Georgina Ehuriah-Arisa’s brilliance shone early as a kid as she was elevated to higher classes. In the university, she discovered she was cut out for acting, and wanted to be a thespian. But life had another thing in store for her. In 1984, she joined the Federal Civil Service and worked for 18 years with the Ministry of Defence before being transferred to other ministries, including the Cabinet Affairs Office. Recently, she retired from the Civil service after 36 years as a permanent secretary and one of the most decorated civil servants. Saturday Sun chatted her up in Abuja where she revealed how she defied the odds to rise to the top of her career on merit. She recalls, too, her civil war experience and the many privations that came with it.
You put in a total of 36 years in the Federal Civil Service, that is, 35 years statutory service and one year extension added by Mr President last year —what would you consider the turning point of your career, considering that you didn’t want to be a civil servant initially?
When I was acquiring additional qualifications and building my capacity on the job, I discovered that I was becoming a more valuable staff in the system, in the sense that I was now being given serious and significant assignments. After my first degree, I went back to the university to do a masters in Public Administration, and that gave me a very good understanding of the public sector. I would say that was the turning point, because I started having a relationship with the job and the career I was in and what my role was as somebody implementing government’s policy and beginning to understand the purpose of policy, that it is meant to ameliorate members of the society; it is meant to address issues in the society; that the civil service is the single most important instrument which the government uses to drive policy. But, by far, the most important turnaround for me was when I was given a national honour…
When was that?
When I became a deputy director in November, 2011, during the tenure of President Goodluck Jonathan. I was working beyond normal office hours, and by the time the president decided that the staff working in the Cabinet Affairs Office should be compensated, my cabinet secretary then forwarded my name among the five. That was in 2010, but it didn’t materialise till 2011. When the award was announced, it totally changed my life, because I started receiving phone calls from all over the country after it was published, and people started relating with me differently; they started me that I had become a national awardee and was now a respected member of the society. I was receiving congratulatory messages from my former bosses, and people told me all kinds of beautiful things that they knew I would make it; that now that the door had opened, I was on my way to the top of my career. The feeling I got on the day of the award itself —of being appreciated by your own country for doing your work, what I was being paid for — was totally mind blowing. I came out from that ceremony feeling a high sense of accomplishment, mission and being appreciated. That was a motivating factor. And, for me, after that, there was no looking back again; I knew I was not working in vain. The civil service is huge, and it is very easy to think that nobody is noticing you or your work, but to be singled out for that honour, that was not what I could dismiss like that.
Few years after that national recognition, you went on to become a permanent secretary. If you hadn’t gotten that position, would you have felt disappointed? Were you afraid you weren’t going to get it?
No, I wasn’t afraid, because what every civil servant fights for, and you know you can get, is a director. To become a permanent secretary, there are so many other factors. The first of it is that it’s only one person per state, and it is only if there is a vacancy from your state. And you can imagine there are some people that have been permanent secretary for seven or eight years! So, within that period, the directors that are very intelligent from their states won’t have the opportunity of becoming a permanent secretary because there are no vacancies. There are a lot of variables. That is why, as a civil servant, you don’t put your mind in becoming a permanent secretary. But it is good to prepare for it, and you start early preparation for it by making sure you build the capacity along the way, both intellectually and experientially. It is good for the person to really have the experience required to occupy that position. That is what happens to you along the way. It’s very fulfilling to end up as a permanent secretary, but, if you didn’t get it, it’s also good to understand that there are so many things that go into somebody getting that position, and if you didn’t get it, probably it wasn’t meant to be.
Looking at 36 years in retrospect, what would you consider your most significant legacy in the service?
The first, which I normally tell myself, is that I have contributed a lot in building the capacity of civil servants. I used to give lectures to people and I used to train many, individually, from writing skills to how to prepare a memorandum, communication channels in the system, public policy formulation, etc. I have really been involved in building capacity in several areas. I have also contributed in policy development in some of the areas I have worked in. For instance, I was part of the team that developed the National Pandemic Preparedness Response Plan in 2007. That was the first time in a long while we had the threat of a pandemic through avian influenza. That was one job I did that gave me a lot of fulfilment. We developed that plan with the World Health Organisation, FAO, Unicef and several other international NGOs. I was the one that ran the first crisis management centre set up to respond to avian influenza when it broke out from 2005-2007. I became popular in the system because of the work I did in the Cabinet Office, because, for several years, I was instrumental to some of the serious works they did.
