Becoming a Nigerian governor is hard for anyone, but if you are an upstanding woman like Hankuri, the lead character in Omoni Oboli’s Love is War, there are greater odds of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Hankuri Phillips (Omoni Oboli) is contesting in the Ondo state Governorship elections but she is a headstrong woman from Niger. Even worse, her opponent is her husband Dimeji (Richard Mofe-Damijo), a medical doctor and Ondo’s favourite son. This premise promises a wonderful film, but great ideas are nothing without excellent execution.
The screenplay is from Naz Onuzo, who has a thing for complex storylines- beautiful ideas that come out messy (Out of Luck) or confusing and problematic (The Arbitration). All that changed with the remarkable The Set Up, a plot-driven screenplay engineered into a fun, smart ride by Niyi Akinmolayan. Onuzo’s latest is Love is War, the film has been billed as a comedy-drama and while it plays out as one, its true potential lies as a political thriller.
Love is War is a fascinating sail through the muddy waters of Nigeria’s politics. Hankuri, a determined woman with a stellar political resume is handpicked by the President to run for Governor under the PPM party. As she lobbies for support from influential party members, the men seek her submission. There is a scene in which the incumbent governor (Akin Lewis) demands she and a female senator bow down to greet him. Mrs. Phillips is not the submissive type, but she is a canny politician. When Otunba (Jide Kosoko), one of the important party members made some excessive demands she connived with the incumbent governor—a bigger power—to sideline him. Stung by this, Otunba devises a wicked plan to get back at his former party and Mrs Philips. He teams up with the opposition to tempt her husband into running against her. If Mr. Phillips declines, Hankuri would be viewed as a selfish, power-hungry woman who can’t stand aside and let her husband shine. If he accepts, he risks going to war with the love of his life.
After consulting with his wife, Dimeji agrees to run. The plan is simple: he won’t campaign, he will be her trojan horse. But what the naïve couple fail to realise is that in Nigerian politics, the party wins the election, not the candidate. As the campaign heats up, Dimeji is forced into battling his wife. The media and his party chip at his ego constantly. He starts to feel lesser than his wife, and during one of their many arguments, he tells her “Certainly I’m allowed to maintain my dignity.”
The most powerful thing about Love is War is its feminist undertone. There are not many films—in Nollywood and Hollywood—with ambitious women gunning for or holding powerful positions. Recently, Nollywood has been correcting this problem. In 4th Republic, Kate Henshaw played a strong character running for Governor against a corrupt, sexist man who proposed marriage because he’s turned on by her challenging character. King of Boys has a woman who lords over men. Onuzo’s screenplay follows this trend with a character who is ambitious and tender and can be ruthless without being seen as crazy. When her husband starts playing foul, she told her camp “I want to crush him.” And her actions were justified.
However, unlike its lead character and the two films mentioned above, Love is War doesn’t raise the stakes when its story demands. After Mrs Phillips’ aforementioned statement, riots were purported to have followed but the portayal would fail any sniff test. Another ill conceived decision from director Oboli was setting up minimalist campaign scenes. Campaign rallies in these climes are a grand affair; stadiums are filled, roads are shut and stages are colourful. Her acting during the campaign trail also suffers- the charisma of a Nigerian politician was inexistent. Mofe-Damijo was better in similar scenes, but even he was lacking. It is the oldies, Akin Lewis and Jide Kosoko who embodied their politician roles competently.
However, the inconsistencies in Oboli’s directing and acting don’t make Love is War a bad film. Its portrayal of Nigerian politics is apt and the film feels timely. It is just unfortunate that when the stage was set for more, Oboli succumbs to the challenge. And what would have turned out another outstanding film written by Naz Onuzo simply settles as an average Nollywood drama.