As a young man out of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (Enugu Campus) in the mid-80s, I consciously sought and acquired experience that would position me for leadership on the world stage and in my country.
First I did my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) assignment as a Legal Officer at Shell Nigeria HQ in Lagos.
First class global multinational. Dominant in Nigeria’s petroleum industry. I worked hard as a “Corper” and was kept very professionally busy by my supervisors Dr. V.O. Achimu the Company Secretary and Head of Legal, and Mrs. Efe Omole, a senior corporate lawyer in Shell.
Then I joined Newswatch, founded by Nigeria’s most influential journalists of that era, the quartet Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese, and Yakubu Mohammed, as its general counsel. In media, ’twas THE PLACE.
To further internationalize my CV, and doubling as a lawyer/journalist, I became a special correspondent for influential foreign newspapers and magazines of the era such as South magazine, Christian Science Monitor, and Africa News (today’s AllAfrica Global Media). But I wanted, as I put it on my CV as my goal, “a career of distinction in international affairs”.
Possibly in the Nigerian Foreign Service, following the footsteps of my now-deceased dad, but preferably in an international organization like the United Nations, Commonwealth Secretariat, or in the Organization of African Unity (now African Union ). That meant, at the very least, getting a master’s degree. From where? I thought it through, and had been advised by my own research and by mentors that one of the best moves for such a career was to obtain a master’s from the prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, USA.
I applied while working at Newswatch. I was admitted in 1990, but could not afford the $25,000 tuition fee. But I was determined. I deferred the admission by one year, and started looking for money. All the rich businessmen I approached turned me down.
Frustrated, I wrote to Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, immediate past Foreign Minister of Nigeria in the Ibrahim Babangida government. Akinyemi was an alumnus of The Fletcher School, having obtained his master’s degree there in 1966 and then gone on to Oxford University for his Ph.D.
He replied and gave me an appointment to see him (no email then, everything was by snail mail! so all this took several days!). I met him in his office then on Victoria Island, introduced myself and submitted my CV. He read it with interest, and was impressed.
“Well, young man”, he said, “I don’t have the kind of money that will enable me pay your fees, but I’m impressed you were admitted to The Fletcher School. I will write to the school and recommend you for some sort of support and let’s see how they respond”. I was relieved.
This “Big Man” did not know the struggling young man from Adam, but had given me audience and was actually trying to help. “God, I am in your hands” I prayed silently. He asked me to come back & take a copy of the letter he wrote. I did. In two short, powerfully constructed paragraphs of his letter addressed to Professor Jeswald Salacuse, Dean of The Fletcher School at the time, Akinyemi introduced me as “a future leader in Africa”, and said my impressive CV at the young age of 27 was an indicator of this assessment in his view. He then asked the school to consider me for financial support to enrol.
Two months later I received a letter from Fletcher awarding me the Joan Gillespie Fellowship for identified future leaders from India, Nigeria and Algeria. Now to get a visa and leave. Ray Ekpu, my boss at Newswatch, and Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, Managing Director of The Guardian at the time, introduced me to the United States Embassy in Nigeria. The American Embassy was impressed with my admission to The Fletcher School , a training ground for many American and world leaders in diplomacy, politics, business, military and security affairs.
The embassy asked me to send over my passport but not bother to come physically to their office in Victoria Island, Lagos. They stamped my student visa and on top of it, awarded me a travel grant that covered my air travel ticket to the US!
When I arrived at Tufts University, the world opened up. I worked hard to excel academically and survive financially, serving two professors as their research assistant and somewhat envious of the American students from wealthy homes who had credit cards given them by their parents and did not need to work.
From The Fletcher School I joined the UN, my dream career. I started as a junior Associate Officer and rose to the rank of Director and later served on a special assignment at the political rank of Under-Secretary-General. From conflict resolution and nation building assignments in Cambodia, at UN Headquarters in New York on the Angola, Rwanda and Somalia Desks under the supervision of Kofi Annan, back to the field in Croatia and later as Legal Adviser and Spokesman of the International Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, and then to the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland as Head of the Global Partnerships and Resource Mobilization Team at the $20 billion Global Fund in which I also played risk management roles, it was a versatile, satisfying and successful career.
