SALLY MBANEFO: I STILL SING IN THE CHOIR AND READ AT THE ALTAR

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Like a goldfish that has no hiding place, Sally Mbanefo has recently been endowed with a new portfolio as the Anambra State Commissioner for Ministry of Mineral Resources, Tertiary Education, Science, Technology and ICT. She was the immediate past Commissioner for Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Indigenous Artworks, Culture and Tourism. Prior to this, she had been at the federal level as the Director-General of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC) where she introduced the Domestic Tourism Revolution. She spoke with Uzor Maxim Uzoatu about her trajectory in the last 10 years…Excerpts

What was it like superintending the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Indigenous Artworks Culture and Tourism?

The Ministry has different departments with varied functions. The Tourism Department, for instance, has the responsibility of handling all tourism activities for the state. The Diaspora Affairs Department was birthed with a view to bridging the gap that existed in information and communication between the Anambra State Government and Anambra residents abroad and within other states of Nigeria. The Hotel and Hospitality Department took up the responsibility of overseeing and harnessing the potentials in the hotel and hospitality sector of the state for optimal performance. The Department of Arts and Culture was promoting, preserving and developing the state’s cultural heritage while the Department of Indigenous Artworks promoted our famous bronze works like the roped vase, Igbo language, artworks and artifacts, customs, folk songs, festivals and tradition.

What were the achievements of the Ministry under your tenure?

Under my watch in the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Indigenous Artworks, Culture and Tourism we created the Homecoming Festival lasting seven to 14 days every December which was a kaleidoscope of events from Masquerade Festival to International Reggae Festival, Friends of Anambra Day, Diaspora Day, Chinua Achebe Day, Palm Wine Festival Day, Anambra Tasty Cuisine Day, Art Exhibition Day, Street & Cultural Carnival Day, Folk Songs Day, Christmas Carols of nine Lessons Day, Musical Concerts Day, Tourism Day, to Entrepreneurs Day, where we had Chairman of Britannica-U, Mrs Uju Ifejika, Chairman of Innoson Motors, Chairman Stanel World (our partners ), His Excellency and others who shared inspiring experiences with the youth. The musical concerts featured 2Face, Rude Boy, Funny Bone, Flavour and Davido. The collaboration with the Stanel Group was ingenious as Mr. Stanley Uzochukwu created an incredible synergy with the state.

On Friends of Anambra Day, we had all the royal fathers – friends I made when I was DG – come from the South-West and North to honour our invitation to Anambra. Other achievements are the renovation of the Owerre-Ezukala Caves and Waterfalls, and the Ogbunike Cave by the construction of prototype structures/buildings to provide conveniences and changing rooms, bars, souvenir shops, tourism information desks for tourists, and creating better access roads. We also initiated the creation of Anambra Diaspora Portal used by the Ministry in keeping the database of Ndi-Anambra in the Diaspora. We further transformed the ministry into a walk-in Art gallery endowed with amazing paintings and bronze works of an internationally renowned Artist, Chidi Okoye .

We created a Hotel and Hospitality Department to harness the potentials in the hotel and hospitality sector of the state for optimal performance. Then there was the E-Registration/digitalisation of hotels in collaboration with VIKO Nigeria to ensure that all the hotels in the state are enumerated in the Ministry’s database.

We created five major revenue windows for tourism IGR. We nurtured regular interaction with hotel owners and put them through the guidelines for grading and classification of hotels which led us to commence major training of our staff and the hotels’ staff. We began aggressive inspection of hotels whilst also coaching the hotels on Covid compliance measures in collaboration with our dynamic Commissioner of Health, Dr. Vincent Okpala.

With respect to tourism, partnership with the private sector thrives in the world’s biggest tourist destinations. What has the state done in terms of partnering with the private sector to improve tourism in the state?

Our ministry collaborated with VIKO Nigeria Limited, whom I worked with as DG at the federal level, where at their own expense, they provided all the tourism information desks NTDC deployed at the major airports in Nigeria. When I found out he is from Anambra I invited him to help boost tourism in Anambra using technology. He helped us deploy VIKO’s consolidated alliance digital hospitality, travel and tourism infrastructure for facilitation of electronic circulation of travel and hospitality booking of facilities in Anambra State. And he helped us launch Smartjobs software to create jobs in tourism for the youth. The state also partnered with Stanel World during its Homecoming festival with the Christmas festivities in events like musical concerts, street cultural carnivals and Christmas Carols. We also partnered with Innoson Group to provide shuttle vehicles to all the hotels at a discounted rate.

