Some portraits of the Christ and Mary stare one in the face at the threshold of her home; while a step inside her apartment leaves one in the embrace of Che Guevara painting, which hangs on a mantel. A waft of songs in peculiar percussions of Afrobeat beat hits the ear; one can easily hear Fela Anikulapo’s furious but mellifluous voice in the background. With various paintings and artistic designs, the house comes alive like a gallery; from stills to silhouettes to landscapes, she says she paints them all over the last three decades and five years. A worn-out but strong easel, paint brushes and other art materials with her name engraved on them bear eloquent testimony that she has been there done that. Her collection of books, proudly displayed on magazine racks placed at various points in the apartment spans the genres of art history to biographies and motivational books. Besides the books and paintings, delicately sits a bag – her boxing bag – at her reception. She boxes to ease off stress. Meet the Director-General of Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation, Sally Uwechue-Mbanefo. Of mixed parentage, Mbanefo is of Nigerian, Swiss and Italian descent. An ardent believer in Nigeria and an apostle of domestic tourism, she speaks with Omolola Itayemi about her dream for tourism in Nigeria, the challenges, the potentials and the achievements of NTDC. She also talks about her beauty, her family and how she left her glamorous banking job to get into Nigeria’s bureaucratic civil service
• I Don’t Wear My Beauty on My Sleeve
• I Love to Dance – I Cannot Resist a Rhythm
• As a Style I Prefer Comfort to Vanity
• I Am a Woman Who Wants to be Taken Seriously…
• I Have Been Described as a Stingy Person by Blackmailers
What was growing up like?
I grew up amidst a lot of love. I am from the Uwechue family in Delta State. My father, Owelle George Uwechue, popularly hailed ‘Owelle the Law’ by chief Arthur Mbanefo, is a past chairman of the body of benchers, member of the House of Representatives, a one-time speaker tempore and is the current head of the Uwechue family. His immediate elder brother was Ambassador Ralph Uwechue, a former Ohaneze President General of the Igbos. Growing up, all I remember to date is that none of my uncles or aunties ever fights. Every sibling is very caring towards the other; they all grew up in Kano, Sokoto and Kaduna States, so they are very cosmopolitan in their outlook. You can imagine the Mbanefo family came twice into the Uwechue family to marry our women because of our pedigree.
What makes you happy?
Adding value to the lives of the less privileged, coaching and mentoring youths; this also includes being intellectually engaged and being appreciated. Because sometimes the fact that I give all I earn to the needy for over six years of my life now, people can take advantage of my generous nature or assume I have much more than I do.
The most cherished gift you have ever received?
The most cherished gift I have ever received is my three children from God. I hardly receive material gifts because I am more of a giver. I gain pleasure in giving and making others happy. No material gift can compare to the gift of the three beautiful, healthy, loving children who are more like friends to me.
The best book you have read and what inspired you?
The best book I have ever read is, ‘The Road Less Travelled’ by M. Scott Peck. It echoes my life philosophy, which imbibes values like discipline, delayed gratification and love for others in my daily life. Discipline has ruled my whole life; if you look at my CV, if you don’t have discipline, you can’t survive the types of jobs I have done. I’ve chosen, for example, not to wear expensive jewellery, except earrings, therefore, if I wear a rope around my neck, I will carry it more elegantly than a lady wearing chopard worth thousands of dollars or a 100-karat gold necklace. Psalm 24 verse 4 captures this very aptly in saying ‘Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? The man with clean hands and a pure heart, who does not desire worthless things’. It’s very important that when one is in abundant resources, one does not spend foolishly forgetting that there are others who have nothing. When God blesses you, it is for a purpose. It is not the jewellery and diamond we wear that make us what we are but our actions and how we treat our fellow human beings.
What was your immediate reaction when you got the job at NTDC?
It was that of shock, refusal of portfolio because I was competing to be the MD of a national bank, being a banker of over 20 years. But my desire to serve my country was more deep-rooted than the desire (to head a bank).
How has being an artist influenced you?
