She wears a permanent smile that bellies strong drive for perfection and excellence. She uses precise words that carry colours beyond the ordinary everyday usage. She is an author. All her successes notwithstanding, her aura of motherhood dominates every environment she is in. Ambassador Ifeoma Chinwuba is Nigeria’s ambassador to Cote D’Ivoire and speaks with Ahamefula Ogbu on her tour of duty, and her desire to open more economic fronts for Nigeria
How has it been with your tour of duty since you assumed office?
Well, I arrived here about 30 months ago and it has been very interesting, so far so good. We are working hard to ensure good relationship between the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Cote D’Ivoire.
This is your first posting as an ambassador. So how were you able to blend?
Being a career diplomat, all my life I have been working in the foreign service, I rose through the ranks, though this is my first ambassadorial posting, it is not my first stint in the embassies.
Has there been any incident that made you apprehensive as a first-timer handling the affairs of an embassy of your country?
As I said, I had been Charge D’Affairs in other countries like Ghana, Rome, Italy, Canada for almost a year, so I was only apprehensive when I was presenting my letters of credence to the host President, apart from that, I have been able to get used to the work.
What would you describe as your toughest assignment so far in Cote D’Ivoire?
I think everybody is apprehensive about receiving the Head of State of their home countries. I received Nigeria’s Heads of State, President, Vice President here, so those were the times one had to be apprehensive but they went well.
What legacy would you like to leave at the end of your tenure here?
We have been able to help the Nigerian community including those in prison, those doing their businesses, running schools, day to day activities; we have been able to facilitate their work. Those who have problems with their host, landlords, we have been able to find amicable solutions to their issues. We have also been able to visit so many Nigerian communities in the hinterland, some of them that had not been visited ever since the establishment of this mission, so my consular visit to them in places like Buake, San Pedro, Abouevile was to bring government closer to them to tell them what we are doing, policies of President Buhari and the efforts we are making to improve governance.
How have you been responding to problems of Nigerian in Ivory Coast?
Depends on the nature of the problem but we have been able to address some of them. If it needs meeting people in authority, those who need admission into universities, institutions of learning, we write the necessary letters to heads of the institutions to facilitate the admission of their awards to schools. Those who have problem of legal nature, need medical attention, we draw the attention of the relevant authorities, those who need travel document, whatever are their needs we try to find the solution.
While protecting the interests of Nigerians in Cote D’Ivoire, did you confirm any case of unjust imprisonment of Nigerians as alleged?
Not really; there is a problem of language, most of the Nigerians in jail not being very conversant in French, so at the time of hearing their cases and convictions they may not have been sure their cases were ably presented on their behalf since they are ignorant of the French language but we cannot say categorically that they were shortchanged.
Most times the female gender is said to be more exposed to abuses and dangers of life, what has it been like for the Nigerian woman in Cote D’Ivoire?
Nigerian women are pulling their weights, most of them are business women, some are students and most have been here for long especially women from Osun State who have been here for several generations and so they have acclamatised; they speak Yoruba, they speak French, they are able to get by. They have been properly integrated into the Cote D’Ivoire society, sometimes they have the problem of marriage, children, divorce and all that but we have been able to resolve those ones too; These problems are everywhere, not limited to women. We give a listening ear and sometimes, material assistance. If you are not able to feed, we try to fill the gap when you have problems, that is what the embassy is here for and we have been able to solve that. Another case category of Nigerians who come here are those who have been trafficked, some of our girls are trafficked into Cote D’Ivoire and put into the flesh market against their will; so that category we also have been able to repatriate once they come to the attention of the embassy with the help of the local security authorities we are able to free them and send them back to Nigeria.
What is the rate of trafficking of Nigerian girls to Cote D’Ivoire?
We don’t know the rate how many come here over a day, a week because they are all over the country and we are not conscious , we don’t know all the cases but since I arrived here about 30 months ago we have been able to repatriate about 100 girls back home.
You are a writer?
How did you acquire writting skills?
Well, I think maybe because I studied humanities in the university, I studied English literature, French literature and then from there I read so many books, novels, theater, poems and found out that those who wrote those things they have only one head, maybe you can try your hand and from studying humanities you are able to dissect the books from the point of view of characterisation, plots, storyline, dialogue, everything, so you are more acquainted with the techniques of writing and maybe later, you try your hands at it.
Your duty makes you a busy person. So how do you combine writing with diplomatic duties?
One can write after office hours; if you are serious about writing, you have to write after the day’s jobs has been done, after you have rested, maybe anytime from midnight till day break, you have to find that time, in the middle of the night, maybe one, two or three hours, you have to find that time to concentrate on your writing.
How many books have you written?
I have written four books now; Fearless, Merchants of Flesh, Waiting for Maria and then African Romance.
Do you still have any in the works?
