*Life without Chukwumerije
*My deals with Obasanjo
*The Charly Boy Connection
By Ogbonna Amadi, Entertainment Editor andÂ Lolade Sowoolu
Princess Iweka is an epitome of beauty.Â At an age when some of her contemporaries would have retired to attend to their grand children, this mother of eight still carries on with respect and gait.
A two time -former presidential special adviser and co-founder of the Bells schools currently owned by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, this daughter of a late Obosi, Anambra State, Igwe (King) was also at one time married to Senator Uche Chukwmerije, the former Information Secretary during the tenure of General Ibrahim Babangida.
In this interview with Saturday Vanguard, Princess Iweka, currently the Chief Operating Officer of the high flying magazine Charly Boy, opens up for the first time on her marriage to Chukwumerije, her liaisons with former President Obasanjo and Charly Boy.
Itâ€™s a wow!. Enjoy
What connects you with the brand, Charly Boy?
It is a brand that encapsules tremendous focus, courage, persistence, creativity. An endeavor that has taken such form of magnitude beats the imagination. How someone can put something like this together, and itâ€™s working is amazing.
Why identify with it? Because itâ€™s a success story. Itâ€™s reliable, brilliant and has been beamed to the youth and the masses and thatâ€™s also my passion. The brand fires enthusiasm and awakens latent quality, helps you to find freedom to be yourself. Itâ€™s a brand that really fires you to become yourself-strong and independent. So, there was no way I couldnâ€™t identify with it, even though Iâ€™m somebody whoâ€™s also looking for strength to be myself and make a difference in my environment.
But I donâ€™t see you there.
Look again, remember, Iâ€™m a woman. Women are not heard and they are not seen but they are very powerful. You know right here, you can see the light ( pointing to the fluorescent tube) but you donâ€™t see the current but thatâ€™s the life wire. So, passivity is strength. You may not see me but Iâ€™m there.
In any case, whenever you come into a new field, you get under tutelage unless you are not wise. The wise one will crawl first, learning. You donâ€™t start by jumping around. YouÂ have to soak in a new environment, make it your own, then impact on it your own qualities and then move it up from there. So, Iâ€™m still learning. This is a whole new field of activity for me. Iâ€™m watching and listening. Iâ€™m not leading. Iâ€™m right behind and loving it.
Is it the publishing aspect that is a new venture?
Yes, publishing and the media world. Going with him is exposing me to that world. Itâ€™s a new world to me. So, Iâ€™m quiet, watching and growing.
What challenges did you overcome?
Actually, in the past, he made efforts to rope me into the things heâ€™s been doing but I said, â€˜No, thatâ€™s not meâ€™. But then, when he came again, for whatever reason, and I got exposed to his real network linkage, or living connection as it were, to the youths and the masses, I became intrigued, because thatâ€™s also my passion. And I said, this man has cleared a wide path. If I go with him, itâ€™s going to make what I want to do very easy for me.
What role do you play as co-publisher?
Iâ€™mÂ the Chief Operating Officer of the magazine. I make sure all the threads are vibrating and are co-ordinated.
Iâ€™m supposed to be running it technically, but right now, itâ€™s Charles because Iâ€™m pretty new. I also make it easy for him with the network of the government sector and even some of the private sector. So my exposure to government as senior special assistant to the president helps. I haveÂ a network that I bring to bear in whatever he does and of course, we share financial responsibility.
I guess together with the returns?
Yeah, when it does start coming. Right now, weâ€™re not thinking about it. Weâ€™re still investing.
Are you still Senior Special Assistant to the President?
No, I was Senior Special Assistant to Obasanjo for the two terms and then a year and half for Yarâ€™Adua before I left. Usually, if youâ€™re a political appointee, once the term runs out, you go with your person. But in our case it was different, I guess because itâ€™s the same party. Those working in the villa administration stay back and do proper hand over-transferring our skills and ideas to the next set of people. I was working directly with former Chief of Staff, Abdullahi Mohammed. It took us a year and a half to do that (proper hand over) and when it was done, we left.
What were you hoping to achieve by getting on this project with Charly Boy. What points were you trying to score?
With a magazine? Wow! Isnâ€™t that obvious? Itâ€™s the word that transforms. Human word is powerful, no doubt. So, in a country where you know that the most important thing is transformation, orientation, re-orientation of attitude, psyche, what greater medium but those of words which you can write and affect a growing number of people. You know itâ€™s not just staying in your bedroom or sitting room and voicing your opinion. Now you have the chance to put it out and thousands of people are reading what you think.
