Dolly Unachukwu

Liz Benson, Dolly Unachukwu, Patience Ozokwor… Hauwa Gambo picks the 20 greatest Nigerian actresses – Do you agree?

by Hauwa Gambo

I have been thinking about how you can accuse Nollywood of everything, but you cannot accuse our industry of a lack of acting talent wide and deep. Some of them are unappreciated, some are overused, other underused, and most mis-used. But under these uninspiring conditions, they have managed to let their talent shine.

By the way, the below is a list of women of a certain age, who have acted in Nigerian movies and who are alive (so that leaves out the greats like Toun Oni and Taiwo Ajai-Lycett). I’m celebrating them!

Florence Onuma

She was Patience Ozokwor, before Patience Ozokwor became Patience Ozokwor. And was she good! The beauty of Onuma is how she could move so easily from the wicked mother-in-law to the banking executive screaming ‘Hit the Streets!’ She was always so good to watch, and always blended right into her character – whatever happened to her?

Eucharia Anunobi

Whether leading the charge of the moneyed women in ‘August Meeting’ or she’s taking her turn as the nagging wife, Eucharia – now a pastor – always knows how to steal a scene. It might be a huge stretch to compare the star of ‘Heartless’ and ‘Total Disgrace’ to Meryl Streep, but she has that uncanny ability to be the centre of gravity, able to make a film watchable even when it is hopelessly bad.

Dolly Unachukwu

Who can forget ‘Deadly Affair’? It was with this movie that the plus-size actress finally won our hearts. I am not sure she was such a fine actress much as she was just an appealing figure. She was graceful, and she looked like she couldn’t ever hurt a fly. Even when she was the complete bad-ass female, she just compelled you to watch and to like her.

Patience Ozokwor

Mama G! This is one case where no one cares if she is stereotyped or typecast, or if we’ve seen her in those same clothes and saying those same lines over and over and over again, no one can have enough of the inimitable characters that live and breathe through Ozorkwor. Her strength surely comes from just how much phone she seems to be having in character. And have you heard her scream ‘Hian!’ before? You immediately feel sufficiently entertained.

Onyeka Onwenu

You know her as a singer, but then she’s a phenomenal actress. Her credits include ‘Government House’, ‘Women’s Cot’, ‘Conspiracy’, ‘Not Your Wealth’, ‘Widow’ amongst others. ‘Conspiracy’, where her character was an endearing lunatic women and which was blessed with her most successful songs as soundtrack, was perhaps her most powerful showcase. Onwenu’s acting prowess is intimidating – when she acts, you forget she’s a superstar. She lets the character swallow her.

Iretiola Doyle

She’s been in some dodgy movies with her dear husband, but all in all, Ms. Doyle – who takes a star turn as Sheila Ade-Williams in MNET’s ‘Tinsel’ series – has proven over time that she’ an actress to respect. Her sassiness always seems to shine through whatever the roll, and while her range hasn’t been wide; there is a depth that she consistently brings to her characters.

Liz Benson

Ah, the Grand Dame! What couldn’t Liz Benson act? The 16-year-old, the goddess of perfection, the wicked stepmother, the chief executive, the adultress,  the innocent wife, the witch, the angel … Nigeria’s film industry is yet to find any replacement for the woman who must have acted over 1000 movies in ten years. We loved her, loved her, loved her. I miss her, miss her, miss her. No one even comes close!

Clarion Chukwurah-Abiola

It’s a shame her mouth seems to always have the same expression, because save for that blip, Chukwurah-Abiola is one of the more imposing – and that is meant in the best of ways – of our actresses. From ‘Gold Diggers’ to ‘Glamour Girls’, when she gets angry, you are frightened; when she is happy you are joyful. She has an ability to infect you with her character – and surely that is a gift.

Ebele Okaro

It’s not the kind of name that immediately rings bells, but if you have been blessed to watch Ebele Okaro in performance, then you know that this star of movies such as ‘Days of Rage’ and ‘Egg of Life’. I sat beside this woman on a flight to Enugu recently, and while I would more easily be star-mad when I see a Genevieve and inch for a photograph, I was only so star struck. It was enough to be that close to this under-appreciated acting royalty.