What are the measures taken by the state government to sustain its tourism drive?

Since the inception of the Willie Obiano’s administration, the state government made security its number one priority because tourism cannot thrive in a place where there is insecurity. The State government donated major security equipment, vehicles and gadgets to the police and the state vigilante service to enable them maintain law and order in the state. His Excellency also recruited an AVM to handle creative security. The state is adjudged the safest in the country. The state government in 2018 & 2019 also renovated and constructed access roads leading to various tourist sites in the state for easy navigation of tourists to and from the tourist sites.

What are the challenges faced by the tourism sector in the state?

There is the eminent lack of interest by financial institutions to lend capital to tourism investors. This is a significant challenge confronting tourism in the state, and lack of collaboration with the private sector.

You were recently redeployed to the Ministry of Mineral Resources, Tertiary Education, Science & Technology & ICT. With what you met on ground, what is the way forward?

My new Ministry covers Oil and Gas, Solid Minerals, which also includes scrap metal and glass sand excavation. We also handle hydro-meteorological services, you know, the weather forecast required for safety in geological surveys. Our Ministry is erecting a Kaolin factory for Kaolin processing at Ukpor, Nnewi South LGA, in collaboration with the Federal Government that has already supplied Kaolin processing machines to the state as we speak. The federal representative in the state, Mr. Dara Chijioke Okechukwu, has been very proactive in guiding us on the right path. We also developed the Anambra State Government website (www.anambrastate.gov.ng

Anambra State Government – Light Of The Nation) to serve as a portal where citizens can learn about the history of the government, as well as activities and developmental strides of the government. Added to this, there has been the creation of the ICT Department and the set-up of an ICT Laboratory by us. We have a whole floor devoted to that in the ministry. The administration created an ICT department in the Ministry because our governor is very IT savvy. The ICT department was recently upgraded to an Agency to fast-track the deployment of ICT across the state. Recently, Anambra State won the First Runner-up award in e-Government implementation in the nation, at the National Council on Communication Technology (NCCT) in Katsina State. We also won second runner-up in ICT human capital development. We also very recently won second runner-up in ICT infrastructure development.

The youth are the future. What has the ministry done in terms of youth empowerment?

A nation that invests in youth invests in its future. So in this regard, this Ministry trained 500 unemployed youth selected from across the 21 LGAs of the State on acquisition of 14 different skills at our Technology Incubation Centre, Nnewi. This is geared towards making them self-employed. Also, when I was in charge of the Tourism Ministry, I introduced the smart jobs project for the youth, a software developed by VIKO Nigeria, and we incubated it in the youth ministry where all the training was done to empower 5000 youths as directed by His Excellency. They were trained to trade on an e-business portal for booking of hotels, transport and flights to Anambra for tourism. The youth ministry worked very hard with the transport ministry and my ministry to make this a reality for the state. The thing is, our governor is very youth friendly, and very young at heart.

Oil has been discovered in the state. Tell us about it. I know you also have an oil and gas background?

Yes, we do have oil in commercial quantities and the best crude quality you can imagine. We also have gas in an incredible commercial quantity. The truth is that the federal government will soon embark on a gas revolution to drive increase in usage of gas in the country. Anambra State Government has strategically poised itself to key into this initiative to improve the state revenue since Anambra Basin is very rich in gas. Our Ministry in collaboration with the Oil and Gas Committee, and with the strong support of His Excellency has provided an enabling environment to ensure that Anambra is recognised as an oil producing State. We are now looking forward to the federal government officially recognising Anambra and declaring it an oil producing state, especially now that we are very rich in Gas, and Gas is the future!”

What step has the state government taken to explore and exploit the state’s solid mineral deposits since you are also in charge of that?

The State Government through this Ministry is trying to develop the solid minerals sector through Characterisation of Anambra Bentonite for exploration as industrial raw material and Characterisation of Glass Sand deposits for prospective investments in Anambra State.

In addition, we have very rich Kaolin deposits in commercial quantities, and so we are working on a Ceramic/burnt brick factory. Our ministry also monitors scrap metal collections, and this has given us an opportunity to build a Steel Rolling Mill. Our focus, as His Excellency keeps saying, must be on maximising IGR. In Anambra, the sky is the stepping stone. The federal rep in the Raw Materials Research and Development Council, Mr.Dara Chijioke Okechukwu, has been quite resourceful.

