A retired director and global head for communications and events management at Afreximbank and former Bureau Chief (United States and North America) at the News Agency of Nigeria, Mr Obi Emekekwue, tells GODFREY GEORGE about surviving the civil war as a child, his family and career, among other issues
What’s your most remarkable childhood experience?
My most remarkable, or should I say traumatic, experience occurred when I nearly lost my maternal grandmother following the outbreak of the civil war. On the day we fled our town, we had woken up to the sound of explosions and flying bullets from the advancing federal forces. We realised that the federal troops were very close and could overrun the town at any time. My parents, therefore, gathered whatever they could carry and, along with everybody else, we started trekking toward the Biafran interior to get away from the approaching soldiers. My mother, carrying what she could on her head, also had my youngest brother, who was two years old, on her back. My older brother who was two years older than me, my two other younger siblings and I carried as many items as we could manage. From time to time, a shell explosion would sound close enough to get everybody jittery. When one explosion sounded particularly close, my grandmother became disoriented and panicked. She fell into a ditch that had been dug by Biafran soldiers on the side of the road and filled with water as part of the defence against the federal forces. Only quick thinking by my father and some of the other men around, who quickly jumped in and pulled her out, saved her from drowning. After they stabilised her a bit, we continued with the movement. As a seven-year-old, it was a most harrowing experience that left a very ugly impression that I continue to relive even these many years later.
Do you think your life as a child played a major role in your successes as an adult?
Without a doubt, childhood experience plays a huge part in shaping adult life. I am convinced that whatever I have been able to achieve as an adult can be directly traced to my childhood experiences. My parents made us imbibe and live by a certain set of core values, including hard work, integrity, honesty and being content with what we had. They believed that with these values, we would be assured of success in whatever we try to do. As an adult, I have found that belief to be true both in my private and official life.
What was growing up like for you?
I spent most of my early childhood in rural old eastern Nigeria. I was born in 1960 in Iho Dimeze in present-day Imo State but my hometown is Obosi, Anambra State. In the early years, we barely spent more than one year in any town because my parents, who were both teachers with the Anglican Mission, were transferred almost every year. By the time I was five, we had lived in four towns – Iho Dimeze, Osina, Ikperejere, and Akpulu. By my sixth year, they were transferred back to my hometown. It was a pretty normal childhood, apart from the constant relocation, which my siblings and I learnt to cope with by learning to make friends quickly.
Everything changed, however, when the Nigerian civil war broke out. I was just seven years old and in Primary Two in Obosi. Initially, we were far away from the fighting but very soon, it began to draw closer. With the approach and bombardment by the federal forces getting close, my family and other families were forced to flee to the Biafran interior for safety. Our journey took us to Ihiala (Anambra State) where we first went to a refugee camp before we located an extended family member married to a native of the town who helped us secure a two-room living space in one of their neighbour’s houses. We fled to Ihiala where we became refugees or displaced persons, for the remainder of the war. My father continued to teach, even though schools would only open infrequently since any group gathering risked attracting bombing and airstrikes by the federal forces. Many of our family and friends lost their lives through such bombings in schools, markets and hospitals. My mother became a petty trader. She purchased fresh cassava and we helped her grate and fry them to produce garri which she took to the market to sell. Through these efforts, we managed to stay alive and to avoid coming down with kwashiorkor until the war ended in 1970. My siblings and I ended up losing two years of education but we are grateful that we did not lose any immediate family members, though several extended family members did not survive.
Which schools did you attend?
I attended primary school in my hometown, Obosi, in Anambra State, but only got as far as Primary Five when I took and passed the Secondary School Entrance Examination. I went on to Merchants of Light School, Oba, where I obtained my West African Senior School Certificate Examination (result) in 1977. I then proceeded to Federal Government College, Enugu, for the two-year Higher School Certificate only to leave after one year when I gained admission into University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I graduated from Nsukka with a degree in Mass Communication in 1982. I subsequently attended St John’s University, New York, where I got a Master of Arts in Government and Politics, with specialisation in International Relations. I also received a postgraduate diploma in International Law and diplomacy from St John’s University. I am also an alumnus of the executive education programme of IMD Business School and several other international institutions.