Rachel Oniga

Many of us grew up watching Rachel Oniga – the woman who should trademark her dead-on expression of a confused flustered, Nigerian woman. She’s now to be found sharing her talent in Yoruba movies, but for the brief period that she was in every other English offering, Oniga was a toast of many families. And she always had a grip on the tragic.

Ngozi Ezeonu

She probably shares that same charm as Dolly Unachukwu – where you can’t hate them evern when their characters are of the devil. Ezeonu kicked off her career in ‘Nneka, The Pretty Serpent’, she has gone on to occupy the role of gentle wife to the angry, rich chief. Sometimes the stereotypes become a bit too stifling, but Ezeonu sweetly manages to remain on the top of her game.

Rita Edochie

If she worked in America, she would probably be hailed as a method actor. Here, she is reduced to acting the same role in all those “epic” movies Idumota is passionate about producing. The cadence of Edochie’s voice and the earthiness she brings to her roles make her one to watch constantly even though you’ve seen in her in that same role in a movie of another name. There is also a poetry to her movement that enthralls. She enthralls.

Camilla Mgberekpe

Her voice is a screech; a high, frightening screech. So it’s perghaps no surprise that her breakout films were the one where she was a witch and the other where she was the wicked mother-in-law (case in point, the movie ‘Evil Woman’). She’s not the kind of face you want to see when you wake up in the morning – rife with foreboding and forewarning – but it doesn’t mean you don’t get a chill in your bones when she gets that screech right. And the action to match.

Hilda Dokubo

You think Stella Damasus can cry? You think Nkiru Sylanus can cry? Then you obviously began to watch Nollywood movies a bit too late. Hilda Dokubo can cry for the United Nations—and cry she did in many movies since she launched her career in ‘Fatal Desire’. Between the role of the oppressed wife and that of the prayer warrior, she had it all figured out. And we figured that we loved her.

Bukky Ajayi

There is something simple and un-dramatic acting about the woman everyone calles Aunty Buki. She comes at her roles with crispness and precision, whether it is a Yoruba or an English-speaking movie. What this national treasure has stored inside her is a wealth of talent honed over time and spunk that has only gotten sharper with age.

Gloria Young

Oh dear, Glamour Girl, how we fell so madly in love with you. We always felt like we could lie on the feet of the former Ms. Anozie and just be safe. She has that effect on you – confident in her craft, easy in her movements, completely at home under the lights. She’s gone off the movie posters recently, but she still lights up the screens under Wale Adenuga’s many TV series.

Ngozi Nwosu

No one can hold this woman down. Those who have watched her career from her time in Igbo-language films will remember her spectacular performance in ‘Evil Passion’. But she truly won hearts long before, as one of Chief’s wives in the popular soap opera, ‘Checkmate’. Nwosu has been around a long time, her hoarse voice standing her out as much as her enviable talent.

Joke Silva

This woman deserves a medal for longevity – she seems to have been there from the beginning of our film industry. And she’s stayed firm, straddling film, television and stage and she is as relevant today as she was when she started out. Silva’s strengths include her impeccable diction, her deliciously methodical acting and her large expressiveness that’s a pleasure to watch on the big screen.

Funlola Aofiyebi/Bimbo Akintola

They’re not in the league of these women, in terms of age, but they just have to make this list. Bimbo Akintola broke out with her star turn with RMD in ‘Out of Bounds’, and Funlola through the soap opera ‘Palace’, but they have shown again and again that they are in a league of their own amongst their peers as actresses. Of course, they are so good that Nollywood doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. They just don’t fit into any box – especially when the box is titled mediocrity.

So there’s my list! Next week it will be the turn of the men. Do you disagree with any of the names? Or do you have your own list?

42 thoughts on “Liz Benson, Dolly Unachukwu, Patience Ozokwor… Hauwa Gambo picks the 20 greatest Nigerian actresses – Do you agree?

  1. Nk'iru. Njoku

    Are you absolutely certain Taiwo Ajai-Lycett is not alive?

    Lovely article though. I love Onyeka Onwenu as an actor. I can’t helping laughing though when I remember one showing where her xter’s manicure was perfectly done even though she was meant to be a mad person or a pverty stricken person, can’t remember. But it was a laugh. still, she’s a diva’s diva and I would still love to see her in the movies esp on the big screen now that Nigerian films are finding their way there.

