Chief Francis Chukwuma Okonta retired in 1999 from Federal Ministry of Information as Deputy Director. His activities in high places in the government of the federation pops him up as a legend.
He was a civil servant of note that caught the attention of the Presidency so much that he became member, VISION 20:10 during the regime of late General Sani Abacha. He was Secretary-General, Nigeria Olympic Committee and served as Special Assistant to the former Minister of Information, Senator Uche Chukwumerije.
Presently he is Chief Executive Officer, Nkem Gallery, Lekki, Lagos. Okonta, wh will be 72 in August, spoke to BASHIR ADEFAKA on his life and the arts in Nigeria. Excerpts:
When you look back to your days as a boy, how would you describe life?
I grew up in the North because my parents lived in the Northern part of the country. I attended St. John’s College, Kaduna.
You know, that is the school attended by most of those who made it to high places in the military. People like Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu Kaduna, who was a major actor of the first coup in the country attended that school. And I had a very glorious background.
Was art your chosen career?
No, art was never my career. My career was in broadcasting because when I left school, broadcasters like Kunle Alakija and so on. Encouraged me and I liked the professin.’ And it all started also from my school because, many of those we went to St. John’s College together went into broadcasting.
What was the input of your parents to your decision to join the broadcasting profession?
My parents were not really okay with it. They wanted me to do medicine. My father was not a doctor but he was called doctor because he had always been in medicine throughout his life.
He was a nurse, he was a dispenser and he was everything. Even when we were living in Bauchi they called him doctor because the doctor would come once a month or once in two months and as the head there he was tactically a doctor. You know in those days nurses were trained to look after human being from the toe to the head.
How did your father’s career impact on your health as a child?
By that I would say I was lucky. One, we used to live in hospital quarters and I hardly fell ill because we were regularly taken care of and there were all kinds of medicines that one was given to make you really survive and healthy. I was very healthy all through growing up as a child and I would say that I had a wonderful time as a young boy and I never knew hunger.
So much that when I was going to school I used to smuggle food out of the house – three or more plates – so that I could give to my mates whom I knew had nothing to eat.
I so much love my parents because they took good care of us. And that grew with me that by the time I started having children I made sure that I took good care of them too. We were taught not to have too large family that you will find it difficult to take care of.
And from my early life I learned how not to overstretch myself: the things that I can do, I do them comfortably. The things that I cannot do, I don’t bother myself about. Even though I grew up in England, I never took higher purchase, I never went to get credit card because I don’t want to overstretch myself. Today, if I don’t have money in my cheque book, I put it under my briefcase so that I am not tempted to go and raise a dud cheque.
So, my parents taught us to cut our clothes according to our cloths. If you have three yards, you don’t have to go and sow babariga with that. So I have always been like that and I pray to God that my children also will be like that. You don’t overstretch yourself.
You can be ambitious but being ambitious doesn’t mean you go and steal or go and forge cheque. Being ambitious doesn’t mean that if you have three hundred naira in your bank you have to go and issue a cheque of fifty thousand naira for somebody. Being ambitious is for you to say, “Yes, I want to buy a car” and you work hard for it; “I want to build a house” and you work hard to achieve it.
And I must give thanks to God because everything that I needed or wanted I had always got; not through my power but through friends. I have good friends who are very good to me, and of course through the Almighty God.
Joining Civil Service at 43 was very late and you retired 17 years after in 1999. Why did it take you so long before joining civil service?
First and foremost I joined the civil service because I needed a stable means of living. I was doing some things for myself but not regular incomes were coming forth. And there was a friend of mine, Gladys Okafor, who was high up in the civil service and who encouraged me, “Why don’t you go into the civil service? You will have a house, you will have stable income to take good care of your wife and children.”
That was how I applied and I was taken into the Ministry of Information. That time I wasn’t a very young man (laughs). That was in 1982 during the administration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari. And you know the people in the Ministry of Information were not really typical civil servants; they were called Information Officers and information officers were not always on the seats. They looked for information, they spread information to people and I found it very interesting.
There in the ministry I became bigger because I was made to work in a section that communicated with our offices all over the world and people loved me so much that many people wanted to come to work in my section.
At what level did you retire from the Ministry of Information and how did it happen?
I retired as Deputy Director. You know as from Assistant Director you are called Director just like in the Army when you are Brigadier General, Major General, Lt. General; you are already addressed as General. I had a very good time and I never regretted one day of working in the Ministry of Information until I retired 12 years ago at the age of 60. That time I didn’t look sixty and so some people advised me to change my age to read 55 and I said, “No. When you get to 60 you are seen as having given the best of your life to serving and that you should go and rest.”
You were said to have combined many jobs as an officer of the Ministry of Information. How did you do that?
While I was in the Ministry of Information I was appointed Chairman, Nigeria Boxing Association; I was President, Cycling Federation and Secretary-General, Nigeria Olympic Committee (NOC). So I have been very well known in sports so much that everybody thought I was even working in the Ministry of Sports. At a time it was raised as an issue to my minister and he said it was good that I was promoting the image of Ministry of Information in sports.
Under which Minister of Information did you serve?
I can’t say a particular person because they changed them so often. But I can remember Prince Tony Momoh was my minister and Chief Alex Akinyele also was there at a time as Minister of Information. Uche Chukwumerije whom I even served with as Special Assistant. I was there where Ofonagoro was minister.
Not only that. I was also Member, Vision 2010 set up by late General Sani Abacha.
As a Member of Vision 2010, why do you think the vision deserve to be discontinued the way it is?
Vision 2010 had it all and there is nothing as well arranged as that set up. It was killed as a result of jealousy. Vision 2010 was a very interesting planning process that Nigeria would ever have. It gathered people from all walks of life to come and think together on how to make our country – Nigeria – great.
Now that Vision 20:2020 has replaced Vision 2010, what is your comment?
It is not that Vision 20:2020 is not good, it is the people who are in it that are the problem. It’s not that government policies are not good. Do you mean if government says it wants to make things work in this country today that it won’t be so? Power, water, health, education, everything? Government has fantastic policies; it’s the people that implement those policies that are the problems.
What is wrong in being given a job of say one million naira, you spend N850,000 to execute the job and make a profit of N150,000? Also corruption in high places is another problem. Does government say you should be corrupt? You give out a job of one hundred thousand naira and you go ahead to take one million naira. Is it government that says you should do that? We need to really sit down and think well for this country to move forward and be great.
Name: Chief Francis Chukwuma Okonta.
Date of birth: August 3, 1939.
Place of birth: Delta State.
Present position: President, Arts Galleries Owners Association of Nigeria (AGAN).
Strength of character: Self contentment and courage.