She understands Nigeria’s media landscape like the back of hand. Her warmth, camaraderie and composure smack of professionalism. Loyal and dedicated to her duties, she works with passion and delight. Having worked for the United States Embassy in Nigeria for 25 years, Mrs. Joke Omotunde, a former journalist with Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State, as Information Specialist (Broadcast Media of the Public Affairs Section, US Consulate General, Lagos), retire recently. Omotunde tells Peace Obi about her time with the US government, what it feels like to work with Americans, the difference she experienced working with a Nigerian government establishment and a personal encounter with ex-President Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (IBB)
How has it been working with the United States Embassy in Nigeria?
It’s been great. There is no other word to describe it than that. It has been good. It has been 25 years of fulfilled, rewarding years on earth.
What are the challenges you faced over the years in terms of discrimination?
When it comes to that, there is nothing like discrimination, we worked like equals. Challenges of being a black woman working in an African-American environment – that is the way to describe it. There is nothing like discrimination. Professionally, we are all equals. Sometimes, as a Nigerian you will even feel uncomfortable because when you are travelling with the (US) Ambassador, the representative of the US President in Nigeria, he is seated on the right and you are seated on the left. If you are travelling together on official trip, everybody gets equal treatment. The driver will take his or her per diem, (allowance) the same amount that you as information specialist collect, the same the Ambassador is gets. We ride in the same cars. Well, as a representative of the US President in Nigeria, the Ambassador could have, maybe the US flag on his own car, otherwise it is not likely you will know the difference between the car you are riding in and the one the Ambassador is riding in. Everywhere we go, we are all treated the same. The administration, that is, the US government, treats everybody equally and that is why you hear Equal Opportunity Act. As a matter of fact, if you are not treated equally, you have a right to complain. So, it has been great all the way and you can know the difference between what I went through here aside from what I went through when I was working for the Nigerian government; because I worked with the Nigerian government for almost 10 years before I moved here 25 years ago. So, it is a lot of difference between the two.
Having worked for Nigeria and the US, what difference can you point to?
Working for Nigerian government, (relates to) everything about the working environment, the conducive working environment, everything about the hierarchy, the protocols that you have to follow. There, you cannot speak to your supervisor; you can’t walk into your supervisor’s office directly. You probably would need to go through the secretary before you get to where you are going. But here, we are all equal; no bureaucracy, no protocol to follow. You just walk in and do whatever you want to do. Challenges that I faced at the initial stage was the fact that we had some programmes; they were called World Net Programmes and Voice of America programmes. They add content in sizes, in teaching of English language, the environment and agriculture. In those days, when we were still referred to as the United States Information Service (USIS), it was difficult for me to place those programmes. That was one of my own schedules of duties to place those programmes in radio and television stations.
That was 25 years ago, that was before 1993 when broadcasting became liberalised. It was difficult to place those programmes on government-owned media because we had only NTA, Radio Nigeria, Voice of Nigeria and then the state government-owned radio and TV stations. And it was very difficult during the military era. I came in 1991/1992; I had gone round these government-owned stations. We had 17 states under the US Consular Office. By my second year here at the consulate, I had gone round those stations and I had picked my contacts in each of the states. I had presented the synopses of the programmes and they had seen that the programmes were not propaganda as they had previously thought. So, it became easier, and I will say that would be the only challenge that I faced because thereafter in 1993 we had more independent stations – that was the time the likes of Channels TV, Mitv, Clapperboard, DBN, Galaxy TV – those were the first batch. They needed programmes anyway and these just came readily available.
Tell us about your most exciting and regretful moments while with the US Embassy?
Exciting moments! Quite a number of them – like preparing for the visit of VIPs. These were usually the exciting moments because when an American VIP is visiting, everybody is involved and because I am in the information section, I will have control over the media that will cover such visits particularly if it is the President of the United States visiting. All hands will be on deck. You will be in the office even till late hours. You know, it is always so exciting because Americans are great people. They put everything into such a visit; another exciting moment travelling, maybe, with the Ambassador. I was always on one trip or the other. I remember one in particular which I almost regretted doing with them. We went to Nembe in Bayelsa State. We were producing ‘Done in the Creeks’. Done in the Creeks is a 13-part series just to promote peace in Niger Delta, particularly among the youth; teaching the youths that apart from carrying arms they can do something better than that. It was led by a movie director, Fred Amata. And so, there is no road to Nembe. We were to ride on speed boats. And then the Ambassador, everybody got into the speed boats; and while on the high sea, one of the boats broke down. I thought that was the end.
Twenty five years after, what memories are you leaving with?
(Laughs) I just told you about Nembe. One thing I know that I will never forget is the kind of network that I built; that I and my other colleagues in the information section built. Actually, there are always two of us in the information section that are specialists. I was instrumental to that; the network is quite large within the media. And the reason is this: when I graduated, mass communication departments were few in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions – Unilag, Nsukka, I think.