    As for the criers, if Ameze Imarhiagbe (sp?) had acted as many movies as Hilda Dokubo, then she could easily battle the latter, tear-for-tear, for that UN prize.

  2. Pagemaker

    Oh dear!!! This is one of the best lists I’ve seen in recent times. It is absolutely correct. I also think Genevieve Nnaji should be ranked with Bimbo & Funlola cos she has been a gem, ranging from the soap opera Ripples to her breakout movie Ijele to Keeping Faith. Well done Gambo, as I anticipate the male category. Cheers

  3. Hauwa Gambo

    Oh dear God no, aunty Taiwo is still alive! Saw her next week. I mean I didn’t put her in ’cause she really hasn’t done the movies. I miss Ameze o! Thanks.

  4. anon

    I agree with the list but omotola has also done wonders in that industry.Omotola right fron her mortal inheritance days to the prostitue pls she’s very good.
    I am very happy bimbo akintola was included,such brilliant actress with a nice diction.

  5. Vikaram

    You saw her next week??? *creepy*
    Good list up there but I think Genevieve should be on that list. She is in a class of her own. As for Onyeka Onwenu…not sure

  6. Charles Novia

    Well-researched article. But I don’t agree with you, Hauwa that Rita Edochie could even be considered a method actor! Please! She hasn’t even got the depth of a shallow bucket IMO! But for the stereotypical outings she has in the Enugu/Onitsha movies, one could let her name pass in your list. A fringe name on that list would have been Barbara Soky, one of the best ever produced but somehow, she went into obscurity before the Nollywood boom. And Hauwa…been meaning to ask; are you the same Hauwa Gambo, NTA newscaster, who was a colleague of mine @ NTA network in 1994? cheers!

  7. Fatimah

    Please strike Camilla Mgberekpe off this list! What???

    I love, love me some Bimbo Akintola ( I miss her Circle of Three soap on TV). Dolly was the business, I miss her on screen and Liz was just great!

  8. Divine

    Of all the names on this list, Liz Benson is the best actress. I wish I could produce her in big budget film.

    Joke Sylva: She’s not a good actress. She just uses diction to cover up her lack of acting. I know many will jump to disagree. But, it’s the truth.

  9. patrick

    I must say this a nice write up.bt I have 2 disagree wt u on somethings.ngozi nwosu was nt on checkmate.she played one of chief’s wives in fuji house of commotion.nd how come CHINYERE WILFRED’s name is nt on this list?thank GOD u mentioned bimbo akintola.dayum that chic is a great actress.she is so underated.bt she is a great actress.and she is a 3 time amaa nominee.Genevieve nnaji is the queen of nollywood.and u forgot UCHE OBI OSOTULE.that is another wonderful actress

  10. maryangela

    i strongly agree with the list, but its missing Chinyere Wilfred, Edith Jane Azu and uche Obi Osutule and also Shola Shobowale.

    Eucharia Anuobi is not supposed to be on that list. Joke Silva cannot act. oyibo is what she uses to cover up her lack thereoff. same applies to Olu jacobs. can’t act. same old style of acting.

    these comments sef. Must Genevieve Nnaji be everywhere? she is NOT the best nigerian actress and can never be. she is the longest and most exposed yes, but never the best. the best movie she can really boast of is Ije, which is textbook movie. nothing to it.
    this list is to celebrate the older generation. stop shoving Gnaj down our throats already.

    1. dark

      God bless u genevieve is soo overrated,she always get squeezed in every list even when she doesnt deserve to be there.Mercy johnson is much more of a better actress dan he,she is soo stiff(am not hating on her).She is not versatile at all,she only acts rich woman movies,wah abt roles like d the tout,the mad woman,the spoilt brat many of dem.All of u saying she’s d queen which queen is dere queen of hollywood pls dey are all good and genevieve is not any queen.I have not even seen any of her movies dis year.