In 2006 while I was based in Geneva with WHO, Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed me a member of the high-level Redesign Panel on the UN Internal Justice System. Working at UN HQ in New York for six months with Mary Gaudron , our chairperson and an Australian Supreme Court Justice, Louise Otis, Canadian Appeals Court Judge, eminent Egyptian international lawyer Professor Ahmed El-Kosheri, and Diego Garcia Sayan, former Foreign Minister of Peru, we overhauled the internal dispute resolution (between staff and management), accountability and transparency framework governing the world body’s 60,000 staff around the world as a core component of management reform. The UN General Assembly ratified our recommendations and voted them into UN administrative law.
It was a watershed moment in the history of internal UN governance.
While in Geneva, I enrolled in January 2004 as a part-time PH.D. candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics (LSE). I wrote my 500-page doctoral dissertation in 12 months, shattering all previous records at the university, and graduated in October 2005 with a doctoral degree. In December 2008 I resigned from the UN after nearly 17 years and founded Sogato Strategies, a risk management consultancy in Geneva serving global multinationals seeking business opportunities in Africa.
This enjoyable experience of self-employment was suspended when I was appointed Deputy
Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria by President Umaru Yar’Adua of blessed memory, on the recommendation of then Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, and confirmed by the Senate. The CBN was, and is a very powerful and consequential institution. This development, however, was a disruption of my earlier plans. But it was, I came to believe later, divinely ordered for reasons only God knows fully.
It came out of a seemingly “by-chance” encounter with Sanusi at the World Economic Forum meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, where he proposed the idea, entirely of his own volition and unsolicited, of my returning home to Nigeria to serve as his deputy and head the CBN’s Financial System Stability (FSS) Directorate that would implement the extensive reform in the banking sector that he had in mind. (Sanusi was just roughly a week into his confirmation by the Senate as the CBN Governor at this time). He later ran his decision to recommend me to Yar’Adua by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, then Managing Director of the World Bank, and she gave her strong agreement with it.
When I reported for duty at the CBN on November 6, 2009 after the Senate confirmed my appointment a week earlier on October 27 (my appointment had been announced in August by Segun Adeniyi, Spokesman for President Yar’Adua) I found several letters of congratulation waiting for me. One of the ones that meant the most to me was one from Prof. Akinyemi. “Dear Deputy Governor”, he wrote, “Need I say anything more? Congratulations”. That was it. Two sentences, harking back to our meeting and his intervention 19 years earlier in 1990.
I am proud to have served my country in such an important leadership role where I made contributions that reformed our financial sector and payments system, including the development and introduction of the Bank Verification Number (BVN). In the CBN Monetary Policy Committee, we progressively brought inflation down to a single-digit 8% by 2014.
After a five year tenure at the CBN, I was appointed a Professor on the faculty of The Fletcher School and taught the course Emerging Africa in the World Economy for two academic years. This was by courtesy of another helping hand: Admiral (Dr.) James Stavridis (Rtd), Dean of The Fletcher School and former Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the military alliance of the Great Powers of the western world, who himself is also a Fletcher alum. It was an honor to have gone to school there; to be appointed a professor at this top global graduate school of international affairs was a double honor.
But while teaching at Tufts University from 2015-2017, my mind turned to the increasing poverty and insecurity at home in Nigeria. I began asking myself why I was in Boston developing the human capital of citizens of the United States, Japan, France, Canada, Ghana, Switzerland, etc when my country was clearly adrift. I made the decision to return home to run for President in 2019. The rest is recent history.
The morale of this story for young people is this: think beyond mere success to impact and consequence in whatever you do. Work hard, and be very strategic. I always aimed for the best of institutions in my career and did not settle for less. I know, the world today is very different, but it offers even more opportunities, and success has become more democratized with the age of the internet, globalization, and high technology. But the same principles apply.
All of this, and much else, are what I bring to my current aspiration: I want to help build a nation that will give our youth great opportunities in the 21st century. We are all God’s children too, entitled to a place in the sun. Africa, and Nigeria, will truly rise one day! It’s always darkest before dawn.