Image illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for OkayAfrica.
Ranking Nollywood Actors Who Play Villains the Best
Nollywood villains are as old as the industry, with on-screen acts that are fantastically wicked or terrifying. From domineering witches to ruthless gang leaders, these movie icons have cemented their status in villany.
From its inception with Kenneth Nnebue’s 1992 classic thriller, Living In Bondage, Nollywood has maintained a strenuous relationship with its on-screen villains and anti-heroes.
The love, hate bond that links the Nigerian movie industrial complex, these characters, and their audience has only deepened in the three decades since Living In Bondage made a big splash on TV screens across the nation.
In one breath, these characters are vilified for their habitual wickedness, amoral pursuit of fame, and material success that spares no cost and takes no prisoners. On the other hand, the familiar comfort of tuning in and watching stars like Patience Ozokwor and Chiwetalu Agu replicate their typecasts across different productions often undercut the seriousness of their on-screen machinations and became a fixture of many childhoods.
With a new era of movies stepping away from the sort of stories and plotlines that made these characters famous, the thirst for the Nollywood of yore and its characters has been on the rise.
Recently, old acting clips of legendary actor Kanayo O. Kanayo has flooded TikTok, reminding a new generation of his prowess as one of the country’s most instantly recognisable on-screen villains.
Recognizing their contribution to Nigerian movies’ visual identity and culture, we rank some of Nollywood’s most iconic villains.
While typical Nollywood villains were either obsessively maniacal in their search for material success and status or legendary for their wickedness and penchant for seeking out the diabolical, Jim Iyke was cut from a different cloth entirely.
More a spiritual scion of Hanks Anuku’s IJGB shtick – a Nollywood caricature of rich, unruly upper-class children who typically returned from foreign countries to Nigeria – than a disciple of Kanayo O. Kanayo’s material success rabbit hole. Iyke’s villainy presented itself in how he carried himself: the haughty arrogance, the drawn-out expressions he employed to express displeasure, and his long thought-out process for exacting vengeance and humiliating rivals.
In Arrested By Love, Iyke plays the role of Emeka, a chain-smoking, promiscuous trust fund kid whose actions, appearance, and disposition are a constant source of disappointment to his father played by Pete Edochie who invests a lot of money and time to make his son an upstanding member of society.
It is in these sorts of roles that Iyke truly came to life as he flexed his American intonation and array of slang to harangue potential love interests and rivals alike.
In Holy Cross, Iyke does more of the same, acting as a university campus bad boy who typically bullies his rivals and aggressively pursues love interests as well as leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake.
Perhaps Nollywood’s most iconic anti-hero, Segun Arinze is firmly ensconced in the top-tier of acting talents that Nigeria has produced. The gravitas of Arinze’s performances mixed with the subtle sensitivity that he imbued his characters with meant that they lived long in the memory of viewers.
However, he could also lean into villainy when required, dipping into his bag of tricks to pull believable imitations of hardened armed robbers or narcotics barons. Arinze’s most iconic role is Black Arrow in Chico Ejiro’s 1996 successful action thriller, Silent Night. In Silent Night, Arinze as Black Arrow was the leader of a feared armed robbery gang that terrorised the Lagos community, Ajegunle, and its neighbouring communities.
As the hulking, intimidating leader of this ruthless gang, Black Arrow orchestrated robberies, murdered his victims, and bullied lecturers at will. His reign of terror ultimately ends when his gang unwittingly murders the child of a high court judge although Black Arrow escapes execution at the end of the movie.
Segun Arinze also delivered similarly potent showings as an unescapable villain capable of inciting violence and terror in films like 2005’s Darkest Night as well as 2014’s To Rise Again and A Place In The Stars.
There simply cannot be a roll call of Nollywood’s greatest villains without Prince Emeka Ani. The actor who got into filming under fortuitous circumstances has worked with a roll call of Nigerian movie greats but still managed to outstrip them at his peak when it came to his ability to inspire fear and dread in the heart of young children hooked on Nollywood productions from the late 2000s to early 2010s.
Ani was extremely popular for taking on the role of fearsome warlocks or dibias who could conjure potent spells to affect the lives of their opponents and it’s a niche that he owned at this prime due to his frightening facial expressions and gestures. In many movies like 2000’s Issakaba, 2005’s Desperate Billionaire, and 2007’s The Signs Of End Times, Ani masterfully dropped theatrical interpretations of evil that were both powerful and scary in equal measures.
