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IFEYINWA MAUREEN OKAFOR, strategically treading the path to global leadership

Ifeyinwa Maureen Okafor is the CEO, International Packaging Industry, a former Adviser, Imo State Government and an Amujae Leader (2021). She is among 15 African women of which 3 are Nigerian to be mentored and coached by presidents and world leaders so they can unleash their potential as emerging global leaders.

The Amujae Initiative is a program of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development (EJS Center) that identifies and challenges African women to be catalysts for political and social change across Africa.

EJS was founded in 2018 by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and the first elected woman head of state in Africa. On the Board of the EJS are Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as well as other global change makers.

Okafor, a multiple local and international award winner attended the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, where she graduated with a first-class degree in Law. She is also an Alumnus of The Johnson Institute of Responsible Leadership, University of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

A Chartered Accountant and Governance Professional, she spent the first 15 years of her career in banking and financial services.

Expanding her private sector portfolio, in 2008, she joined International Packaging Industries of Nigeria Plc as Managing Director.

In 2019, Ifeyinwa was invited to join the Imo State Government as a Member of the Financial Advisory Committee, where her prudent management enabled significant reform within the Treasury and streamlined government finances.

Her team was responsible for introducing the Treasury Single Account (TSA) to the state.

Okafor has served in several professional associations including as Treasurer and Member, Governing Council, Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators of Nigeria (ICSAN), to mention a few.

She was a Commissioner on the Imo State Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Contracts from 2011-2019, tasked with reforming the contract award process and recovery of funds paid for contracts not executed.

She is an avid reader, tennis player, competitive swimmer, and mother of three children.

Growing up

I was the first child and most first borns have this sense of responsibility in that, our parents always told us “Your younger ones are looking up to you” in other words, you were set up to excel, you didn’t have the liberty of misconduct. My parents were university lecturers and we moved around a lot. I had a cosmopolitan upbringing. I grew up in the north, my parents were in Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, they were also in Imo State. To further their education, they went to the United States and they both achieved their Ph.D. It formed me as a young person because I realised that in the country at that time, I could see the level of development which was different from where we were coming from.

When we came back to Nigeria, I had a culture shock in the sense that the standard of living of my parents was not higher than when we came back, and they were fully employed as university lecturers. So, as a young child, I would ask, “Why didn’t you stay in United States? Were our lives not better there?” But my father would say that this is our country, we need to come back and make sure that we contribute to its development. So, I think that stuck with me that this is my country and as much I can travel and see development, I have a sense of duty to be part of resolving the issues that we face, being part of the solution and also contributing to our national development. That’s how growing up was for me.

15 years working in the corporate world

I always tried to be a role model for others to follow. I always tried to be a person of excellence. So, I put my best in my work and I constantly got awards in my industry and my promotion was rapid. I think for the financial industry, I enjoyed my work at that time, but I had a deep sense that there was more out there and there was a lot more I could do. However, within the confines of my work, I was a bit constrained, I couldn’t criticize the government. My employers couldn’t take that. I couldn’t run for elections, I couldn’t participate in any governance process because my employers wouldn’t want that.

So, as much as I was doing very well in my employment, I had to be where I could express the fullness of who I was and I could aspire to be part of a solution for the greater problem that my country was in. As a banker, I was relatively comfortable, I could take care of my needs but I could also see that there were a lot of people who couldn’t take care of their needs.

I could see that there were lots of people who were not meeting the daily basic requirements of food and shelter and I think that began to prick my soul and I realised that it was just a matter of time before I could ‘escape’ and seek where I could do something to make the lives of people better.

Your opinion on how women are being treated in the corporate world, between when you were there and now

Women in the corporate world, have things changed in terms of their growth perspectives and promotion to lead organizstions? I don’t think things have changed dramatically, I think there have been one or two people who have broken the glass ceiling but it’s not a standard and that’s why we keep celebrating women who have done what maybe Ibukun Awosika has done because they are still so few. We haven’t normalised women in leadership.

I think we need to move to where it is normal for women who have the capacity, who have the character, capability to ordinarily emerge at the top. Not being done favours, not being used to meet gender ratios or quotas. It’s should just be normalised that women who are capable to emerge should become CEOs in the corporate world. So again, if you ask me, I wouldn’t say there have been significant changes. Women still have to struggle against societal barriers and norms. It’s a boy’s club in the corporate sector, at the board level it’s a boy’s club. In the boy’s government, it’s still a boy’s club. Women are given token appointments and they are not really in the kitchen cabinet where decisions are made. I think there is a lot of work to do.

