I’ve previously examined the economics of Nigerian filmaking, a business that rewards both the prolific and the extremely cost-conscious. The industry’s margins are typically razor thin because producers begin with the assumption that 70 percent of each movie’s revenue will end up in the hands of pirates. The trick to longevity, then, is to create lots of films that enjoy massive initial demand—this isn’t an environment in which movies are permitted to build audiences over time. And so Nigerian fillmakers are always keen to develop stars, whose movies always open solidly due to their fans’ support.
Among those essential stars, few are more well-known than the comedic team of Paw Paw and Aki, two Little People actors who have become Nollywood’s public face throughout much of Africa. Several years ago, in fact, the duo accidentally caused a riot in Sierra Leone after they failed to show for a promised engagement; the promoter tried to sub in local talent, to ill effect. And when the Nigerian Export Promotion recently decided to put together a series of trade missions aimed at bolstering the country’s film industry, it naturally tapped Aki and Paw Paw to spread the word to Southern Africa.
Given how inseparable these two artists have been during their careers, it’s baffling to learn that Nigeria’s government recently decided to give Paw Paw the shaft. In doling out its version of the Kennedy Center Honors, the Lagos administration selected Aki while ignoring his equally famous partner. This is tantamount to giving a lifetime achievement Oscar to one Coen brother, but not the other. (I tried using an analogy that invoked the Paul brothers, but that seemed disrespectful to Aki and Paw Paw.)
Paw Paw can take some comfort, however, in the fact that the National Honour Awards appear to have rather bizarre criteria. Among those honored with Aki was Patricia Etteh, a disgraced politician best known for treating the Nigerian treasury like a personal piggy bank. A photograph of her holding her prize will someday be Nigeria’s equivalent of this.