In 2007’s 666 (Beware The End Is At Hand), Ani plays the role of the fallen angel Lucifer, ruthlessly orchestrating the incursion of forces of the underworld into the world of unsuspecting humans and unleashing chaos on people who display acts of greed, covetousness, and wickedness.
Often referred to as one of the founding fathers of Nollywood, Alex Usifo has enjoyed a career that has spanned four decades on stage, TV, and film. He first gained widespread recognition for his portrayal of the villain Talaab Abass in Zeb Ejiro’s 1988 classic soap opera, Ripples.
He soon made the transition to movies where his physical features, deep baritone voice, and knack for translating fear on-screen made him a shoo-in for more villainous roles.
While Usifo has played a variety of roles like concerned father, priest, king, and husband across a number of movies, there is always the foreboding fear that he’s just being calculative to an end due to a notoriety for playing occultic roles. Some of his strongest performances can be glimpsed on 1999’s classic End Of The Wicked, 2005’s Azima, and 2006’s The Guilty.
Usifo performed as Beelzebub, leader of a coven of witches and wizards in End Of The Wicked, regularly directing his underlings to recruit more members into their cult and seek out more additions to the group’s blood bank to sustain their life source.
To achieve their nefarious goals, children were targeted by demonic forces in the dead of the night to Beelzebub’s glee and delight while he regularly urged members of his coven to drink blood to renew their powers.
In addition to the English language films churned out prolifically by Nollywood in the early 90s to mid-2010s, a subsection of the industry primarily released its movies in the Yoruba language with storylines that revolved around epic dramas, cautionary tales, and modern satires.
With her unmissable scowl, scary facial expressions, and steely voice, Margaret Olayinka, popularly known as Iya Gbonkan, rose to fame as one of Yoruba Nollywood’s foremost witch and occult characters, thanks to her unparalleled propensity for evil and mischief.
A scene of Iya Gbonkan in any movie was a sure sign that someone’s life was going to be messed up through one metaphysical method or the other. She made her name with a leading performance in Yekini Ajileye’s 1999 masterpiece, Koto Orun.
For her role in 2018’s Iya Aje, Olayinka is a wicked, unrelenting witch locked in a serious confrontation with rivals in her coven who seek to take over her position as the leader. Stepping away from the pure bombast and ruthlessness of her performances in Koto Orun and Eran Iya Osogbo, Olayinka’s role as Eye Nla in Iya Aje is a soulful, sobering look at the life of the powerful witch as she winds her years down in the wake of treachery and group infighting.
Pete Edochie is undoubtedly one of the most talented and respected actors in the history of Nigerian film. From coming to fame for his brilliant depiction of Okonkwo, the lead character in the 1987 TV adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to maintaining a career at the top of Nollywood for the last four decades, he continues to be a fixture in Nigerian movie history.
However, the collapse of cinema culture in Nigeria in the late '80s and the direct-to-video pipeline that built modern Nollywood meant that Edochie played the roles of villain figures for a fair bit from the '90s to the late '00s. He was most famous for being at the helm of the wealth-seeking occultic groups during this time period as he directed their activities and embodied the ruthlessness that such groups were known for.
In keeping with his excellent acting skills, it was easy pickings for the star whose intense facial expressions, a huge repertoire of local idioms, and didactic style meant that he was often cast as the leader of occultic groups or involved in some type of ritualistic practice. Some of his most popular acting as a villain can be assessed in films like 1997’s Rituals as well as 2003’s The Omega and Billionaire’s Club.
Like many of the patriarchal roles that Edochie has played across his career, he acts as Damian Billion in Billionaire’s Club, acting as the leader of an occultic, shadowy group that engages in ritualistic practices for financial gain. D.B. as he’s referred to by members of the group is a sleek, confident operator who ensures that members of the brotherhood live by the standards expected.
When he meets Zedekiah, the character played by Tony Umez, he urges him to sacrifice his only child for a chance at material prosperity, setting the stage for a world of problems in Zedekiah’s personal life.
When it comes to playing villains in Nigerian action movies, Hanks Anuku is as serious and sinister as it gets. The Ibadan-born actor is the OG Nigerian IJGB bad boy and was able to translate the role across movies like 2002’s Formidable Force, 2005’s Django, 2006’s The Captor and Desperate Ambition.
