Integrity: Remembering Chukwuemeka Chikelu

26 Feb 2013

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Edifying Elucidations By Okey Ikechukwu. Email,

As we sat discussing public service matters and the question of integrity, my mind went back to Chief Chukwuemeka Chikelu and the first day I saw Mr. Emeka Mba, the Director General of National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB). He had come to collect his letter of appointment at the then Ministry of Information and National Orientation, during the tenure of Chikelu as minister. Mba did not apply for the job in the conventional sense, but was sought out because of his knowledge, exposure and understanding of the industry. As he sat, spoting a rather peculiar hairdo and looking somewhat confounded, I told him never to forget that it was the minister’s objective assessment of his profile and hands-on experience that gave him the job. He should spare himself the thought of having to ‘settle’ anyone and should not feel constrained in his approach to the job. The minister’s expectations of the critical role of NFVBC in content management and monitoring, as well as public and industry education on the value of the industry in our national development, were clear enough. But that's preaching to the converted.

Chikelu had little patience with subterfuge in the name of public service and wanted to unshackle the Nigerian movies industry from non-industry actors, particularly the government. The goal was to allow those with the relevant competences and business vision to take Nigeria where the rest of the world is. He wanted all relevant stakeholders in the sector to work together and chart a way forward and made a distinction between real stakeholders and public officials who attend events, read speeches and depart after the opening ceremony. Industry players were challenged to organise a major, rallying event, using their own ideas and templates – but funded by government. This was to set the right priorities and bring out prospects and challenges that could be honestly addressed to leverage the sector. Job creation, improving the national image and placing the Nigerian entertainment industry on a credible global pedestal were all on the cards.

To make this happen, there was a quiet meeting in Ikeja, Lagos. As I explained the vision/mission, as well as how everything should come from the industry, the scepticism was palpable. This eventually melted away and they agreed to send a proposal. Unfortunately this came in the form of a depressing two-page document, with several state governors and the Senate President as major speakers. Our original optimism and enthusiasm suffered shipwreck, as we woke up to the fact that there was actually a value crisis within the sector – among other crises!

Much to his distaste and personal pain, the minister adopted other methods to bring about the first ever Nigerian Film Industry Stakeholders Consultative Forum (MOVISTAC), which lasted for three days. ‘Government people’ had no overriding roles in all the five different sub areas and the major speakers and managers of the syndicate sessions were experienced men and women in the field. But the processes leading up to the event were extremely tedious and even distressing. So many trips to Lagos to settle factional quarrels! Dealing with and neutralising those who wanted to keep the Arewa and other film sectors in the country out of MOVISTAC! The attempt to get the minister to sign a mysteriously created file with huge figures for the event, just because I was at the 2004 New York Film Festival with some of Nollywood notables like Ramsey Noah, Omotola, Zack, Stephanie, Genevieve, Aki and Paw-Paw, etc! Then the mischief making of the very industry actors themselves!

When it looked like all was well, there was a meeting with all northern filmmakers at the then fledgling Newage studious graciously made available for the purpose by Ibrahim Buba. It turned out to be an inquisition about the actual motives of the minister. After three hours of calm grilling of the oldest men in the group clearly in his 70s, he said: “Looking at you and hearing what you say your minister intends to achieve, it is difficult for me to imagine how some of us were made to believe the false story that the minister is against us. We have heard you and now we understand the minister. We northern filmmakers will come as one block.” They did. They were also the most organised and least distracted, under very clear-headed leadership, at MOVISTAC.

Then there was this visit to the den of some film pirates in Makoko, Lagos, around 11.30pm; just for first-hand confirmation on some of the industry challenges. The minister was simply not amused, when he heard what I saw and where I was calling from. “Okey, look at you wrist watch again and listen carefully, please. This is Emeka Chikelu as well as the minister and I am telling you to leave that place immediately. In fact, I am directing you not to report anything to me from your present location, because you are not on any official duty where you are. Go back to your hotel room and call me from there.” I did. Details in another bulletin!