Yes, once a writer always a writer, Fearless will have a sequel, for instance. So, I am writing on the sequel.
Lately, there have been complaints about lack of resources or underfunding of embassies of Nigeria, what do you think should be done to resolve the change?
Better management of our resources, cutting down, removing waste and unnecessary expenditure, not having godfather, attitude; I think with that we can manage the little resources that are available there.
Are you also feeling the pains of the economy?
Yes, we are an extension of Nigeria, anything that happens in Nigeria is felt, it reverberates all over the world, so we too we are feeling the pinch, we have been able to adjust and cut down; you don’t spend on unnecessary things like receptions, donations and too much travel and all that, so we have been able to reduce cost.
Without compromising efficiency and duties?
No, without compromising the duties of the embassy. Luckily we have internet, ICT facilities, telephones, so we try to solve as many problems as we can via the telephone by talking to the authorities online, by sending letters by fax and once they see our stamp they know it is authentic.
How did you conceive the economic diplomacy approach that led to your organising the made in Nigeria trade fair that was just concluded?
In the ministry of foreign affairs we have always been told that economic diplomacy is the way to go; diplomacy is no longer wining and dining and having receptions but now we have to think of how the embassy will contribute to the economy of the country, so we have been asked to look for investors, to promote products to expand Nigeria’s markets, its reach, so every diplomat, every ambassador that leaves Nigeria now has the economic diplomacy as a pillar of his foreign service, what he is going to do abroad. So within us, we try to resuscitate the Nigeria-Cote D’Ivoire chamber of commerce and through it we have been able to partner with like minds. We have been able to organise this trade fair in Abidjan to try to sensitise the Cote D’Ivoire public, businessmen, economic operators to what is available , what we produce in Nigeria which could easily be exported to Cote D’Ivoire so that what can be sourced from Nigeria should be sourced from there. We established contacts with the producers, manufacturers so that Cote D’Ivoire consumers instead of going outside Africa to source for these things can look inwards towards Nigeria to procure these things.
How would you describe the cooperation you are getting from Ivoiriens?
The cooperation is good, Cote D’Ivoire s coming out of crises so they are preoccupied with setting up their systems, rehabilitating, putting in place systems, infrastructure and at the same time looking to establish relations that were there before the crisis, so Nigeria is one of their main targets, we have signed a binational agreement which regulates relations at the level of two governments, flights have begun, Arik, Air Cote D’Ivoire direct flights between the two capitals and Lagos. The Ivoirians are happy to work again with Nigeria as you know we are the two main economies in the sub-region – Nigeria the Anglophone overall and Cote D’Ivoire in the Francophone category; so two of us work together, we understand each other better, we cooperate well in order to carry the other economies, our neighbours along in this path of economic development.
Having stayed in the two countries what would you recommend that Nigeria should learn from Cote D’Ivoire?
Nigerians have something to learn from Cote D’Ivoire and they also have something to learn from Nigeria. By the time the two people interact, they will pick up best practices from each other’s systems. I think what we can learn from Cote D’Ivoire is that from an early time they put their emphasis on agriculture maybe because they did not have a lot oil, so agricultural production is quite high here, they export so many products, many raw materials, over 20 for instance banana, cocoa, cashew nut, pineapple, so many and I think that Nigeria could learn from Cote D’Ivoire how to diversify their economy into the agricultural sector. We are trying to have an agricultural mission, Nigerian farmers to come into Cote D’Ivoire and see how farm systems are organised, innovations, results of research in agriculture so that we can increase for instance our cocoa production and add other produce into the basket that we export, so that is one of the things that Nigeria can learn from Cote D’Ivoire.
Can you tell us about your early life?
I grew up in Nnewi, Afikpo, Umuahia, many towns where my father was a principal in government college Umuahia, government college Afikpo. Then I went to school in University of Nigeria Nsukka primary school, secondary school partly at Queen of the Rosary College Onitsha, federal government college Warri, my university education; I have a BA in French from University of Benin, Ugbowo, and then I have a Masters in Political Science from the University of Lagos, Akoka, then I did my youths service in then Bendel State as a graduate assistant in the University of Benin. That covers the early life.
How did you meet your husband?
Actually he is a twin brother to my classmate in the secondary at Queen of the Rosary College Onitsha QRC, one of my friends there was Sylvia and I ended up marrying the brother whom I met through Sylvia.
Would you say you are a romantic person?
Well, if you have time after work, you can be romantic but the way it is now this work takes all your time and there is no time for romance if you ask me.
How many children do you have?
I have four children and a grandson.
How are they doing?
They are surviving. Two have done their youths service, one is in the process of going her youths service, one is about to graduate so they are quite grown up now.
Did you set out in life to be a diplomat; what was your childhood career dream?