How were you able to manage your home and stay effective at the job?
That is where my husband comes in. He was very supportive. He is also in the (media) business. He is a journalist. He is one of the directors at Tell magazine and of course, I had to leave home early. He has a more flexible schedule. I resumed at 7am and you are there till 4pm. No dull moment. We managed the time.
What did you miss from being a public communicator to being a corporate communicator?
I didn’t miss anything; rather it helped me a lot because by the time I came, I was covering the State House. I was in Dodan Barracks and then I was the city editor for the Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State. You know what that means – jack of all trades, you cover everywhere. The experience I had in those 10 years helped me on the job (at the US Embassy) because I got to know a number of places and that is what Americans like for you to know people they should meet. To advise them ‘Oh, this will be a good media event to organise and then it is done.’ The greatest challenge, the negative one I had is that the supervisors change every two years – maximum three years. That is, if you are with one supervisor now, in another two years or three years he goes away and (another) comes. And I had quite a number of them like that all through the 25 years. One has to change to adapt to the new supervisor every time a new one comes in. That also helped because you learn to work with different people.
What are your retirement plans?
When people ask me about my next plan, I tell them please let me rest first. I am 60 years old. Out of those 60 years, I have worked for 36 years. That is not counting vacation jobs. First year, second year, third year and then immediately I finished I started with Radio Lagos. One year of youth service and 10 years with Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State and then 25 years at the US Embassy and now, I am 60. I want to use the rest of my life doing things that will not make me wake up at 7am and then sleep at11pm after all the news of the day have been read.
What advice do you have for younger colleagues?
Hard work, dedication, loyalty and contentment; that is all they need. Whatever you are paid, if you are not satisfied just leave and look for another job. People who work here (US Embassy) know the rules of the game. They know that Americans don’t like wasting time. And that is why you will not find an American read welcome address and start with all those ‘protocols.’ He puts everything together (all other protocols duly observed). I mean because the way we waste time, we waste too much time unnecessarily. Your time on the work, if you have eight hours to put in, you must put in those eight hours. I can’t just get up now and say I am going to pick my children in school. If you want to take two hours, take two hours, it goes from your annual leave. They don’t like people to cheat them on the job.
What is the secret of your success?
There is no secret. I am just hard-working. I am sorry if I am being immodest. But I am hard-working, dedicated and loyal. While I was with the BCOS, I was the only editor in Lagos. And in those days, you will cover the ministry and Dodan Barracks (as) State House correspondent, from the time of General Muhammadu Buhari. It was towards the tail end of his stay in Dodan Barracks that I came in and then Babangida took over. I was there all through Babangida’s period. I remember a day while I was eight-months pregnant and Babangida saw me. He said, ‘I must not see you here again until you put to bed!’ It has been the grace of God, I must say.
Do you still prepare your husband’s meal despite your busy schedule?
I still do. I have said that we are in the same profession. I think God just gave him to me. He is an introvert, I am an extrovert. And you know it takes two to tangle.
Are there some experiences you would like to share with our readers?
I was the head girl of my school; that was 1973/1974 at African Church Grammar school, Ibadan, Oyo State. I actually started being head girl while I was still maybe, in form three because the set before us, were going to start the May/June exam. It used to be December, so I took over from them quite early. And I was a science student: physics, chemistry, biology and further maths were the core subjects. I believe that I never liked to be where all girls are; I love to be where strong men are like if they say this maths is for a man, I don’t like it. I want to take the challenge and I was very good at my studies. And of course, if I wasn’t good, I wouldn’t be a head girl. And then something just happened. We sat for our school certificate exam and I failed. And it wasn’t that I wasn’t good, something strange happened. I just failed. A few weeks to our exams, everything I was using for my hair got missing. I don’t know what happened. They told me it was diabolical but I don’t want to believe that but that just happened and I failed and once you fail, you have to wait for another set.
And I was already working in the school; I was the best graduating student for my own set but I failed when the result came out. The result came out in December and I failed. It was tough to go back. You know having been the head girl, working in the school, because as the best graduating student, you will be given a job. So, I have to stop the work and then go back but one thing that happened to me was that I changed all my subjects. I had to drop all the science subjects for the arts and I had only five months to read. So, it was then that I dropped all my further maths, physics, chemistry and others for literature, biology and of course, I passed. I had just five months to read literature in English, religious studies and others and I passed. And then went in for my HSC in the arts and I passed; because to get admitted into Unilag then you needed at least 10 points at HSC level. I made 11.
How many children do you have and which of them took after you in terms of career path?
None of them (took after me career-wise); my daughter is a lawyer and my three boys are all into computer engineering. Two are computer engineers and the third is a computer programmer. They are all into things I find it difficult to cope with. But my daughter is the lawyer. So, my husband and I are just on our own.