So, it is a wonderful opportunity. As soon as he presented it to me, I snapped it up. He actually gave me a chance to pick a name for the magazine. He didnâ€™t really want to use Charly Boy, but I convinced him that is a careless move. Heâ€™d be throwing away a brand he struggled for so many years to create. Itâ€™s a house-hold name. I said that was the name I wanted.
This is what will penetrate him as he grows older. The younger ones will have the magazine. The name also makes it easier for us to get attention. If you have so many new magazines on this table, any Nigerian that comes to the table will be attracted to Charly Boy magazine curiously. Heâ€™d want to find out. Is it the same Charly Boy? And once people do that, all weâ€™ve to do is make sure thatÂ the content keeps you going back. So, already the name has solved the problem of visibility so much.
And your challenges as an individual?
The first challenge was getting comfortable walking around with Charles. You know creative people will always have their moods. The first thing youâ€™ll need to do is to understand him and make sure thereâ€™s harmony because without harmony, nothing will grow. And then, Iâ€™ve always been a background kind of person, even though Iâ€™ve been doing things that should put me out there. But out of choice, Iâ€™ve always stayed behind.
But now, I find that anywhere I go, all eyes are on Charles and therefore me. So, it was strange, feeling eyes on me but I quickly started enjoying it. Who knows one day youâ€™ll make me, what do you call them? Celebrity, that will not be bad.
Who is the man called Charly Boy?
I donâ€™t see the pins anymore. What I see is a soft-spoken gentle man so far; that is very creative and very brilliant. Heâ€™s working with the youth. The number of young people Iâ€™ve come across and being able to impact on has quadrupled since I met him and thatâ€™s what I like.
Heâ€™s completely normal to me. When people say heâ€™s weird, I just smile. In a way, heâ€™s even my kind, seeing that weâ€™ve the same backgrounds. In his private conversation, heâ€™s shy, retiring, ofÂ little words, completely normal and ordinary, has a good home, good family and so on ,so heâ€™s okay.
What kind of background are you from?
My father was the second civil engineer in the whole Nigeria, graduate of Imperial College, London in the late â€˜30s. So you can imagine, I grew up in the GRAs in those days. â€˜Never knew the streetsâ€™Â as Charles would put it. I was cocooned all my life.
And your growing up?
It was beautiful, so peaceful. I never heard my father shout on my mother. I never saw them fight. There was so much love. We were most of the time in the West, because he was an engineer. We lived in Apapa, Ikeja, Osogbo, Ibadan, Ijebu, before he retired. When he retired, we moved to Onitsha. He had become Director of Works.
My father was the first person to build a double carriage bridge. He was the first to build a fly-over and so on. So, when he retired from government, he started his company and was a major contractor for Shell. We didnâ€™t use to go anywhere. We were home most times.
And then, you went to secondary school.
Yes, but it was an all-girlsâ€™ missionary school in Elelenwon, Port-Harcourt,Â Bishop Achidike Memorials. I was a serious sport person. In those years, we used to have the national sports and then the West African games. Right from my Form One, I was representing Nigeria in High Jump, Hurdles. I also went for the Commonwealth Games and by the time I entered the University, I went for World University Games still in High Jump Hurdles. I used to do sprints but I wasnâ€™t too good at it. So, I ended up just in relay races where I got to the top. But back in school, I did sprints. I also played Table Tennis.
What was life like growing in those early days?
Life was gentler. It was safe out there. Then, there was stricter definition of class. There were no mixtures. When you go out, people naturally mix with those in their class. I donâ€™t know whether itâ€™s good or bad. Iâ€™m just saying how it used to be.
You find out that all your friends have parents who are just about yours. People kept to their status naturally, without being told. Itâ€™s not so anymore. You can imagine someone who grew up in a compound without neighbours. You never had people fighting in the compound and you slept alone in a bed. We werenâ€™t class conscious and we werenâ€™t materialistic in those days as young people.
Werenâ€™t there social gatherings?
Our school would organise parties and the boys would come over. But even then, all the boys that ever came to me and we became friendly were of same class and it was unconsciously so. Youâ€™ll start by exchanging letters and the day youâ€™ll hold hands, itâ€™s so exciting and thatâ€™s all. Iâ€™m so sorry for the young ones now because I hear they are so over-exposed that they donâ€™t even get the thrill that we had.
Looking back, do you feel disadvantaged at all by your growing up?
No, children are meant to be protected in the home. Your own experiences will help you to develop later but while you are young, you should not expose your inner qualities to outside rough influence.
You need to be cocooned in a home until you reach an age when youâ€™re discerning enough to choose the kind of experiences you want. And so a stable home is the best. Why our society is breaking up is that children are not receiving attention or being protected.
Is there anything in your background that prepared you for politics?