  11. Wale

    Ha dont give me cardiac arrest o. How can you even say Taiwo Ajayi Lycett is dead?
    Nice article. I got nolstagic while readin it. But i wish you could’ve found a place for Carol King. She gives me goose pimples each time i watch her. I can understand that she doesnt do home videos so is not as visible as some of the actresses up there but i can tell you she beats a lot of them hands down.
    @Maryangel. Thanks for that Edyth Jane Azu mention. I’ve been tryin to remember her name. She’s pure gold

  12. asmie

    How come they are all old? Isn’t there any great actor who is a youth? I’m voting mercy johnson she is great…

  13. Chu'emeka Maduagwu

    Cool list…

    Take it or leave it, Genevieve is good. When it comes 2 her trade, shez on top of her game. Stella Damasus & Carol King should make the list…they are just super.

  14. Nnonye Tok True

    I know I will be called a hater, this list is about A-LEVEL, class act actresses within a certain age category, this ONLY reason that Funlola Aofiyebi and Bimbo Akintola are on this list is because they are on that same level, of the same caliber as these big aunties in the industry. They are incredible actresses who are chameleons (what a true actor should be!), they can out perform Genevieve Nnaji (YES THAT GENEVIEVE) who has NOT turned in an honest, organic performance in YEARS. No, don’t blink I SAID YEARS. Kate Henshaw leaves her in the dust, check the latter’s heart breaking dramatic turn in Sleeping with the Enemy with Saint Obi and then her comedic performance in Stronger than Pain with Nkem Owoh. Genie has relegated herself to playing rich, cold executive hard nose women who can’t find love and wonders why then falls in love with a man who is beneath her while her friends discourage her or some other crap situation. She has been phoning in her performances while ensuring that she is quite present at every red carpet function/gala/award/premieres from Lagos to Timbuktu. She has certain finessed the act of being a SUPER STAR but her growth as an ARTIST is stunted to say the least. She may have maintained her spot as the most popular but she has maintained her spot as the most versatile, honest, deep and open actress. This is my opinion on the matter.

    1. maryangela

      my dia, Omotola sef has left her a long time ago. Omotola has 3 Hollywood/International movies coming out this year alone. Amina, last flight and Ties That Bind. what has nne Gnaj done that her name must be everywhere? mirror boy and Ije. two films that are as flakky as powder. kate henshaw is actually same age as the women women above and should have made the list. but for me, my all time favorite is Uche Obi Osotule.

      1. anon

        Let me even add to omotola’s movie
        BLOOD ON THE BOAT-a teco benson movie very challenging that they almost lost their lives while filming.
        UP CREEK A PADDLE-a 200million naira movie based on the oil fight in naija delta

  15. Abimbola.

    @ Patrick, Ngozi Nwosu was Chief Fuji’s middle wife(PEACE) in Checkmate. Alongside Mama Toun Oni(of blessed memory)(Mama Moji) and Sola Onayiga(Ireti or Catering practical!).

    1. Tamara

      Fuji’s House of Commotion is a spin off from Chief Fuji’s Household in Checkmate. Ngozi played the Character Peace and was fondly called “Peaceful Peace” by the Chief. NTA was all we had in that era, surprised you have forgotten. Shalom

  16. feyi

    in mine opinion any top 20 list of greatest nigerian actresses without EDITH JANE AZU!, ANN NJAMANZE!, UCHE OBI OSUTULE! and GENEVIEVE NNAJI! is inappropriate and yes am screaming my roof down!!! from this list i derive older actresses makes the greatest actresses and that i find rather amusing. not saying the women you mentioned are not good o, all am saying is the all the ladies i mentioned are more versatile, believable and talented than at least ten women on your list. take that to the bank.

  17. feyi

    @MaryAngela u may not know this but you came across like a woman struggling to eat once a day whose husband left her for her younger sister twenty years ago and never returned because she is insolent, barren and disappears while asleep every night to attend witchcraft meeting where blood sucking creatures in human form worship………………. point is you sound so angry, bitter, dejected and pointless!!!!!!! STHU and don’t be saying crap about a bonafide talented legend like Genevieve Nnaji. if not for her nollywood and gollywood or whatever Ghana calls themselves might be realising that actors don’t sell talent alone but the total package is just as vital and prolly all this chewing-gum actresses selling class with no talent wouldnt have had any hope but to work as a 8-6 daily!!!!

