• Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Obiageli Ekekwesili


 She was born at the Island Maternity in Lagos in 1963 and grew up mostly in Lagos in a close-knit, humble and strong Catholic family of six.

“We were very poor financially but abundantly rich in values. My dad, Benjamin Umeh-Ujubuonu, was an uncompromisingly honest public servant with the Nigerian Ports Authority and my mum, Cecilia, was an industrious woman who excelled in trade and business and complemented her husband in providing for our needs. My name Obiageliakunnaya became Oby to others but O’geli to my parents,” she tells me.

“I was also variously known by my other names Katryn and Ngozi, an Igbo name given to every first daughter born on Sunday for being a ‘blessing’. My name Obiageli was a statement by my parents that they considered me their ‘treasure’ because I was the first girl-child in our larger family which was known for being prolific in the birth of male children. My arrival as a daughter therefore conferred on me the privilege to ‘enjoy my father’s wealth’.”

Growing up as the first of four children, a sister and two younger brothers, they were raised with their five first cousins. This made thinking of each other as ‘nine siblings’ come naturally because at the death of her uncle, her mum and dad took full responsibility for them. Little wonder she is sold out to service to humanity. Her family home, though of a modest abode, was always wide open to anyone who needed one.

How best can one celebrate a true icon and a blessing to womanhood at fifty if not to share a few minutes of interview with such an exceptional gem that broke through the glass ceiling to reach the enviable height of vice president of Africa at The World Bank Group, among several other outstanding heights she achieved? Obiageli Ezkewesili is my Leading Woman for this week.

Beyond recounting her various feats, my interview with Oby was very personal as she revealed more about her growing up to me. Oby was raised with very strong fundamental values which were modelled out for her by her parents. Drawing from their very beautiful bond in marriage, they jointly shaped their children’s core life values of integrity, hard work and sacrifice, strong attributes that have become her way of life.

“We can hardly ever forget the daily ‘value syrups’ that we drank from especially our dad’s quotable quotes. I have held them dearly to my heart and used them to shape my choices in life. Quotes like ‘Character is destiny’, ‘No one can lead who cannot serve’, ‘The life of a person does not consist in the abundance of things they have’, ‘The fruit of hard work is the only worthy thing to enjoy’, ‘A good name is better than gold’, and ‘Diligence will make us excel and stand before kings rather than mean men’. The shared vision of our parents for all nine children was to offer us the best possible opportunity to be educated to the highest level possible despite their humble means,” Oby tells me.

“We were a family that exceedingly valued knowledge. Our family’s quest for knowledge was firmly inculcated by my dad who was a teacher to both our mum, Cecilia, and her children learning at his feet until he passed on. Academic accomplishments were often celebrated in our home in ways that made us look forward to end of term examinations in order to proudly return with results that had done ‘justice to the huge sacrifice’ of our parents. Even though our parents had meagre means, they raised us with very strong sense of personal dignity and that has followed us through life.”

Turning fifty, for Oby, is of great importance as she attributes all to God. According to her, “I would say that life’s greatest lesson for me is that with God all things are possible to them that believe! It means that with the support of God, strong sense of fundamental life values and access to quality education, there is no limit to what the child of the poor can accomplish. That, after all, is my story. As the daughter of parents who had only modest means but both of whom were strongly anchored on God and went ahead to raise us to imbibe strong life values, my siblings and I grew up appreciating the necessity to place honesty above gold, to be sacrificial, to be diligent in service, to constantly thirst for knowledge and to cherish hard work. Celebrating my birthday, I hosted a thanksgiving service to God to testify of His goodness to me in the last fifty years.”

Oby believes in women empowerment and tells why. “Research has shown that families, companies and societies benefit more when this happens because women will make the right choices and decisions to improve the quality of life of children in issues of education, health and such like. It is absolutely important for women to be empowered because first, they constitute half the population and so except a nation empowers the women, it will be trying to achieve development with only half of its human resources. So, we say that empowering women is ‘smart economics’.”

Ever passionate about the youth and their development, Oby speaks more on her fervour for the youth and her desire for them to succeed at all levels. “We all were youths before we became adults and depending on how you look at it, adults are youths too because they can be young at heart, but truth is that if the youths stay true to critical core values of purpose, service, sacrifice and hard work, they could actually be Africa’s Turning Point Generation,” she says.

“Those in the older generations that you respect for their values, excellence in profession and enterprise are the mentors that can complement your efforts at becoming the leaders of a new nation, a new Africa, a new globe in which an African child can also be the best in any field of endeavour like those of other continents. Being as one who adores the ‘can do’ attitude of youth, I am passionate about them and glad to be a mentor to so many of them across the continent and beyond.”

Different people at different times have had their opinion about Oby but in all of these, she has this to say. “Over the course of my professional life in private sector, civil society and public sector, people say they remember my strength of character, discipline, candour, fairness, justice, sacrifice, public spiritedness, courage, humility and modesty. On the negative side, I am considered to be very tough, impatient, too direct and too blunt! LoL!! Truth is that I am like most humans a work-in-progress and that means I never forget my dad’s counsel that we must focus on building our character instead of wasting our time trying to build a reputation.”

It was an educative and enlightening interview for me, but this is not all. Please see the entire discourse on the Interview section of BusinessDay on Monday, May 6, 2013. Enjoy!