I am first an artist before anything else and it has helped me in my current job because art is part of our culture and it drives tourism. Everything in life is an art. Even jobs in the past took advantage of my artistic mind; I was always made to manage communications and public relations of huge corporations. In Lafarge Cement Wapco Nigeria for example, communication and corporate affairs was one of the departments I supervised. In International Merchant Bank (IMB) plc, corporate communication was under my supervision as well as human resources because I always want my staff to be motivated and happy so they can work with their hearts. As artists, we tend not to judge others. We have an open mind and really no one is weird to us. Things that offend others usually amuse us and our anger never lasts long. It’s an amazing gift to be an artist; there is no limit to the horizon of your imagination.
What is your style?
My style is artistic but subtle and simple; complex things do not suit me since I am a complex human model as designed by God. My comfort always overrides vanity. You don’t have to wear all your money on your face, if one looks closely at psalm 49 from verse 10 we are warned that when we die we do not take our wealth with us, and no matter how rich one is, one shall die just like the animals do. So I ask, what is the point of amassing wealth if you cannot spread it to the needy? How many houses will you live in? How many cars can you drive? And how many gold wristwatches can you wear and whom are you trying to impress – God or Man? Check out Psalm 146.
As an artist do you love dancing?
Yes, I love to dance. It is the African side of me. Africans are full of rhythm and I am full of energy in spite of my age. The truth is that I live a very disciplined and cerebral life forgetting that I am an artist as well. Once in a while, I can’t resist a rhythm so I allow myself to flow with the beat. Besides, I never bear grudges; I celebrate life whenever I can. We have so much to dance about in our lives – health, peace, unity, our homogenous and cultural diversity, being black, beautiful, brainy and bold.
What is your dream for tourism?
My dream for Nigeria’s tourism is for youth involvement in tourism. Calabar in Cross River State is already engaging its youths from the six months before their carnival preparations and this has reduced crime for the period they are engaged in the preparation. I would like a tourism sector that will create jobs and empower local communities, make Nigeria a thriving domestic tourism haven. With the right funding and support from private sector in place, Nigeria will become the most preferred destination of choice. Tourism in Nigeria will be very competitive as with other countries of the world. Nigeria cannot continue to remain a mono hydrocarbon economy. In two years, I would like us to have at least one decent tourism site per geo-political zone and two to three in five years in each zone. I would like to encourage developmental journalism by the Nigerian press; and encourage the ministry of Education to include tourism in primary and secondary schools curriculum.
What do you want to be known for?
I would like to be known for making tourism self-funded, with no need for government allocation; be known for moving Nigerians away from dependence on oil revenue to tourism revenue; be known for domestic tourism awareness. I also want to be known for bridging the gap between the public and private sector tourism collaboration through public-private partnership. Our unrelenting efforts in collaborating with private organisations yielded dividends with the unprecedented number of not less than 20 national and international private organisations such as Arik Air, ABC Transport plc, Keystone Bank, Eko Hotels, VISA, Jovago, Viko group of companies, foreign embassies, states and other ministries just to mention a few. Arik has been an incredible partner, always a friendly ear to our needs.
In 2014, the international fairs we were able to hold at a time NTDC had no money; it was through Arik, measuring exhibition space with number of tickets we could get, Eko Hotels paying for the cost of exhibition stand, tour operators who paid to sell their products, Keystone Bank launched their tourism product, supported our brochure with adverts; Cross River, Lagos and Ogun States showcased Nigeria to the world. That is how it should be not NTDC on a one-man ego trip, but a PPP best practice. NTDC’s partnership with Viko, for example, opened five tourism information desks and flight portals at airports in Abuja, Lagos, Kano, Calabar and Enugu with no penny coming from NTDC. This is just one example of the corporation’s effort towards promoting domestic tourism. We disseminate tourism information; assist in gathering and collating data of tourists entering Nigerian airports. Our partnership with Jovago is for hotels booking on NTDC’s website for revenue generation. We are still calling on the private sector to invest in our tourism industry because the government alone cannot do it. Tourism is a private sector activity and therefore must be driven by the private sector.