Actually, what I wanted to be was an air hostess, that’s actually what I wanted to be but I think the foreign service resembles an air hostess job again too because there is a lot of travels, a lot of meeting foreigners, a lot of where you use language abilities, so I had hoped to be an air hostess but here I am.
At what point did you change your mind?
I think that when you graduate, when you get your offer of employment is important and will determine where you end up. So when I graduated from the university after my youths service, I went to the federal civil secretariat for interview, I was employed and sent to the ministry of external affairs, that is where I continued my career.
Were you closer to your father than to your mother?
I think from the point of view of upbringing, girls are usually closer to their fathers while sons are closer to their mother. From a certain perspective I think I was closer to my father growing up because most of the nights we will be listening to classical music, Mozart, Beethoven, he was the one that introduced me to reading culture. Most of the books he read he would pass down to me and I read, then we will talk about it, so at a certain point, my father had to live in Onitsha while my mother and my siblings lived in Enugu and I opted to live in Onitsha with my father, so I think I was closer to my father growing up.
What central trait did you take from your father?
I think I took that reading culture and discipline from him; my father was a very disciplined person and I took that from him.
Being as busy as you are, do you still cook, serve people in your family or does the job take away everything?
Not everything, the job cannot take away everything but I don’t cook the whole food, I do a certain part of it like shopping, groceries, I do all that, what the family eats I buy some of it and sometimes I walk into the kitchen, I prepare the menu for my husband, what we eat but I don’t cook often now because the time is not there.
When would you describe as your happiest moment in life so far?
Maybe when I was made ambassador because that was the fulfilment of my career.
What would you describe as your saddest moment?
I have had one or two sad moments in life, I think when I lost my elder brother, Chike Akabogu and then again when my father died as well as when my elder sister Maria died, so I think these periods of loses, bereavements have been the saddest moment of my life.
As close as you were to your father was there a time you made him angry that he had to spank or punish you?
Yea, my father in those days believed in canning, flogging people who misbehaved; thinking back I cannot remember him flogging me. I think it was once he lost his temper when he was taking me to federal government college Warri from Onitsha and I was reading in the car instead of according to him, contemplating the beauty of nature, seeing the trees, sometimes saying did you see that tree, did you see that flower? And I said which tree, which flower, then he lost his temper; read, read, read, you don’t even have time to enjoy the scenery and he collected the book from me and threw it into the back of the car and because I was sitting in front of the car with him, he grabbed the book and flung it, the book nearly went out of the window but it landed in the back seat. That was the time I remember he lost his temper with me.
Was your mother a disciplinarian?
Yes, but when you have a father who was a disciplinarian, your mother usually balances the act; so whenever my father lost his temper, my mother was the one to comfort us, conversely when my mother was the one annoyed or lost her temper, well you have to run to your father for reprieve or to your elder sister.
There is this allegation about Nigerian men being jealous or apprehensive about their wives being career women or more successful than them. What kind of support do you get from your husband?
I have a great husband from the point of view of support. He has accompanied me here, he is a lawyer, he studied law at the University of Nigeria, Enugu campus and I am very grateful to God for that. He supports me with prayers, advice and also at receptions, you saw him at the fair going round, making sure everything was right, working well, so I don’t think there is any apprehension on his part because the Bible says the two have become one, so the success of one should be the success of the twain and so from that angle I have no complaints.
After being an ambassador what next?
Life is not a series of achievements really. As I said, I am interested in writing, I have so many ideas in my head and when I retire from service I would like to do more writing because I still have some messages, some stories to tell, so I must have to do some more writing. As of traveling, I would like to travel round the world to see nature, natural parks, places I haven’t been to; this career has taken quite a lot of my time, my life. There are other things I want to pursue so that one can have a fuller life in these other things life may have to offer.
Does money mean anything to you?
Certainly, money does. Money has an important role to play in one’s life
What is your most precious possession in life?
Apart from my health, my children, my husband; you mean material possession or emotional possession?
Maybe you tell us what you value most in you emotional, material or any other possession?
Well, I think what I value most in my life is my faith because without that, one is really chaff blowing in the wind but one’s faith is an anchor that supports you, upholds you, sees you through in vicissitudes of life, whatever life may bring, so I think my faith will be my greatest possession.
What of materially?
I am not actually materialistic; I can’t think of anything that I have that I value so much that I cannot give away.
How do you pick your wears?
It actually depends on things. Most of the clothes I have are gifts, people just give me gifts of cloth and I give the tailor and he makes what he likes.
So you have no preferred label?
No, I don’t, I don’t have preferences, just simple wears, I don’t like complicated things, I don’t like tight things, things that are too tight and some colours that are flamboyant or too loud, I like somber colours
Does anything scare you about life?
At this point in life, no; I don’t think I am afraid of anything. As I told you, once you have your faith that is the anchor that enables you to face tomorrow.