You were Head, Global Communications at Afreximbank. What was the experience like?
I consider my stint as the Director and Global Head for Communications and Events Management at Afreximbank as the height of my professional career so far. I was invited to set up the department in 2012 and I went on to lead it until my retirement from the bank in 2020. My arrival coincided with a deliberate strategy by the bank to begin telling its story. Prior to that, the bank had operated largely below the radar and was only known to a few people who had business with it. That approach was adopted because, as a relatively young organisation, the bank wanted to first establish itself before making itself too public. Thus, my role was to get Africa and the world to know about Afreximbank and to take notice of the important work it was doing to promote and finance African trade. I had the privilege of working with two very supportive and committed presidents: Mr Jean-Louis Ekra, who served until 2015; and Prof Benedict Oramah, who continues to serve as the current President. We built an extensive network of media representatives scattered across Africa and beyond and co-opted them to help us tell our story by feeding them with regular updates about the activities of the bank and its support to African economies.
I also led the communications effort for the first-ever Intra-African Trade Fair which Afreximbank organised in 2018 in collaboration with the African Union and the government of Egypt. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo led the Nigerian delegation to that event, which also featured outstanding performances by several Nigerian artistes, including D’Banj and Tuface. We also implemented a well-articulated social media strategy which saw us conducting major outreach on such platforms as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube, among others, extending the reach of our communications efforts. These activities had the effect of showcasing Afreximbank and giving unprecedented visibility to the bank’s effort to promote and increase trade across Africa.
When did you know it was time for you to move from any job at the time you did?
I have always looked at my professional career from the lens of service to the community. In that sense, the jobs I had taken had always been ones where I felt I could make the greatest social contribution. Although I recognise the importance of the financial security that a job could offer, I have always been more driven in my job choices by a consideration of the opportunity they would allow me to make meaningful contributions to my community, to my country, to Africa and mankind. At the same time, I also feel that while you are on a job, you also recognise the point when you have given your best and when you can make a greater contribution in another space. In that sense, when I completed my assignment as the United Nations/North America Bureau Chief of the News Agency of Nigeria, I knew I could return to Nigeria and continue my work as a regular staff member of NAN but I also realised that I had reached a certain pinnacle in terms of the value I could bring to the agency. I had given my best in the service of the agency and I felt I could make even greater contribution to Nigeria and to mankind by transferring the set of skills and experiences I had acquired toward supporting the work of an entity like the United Nations, particularly in its work in Africa. Thus, when the opportunity came, I was happy to accept an appointment with the United Nations. In the same way, I agreed to leave the United Nations to join Afreximbank because I recognised that while the United Nations remained a critical force for good in human affairs, Afreximbank’s work could have direct and immediate impact on the quality of life of people across Africa.
I saw that by promoting African trade, Afreximbank could be the stimulus for the economic empowerment that could power Africa’s economic development trajectory. It was clear that the successful achievement of Afreximbank’s mission would lead to an unprecedented drop in poverty, reduction in unemployment and exponential economic growth across Africa. I, therefore, felt that if I could assist the achievement of Afreximbank’s mandate by helping it to tell its story and by giving visibility to the important work it was doing, I would have succeeded in changing the narrative about Africa. Nine years down the line, I can say with full confidence that I have not been disappointed. When I joined Afreximbank in 2012, only a handful of people had ever heard about the bank. Today, the bank is almost a household name across Africa and major parts of the world due to the work we did. That success is also reflected on the bank’s balance sheet. Because it is now better known, it has attracted more customers and shareholders and its business has grown. Its asset base has expanded from $3.7bn in assets in 2012 to total assets in excess of $15.5bn in 2019.