Corporate organisations in Nigeria should be made to contribute a percentage of their revenue for tourism development and this should help fund upgrade of tourism sites, access to low interest capital to SMEs in expanding their operations, and upgrade quality of lodges attached.
What is your favourite holiday spot?
A boat ride to Lagos’ Takwa bay beach or Whispering Palms for a weekend coupled with a day spent at the Badagry slave town.
What lured you into leaving the glamorous banking sector for a bureaucratic government establishment?
What lured me into government were a strong desire to be patriotic and the zeal to serve. Serving means commitment and doing the job wholeheartedly no matter the physical discomfort. I have been described as being stingy, ‘superglue’, you name it by blackmailers, and they even question me: ‘Is it your money? Is it not government money? Why don’t you want to release it to us? If you don’t we will tarnish your image in the media’. Everyone that has been called to serve should go into government with the mindset to offer selfless service. That is the key to success in the public sector. For example, I arrived in an E-Class car from my job as a bank executive director but now I am in ‘keke-like’ contraption. But it has taken nothing away from me.
Is this the right time for tourism?
Yes, this is the right time! Nigeria has taken a bold step in taking agriculture to a higher level, and now is the time for tourism. Tourism has a value chain that touches every sector of the economy. For example, to explore any part of Nigeria for domestic tourism; if you leave your house and enter a car, bus or plane and you go to fuel your car – that’s oil and gas benefiting from tourism; when you enter a hotel or buka to order food, that’s agriculture benefiting from tourism.
How seamless is it to issue visas to tourists?
It is a nightmare! We need to train visa officers in Nigerian embassies. We must address this in collaboration with relevant ministries. This is the value change I am referring to. We can’t sell Nigeria without the embassies helping us. The second point of call is the airport; immigration officers need to be tourism-friendly, warm and receptive to tourists.
What is your main focus?
Our main focus is firstly to ensure we diversify the Nigerian economy and move it away from total dependence on oil revenue to tourism generated revenue. Our next focus is to promote domestic tourism and that is why we are calling on state governments to provide infrastructure and access to the tourism sites. Obudu Mountain Resort for example, how do you get there? It’s tedious, so we must ensure state governments work in collaboration with the Federal Government to provide infrastructure and better access to these tourism sites. We have Mambilla Plateau, in Taraba; Osun Osogbo Festival in Osun; Durbars in Kano; and even bigger is the Durbar in Katsina, carnivals in Calabar; restaurants, musical concerts and Nollywood in Lagos. Some state governments are doing amazing things in each of their local governments to promote their rich cultural heritage through tourism. Our job is to support them, collaborate with them in creating awareness in attracting domestic and international tourists to these attractive destinations and thereby boost the economy by creating jobs and generating revenue. Our third focus is on Public-Private Partnership.
Which states in the country has been forthcoming in promoting tourism in Nigeria?
Lagos is on top of the list. It is the tourism capital of Nigeria. Lagos State has tourism best practice and blueprints which other states must emulate. If you want waterfalls and caves go to Nasarawa, Niger, Enugu and Anambra; if you are looking for slave history go to Lagos, Abia and Calabar. Osun is also stepping up its game recently, declaring Osun a tourism zone. Kano is amazing with Mingibre having a tourism site there.
What else does the government need to do to help tourism operators?
Power; power is key to cheaper hotel rates. Cost of operations makes Nigerian hotels the most expensive in Africa. Once power is fully privatised the game will change; boutique hotels and SMEs in the tourism value chain have become frustrated out of business.
How do you hope to generate money to augment NTDC budgetary allocation?
We are preparing and packaging what we call Tourism Departure Tax (TDT) that would be paid by everyone travelling out of the country through our major airports. Over the years, it’s been obvious that more and more Nigerians still preferred foreign destinations for holiday among the elites because our local attractions are still significantly not developed. The proposed tax when collected, will be shared among the three tiers of government and will no doubt help in providing infrastructure, facilities, training and proper funding for marketing and promotion within as well as abroad. This departure levy is the only possible way out to solving funding issues facing the tourism sector in Nigeria. Other options like semi-privatisation of NTDC can work to reduce dependence on government allocation.