I was deployed there as an assistant director. I worked with Professor Afolabi when he was a permanent secretary. Then, I didn’t know the job, so I learnt quickly. After I learnt, I was leading teams to council meetings. You know, the Cabinet Affairs Office is in charge of federal executive council meetings. If the work is not properly done, it will affect policy implementation across all the sectors. The national honour I received was because of the work I did there. I also used the opportunity to build the capacity of the officers there, teaching them writing skills to do the job. I have also been commended for initiating the ministerial performance retreat, which has evolved into a performance assessment mechanism that ministers now come to defend how they are performing in their ministries and what they have been doing with the approvals they have been getting from FEC meetings.
You started out in the Ministry of Defence, you also worked in the Ministry of Mines and Steel, Interior, Cabinet Affairs Office, among others. Which impacted more on your career?
I would definitely say Ministry of Defence, and the second would be the Cabinet Affairs Office. I started my career at the Ministry of Defence, straight from the university, and I spent 18 years there, because there was this policy of government that every officer, as part of Decree 43 of 1988 Civil Service Reforms, that said every officer should stay and specialise in the ministry where he or she finds himself or herself. That was why I stayed there for a long while. Why it was significant was because, at the Ministry of Defence, they had a good policy on management and staff training. So I received a lot of training and exposures. I was there for 18 years. When I check my CV, I see that it was the exposure that I received at the Ministry of Defence, especially, internationally, that made that difference in my performance. Each time I found myself in the midst of colleagues from other ministries, it appeared that I had received more training than they did, and that had given me an edge. For instance, at the Ministry of Defence then, we travelled a lot. They usually put younger officers to join delegations that were visiting other countries, and be with them as secretaries to take note and write reports at the end of the visits. I had the privilege to visit many countries and see their level of development, which served as a motivation to seek the same development back home in Nigeria.
It was in the Ministry of Defence, too, because of that exposure, that I developed my love for classical music and refined my taste. While I was there, also, I studied French. I had bosses who allowed me to pursue my masters degree and law programme, although I didn’t finish the law programme while I was there. I owe a lot to that ministry. The foundation was solid. And that is what I say should be done to every officer that joins the service. There should be that level of exposure at the very junior rungs so that these officers can become well acquainted with things happening in other climes and wish the best for Nigeria.
Your civil service chronicles, On Merit, was recently presented in Abuja, what do you intend to achieve with the book?
As my career was gradually winding down, I became reflective and thought that I had been given so much. I felt I should also give something back to the system that produced me. I came to the Federal Civil Service as a young girl without experience. It was while working that I became the woman that I am today. I left the service as one of the most decorated civil servants, receiving two of Nigeria’s national honours (Member of the Order of the Niger and National Productivity Order of Merit). Besides, I have already received the Presidential Civil Service Award. All these awards were based on excellent civil service delivery.
So, in writing this book, I wanted to share what I did that led to these awards and give it back to the system. It’s my own way of encouraging officers in the system to continue to work hard and perform well, and not to be deterred. If it happened to me, it can happen to you, too.
The second reason is personal. At some part of my career, I was really despondent and I wasn’t really happy with the system, because I thought that the system did not motivate or appreciate officers who performed excellently at the top because of the method of promotion and even selection of officers for promotion. It appeared that you needed to be well connected to get promoted or even deployed to some offices that offered particular additional pecks, what civil servants call ‘juices offices’. Even in Nigeria, generally, it appears that people don’t believe you can get anywhere on merit, that you need a very high network of connection from point A to point B.
But, at the end of my career, I discovered that I didn’t leverage on those connections. I had been sitting for promotional exams from grade level 8 to other levels. What was responsible for these advancement was that I was doing well in other exams. There were instances I wasn’t promoted because there were no vacancies for me to occupy. To be promoted as a civil servant, you need to score a minimum of 60 percent in all the given criteria, but everything depends on vacancy. If the number of those who passed are more than available vacancies, the unlucky ones have to wait till when there are openings.