Transition from the corporate world to politics

As a corporate person, I was responsible for myself and a few customers I had. But in government, I would have been responsible for three million people if I had been elected, I would have been responsible for transformation of a lot more people’s lives. My aspiration was to impact people in positive ways and the platform that politics gives is that you can do it for many people by creating policies, creating change that is adopted and can affect many more lives.

The time I left the corporate world to aspire, it was very difficult because I had never been in politics. The people in the political arena will not welcome you because they feel you have a life in the corporate sector, why are you coming into politics? They look at politics as a place where it is an exclusive reserve for them, so, you coming in from outside, you’re not welcome. They would discourage you in every way they could. As much as I knew that people like me were needed, we were not welcomed.

Decision to contest for the position of Governor of Imo state

Running for governorship was a very challenging time because I was aspiring for the first time and for the highest level of leadership. You get asked, “Why not start from the local government or the House of Assembly? That would be more achievable in terms of the coverage of your constituency and your financial capacity” but I knew what I had to offer was beyond my local government. I believed in my capability to turn things around for the state. I was looking at where I could influence a greater number of people and I believed that at the highest level of state governance, I could influence a greater number of people through policies and executive governance. So, that’s why I aspired for the office of the Governor of Imo State. Despite not winning, I have advised two governors now.

Summarise your experience

It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. It stretched me mentally, financially, emotionally and also health wise because I’m constantly on the road, campaigning, talking to people having good discussions and trying to convince people that you have what it takes and that you have their interest at heart. I think our people are a bit jaded about politicians. They do not believe that their politicians truly have their best interests at heart. They do not believe that politicians really want to serve them. They would rather get what they can from every aspirant rather than to believe in your message to actively be part of the process of also convincing others that this person has what it takes to run the state.

One of the challenges I saw was that, a lot of people are disillusioned in the Nigerian politics, so, a fresh face wasn’t enough to disillusion them. They still categorise me in the manner of the old politicians who had come to ‘chop’. So, it was an uphill task and has remained an uphill task. It’s still a money-politics game.

Advice to women interested in joining Nigerian politics

First of all, there are many avenues to politics because when people think about politics, they think of elective politics. You can aspire to be a public office holder, and that could be a soft landing in the sense that it could be a government appointment or given an agency to run, whatever it is, you still have to show interest in the political process. If you’re not running for elections yourself, you have to show interest in those who are running so that at the time they are eventually elected, you can form part of their cabinet.

So, it means that women should aspire to join political parties and not just wait for the general elections when A or B would be voted for. Women should aspire to join the party governance, not just Women Leaders. Run party chairman, party secretary, even party at the national level. Get involved because it is at the party level that they decide who is given a ticket or who becomes a flag bearer and at that point, the general populace can only elect those who are flag bearers.

So, women who have a desire to create change may not necessarily run for political office, but you can be part of the political process and then if they are so inclined, they can now run for office further down the road.

However, they need not be discouraged even while there are challenges. During my campaign, we were often told that meetings happened in the middle of the night, there were all kinds of voodoo, and these are things that they put out there to frighten women nevertheless, we must have courage.

What makes us courageous is knowing that you have something to offer to change the lives of people. If you focus on that greater good that you want to bring , if you focus on what can happen if you get the opportunity to serve, you will not be disillusioned, you will not be discouraged by the challenges and hurdles and the fear that they put in our path. We will not look at the challenges of the now, we will keep looking ahead at the prospects of a brighter future if we are to get elected into office or appointed into a position that you can influence change for Nigerians.

Running for office in 2023?

Being part of the political process is not negotiable for me being that, every day I wake up, I’m looking for how to be part of the solution. So, it’s either I’m writing about it, speaking about it, or in conversations with people who are over and above party lines and I call them and say, “This is not working, tell so and so”.

So, from behind the scenes, I speak to people who are elected, who are in appointive office and I give them my ideas and how they can impact and improve the portfolios that they currently carry.

I’ve never stopped being part of the political process and I think that, as God leads, I would know whether in 2023 to now take up a ticket to run for office.

Being former adviser to Imo State Governor

The thing about being an adviser is that you’re not really in an executive position, yours is to do the research, write the documents and submit to your principal and then go back to your wardrobe and start praying that he acts on the things you have documented. There will some that political expediency would not allow your principal to take action on. That was the sad part for me.