Would you say that women have a fair representation in Governor Obiano’s administration?

His Excellency is a strong advocate of gender equality, and his appointment of women as commissioners, heads of agencies (DGs) and other leadership positions is a testament to this fact. Not forgetting her Excellency Ebelechukwu Obiano, the loving mother of all Anambra women, who advocates for women’s rights and welfare through her Caring Family Enhancement Initiative (CAFÉ) program. Her Excellency is also very gender supportive.

Going forward, what is the Ministry’s expectation for tertiary institutions in the State?

We are aggressively working on plans to make tertiary institutions in the state self-sufficient. That way, they will no longer depend on government funding. This includes engaging in commercial agriculture and its numerous value chains. We are also promoting e-learning whilst taking education to the rural communities. We recently launched an IGR campaign for ANSPOLY which was a School of Agriculture for 30 years before His Excellency upgraded them to a poly. In addition, our tertiary education students have excelled by winning several international awards. In July 2020, a group of Engineering Students from Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University recently came second in the whole of Africa at a virtual competition in the United Kingdom for inventing racing cars. So many awards in ICT and science and tech have also been won by our tertiary institutions at the federal level.

You also double as the Chairman, State Gaming Board. What has been your achievement so far since you took over?

Before I became the chairman of the Gaming Board, the revenue that was remitted to the government account was only N10 million per annum and in almost one year since I took over as chairman of the Gaming Board, the revenue generated has skyrocketed to over N480 million in spite of the Covid challenge when Gaming was slow. This achievement could not have happened without the collaboration of the AIRS, and an incredibly hardworking Managing Director who has moved at my every call for improved revenue at such a fast pace.

You are currently on the board of ASBA (Anambra State Small Business Agency), and ANSIPPA. How has the journey been so far?

ASBA was established on December 8, 2014 by Governor Obiano to facilitate easier access to resources required by entrepreneurs and investors in MSME to achieve sustainable development in the state. ASBA secured N2 billion loan from CBN which was used to empower entrepreneurs, thereby creating over 25,000 jobs. We developed a shoe industrial cluster at Ogbunike from where shoes are exported to countries like Cameroun, Niger Republic, Congo and Chad. This culminated in the state winning the best supporting state award for micro, small and medium enterprises in Nigeria from the Presidency in August 2019. The MD of Anambra State Small Business Agency is an erudite banker with incredible capacity for hard work and delivering effective results. He made sure we repaid every penny borrowed whilst empowering the community effectively. ANSIPPA is an ingenious invention of His Excellency. It is the state’s agency in charge of Investment Promotion and Protection.

Once an MOU is signed and the project commences, it is always concluded transparently. We contribute up to 15 % in IGR as the State’s equity in the investments. And yes, I am on the board, being an ex-banker. ANSIPPA is in the forefront of delivering HE’s Legacy Projects, notably: Anambra International Cargo Airport at Umueri, Agulu Lake Hotel expansion, Onitsha Hotel, Awka Shopping Mall, Awka Millennium City, Nnewi Shopping Mall, Century 50MW Power Plant, and Lynden Farms Phase II Expansion and many other projects.

How do you relax after all these tasking duties in Anambra?

Anambra is a quaint metropolis, green, peaceful and endowed with amazing intellectual capital. I am in the most sophisticated EXCO I have ever been in. Most of the Commissioners and Special Advisers have come from the Diaspora to retire at home. His Excellency’s passion for the Diaspora was exhibited by his appointments because he called these last four years the legacy years where we must leave with a bang effect! The other commissioners who are not from the Diaspora are ex-bankers like me and the rest are well-grounded indigenous professionals who have made a sterling mark in their various fields. Many times in EXCO I learn so much by listening to the unlimited horizon of knowledge and experience. So, we are very occupied with the affairs of the state. However, I do make out time to practice and sing in the choir of St Thomas Aquinas Parish, Awka, and to keep out of trouble, I also engage myself by reading at the altar as a lector in two churches, St Edwards Amawbia and St Thomas Aquinas Parish GRA. I am also a prayer coach for fellowships in Lagos, Abuja and Anambra and I mentor the youth. Because of the safety in the state, I do go for long walks in the evenings in Awka while I pray my rosary for peace of mind.