The peace in Nollywood, and by extension, a large part of the country, was shattered on Wednesday, April 10, 2024, when a popular actor, Pope Odonwodo, popularly known as Junior Pope, and three others were confirmed dead when the boat they were travelling in after returning from a movie set capsized in Asaba, Delta State.

A trip of no return

Doing what he knows how to do best, the actor was working on a movie titled, ‘The Other Side of Life’, which is produced by Adanma Luke. Apparently to get to the set, the cast and crew had to cross the River Niger.

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While going to the set, Pope had made video while on the boat, asking the driver to move with caution. In the video, the actor pleaded that he was an only child, and that he had three young children, who he wanted to raise himself. This was even as he told his fans that actors often took risks in their bid to entertain them.

He had said, “Please, reduce the speed. I am the only child of my parents. I have three children that I need to raise.”

However, upon returning from the same movie set, that which Pope feared actually happened, as it turned out to be his last trip ever. He and three other members of the film crew lost their lives when the boat capsized.

Confusion as actor was rumoured to still be alive

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Shortly after the news of his death initially went viral, hopes were raised when news also circulated that Pope had regained consciousness.

In an Instagram post, Emeka Rollas, who is the president of the Actors Guild of Nigeria, had written, “What God cannot do does not exist. Junior Pope is alive. He is taking (sic) treatment in the hospital.”

According to rumours that spread like wildfire online, a mortuary attendant was said to have brought the actor to the morgue that he was still alive. Another actor who was at the scene, Stanley, later made a video, stating that Pope was being taken to the waterside for some rituals to be conducted for him to come back to life.

However, as anxiety continued to rise, Rollas deleted his earlier post, plunging the actor’s fans and Nigerians into further confusion as regards the actor’s condition.

Some hours later, it was finally revealed that Pope had died. Rollas stated that his earlier announcement that Pope was alive was out of excitement, when they noticed the tingling of his fingers.

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He wrote, “It is so sad that our joy was short-lived. My first post was out of excitement when we noticed his tingling fingers. Two notable hospitals tried their best to revive him, but to no avail. God knows the best. We finally lost him.”

Jerry Amilo bashed for posting video of Pope’s remains

Amidst the drama online, an actor, Jerry Amilo, received severe bashing for posting a video of Pope’s lifeless body on a hospital bed, with cotton wool used to block his nostrils.

In the said video, Amilo could be seen standing by the bed with Rollas and another actress.

Making a u-turn, Amilo later made an apology video the next day. He said, “I am making this video because my attention has been called by fans who have been with me through thick and thin regarding the post I made concerning Junior Pope’s demise. Those who know me are aware that I don’t chase clout. It is only a pity that the post got to people the way it did. I made the post to clear the confusion of people calling and wondering if he has truly passed away or not. My intention was never to chase clout, I am a realist and if the post hurt people, I am sorry.”

Anger over non-use of life jackets

As the sad reality of the death of Pope and the others began to dawn on many, several questions were raised; the most prominent being that why did the actors and crew members cross such an expansive river without life jackets.

Some also questioned why cardiopulmonary resuscitation was not immediately performed on the actor when he was brought out of the water, and why he was first taken to the morgue and a native doctor, instead of a hospital.

However, an actor and one of the survivors, TC Okafor, claimed that as the boat ride began, he sprayed some cash and soft drink into the water for appeasement.

According to him, only the director and DOP wore life jackets on the boat.

However, some also claimed that according to the customs of the area, noise shouldn’t have been made while travelling on the water on a market day. It was alleged that Okafor had rang a bell while on the boat; an act that is allegedly considered a taboo.

Expatiating on how the accident happened, Okafor said, “I asked them to put their phones in their pockets, but after a while, Pope started making a video. As the video was going on, the captain who was behind Junior Pope, was more focused on his head appearing in the video that Pope was making. I noticed a small canoe ahead of our boat, and I was telling the captain to watch out for it. But, because the captain had earphones on and was possibly playing music, he did not hear me talking. By the time he heard and saw the canoe, it was too late. Our boat hit the tail end of the canoe and capsized.”

He added that he survived because he held onto the rope of the boat as it capsized. He also stated that some people who witnessed the accident quickly rushed to save them with their boats.

Celebs blame poor standards on movie sets

As colleagues and fans of the deceased continued to mourn, many actors decried the poor standards that are a norm in most movie sets.

Angered by the loss of the talented individuals, an actress, Sarah Martins, blamed Luke for their deaths. She wrote, “Finally we lost him! Very low budget movie trying to raise local standards without providing the necessary amenities! Now we’ve lost a star, a father, a son, a brother, a husband and innocent crew members hustling to feed their families. Adanma Luke, you do this one (sic).”

However, reacting to Martin’s post, another actress, Destiny Etiko, berated her stating that it was not the right time to start pointing fingers. She wrote, “There is time for everything, Sarah. This is totally wrong.”

Also reacting to the sad news, popular actress, Ini Edo wrote, “Junior Pope did not have to sacrifice his life for Nollywood to realise the need for a long and much needed regulatory structure that would safeguard an entire production. The system has to undergo a total overhaul with practical rules and regulations that cater to everyone in cases of emergencies, Rest on brother, this one cuts really deep.”

AGN, DGN react

In the wake of the deaths, there have been diverse reactions from different stakeholders in the industry, including the Actors Guild of Nigeria, and Director’s Guild of Nigeria.

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Evidently as a way of mourning the deceased, the AGN ordered that there should be no activities on set on Thursday, April 11. This was even as it slammed a ban on Adanma Luke.