    A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T GET IT! GENEVIEVE NNAJI IS FAR AS GOOD AS ANY ACTRESS ON THE ABOVE LIST AND YES SHE HELL IS INFACT SHE IS THE ACTRESS IN NOLLYWOOD WHO HAS MORE POTENTIAL TO WIN A BAFTA, GOLDEN GLOBES AND SUCH AWARDS. INFACT SHE WILL SOON GET ONE OF THOSE. MAKE UNA SITDOWN THERE DEY WRITE STORY!

    1. anon

      Where were u when omotola won BAFTA(SCREEN NATION AWARD ALSO CALLED UK OSCARS) at London yes the BEST WESTAFRICAN ACTRESS BEATING THE LIKES OF GENNY,FUNKE,MERCY,INI EDO RITA,UCHE AND LOTS MORE.
      As far as am concerned omotola is better than genevieve.
      Omotola frm the prostitute
      Omotola frm the celebrity
      Omotola frm the prince pride
      Omotla frm ije
      Omotola from mortal inharitance classic
      Omotla from ije
      Omotla frm i belong infact tha movie is a classic
      Omotla frm amina
      Omotla from precious
      And all these movies i mentioned omotola played different roles,sickle cell anaemia patient to a mentally sick patient.,to a spoilt brat,to a prisoner to a hard lady to a physiological disabled woman pls even to a refugee pls i have never seen genny in another dimension to me she hasnt prooved critics wrong at all

  18. Agnes

    @MaryAngela: You said: “she is the longest and most exposed yes, but never the best.”

    Longest? Longest actress?

  19. Kenneth

    @Bro Feyi: Genevieve is only good because she is operating in the midst of awful actors like Tonto Dike, Mercy Johnson, Ini Edo and Stephenie Okereke.

    In current form, Genevieve can never even get into a leading or support role in a movie that makes it to BAFTA or Academy Awards. Stop dreaming!

  20. Stan

    Nice compilation. But, just to correct the wrong use of the term ‘method acting’. There is no method actor in Nigeria. Abeg you, Hauwa. Don’t insult the method actors like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson of the world.

  21. sam

    yea! Omotola’s name shoulda bin there…she’s bin entertainin us since 1993, her days of Mortal inheritance, d Prostitute etc…she has bin in d industry b4 many ppl on dat list

  22. Ada

    who ever said omotola name should hav been included is very CORRECT…dat lady don tey & she’s still very available

  23. mimi

    This list na ojoro O! Where is Sola Sobowale’s name nau? Ah! U better go n edit this list and add her O. That woman is by far the most natural actress in nollywood!

    1. Tamara

      LOL at Regina Askia. The lady is a beauty to behold and my critique of her is based on her skills not personality; her acting is without any conviction and is in the same class as Lillian Bach. No fluidity in carriage or expression. Shalom

  24. Fatimah

    All of you making noise about Omotola need to sit your arse down and watch her films again. Hian, Omotola in the same list as Dolly, Liz, Bimbo, ha!
    Omotola is frigging stiff! Anytime, I watch her films, I always feel she is holding something back, she doesn’t really immerse herself in her roles like a Bimbo Akintola for example.

    There is this almost constant expression on her face…

    @Naijasoundz, Regina is on the other list (deservedly so:-)) and Liz is already on this list.

  25. kev

    Am sure we all hav reasons 4 our criticism,both constructive and destructive.I jst want to point out dat we shd stop judgin our actors based on traces of hollywood characters dey cn imitate or semblance to a character in a hollywood movie.even some big hollywood actors r terrible actors,its jst dat we hype dem a lot and tak all dey do as ‘standard’.wen it comes to our stories and actin,standard shdnt count(as per characters o) bt originality and believability.our actor r portrayin african character and shd reflect such.and dey r doin so.we tend to judge dem based on deir ability to pull off somethn close to or exactly wat we hav seen a denzel,halle,pacino or jolie do.actin is givin a character life and we can boast of havin one of d finest set of actors and actresses in d world(quote me anywhr).its jst technicalities like castin,scriptin etc dat stunts us.and pls can we tak som pride in d much we hv achieved and strive for more.let’s criticise constructively…and nt b petty abt it.

  26. Kenneth

    @Kev: Acting is universal. Either you are a good actor or you are bad. Which is why you see non-British actors winning BAFTA and non-Americans win Oscars. Acting is about being believable. Either you are, or you are not. Mention one bad actor that is hyped to award winning levels in the US. Over there, bad acting is placed in it’s place. Critics call it out so bad actors don’t get casted and we don’t even get to see them.

