Sokoto under a federal body. When NTA took over, I was still in Sokoto and some people were transferred from there to Lagos. So, Lagos became our base. It was from Lagos that we were going to other places. My first base here was at Alago Meji; from there to Ojulegba and then to Abiola Gardens where I have been in the past 15 years. I went to NTA some time ago and found that it is a ghost of its former self. It used to be a beehive of activities. Almost everyone then in Nollywood started in NTA. Some of them passed through my hands because I am a producer and a director.
Can you share one or two memories you have of your time at NTA?
There were too many. Some people have died. The man I used to call my friend and brother, Yinka Craig, who I started AM Express with, is gone. Before that, there was Festac 77. I met people who took me like their brother and son, like Chief Tunde Oloyede, Bimbo Oloyede, now Bimbo Roberts, Patrick Oke, Enebeli Enebuwa and Sunny Irabor. Some have died. Looking back to NTA is nostalgic. No one cared whether you are Ibo, Yoruba or whatever; what they wanted was, can you work? Can you deliver? Once you could, that was it! Everybody loved success.
What time did you even have to fight or quarrel when you were always together? And for those of us who used to love to drink, once we were through with work, there was a bar near NTA where everybody met afterwards. You didn’t have to hold money to drink. Somebody was always there ready to buy someone else beer.
In those days, what was the bonding ingredient?
Nigerians love one another. When I was sick, no one asked me whether I was Hausa or Ibo or Yoruba. I don’t even know the people who contributed money to enable me go abroad for medical treatment. Why didn’t I go and look for my Kano people only to come and help me? Do I even know if my Kano people contributed? The important thing at that moment was Sadiq is sick! It was not Sadiq is Hausa or Sadiq is Yoruba. And help started pouring in. That is how good Nigerians are.
Check these names: Chief Tunde Oloyede, Bimbo Oloyede now Bimbo Roberts, Patrick Oke, Enebeli Enebuwa, Sunny Irabor; do you see Mohammed among them? Of course, I have some northern friends, but if something happens to me in Lagos, what happens? Do I wait till someone comes from the north? Nigerians are good but politicians divide us. So many Ogbomoso people have been living in the north for years. Offa people, Ekiti and Akure people are all over the north. Hausa people are all over the markets in Ibadan and in all these years, people were not being killed. Is it today that cattle started coming from the north? But suddenly, cattle have now become wahala.
My wife is Yoruba; are my children not supposed to have Yoruba names? My children have rights in Lagos just as they have rights in Kano. That is what Nigeria is.
What is your advice for young upcoming actors and entertainers?
Believe in yourself and do not be a copy cat. Be proud that you are a Nigerian. You cannot be more American than the American. In American films, they do not glamorise their slums; they show you the better parts of America. Those who want to go into acting, drama, and broadcasting should know that they are going to be ambassadors of Nigeria. They should project what is good about Nigeria. Always be there as your brother’s keeper. Forget that you are from a particular tribe. There are bad Yoruba, bad Ibo and bad Hausa people. But then for each bad person from another tribe, there are several good people, so why not look for the good people? If you do bad, no matter how long it takes, it will catch up with you.
Author: Babatunde Ayankunle