Sadiq Balewa, Jab Adu, Albert Egbe and others were also industry assets that Chikelu wanted us to drag in for greater value. When consultations narrowed the choice to Adu and Balewa on two different occasions it turned out that Sadiq, son of Nigeria’s former prime minister, had no interest in heading any agency of government. He was resolutely adamant in his refusal and it was with some sadness that I reported my encounters to the minister. My arguments about how using the gains of MOVISTAC to bridge the North\South industry divide did not move Sadiq from his love of a quiet professional life. It was the same with Adu, the springy and ever-light-and-lively-fellow! He listened through and came up with: “Ah, no, no, no! Listen my dear Dr. Okechukwu, I don't have the time or energy for industry politics or the distractions of government people. There are other ways of adding value for me, but let us just rule out this one biko”. The current MD of Nigeria Film Corporation and the Voice of Nigeria got their jobs after a competitive advertisement and screening process under Chikelu; and this was to become the pattern and template for all such vacancies.

“Listen, my brother,” Chikelu had once said while trying to explain the fundament of his focus in service, “excellence is legal tender everywhere in the world. The only currency that guarantees development, global competitiveness and eternal relevance is excellence. The Americans, Canadians, British, etc. will pay anything to take anybody from here that has some skill, or special knowledge, because of their commitment to excellence. But the person who has nothing to offer will be looking for US visa for years on end. So, let us forget about those who kid themselves thinking that going to work every day and going home is the same thing as serving Nigerians, or earning a legitimate pay packet.”

Chikelu had been minister for several months before we met. He was concerned to give information to Nigerians, in addition to making government believable. A one-stop, comprehensive Information Centre, like the American United States Information Service (USIS), or the British Council, in addition to functional Federal Information Centres all over the country were his ideals. Files never slept with him and his attention to the use of government funds and other resources was legendary. He was one of the extremely few ministers who did not abuse the implementation of the monetisation policy by sharing the available cars between himself his aids and the senior civil servants. He gave the cars to the drivers who were being disengaged and used the nominal role to share the rest. Many junior staff in the Lagos office discovered, to their shock, that they ‘won’ in a ballot that took place in faraway Abuja.

Chikelu’s aides had no official cars and official accommodation paid for by government. They were also not at liberty to incur bills that would be transferred to the state. He had said at the very beginning: “We both know that the single most important condition under which we can do this job successfully, Okey, is to handle everything like our private business; in terms of resource allocation and management. You and I can walk into a car shop and buy a car and we are not the most hungry of Nigerians. Our duty is to those without access and without voice, because we are serving God through them.”

Chikelu remains the one living example of someone I met in public service who has absolutely unimpeachable and exemplary integrity: in his character, in what he knows and lives, in his understanding of good manners and etiquette and in his general conduct. It was easy for me to say so at a gathering last week, where the dominant view was that all who have held office in Nigeria suffer major personal integrity deficits.

It was a meal prepared by Mrs. Kanayo Metuh that provided a platform for my first meeting with Chikelu. Chief Olisah Metuh’s persistent “Okey, this your idea that only politicians with some sense of mission should be taken seriously makes Emeka the one person you ought to know. In fact, if you don’t have something to do with this guy then I know you are not interested in moving this nation forward”. My reply was instant: “Who knows in what direction you and your friend are moving the nation and the two of you are looking for whom to get into trouble!”

They were eating in Metuh’s house and joined, protesting that they did not bother to invite me. The host assured me that it was no oversight and Chikelu announced that these were hard times. He also said that inviting me seemed unwise, as my height and size created some genuine worries about what would be left if I decide to do justice to the meal. My joining them had put them in a quandary, they said, and Metuh assured me that it was not too late for me to withdraw. It was a hilarious evening indeed.

Things calmed down and I said to Olisah: “Because you are in the national leadership of the PDP and your friend is a minister, the two of you have lured me here, and you are trying to provoke me into doing something rash, so that ministerial might and party connection can join and finish me off”. Even Metuh’s wife had to call for cessation of verbal hostilities.

“I love excellence,” Chikelu would often say. The rest, as they say, is history. I blame it all on Kanayo’s plate of food of course!

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