“There were 58 boys in my class. I was the only girl in their midst. But I enjoyed it; you can imagine being the only girl in the midst of 58 boys.”
Engineer Ebele Okeke from Nnewi North, Anambra State, Nigeria’s first female Head of Civil Service of the Federation is also the first female civil engineer to occupy that position. She attended the Archdeacon Crowther Memorial Girls Secondary School, Elelenwa, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, where she made Grade 1 in her West African Certificate Examinations in 1965. She then proceeded to Southampton, England for her A-level education in an all-girls college. Thereafter, she gained admission into the University of Southampton England and graduated in 1971 with B.Sc. second class hons. in civil engineering. She followed this up with a postgraduate course in ground water at the University of Technology, Loughborough and Hydrology and Hydrogeology at University College, London in 1979. Later, she crowned her educational achievements with a postgraduate diploma and MBA from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 2001.
Over the years, she’s worked as a public health engineer with Sanford Fawcett Wilton & Bell Consulting Engineers, London, Highways and Transportation Engineers and Gifford & Tolefe Consulting Engineers, Ibadan. According to her, she joined the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources in August 1978 as a Principal Water Engineer and rose to the position of Director, Department of Rural Development in January 1997. Much later, in March 2005, she became the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Water Resources.
Two years after, in July 2007, she was appointed to the exalted position of Head of the Civil Service of the Federation and thus became not only the first female to occupy the position but also the first engineer to hold the esteemed position. She was inducted into the Nigerian Women Hall of Fame in November, 2007 and retired in 2008.
The woman who has contributed immensely to the development of engineering in Nigeria was the Founder of the Association of Professional Women Engineers, (APWEN), Abuja Branch. She has presented a good number of technical papers at different national and international fora including the World Bank, the India Water Works Association, Bombay, India and the International Water Resources Association, (IWRA) Ottawa, Canada, among others. In this interview with Saturday Sun, she speaks about her experiences over the years.
Could you tell us a little about yourself as the first female civil engineer? How did it affect your life while in office?
I have earlier told you how I started my engineering career. When I finished my school certificate in Nigeria I went to a college for girls in Southampton, through my father’s friend, one Clifford who is now late. He was leaving for England with his family. From there, I entered the university to read civil engineering. There were 58 boys in my class. I was the only girl in their midst. But I enjoyed it; you can imagine being the only girl in the midst of 58 boys.
The only female among them?
Yes, they used to play pranks on me, but it was not out of hatred or anything. The first engineering building did not have toilet for girls, so I used to use the same toilet with the boys. But whenever I was using the toilet, they would all line up and be peeping through the door and when I come out, they would all laugh and continue to do their designs. Really, the civil engineering is a difficult course but all you have to do is to work hard, and if one works hard he will make it. But even in hairdressing one needs to work hard. So people who work hard do make it. When I finished, I got a job in England. But after working for one and half years I came back to Nigeria. Finally, I got a job with Federal Ministry of Water Resources; that is where I did all my work except for three years where I was moved to work as Director for Rural Development. Later, I became a Permanent Secretary and Head of Service. Everything is not because you are intelligent but because of the grace of God.
What were the challenges you faced at that period, in a male-dominated environment?
As a female?
You know, in the midst of male-dominated career, not just in civil engineering but any profession you are in which you are working as a woman, men think because they are men they must chase you. And, if you refuse, they make life difficult for you. But remember, nobody is God. Men think it is their right but because you are a woman, but they don’t know that nobody is God. They can only delay you but they cannot stop you from becoming what God has destined for you. This happens in every sector that a woman is working. It is the same experience for any lady who is working in any office or big corporation or private company. But all you need is to hold your head high and work hard and God will do the rest for you.
What is the role of women in nation-building?
People think that only men have to build the nation. It is not true. Women start building the nation from home. It is most unfortunate that elections in Nigeria are not mostly for women. That is why you don’t have many women, and that is why we don’t have anybody sponsoring us. We see that election in Nigeria is mostly for men, but if you will put in your quota and I put in my quota, we will go places. Any woman working in the civil service is developing the nation or building the nation from her own angle, and if they are lucky to be in politics and become one of the ministers in any ministry, they can as well contribute more to the building of the nation. All the women who work with civil service are targeting the nation. But if you enter into politics and you become a minister like I was in the civil service and I put in my quota while I was there, then if everyone of us put in their quota, the better for all of us.
Unlike what your organisation is doing today, trying to encourage other women, there are women who are not so disposed towards their fellow women. In fact, there is a saying that women are their worst enemies. What’s your take on this?
It is not true? I know that women are their own worst enemy, like the case of Sarah (Jibril) when she went for primary election in her party. She was the only person who voted for herself. No other women voted for her. But suffice it to say that some women help other fellow women. Do you realise that men don’t encourage women, especially men from the South East?
What’s your advice to women on this area?
Keep on struggling. As a woman, continue to work hard and when it is time, God will take you there. You might mark time but when it is time nothing can stop you from occupying the position that God has designed for you.
What projects are you embarking on now that you have retired?
I was appointed Wash Ambassador, where I support the sanitation and hygiene campaign in Nigeria. The Wash Project I told you about is a high-level advocacy, whereby I talk to high government officials and they are keying into it.