Like many Nollywood villains, Anuku was typecast for the majority of his career, playing different variations of the tough-as-nail, gun-toting armed robber or gangster whose pronounced American mannerisms and ruthlessness made him a natural leader amongst his peers.
Playing the titular character in Django, he stars as a fearsome armed robber and assassin who comes in contact with a couple moving to a new city to make a new pathway in life for themselves. Django soon ropes the couple into his operation and they make a rag-tag team as they go on a murderous rampage through Port Harcourt.
Across his numerous villainous roles, something that could not be taken from Anuku was his tremendous gift for making pure terror a liveable, almost touchable experience on TV screens as he robbed banks, kidnapped rich personalities, or ordered executions in his distinctive gravelly voice.
3.Kanayo O. Kanayo
Kanayo O. Kanayo was there at the birth of Nollywood. He made his movie debut playing the iconic role of Chief Omego, an occultic spare parts dealer who sacrificed his mother for wealth in Living In Bondage. The unprecedented success of the 1992 production set Kanayo, born Anayo Modestus Onyekwere, up for a lengthy run playing a character who dabbled into occultic and ritualistic practices for the purpose of enriching themselves even if it meant sacrificing members of their own family.
For most of the '90s and '00s, Kanayo was the go-to man for embodying the casual callousness and zest for greed that many associated with ritual practices. His thrilling performances in films like 1997’s Blood Money: The Vulture Men, 2003’s Billionaire’s Club, 2005’s Occultic Battle, 2008’s Nothing For Nothing, and 2009’s Executive Billionaires earned him the sobriquet, Nnayi Sacrifice, a playful riff on his typecast.
While Kanayo is popular for acting roles that dabble into the occultic, one of his most memorable villainous roles came in 2004’s The Master where he acted as a fraudster who outwitted an unsuspecting Dennis (played by Nkem Owoh) before gradually introducing him to the popular advance fee fraud scams of the early '00s that ultimately consume Owoh’s character.In recent times, TikToks of Kanayo’s acting have re-emerged, helping to bring the work of Nigerian movies’ foremost on-screen ritualist to a new generation.
There cannot be a comprehensive list of Nollywood villains without the inclusion of Patience Ozokwor, popularly known as Mama G. Originally an announcer and broadcaster with Radio Nigeria, she made her transition into the movie world with 1999’s Authority. Following a strong performance in that movie, Ozokwor quickly became a star draw for Nigerian movie productions.
She also starred in films like 2010’s Odum and Amina. However, it is with her commanding performances in subsequent movies like 2002’s Submission, 2006’s Upside Down, and 2007’s Unfinished Business that she started to establish her profile as Nollywood’s greatest female villain, thanks to her unmatched brand of wickedness, scheming, and callousness as a mother-in-law, wife, and even mother.
For a large part of her acting in the early-to-mid '00s, Ozokwor was gleefully plotting the collapse of marriages or poisoning someone on screen with her signature smirk to go with it but it is her performances as a villainous mother-in-law that made Ozokwor a modern legend. Submission is perhaps her finest role as she plays the role of Nebechi, a mother who terrorises her daughter, Azuka, and son, Jonathan, as Azuka prepares to get married to her love interest, Patrick.
Nebechi’s constant nagging and materialistic requests grate her family. Nebechi also sleeps with another of her daughter Nneka’s, husband, Alex, successfully torpedoing their marriage. It is an endless cycle of conflict that goes on and on.
If a Nigerian actor ever embodied the word machiavellian to a tee, it would be the highly-revered Chiwetalu Agu. The Enugu-born actor was often cast as an uncle or brother who could be relied upon to bring chaos and calamity into the lives of his family members for selfish interests through diabolical means.
Agu was also known for playing vindictive characters that were a thorn in the flesh of the widows of his siblings and their children, often rendering them homeless and destitute.
What truly elevated Agu as a Nollywood villain was the sense of comedy and drama he brought to his interpretation of roles in movies like 2006’s Pastor’s Blood as well as 2008 Price Of The Wicked and The Priest Must Die. He’s also revered for his use of Igbo slang, cliches, and sayings like ‘Tufiakwa’ and ‘Ekwensu E Romancee Mami Water’ for dramatic effect.
In Price Of The Wicked, Agu stars as Uncle Omeka, a village figure who feels slighted when his nephew, Obinna, refuses a proposition to take his child, Sochi, to Lagos to be trained in a trade. What follows is typical Agu fare, as he plots mischief while clashing with Obinna over his modern marital and life choices.
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