Now, imagine that you’ve done the research and such wonderful work and your principal tells you that because of the votes coming from an area or because of the kind of support he’s expecting from so and so, he cannot implement the kind of change you’re recommending. Then there are times that your recommendations are taken, those were moments of joy. I spoke to some commissioners and some of my recommendations have been implemented. People have been removed from office and some reforms have been implemented. So, it gives me great joy that some of these recommendations have been put in place and I know that there are people who would forever be grateful that a woman like me got into that space and made those wonderful suggestions which have now become effective and in place.

Reforming the students’ welfare services

That gives me so much joy. I spoke to the commissioner a few days ago and he told me that the former vice-chancellor has been removed and that was part of our recommendations because we found that she was not working in the best interest of the students. This was a university where students were being sexually exploited. They girls were being sexually exploited for marks. There were a lot of misconduct on the part of the lecturers and basically the people who could make a change looked the other way and that’s the thing because, they themselves came in through a compromised process.

The vice-chancellor was appointed through a compromised process so when misconduct was going on under her nose, she didn’t rise up to it because she didn’t want people to remind her of how she became the VC.

There was a lot of misconduct in that university from lecturers and students. I interviewed students and they tell me, Why are you bothering? It’s easier to be able to pay or have sex and get a second class degree than to work hard, to study and sweat” and I’ll look at them and my heart will be broken even as I ask myself “This the generation that we want to replace us, the leaders of tomorrow and they are telling me, who has come to reform the system that I needn’t bother, they like it the way it is.”

I realised it was a broken system and we really needed to fix it. So, that was one of the greatest task I accomplished.

Being on the board of Financial Advisory for Imo State Committee

The role was to basically put back a state that was destroyed from financial recklessness, financial misconduct, from every negative thing you can think of and the same time, we were one of the lowest in terms of internally generated revenue and our allocation from the center wasn’t much to write home about. In essence, we were a poor state that had been governed by greedy governors. The little that was coming into the state had been mismanaged and stolen.

There were issues of contracts given and fully paid that were not executed. There were issues of contracts awarded multiple times and fully paid, contracts that existed on paper but when we visited the site, they were not in reality. So, we had to go over eight years of poorly documented contracts, review all the documentations. In a judicial panel, you invite people to come and give testimonies; we did this and were able to unravel the financial mess that was in the state.

We set up a more accountable system, a more prudent system where the chief executive of the state is not supposed to be involved in a contract award process, the treasury of the state is managed in such a way that you can see what is coming in and what is going out. Before then, there was no proper budgeting system; it was just an untidy state of affairs.

So, that took us sleepless nights, untangling the state’s financial state.

Being MD/CEO, International Packaging Industry

It’s not been an easy task. We’ve gone through near-bankruptcy and came out of that. We’ve gone through boardroom challenges and we’ve come out from that. Now, we’re in a prosperous season for us because now we have stabilised, we have grown, and learned from the mistakes of the past. As we have an excellent crop of people who are dedicated to the organisation, we’ve added a new set of company values that we are actively living.

We’re resilient, we approach everything we do with integrity, we work with a sense of service to internal and external customers. In other words, we bring our excellent game to work every day.

What your company does

We’re an organisation that hire people, develop them and then they can apply their skills in the best possible manner to the organisation’s work. While we’re a paper manufacturing company, we make paper packaging for toothpaste and gift boxes; I’m primarily about developing people so that they bring their best work to bear in the paper packaging we deliver to customers on a daily basis.

I have seen that this has worked. Right now, we have won a lot of contracts that hitherto were beyond us, but I’ve seen that our people are now energised to go bring in businesses. Because we focus on training every week, we found that they are more equipped to also negotiate, go on marketing calls and to also practice their craft in the factory when they get to work every day.

The effect of COVID-19 on your organisation

COVID-19 was a leveler, everyone was affected. If I look at my books right now, it didn’t really impact my business in the sense that, because we had already set out who we were, when COVID-19 came, we were able to continue to work, some offline, but the factory workers were more or less quarantined within the factory environment.

So, we were able to maintain our businesses, and at that time, because some others were not able to maintain their businesses, a lot of businesses moved to my company. We were able to maintain our integrity in terms of delivering when we say we will deliver.

Integrity worked for us because a lot of companies didn’t maintain their integrity. Due to the supply chain challenges, when they say that they would supply a particular quality of paper, they would compromise. However, we stayed with our delivery promise and the customers appreciated that and moved their businesses to us. So, COVID-19 went for me in a way I couldn’t imagine. Right now, we’re bigger, better and servicing bigger orders and we’re grateful to God.

