Possibly at the height of his career at the time, comic actor Babatunde Omidina, popularly known as Baba Suwe, was an unwilling participant in a real-life drama that was both comical and critical, and had devastating consequences for his image and vocation.
His death following a protracted illness on November 22, at the age of 63, replayed the dramatic episode. He had made a name for himself in Nollywood’s Yoruba sector. So his arrest by officials of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, had generated intense public interest.
It was October 12, 2011, and he was travelling from Lagos to Paris, France, which reflected his professional success. Before he could board the Air France plane, NDLEA officials claimed airport scanners had shown he was carrying illegal drugs in his stomach. They said scans revealed “multiple hyper-dense nodular particles in the upper gastro-intestinal tract, consistent with large amounts of drug ingestion.”
It was no laughing matter for the comedian. The anti-drug agency detained him, believing he would eventually excrete the alleged drugs. After nine days in detention, during which the agency’s officials waited for him to defecate, and during which he reportedly did eight times, there was no sign of swallowed drugs.
By this time, the attentive public was captivated by the affair. It was amusing in its seriousness, particularly the wait for the actor to defecate.
The agency then got the permission of the Federal High Court to hold Omidina for 15 more days based on scan results from a consultant radiologist with Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH) presented to the court. The agency, which did not initially seek the court’s permission to detain him for a specific period, believed he would excrete the alleged drugs during the extended detention.
“There have been several examinations carried out on him and no banned substances have so far been found,” his lawyer had told the High Court of Lagos State that freed him on bail. This was after about 25 bowel movements and no excreted drugs.
The court later ordered that NDLEA should pay N25 million to Omidina as compensation for the “flagrant abuse and infringement on his fundamental human rights,” and that the agency should also publish a public apology “on conspicuous pages” in two national newspapers.
Interestingly, in May 2013 the Court of Appeal ruled that Baba Suwe’s detention was “not unreasonable,” and overruled the award of N25 million. The actor’s lawyer, Mr. Bamidele Aturu, declared that the decision of the Court of Appeal would be challenged at the Supreme Court. “We think this can also encourage the culture of impunity on the part of law enforcement agencies,” he said. He died in July 2014. The death of the lawyer, a human rights champion, dealt a death blow to the pursuit of justice for the comedian.
Baba Suwe was left to lick his wounds. “The way they (NDLEA) treated me actually ruined my image. My career has been dwindling,” he was quoted as saying. He described his ostracism: “A lot of people who once invited me to take part in their movies abandoned me because of the incident. Others who could have assisted me financially don’t want to associate with me again.”
It was striking that some people believed he wasn’t wrongly accused, though there was no evidence to support the accusation. Curiously, they claimed he had got rid of the alleged drugs through mystical means.
“The NDLEA has wronged me,” he had lamented. “All I want is an apology. If the government can tender an apology to me and publish it in newspapers, I will have peace of mind and be happy.”
The apology he desired never came till he died. He took the pain to his grave. Indeed, his ordeal raised questions about unfair detention, defamation and remedial action.
There was no question about Baba Suwe’s comic talent. President of the Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN) Emeka Rollas, in a tribute, said “His contribution to Nollywood cannot be quantified, adding, “He will forever be remembered for his professionalism and his art.”
His fate dramatised mass gullibility and official arrogance. Many turned his ordeal into a superstitious fest, believing that some sort of mystical herb had hidden the substance in spite of many bowel evacuations. Science also suffered, as the officials and their minions still prided imagination over evidence. If the scan was right, the substance could not have survived 25 toilet visits.
It shows how fact fails and fiction still rules our society with implications for how we treat data and justice. It bodes ill for democracy and a literate society. We believe with his death and no more law case to pursue, the NDLEA should formally withdraw it from the court and apologise.
Born on August 22, 1958 on Lagos Island, Baba Suwe was from Ikorodu, Lagos State. After his secondary education, his acting talent took him to the theatre world. His appearance in a movie titled Omolasan initially attracted public attention.
By the 1980s, he had achieved recognition for his comic roles in several television productions and movies. His 1990s Yoruba TV series, Erin Keke, increased his popularity, which was boosted by his appearance in a 1997 movie titled Iru Esin. He also produced memorable movies, including Ba o ku, Oju Oloju, Baba Londoner, Ko tan si be, Aso Ibora, Obelomo, Elebolo, Larinloodu.
He never fully recovered from his encounter with the anti-drug agency. He planned to shoot a movie on his ordeal, but it didn’t materialise. He was still trying to pick up the pieces when in 2018 he fell seriously ill and had to fly to America for treatment in 2019 after receiving donations from generous well-wishers, particularly Rev Esther Ajayi who gave him N10 million and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo who donated N1million.
Baba Suwe brought earthy laughter through his funny roles, usually as servant or security guard. He was so good at creating laughter, and his appearance in any movie guaranteed that the audience would not only laugh but laugh uncontrollably. Baba Suwe