You worked as Bureau chief of NAN in the US and North America. Looking at Nigerian society, how would you grade the treatment of journalists in the country?
I have always had concerns with the way the Nigerian journalist is treated. Many people, especially newsmakers, see journalists as tools to be used to advance their agenda rather than as professionals whose job is to report the truth. They, therefore, try to manipulate, induce or coerce journalists to serve their purpose by only reporting things from their perspective. This is both a problem of society and the media industry. When media organisations use poorly paid, poorly trained and unqualified journalists, they lay them open to being influenced by the powerful people they cover and when powerful people realise they can get their way by inducing and influencing the journalists, they just go on and do it.
One of the main reasons why I joined NAN was that I felt it was, at that time, one of the places where a journalist could practice professionally. Not only did NAN make it a point to employ highly qualified journalists, it also provided regular training and gave its staff members the tools to do their job, including ensuring that salaries were paid regularly. Under those circumstances, it was rare to see any NAN journalist act unprofessionally.
The Nigerian environment in recent times is characterised by hardship, insecurity, unemployment, among other things. Where do you think we got it wrong as a country?
I believe the situation in Nigeria is emblematic of the general economic and social downturn that countries across the world are experiencing. If you look at other countries, you will find them, to some degree, in similar circumstances. The difference is mainly in terms of how they have decided to deal with the situation. The end of the Cold War and the emergence of a unipolar world, along with the subsequent globalisation, resulted in unprecedented economic growth. The problem, however, was that the growth was not shared or even. The rich got stupendously richer while the poor got progressively poorer. The result is that income disparity is at its highest, whether between the industrialised and non-industrialised countries or between people within countries. In Nigeria, we have not done enough to tackle this disparity hence it has ended up fuelling the hardship and insecurity we are experiencing. Because so many of the country’s youths are unemployed, they become easy recruits for those seeking to cause mischief. And because the parents are confronted with economic hardship due to unemployment or underemployment, they look the other way when their children engage in questionable activities in the quest for money. It doesn’t help matters that Nigeria’s economy is so dependent on one commodity and that corruption continues to plague almost every sector of the economy. I think Nigeria can turn things around when we are able to put in place leaders who understand the root of the problems and have the vision to put in place the policies and measures to address them.
Some groups are agitating for secession from the union, Nigeria. Do you think that will solve the many problems facing the country?
My belief is that Nigeria is stronger together. In today’s world, a larger economy means a larger market and translates into a stronger voice before the international community. Besides, Nigeria, because of its size and population, occupies a unique position in Africa. Many African countries look up to Nigeria to take the lead in addressing issues of common interest to the continent before the international community. A weakened Nigeria will find it hard to play that role. Having said this, however, it is important to look at the root causes of the agitations and to find solutions that address them. The agitations are due to perceived failings on the part of the government and feelings of exclusion and marginalisation through actions of omission and commission by the government. A responsive and listening government will take the time and make the effort to understand why these feelings persist and take visible actions to address them. That, in my opinion, is the way to bring everybody back on board and put the country back on track.
Most Nigerian youths feel the grass is greener on the other side. Do you share this view?
I guess it is human nature to seek out what is best for them. Globalisation and the improvements in communication have made it so much easier to stay in touch even from great distances, which has made immigration much more attractive than in the past. The truth, however, is that while it is possible to find success abroad, it is important that people should not be fooled by the images presented in Hollywood movies. Like Nollywood, most of the images are make-believe and do not always match the reality on the ground. The decision to relocate should be taken after very serious consideration of all the likely circumstances the person could encounter. A person with relevant documentation and a support structure will be able to adapt easily and find his or her footing in a foreign country but people without these can face severe hardship. Unlike in the past, most employers will only employ people with verifiable documentation. Also, the extended family and other social networks which many take for granted in Nigeria do not exist abroad. It is, essentially, every man for himself. While I will not discourage anybody considering going abroad, I will encourage them to have a clear and realistic idea of what it entails and what they can expect.