“Abuja was tough for me because I was never in tourism. Just like when I left banking about 17-20 years ago, I worked in a cement company.”
Sally Mbanefo, is a former Director General, Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC). In June, the light-skinned former model and banker was appointed Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs, Indigenous Artworks, Culture and Tourism in Anambra State. She was in Lagos recently where she had a chat with Effects.
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After serving at the federal level, how do you feel working as Commissioner in Anambra state?
It was such an incredible surprise because I was already in IT. I was running an IT company, a foreign company gave me that opportunity working with the Federal government prepared me to serve my people. Now, I have acquired more knowledge and more respect. And every good thing I have learnt in my previous jobs I’m bringing to my own people. It is the federal government’s job that gave me the experience of what I would implement in my state. The funny thing is this, I was thinking of what I would do with the dresses I already have for culture purpose during my tenure as NTDC DG. I have been having several meetings with fashion designers to re-design and take the clothes away. Each time I made the appointment they won’t show up. The dresses were about 340 dresses. I was always on television and you hardly repeat such dresses. And I need to remove the clothes from my wardrobe. I prayed to God, why are designers not coming for the clothes? Shortly after, the governor sent for me that he wants me in his cabinet. The funny thing is the fact that I always run away from tourism but I always found myself in it. I remembered when I was first appointed in Abuja, as DG Tourism corporation, I told them that I’m a banker and don’t know anything about tourism. At the end of the day, I ended up with the job. When the Excellency also called me, and asked what I would want. I told him as a banker, anything that has to do with Finance is okay. He called me back later that he wanted me in tourism. So, I’m destined to be in tourism again. God wants me there.
What are your plans for the state?
We have already began in earnest to renovate Owerri Ezukala and it is at completion stage now. We want to upgrade our tourism sites to be tourism friendly. Work has also began work earnestly on Ogbunike cave. We have turned our ministry into a walk in exhibition centre. We want all indigenous artists to be inspired at every encounter with us. The first few months I got here, we have encouraged multiple exhibitions. Our bronze work is the best in the whole world – you know history of Igbo Ukwu roles vase. We also have recently launched a diaspora portal on world tourism day, so our Diaspora can be connected live to us and desire to return home more often or for good. We are also holding Diaspora day once a year. This is to enable our people in Diaspora to come home to interact with the governor. Again, for this coming December we are creating a mega bonding event for one week called ‘home coming festival’. We shall launch a palm wine festival and various cultural events to bond Ndi Anambra and friends of Anambra.
All your life, you’ve been in Lagos, how is it like going back home?
It’s so refreshing. It’s home coming and it’s very beautiful. You have to beg me to come to Lagos. I’m very happy here. Air is fresh, the earth is fresh. They have red earth, I’ve always liked red earth. The people are very nice. Anambra people are very cerebral people. We have Nnamdi Azikiwe the first president, we have Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda, and everybody of importance is from Anambra. We have so many things happening in Anambra. What we are also working out is to have our actor and actresses act their films and movies at our tourism sites, because 80/90 percent of Nollywood actors and actresses are from Anambra. Now, there’s nothing I’m really looking for. I am contented, I’m happy with my life; God has blessed me with everything I need. I got married at the right time, I have children, the appointment came when I was very relaxed. Abuja was tough for me because I was never in tourism. Just like when I left banking about 17-20 years ago, I worked in a cement company. I have never been in manufacturing before but I served there and they are always praising me in Lafarge cement. I turned to a champion there. God has blessed me with gift of surprises. I performed well when I left banking to manufacturing. From there I went to Coca-Cola, then oil and gas, from there I opened my own micro finance bank. When you get to a level you realized that all the wealth is vanity. The meaning of being contented is being able to say I can’t have it all the rest must go to others. In that way the lord would give you an increase.
Could you share with us some of your memorable moments in Abuja?
I remember days in Abuja when I flew in economy class , rode in Keke (Tricycle) whenever my car wasn’t available . When my staff are ill I go all the way to visit them in the hospital. If they have babies I go to their homes no matter how far. When I went to Abuja as Tourism DG, I became the face of Nigeria, attended international exhibitions and made so many friends. Also, it is good to remain humble. It is my humility that endeared me to ‘Ndi Yoruba’. They fell in love with me and appreciate me. The late Ooni of Ife before he died made me kneel down for prayers at his palace. The new Ooni also gave me a title. The king of Adamawa also valued me so much, he would take me in his rugged jeep to show me all the rivers in Adamawa. Even the king of Taraba hosts me for days showing me all the cultural sites in Taraba.
What lessons have you learnt about life?
Life is just an incredible beautiful experience if you have the right attitude. You must always learn to bury your hatchet. I made incredible friends in Abuja. When I was a banker, I was popular and always in the newspapers. When I was in the banking sector I thought that was everything in the world, but I’ve seen that it’s not. There’s more to life than money. It’s good to have money as far as you use the money well. God blesses you with money so that you reach out to others that are in need. God is very generous with me. I have always wanted two children and a son and that’s exactly what God gave me. I have always wanted to give to the poor, I’m doing that now; give and give, and I don’t regret what I give.
Your dressing of green white green headgear is back, can we say it’s your signature?
That is very funny. When the Excellency called me that he wants me in his cabinet, I asked if he would want me to wear my emblem. When I entered the first meeting, he said you didn’t come with your ID? That means he likes it. I guess everybody likes it as well.
How do you relax now that you stay in Anambra?
I go to Owerri Ezukala a lot. There is a poetry section at the tourism site. There are so many events that we have always. You know that I’m an artist. What made me take this job is the fact that they added Arts to it. When I used to be in Abuja, I used to wish that arts was part of my portfolio, I used to think it in my heart. I’m an artist because I’ve always been a banker it’s like a hidden side of me. This job is just nice; it would give me the freedom to express myself. I’ve had some exhibitions since I resumed office. The artists in Anambra know I’m an artist and they are happy to have an artist on ground. I go to arts exhibitions and I go to tourism sites. In my spare time I like to practice with the choir in Awka to honour God and humble myself. I also paint and I am a prayer coach for women, men, and young adults. I teach people how to climb the spiritual ladder to become independent powerful prayer warriors who can stand on their own. I like to have close contact with the poor and those in need. Sometimes, their needs are beyond money and maybe just granting them listening ear and wise counsel and a kind smile.