  27. kev

    Ken,am nt debatin d universality of actin bt d use of ‘standard’ to define everythn hollywood.hw wl u kno watz unbelievable abt an american character to fully acknowledge d prowess of a hollywood actor aside frm wat we read abt their reviews whc is y we can applaud a movie/actor bt read or watch their critics shred it/dem.most times,wat we call their believability is our gullibility to believe everythn non-nigerian.let’s nt get into d award givin cos even oscars hav deir own demons.nollywood and bollywood r independent runner ups to hollywood and can hold deir own.bafta and oscar can inter-award winner cos of deir link and culture similarities.and oscar is more of an continental ‘american award’ dan a USA only award jst like AMAA is more of african dan nigeria only.external winners r either in ‘foreign film’ category or hav a USA copy/distribution right…nollywood is movin up and mind u dat it is a process and nt an end.and we can hold our own and blv in ourselves

  28. kev

    Ken,am nt debatin d universality of actin bt d use of ‘standard’ to define everythn hollywood.hw wl u kno watz unbelievable abt an american character to fully acknowledge d prowess of a hollywood actor aside frm wat we read abt their reviews whc is y we can applaud a movie/actor bt read or watch their critics shred it/dem.most times,wat we call their believability is our gullibility to believe everythn non-nigerian.let’s nt get into d award givin cos even oscars hav deir own demons.nollywood and bollywood r independent runner ups to hollywood and can hold deir own.bafta and oscar can inter-award winner cos of deir link and culture similarities.and oscar is more of an continental ‘american award’ dan a USA only award jst like AMAA is more of african dan nigeria only.external winners r either in ‘foreign film’ category or hav a USA copy/distribution right…nollywood is movin up and mind u dat it is a process and nt an end.and we can hold our own and blv in ourselves for others to appreciate us.real soon nt js hollywood bt d world will come callin…if dey r nt doin dat already!

  29. Hauwa Gambo

    Hi Mr. Novia – I get that a lot. Sadly I’m not the same person. Good name to share tho:)

  30. Kenneth

    @Kev: The first step to freedom and progress is accepting the truth about a situation. Hollywood is the best film industry there is in the world right now. In every single indices in film, they have set the bar so high, even for themselves, that the rest of the world is only chasing after them. Agreed? If not, stop reading. Delusion has set in.

    Second: The Oscars is a US awards given by the AMERICAN Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. It’s not a continental award like AMAA. Anybody can meet the criteria to join the Academy and be considered for an Oscar, it’s your work that speaks for you.

    Third: You seem to think that the Academy makes questionable choices. It’s a voting process where every member votes for their peers. So, if all the actors vote someone as best actor, who are we to sit down in Nigeria and begin to see corruption where there’s not. But, to buttress my point and yours, perhaps, mention one bad American actor or British too, or a good one with a bad outing who won an Oscar. Just one!

    Gullibility: Hogwash. Don’t American actors act non-American characters? Did Forest Whitaker not win an Oscar for playing Idi Amin? That’s the believability I am talking about. Bringing a character to life, so muc that we forget it’s a film, we forget the actor, all we see is the character. That, my friend is measured by one universal standard. That’s why I think Liz Benson is the best in this list.

  31. Nnneka

    Just as I had predicted: you guys have succeeded in turning this topic to an Omotola vs Genevieve affair. Abeg in Hollywood, do you see people comparing Anne Hathaway to Emma Stone? Or Meryl Streep to Helen Mirren?

    You guys should give me a break here. Both ladies have their pros and cons.

    Genevieve has succeeded in bringing class to her performances but on the other hand, she likes to play safe. Always playing the same stereotypical character she has become comfortable with doing.

    Omotola has done well for herself but in my honest opinion, Omotola is rather stiff when she’s acting. The expressions and delivery are always the same and I keep wondering if she’s bored with the character already.

    I am rather surprised though that no one here mentioned Rita Dominic. Granted, she hasn’t been in the movie scene for a while but that is one lady who successfully morphs into any character she’s given, leaving you shocked at the transformation and unable to tell where Rita Dominic ends and her character begins.

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