Personally, I discovered that, if you were aiming for 60 marks to be promoted, it might not always work out. But if you were aiming for 100, no matter the limited chances, you might squeeze in on merit. So, in this book, I want to explain to civil servants that there is a window of merit in the service for you to get to the top; this is how it works. I did mention that those that want to go on merit must be officers that outperform others, who are brilliant and can cover the field wider than the rest.
The third reason for the book is what I discovered about female officers in the system: the lack of support. Women do not have enough support compared to men, because most leadership positions are filled by men, and they mentor male officers. Mentoring requires close association and work, and women who go for mentoring will be accused of dating the man.
Because of this, most women are isolated in leadership, and they don’t receive that mentoring. I thought that, because of this lack of support, a lot of women arrive at the threshold of top management level not quite prepared. Therefore, I have dedicated a chapter of this book “A Mentoring Boot Camp” to them where I shared a lot of experiences with women managers. I even offered tips on how to gain an edge in their workplace. This book is meant to add value to the system.
Do you think merit still matters in age?
Countless numbers of people are still climbing on merit in this country, but they are the ones who make the preparations. The problem we have in Nigeria is that a lot of people don’t make any preparation; they just believe that anything that’s available is for the person who can grab it first, and they now start pulling levers, connections. They don’t even pay attention to their output during competitive exams, because they believe they won’t count.
What I am really canvassing for is that merit should be expanded. To be the best should be for everything in this country. It has been done in Rwanda, a country that just emerged from civil war! There is nothing like federal character or state of origin there. All they care about is your competence, what you bring to the job. If they do it in this country, Nigeria will, in no time, join the league of developed nations. I believe there are other ways the federal character can be incorporated, not that it will be a substitute for excellence and merit the way it’s being done now. If you say every state should take equally, then every state should start early to develop the capacity of its officers. I think we should review the way the federal character is implemented in this country, because it wasn’t like that before.
At a point in your life, you were interested in acting and wanted to be a career actress, now that you have retired, are you going to return to your first love?
I acted a lot at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, arts theatre. During my youth service, I wrote plays which were staged in public. But that was before the advent of Nollywood. However, when my family members saw me constantly doing this theatre work, they weren’t impressed. I remember one of my uncles called me one day, and said, “Look, a clown is necessary in the city, but it won’t be my relative” (laughs). It was a way of telling me to remove my eyes from there. What I saw also didn’t encourage me. I was hanging out with many thespians in Lagos then, like Lari Williams and his troupe. I used to go to the National Theatre to rehearse with them. I hung out at the National Museum, too, which used to attract a lot of actors and actresses, too. From there, we would migrate to Global Hall theatre. Taiwo Ajai Lycet was also acting, and I got closer to her as well.
I also worked with one of the sons of Duro Ladipo who was putting together a cast for production. Even after my youth service, that little hiatus of two months, I was always going to act with different groups. But I wasn’t satisfied with their lifestyle. They didn’t have something substantial to sustain them. Each time a role showed up, there was usually a stampede to collect it. And after each production, they had to wait for the next one. The type of stability I desired in my life, I didn’t see that in acting, so when the civil service job came my way, I was happy to grab it.
Let’s go to your childhood, how was it like growing up?
I was born some years after Nigeria’s independence, so I didn’t see the euphoria of independence. My parents hail from Uzuakoli, Abia State, where I was also born. As a little girl, my mum took me to Nsukka where my father was working as a cook. The University of Nigeria, Nsukka, was full of expatriates then, and our food and lifestyle were patterned after theirs. My joy was cut short, however, when the civil war broke out in 1967. Our family had to hurriedly leave Nsukka to Umuahia, and, from there, to the village. I saw tension in the air and widespread fear in the train as we travelled. When the war got closer, we fled to the bush and lived there. I ate lizards and rats to survive. In fact, the civil war was a haunting experience. It marred my childhood, which is why I don’t want to experience that again. Most of the youths talking about war today haven’t experienced war before. War is never a good thing for anybody. In war, everybody is a loser. As a young girl, I saw distraught mothers whose children were conscripted to war and never returned. Some of their mothers died of frustration. Any agitation about statehood that doesn’t go through the round table, I am not for it. There is nothing like peace. The civil war marred my childhood, and many people who experienced that are yet to recover.