Veteran Nollywood actress Rachael Oniga, a legendary presence in the Nigerian movie industry, died Friday, according to reports. She was 64 years old.
It was not immediately clear how Oniga died. Reports on social media varied, with the cause of Oniga’s death in some cases being attributed to complications from COVID-19. However, Oniga’s family reportedly has pushed back against that assertion and claims it is false.
The Nigerian Tribune reported that Oniga’s son confirmed his mother tested positive for malaria, not COVID-19, and was also being treated for typhoid.
Neither claim could be immediately verified.
Regardless, it seemed as if all of Nigeria and by extension fans of Nollywood — Nigeria’s answer to Hollywood in California — were mourning Oniga’s death Saturday morning.
Condolences poured in on social media to commemorate the life of a legendary Nigerian actress who, by IMDB’s account, had more than 110 acting credits to her name over the course of more than two decades.
Born Racheal Tabuno Oniga on May 23, 1957, in Nigeria’s Eku in Delta State, the actress known for playing maternal roles, first appeared on video in 1996’s “Another Love, or “Onomo,” a straight-to-DVD movie about “an orphan from a shantytown on the edge of Lagos who has to provide for her brothers and herself with great difficulty,” according to an online description.
Oniga went on to achieve great success in Nollywood, including in the 2013 movie, “Bello,” which also starred mainstream Hollywood performers like Isaiah Washington and Vivica A. Fox.
In her personal life, Oniga previously publicly announced her split from her husband, who she said she left because of his infidelity. But in the years since they split, and especially after his untimely death, she lamented her decision to leave him.
Oniga said in 2014 that her first priorities were her family, including her three children, as well as her career.
“During our years of courtship and marriage, I never thought we could just break up like that or anything could ever come between us. Back then he told me everything. I could tell you where he was at every moment; I trusted him so much,” Oniga told the Sun.
She said her self-confidence was her primary motivating factor in moving on with her life as a single mother.
“I believe so much in myself, and when I got over the shock of the separation and all that, I made up my mind that I was going to make a statement without a man,” Oniga said at the time. “I wanted to prove that a hardworking woman could make an impact and with God’s grace.”
Oniga added later: “I killed my emotions and I said to myself ‘Rachael, your kids must go to the best schools.’ It was just work and my children.”
However, three years later Oniga expressed some remorse at ending her marriage.
“I do not regret leaving him because I sacrificed my life for my children, which makes me fulfilled and happy,” Oniga said in 2017. “But I miss the whole union thing, friendship and sharing things together. I have missed it all.”
Nollywood, the world’s second-largest movie industry, only behind America’s Hollywood, generates more than $7 billion annually, thanks to talents like Oniga. Nollywood first soared to popularity in the 1990s, with its main critics pointing out the low quality of the productions that were proliferated exponentially, at one point churning out dozens of movies on a weekly basis.
However, then-Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in 2013 enacted Project ACT Nollywood, which “rejuvenated the industry, attracting young professionals in droves,” according to The Conversation.