When my father retired from public service, he became a politician but he was with the opposition party, UPNC. He loved politics.
That was when there was proper campaigning. People didnâ€™t use to sell their votes. So you really needed to go out to the grassroots to campaign. And then my uncle even ran for a political post I donâ€™t remember. So my family became a political one and my father was made the Igwe of Obosi, and when you are with traditional guys, itâ€™s just like politics- your house is open and people come in all the time. But I never really played that kind of politics. I was just a political appointee.
Whatâ€™s your academic background like?
My first degree was in Chemistry and then I married and decided to stay home. I started in Ibadan (University of Ibadan), the war took me to Nsukka (University of Nigeria) where I finished. Iâ€™ve always been the home type of person. I loved to stay at home and get and take care of my children. So, I chose teaching and I got a PGD in Education . I went into teaching in Lagos State and retired as a school Principal.
The Obasanjo Connection
Then I founded the Bells (schools) with Obasanjo and two other ladies even though later, three of us (ladies) withdrew and took our money when we could not continue with the union. It wasnâ€™t about accountability. The four of us just could not work harmoniously together then. Maybe, because we were not experienced enough. Itâ€™s not easy in Nigeria to do things with other people.
It was a business venture and I was the first to leave. I donâ€™t like wahala (trouble). There was much friction and we pulled out one after the other leaving Obasanjo. To be kind to him (Obasanjo), later, he called us to come back but I said, â€˜No, thanksâ€™, that I was happy seeing the (school) set-up running well.
Any regrets on that decision today seeing how much the school has grown?
I never regret anything I do.
How did you all come together to start a school?
The three of us ladies were friends and at that time. The school system was very bad. There were no private schools. The government had taken over them and things had changed. We were bemoaning the fact that the kind of schools that we went to were no more.
So, we wanted to start a school that would be like the old ones. We sat down and put it together but of course we needed money. That time Baba (Obasanjo) used to do his farm house dialogue. We didnâ€™t know him but we thought that if we attended his farm house dialogue, weâ€™d possibly be connected to international people that would come and start the school with us. This was important because we needed the international flavour and the right standard we wanted.
So, one of us (ladies) remembered that when she had her first baby, Obasanjo was the Head of State and her baby was the first baby for that year. So Obasanjo came to see her. She said, â€˜letâ€™s go to himâ€™ and she would remind him of her baby and weâ€™d use it as entry.
So, we went to him and told him we wanted to attend his Farm House Dialogue and he invited us. There, we told him about the school and he said heâ€™d introduce us to a few people. Eventually, we said to him, â€˜why donâ€™t you be part of it?â€™ he ased, â€˜Are you sure you want me? Are you sure you can handle me?â€™ We said, â€˜Yesâ€™. It was a good experience. By the time we started, I was the First Administrator of the school.
It must have been a lot of money you got back when you pulled out…
It wasnâ€™t too much. But that was in 1989 when the naira was still strong (of good value). After I left, the lawyer among us left and then the third lady lasted for another two years before leaving.
But you survived almost 10 years in Aso villa.
By then I was older and more experienced. I knew how to navigate. You have to learn how to.
And then you got married…
Yes, I got married. I have eight children – seven boys and one girl.
How did you meet your husband?
I met him during the Biafran war. Iâ€™m not about to tell my private story now because itâ€™s also his (her ex husbandâ€™s) story but it was beautiful. We were friends all through the war and after the war, we got married.
And whatâ€™s his name?
What kind of man was he?
Heâ€™s a Comrade. A very serious man and very brilliant. A good father to the children. Somehow, his nature and mine did not blend. So, we agreed to divorce.
When was that?
That was along time ago. 1989, maybe.
What if he shows up now and says he wants you back?
Ehmm, I think itâ€™s too late. Iâ€™m used to staying alone and there is a mighty gulf…
What was it like taking care of the children alone?
He took the kids. He brought them up. They only came back to me when they were old. Thatâ€™s why I say heâ€™s a good father.
You took the walk?
I did. I took a walk but I wanted to go with some of them (the kids) but he didnâ€™t allow it. So, I left him.
Whatâ€™s your relationship with the kids like?
Perfect. Theyâ€™re all grown. Weâ€™re good friends.
How old were the kids when they had to go with their father?
They were very young.
Were they taken outside the country?
They were here in Nigeria.
How many of your children are into sports?
My daughter used to do sports while in Queensâ€™ College. She was good at running. They all haveÂ black belts in Taekwando. Some of them became national champions but they stopped. It was just my last one (Yaga) that kept on and so went to the Olympics and got a medal. Heâ€™s studying for his Masters now,Â in Liverpool.