Issues of statistics are also a problem, how do you handle this?
It’s a sad situation because it has been an issue for a long while now. At least, statistics is needed for planning and measuring performance. Apart from calculating the sector’s contribution to Gross Domestic Product, it will also be near impossible if data are not properly collated. From an interview that was published in one of the national dailies recently, I also discovered from that report that the right measures for calculating tourism contributions were not duly followed. NBS’ inability to use modern and internationally prescribed standards for measuring Nigeria’s travel and tourism contribution to GDP which has failed the sector over the years for limiting its tracking to mere accommodation and food services/arts, entertainment and recreation.
How do you connect with the agency concerned to correct the observations?
Here at NTDC, we still regularly use the physical indicator associated to the flow of visitors (number of tourism displacements –trips by overnight and same day visitors and their characteristics, as well as overnights) but it is no less true that countries now need additional information and indicators to improve the measurement of the economic contribution of tourism. My staff go to all the borders regularly to carry out surveys, which some people have also argued is no longer accurate. We need an electronic solution to data collation in tourism. In the case of inbound and outbound tourism, the measurement and characterisation of flows of visitors is usually based on that of non-residents entering the country for a duration of less than a year, and is performed at the borders, either using entry/departure cards, or using surveys at the borders usually at the moment the non-residents leave the country, although a few countries, combine in an integrated manner both instruments (administrative controls and surveys). Some countries, mainly from Europe and ECOWAS where controls at the borders have disappeared, also make measurements in the place of accommodations (either as a complement to border surveys or as an alternative to them). In the case of domestic tourism, as there are no borders to cross under administrative control, the observation of the flows of domestic tourism requires surveys and not just administrative procedures.
UNWTO considers household surveys to be the most efficient and suitable instrument for measuring domestic tourism activity. Usually they use a stratified sample using demographic (size of habitat) and socio-economic criteria. Daily average expenditure by visitors has to be estimated mainly using specific questions within a survey applied to visitors. Alternative estimation method is a different type of administrative data (such as bank reporting systems, transportation expenditures provided by companies or transportation regulatory authorities, among others).
What is the way forward?
The way forward is to continue to manage the way we have been doing it since I came on board. We have been able to give NTDC a facelift to look tourism friendly with private sector support, just same way we had no money, but we got four buses from private sector. Since 2013 too, we had no money to pay for most trips, but we managed to travel to the six geopolitical zones in collaboration with Arik Air. We had no money but we were all to exhibit NIGERIA at international tourism exhibitions in Europe and Africa through collaboration with the likes of Eko Hotels, Keystone Bank and Arik Air and Transcorp Hilton. In 2013, we trained over 250 staff which was made possible with support from Centre for Ethics and Values funding training for all my staff at no cost to NTDC and friendly banks like Jaiz bank have supported our training in 2015. The expatriate communities have been amazing in supporting our domestic tourism initiatives. In view of this, I will also like to thank ambassadors of Cuba, Israel Venezuela, Ukraine, The Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire, United Kingdom, Jamaica and Brazil.
What is beauty to you?
I don’t wear my beauty on my sleeve because I believe a woman who wants to be taken seriously cannot afford to expose herself (body). If God has created you to be attractive, it’s not your fault. Unlike my peers, I have no regard for jewellery and will rather place high premium on my children and paintings which are my valued assets. Jewellery is not important to me, I like a home; rather than buy diamonds, I’ll buy a home. I like good food and a cosy home. My favourite food is amala, okra and stew.
Would you describe yourself as very spiritual?
Yes; l am not ashamed of my Catholic faith and anyone who knows me can vouch for me. I am very close to my creator and he has been my refuge. My phones go off at specific hours during the day for prayers which is a ritual. I can never miss Sunday morning mass no matter what part of the world I am in. I have been known to travel through hazardous roads at night to make Sunday morning mass. That’s me; my creator is everything to me.