Advice to the government on managing COVID-19

One of the challenges we have as a nation is that we don’t put merit as a primary criterion for selecting people into office. At least, let us start by selecting the most qualified Nigerians from anywhere in the world to come back home at this time to manage the crisis for us. Having done that, we put in priority, a plan to vaccinate Nigerians. What other nations are doing is not just acquiring vaccines, but there is a roll out on how it would be administered to their national so that their economies can come back to normal.

The greatest advice I’d give is for us to get the best people involved in knowing how to tackle and help resolve issues on COVID-19. Same with everything else, when we put the most qualified people in charge of making decisions; it would be in the best interest of everyone. But when we have nepotism, people appointed just because they are from a particular region, I don’t think it would be in the best interest of the country.

Unrest in some parts of Nigeria

I believe as a mother, if I am forced to take the perspective that every Nigerian is my child, and if every Nigerian is my child, my interest would be to do what is best for all my children and not some of my children. Therefore, the decisions we should make should be in the best interest of all. So, the instability between herdsmen and farmers, when these two categories of people who are in the food chain are fighting, the people suffer because they need the food and don’t get it and also experience supply chain disruptions. They are impacted negatively.

I think it’s a matter of sincerity. What is in the best interest of the herdsmen? What’s in the best interest of the farmer? What’s in the best of both parties that does not compromise the welfare of either party or what is the best interest of Nigerians as a whole?

We’ve discussed it in several occasions on the need for ranching, the need for a system that is organised for us to produce the best beef and milk to actively encourage progress within that sector. We can’t sustain a situation where there are constant fights because cattles are eating up the crops of the farmers. It’s not sustainable. The instability needn’t be, we just have to put more organisation and more thought into how we can make sure the herdsmen are satisfied and the farmers are satisfied.

Being a 2021 Amujae leader

Amujae is a word in the Liberian language that means ‘we’re moving up’, and it was coined by former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She brought together a group of important women to join her in this legacy project, which is developing the next set of women leaders for the continent.

She looked at it that since she became president, women haven’t arrived at that presidential level in Africa, she then felt she should do something to encourage women who are already in the process, or who are aspiring for different levels of public leadership. It’s a hand-holding mentorship programme, so that you have access to these women and they can share their stories and experiences, and we can also be inspired to keep striving for our own dreams and goals.

It’s an amazing network of wonderful women. In Nigeria, we were about 214 that applied and I am privileged to be one of three that were chosen. We have a huge responsibility to represent the nation in this so that, with a high sense of responsibility and duty, we can also learn and then come back to impact our communities with what we have learnt, improve our space and also aspire to a higher level of leadership.

Selection process

The selection process was basically done through a number of submissions. We were asked to write certain essays about what we had done in the past and what we’re aspiring to do next. So, theirs is an online form that I had to fill and go through some Zoom interviews. Our mentors interviewed us and they were able to make a choice from the conduct of the interview and the submissions we made.

I was quite excited when I was called and told I was part of the elite group of women that were chosen for the 2021 cohort. It means that every year, there will be 15 women that will be nominated. One of our mandates is also to look for people we can mentor. It’s an amazing network and I’m so privileged to be part of it.

What’s next?

I’m enjoying this Amuje journey. We have 15 incredible women in this 2021 cohort. We’re getting to know each other, building up and supporting each other. Now, in the next two years as the political climate begins to heat up, we can decide what party and candidates you’re going to support and how we’re going to level this same connection to put good candidates on to platforms that they can get elected. My passion now is to support quality women get into politics or become part of that process.

Life lessons

We should welcome our failures. I say this because I don’t think growing up anybody told me “You will fail and when you fail, this is the template for getting out of failure”. We should learn to embrace our failures and use them as stepping stones to our next success. Some of the things that I’ve failed at, I’ve learnt from them and it has made me a better person and helped me come into the next phase stronger and face the challenges knowing that if I had gotten over that challenge, I can still get over the next hurdle.

There’s no hurdle in life that is too high to overcome, especially for women. We can be all that we purposed to be. Let’s keep striving.

Advice to women

Dare to leave your comfort zone, do what is needful to move to where you’re going. Take those baby steps towards your dreams.

Those baby steps might involve leaving your comfort zone which might be difficult but stepping out of your comfort zone is just the beginning. You will still get to a level of comfort that will come with the joy of knowing that you’re on purpose, on track to achieving what you’re ordained to achieve. Don’t allow fear stop you from going to your dreams. Take the baby steps; get the mentors that you need to take you to the destiny that is ahead of you, even if it means changing your network.

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