It released a statement, which read in part, “Following the tragic boat mishap that claimed the life of Mr John Paul Odonwodo, aka Junior Pope, and four other crew members at the waterside of River Niger, Asaba, on a movie set titled, ‘The Other Side of Life’, produced by Adamma Luke, the leadership of the guild has taken the following decisions:

All films that involve riverine areas and boat riding are hereby suspended indefinitely. No shoot on all locations nationwide on Thursday 11th April 2024.

“Also, the film titled, ‘Another Side of Life’, is suspended indefinitely. No actor is allowed to work with Adamma Luke as a producer till further notice.”

On its part, the DGN vowed to launch an inquiry into the unfortunate incident. A statement signed by Victor Okhai, the President of the Directors Guild of Nigeria and Chairman of the Federation of Nollywood Guilds and Association, read, “It is with a heavy heart that we received the news of the tragic demise of some of our members in a boat mishap.

“The death of actor, Junior Pope and three other crew members— Abigail Frederick (Vice Chairman CDGN, Akwa Ibom State, and make-up artist), Precious Oforum (sound man) and Joseph Anointing (Gaffer), who were on the on the set of Adamma Luke’s ‘The Other Side of Life’ is no doubt one tragedy too many.

“We sympathise with their family members and their various associations. and promise to launch an inquiry into the cause of this tragedy.”

Tributes galore

Paying tributes to Pope, veteran actor, Kanayo O Kanayo, wrote, “How can I sleep well, writing another condolence message a few weeks after my other colleagues passed on. Now, it’s for my son, ‘Ikenga’, in the rested series, ‘Professor Johnbull’ by Globacom.

“Yesterday’s brouhaha about waking up and dying, only showed how much Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike prayed for Junior Pope to live. There are many questions to raise on this unfortunate and tragic incident.

“The death of Pope and other colleagues could have been avoided with just minimum standards of acceptable operational guidelines for practitioners in the different guilds of the industry. The movie industry needs hygienic sanitation and internal cleansing from non-professional conduct. Actors, big or small should understand that they are not superhuman.

“Let me use this opportunity to call on the AGN President, Emeka Rollas, to issue a declaration to all producers who do not work to professional engagement standards, i.e. involvement in sexual harassment, collecting money to cast for roles, who do not feed artistes, who cast actors solely on ownership of cars, non-payment of artiste fees etc to order. To the bereaved families, I extend my condolences. May their souls rest in peace. Oh Lord, please, grant us some respite.”

Another colleague, Jim Iyke, wrote, “Dear lord, I am no stranger to devastating loss. I will not dare question your will but my heart is so heavy with too many questions. Words fail me. To the giver and taker of life, I surrender, but this one is a different pain—a different loss, broken in ways I don’t even understand. Rest with God, JP.”

Movie producer and actress, Ruth Kadiri, also wrote, “My heart is broken. As filmmakers, we all are guilty of taking certain risks for this job. In fact, getting home at 3am is almost a norm in this business. I cannot throw stones; I cannot ask why. This is a call to remind us that passion doesn’t save lives. JP, may God receive your soul, and grant your family the heart to bear the loss!”

A Ghanaian actress, Jackie Appiah, also wrote on her Instagram page, “RIP Junior Pope and the crew members. This is really sad. May we not die in pursuit of our daily bread.”

In her tribute, Rita Dominic wrote, “Sometimes, one can’t even find the right words. But who are we mere mortals to question God? May their souls and all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace, amen.”

Also paying tributes to the late actor, his colleague, Nosa Rex, wrote, “My hope was raised when I heard you made it. The news made my mind swell. Afterwards, my hope crashed again. You died before you died. For now, rest in peace, my brother. The person you have told to tell your story will when the time is right.”

Another actor, Dave Ogbeni, wrote, “On the day before the accident, we were drinking together after watching the Arsenal/Bayern Munich match. He said, ‘Dave, I think it’s time I told the bloggers my story’. I said, ‘Bro, it hasn’t got to that. We can settle this without the world knowing. He looked me in the eyes and said what do you mean, since December? I’m dying gradually and you’re telling me not to tell the world? If I die, you will be the one to tell the world my story’. Then, he died the next day.”

The family man

Aside from his acting career, what is not in doubt is that Pope was a committed family man, who cared deeply about his three sons and wife, Jennifer Awele, who is the director of an event management and planning company called, Dope.

In most of his interviews, he does not hide the fact that the welfare of his family is his priority, and this was buttressed by what he said about raising his three children in the last video he made before his death.

He usually posts their pictures and videos on his social media pages, and loves to spend time with them.

He has also spoken about how his wife helped him to increase his earning since their marriage in 2014. In an Instagram post on January 20, 2022, while celebrating her birthday, he wrote, “Happy Birthday to the woman whose blessings took me from earning N10,000/N15,000 in Nollywood to hundreds of thousands.”

Reacting to some comments about the money he sprayed on her birthday, Pop said, “The money I sprayed on her (on her birthday) was the money she blessed me with. The money came from her blessings, because if she had not blessed me with her prayers, and agreed to marry me, definitely that money might not have come. It was because of the love I have for her, and the fact that she has contributed immensely to my growth as an actor.”

On another occasion, he added that he always carried her along in all his decisions. In another interview, he noted that he was present for the birth of all his children, and uses every opportunity he gets to spend time with them. He said, “Whenever I am at home, the kids know that I am for them. I ensure that I make up for the days I had been away.”