She came from a lineage of strong women. “Uzuakoli women are famous for their independence. They are determined, resolute and truly resilient,” writes Georgina Ehuriah-Arisa, the highflying, federal permanent secretary, who rose to the top on merit, in her autobiography, To Serve and to be Honoured on Merit (Prestige: 2020). Her grandmother, Ezinne Uloju Nnochiri, was a successful woman, which rubbed off on her.
On Merit is a compelling read rendered in limpid prose, laced with florid descriptions of the author’s sojourn from a cliffhanger to the top of her storied career. It is an apologia for womanhood and a valorisation of hard work driven by a labour of love.
Born in Uzuakoli in 1962 to the family of Chief Anosike and Mrs Mary Ihedinma Alaukwu, Georgina, who grew up in the university town of Nsukka, where his father worked, went on to make her mark in her chosen field. But success wasn’t an open sesame because she just had a dream. She worked hard for it. In this book, we see a career beset with garlands after her early years were greeted with a nasty experience –the Nigerian Civil War –which saw her family feeing Enugu to Uzuakoli in 1967 to save their skin.
From that moment, gloom stared young Georgina in the face, as doom lurked in the horizon. The proximity of Uzuakoli to Umuahia, the Biafran capital, meant their hairs were bound to stand on end. Bombs fell from the sky and her fragile ears became attune to “the devilish staccato music of machine guns and the punctuating booms from heavy artillery guns” (p.25). She was chaperoned to the forest of Uzuakoli by her parents, but respite was only momentary. She was captured by federal troops while trying to fetch water from the stream. She recalls (p.26) her furtive bolt: “Me seven-year-old legs could not make much progress in the water before an unseen hand lifted me by the scruff of my neck.”
The author subsequently details her family survived the harrowing war and how they returned to Nsukka in 1970 to see the devastations wrought by the war, amid abundant grimacing skulls. She was to enroll in ota akara at Saint John’s Primary School, Nsukka, at 8, and made steady progress in class so much so that, in Elementary 5, she sat for common Entrance Exam and passed to study in a secondary school.
The tenacity and resilience of a remarkable amazon echo all through this offering. At the prestigious Queen of the Rosary Secondary School (QRSS), Nsukka, they were groomed to be queens. She was a member of the Debating Society and was active in the Dramatic Society. Above all, she was at home with fat novels, which was to help her later in life in communication.
She went on to read English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where she was taught by some of the best intellectuals Africa had to offer in literary studies, including Professors Chinua Achebe and Donatus Nwoga. She was a contemporary of the legendary playwright, Esiaba Irobi.
While at Nsukka, she had bonded with actors in Lagos, including the legendary Lari William, and was considering a career path along that line. But fate had something else in stock for her, so after her youth service, acting on the advice of one of her lecturers, Professor Ossie Enekwe, and her father’s younger brother, Vincent Iroeche Patrick Alaukwu, an administrative officer per excellence in the Federal Civil Service in the 1970s and 80s, she opted for a career in civil service.
From the moment she secured her first job as an Administrative Officer VIII, she looked on to the highest totem pole. It showed in her punctuality, her dedication to duty and enterprising dispositions. Though she was small in stature and of a relatively young age, she was unfazed –lest we forget, she came from a lineage of strong women.
Besides, the author’s personal motivation to join the Federal Civil Service was a dream of getting an international job with a multinational organisation or the United Nations. But, as the saying goes, man proposes and God dispossess –she found herself acquiring a postgraduate degree in Public Administration. She went on to study Law at the University of Lagos.
Another thing that marks Georgina out is that she is a woman who abhors cutting corners. She believes in hard work and following the pace of providence. Though she was repeatedly overlooked when it came for promotion, that didn’t make her crestfallen. Instead, she kept bettering herself to rise through the ranks, unaided. It never rained but it poured for her, afterwards. She made a name as one of the finest bureaucrats Nigeria has ever produced.
From the Ministry of Defence where she started her career, her expertise saw her working in several ministries: Information and Communications, the Cabinet Affairs Office, the Ecological Fund Office, Education Ministry, Mines and Steel Development and, currently, the Ministry of Interior, where she is the permanent Secretary, and at the tail end of her career.
Her giant strides haven’t gone unnoticed, however, with a string of awards under her belt, both national and institutional awards. But her greatest joy is in being forthright in building the nation. She writes on page 222: “I have always felt a sense of pride that I was part of the team that developed the National Plan, which was Nigeria’s first global standard pandemic preparedness response plan and was the precursor to other response plans that were developed and deployed to respond effectively to more virulent outbreaks such as Ebola.”
Georgina Ehuriah-Arisa’s book can also be read as the unmasking of a silent workaholic working miracles in bureaucracy. Some of us wrongly assume that, to climb to the top, you must compromise. Here is one who didn’t breach the protocols of excellence. She went in and is leaving untainted. Even with a myriad of personal issues buffeting her marriage while serving the nation, she kept her head above the water, using resilience as a paddle to row her way to the zenith.
The icing on the cake was the extension of her service by a year, effective from October 1, 2019, by President Buhari, having served for 35 years. Finally, she has bid goodbye to the Civil Service, having trodden on its tortuous path and excelled just On Merit.
Georgia started out as a literary woman. In the last chapter “The Muse”, nostalgia is enkindled, as she chronicles her appearance, last year, at the Abuja Literary Society’s Guest Writer Session. On Merit bellows attraction, not just as whooper, but one with heuristic imports for every reader with a hunger for success.