By Agatha Emeadi
Onyekachi Nnennaya Atuloma is the Senior Special Assistant (SSA) to Abia State Governor on Tourism and Entertainment.
A former beauty queen and former brand Ambassador of The Sun Newspaper 2014 has a lady’s bird calm mien that will make one not to believe that she has achieved many feats. But she perfectly fits into the local parlance of ‘small but might.’ Miss Atuloma, who had won three brand new cars from different pageants, is a member of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a platform she used to contest for a seat in the Abia State House of Assembly.
With her passion and vast experience in the entertainment industry, she is no doubt a round peg in a round hole.
In this chat with Sunday Sun, Miss Atuloma told her journey into pageantry, tourism and win-win world. Excerpt:
Where were you when your appointment was announced as the SSA to Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State?
I travelled to Mbaise in Imo State for a pageant project; my phone rang three times I did not pick, but picked the fourth time and it was my uncle, Chief Aku Obioma. He asked me what is that portfolio you liked, I said culture and Tourism; not knowing he was with His Excellency, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, and then he said, go to the office of SSG and pick up your letter. The next day, I went to pick my letter and that’s it. I must say a very big thank you to all, it’s been so wonderful working with them. But looking at my antecedents that prompted my appointment in 2019, I contested for the House of Assembly in my state and came third position as results trickled in. It was a heated campaign and I gave the men a tough time as the only lady among the 10 men on the contest. Since, I didn’t win that election, the governor saw my antecedents over the years and saw future in me, he then considered and appointed me as the SSA, Tourism and Entertainment.
Before you became the Brand Ambassador of The Sun Newspaper, what were you doing?
I have been doing different things over the time. Immediately after The Sun Girl award, I proceeded to Edo State for my National Youth Service at the Ministry of Women Affairs, Department of Child Development. When I was through with the service year, I came back to Abia State and went in for other projects. Then in 2017/18, I embarked on another project that focused on the girl child. Every year, I usually have a project that occupied my time and takes me round to seek for support and that had really been a success unto me.
What propels you into different pageants?
All these started when I was a very young girl in primary school; I saw the personality of Ambassador Bianca Ojukwu and wanted to be like her especially as a beauty queen. Then, I also admired Dr. Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Senator Uche Ekwunife and few other women who are positive amazons. I said to myself, if these women can make it, I need to work hard because I am much younger and would also like similar positions for myself. I told my dad then that I wanted to be a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria or a Minister of Culture and Tourism because I love culture and cultural traditions. I love to know the history, tradition, advantages and disadvantages, norms and way of life of the people. Those are the things that thrusts me to go into contests. Then, about the beauty contests, when we were still kids, I would lead the choir and drama especially when we go for the ‘August Camping’ I would see myself playing leadership roles, organizing and being solely in charge of people older than me. when I give out instructions, they will simply carry it out. When I finally gained admission, I started the beauty pageant and my mother warned me seriously that it was not the reason I was in school. I did not tell her again because she would discourage me. But my dad preferred acting to modeling because he felt models fade out fast and that negativity was the reason I found myself in the industry to make a change. When in 2008, I went in for the contest of ‘Most Happening Girl on Campus’ (Abia State Polytechnic, Department of Public Administration) I jokingly asked my classmates if they would vote for me so I can represent our department. I got overwhelming support and won the contest. In 2009, we also had Miss PASAN competition (Public Administration Students Association) and I won. So, I said to myself, If I can win all these in school, I should then look for higher opportunities and try my hands on them. Towards the end of my Industrial Training, there was a Miss Umuokpara Contest in my local government, I went in for that and won the contest in 2010 and decided not to participate in any small pageant again. God on my side and after my HND examinations. There was another contest among the 17 local governments in Abia state and I also won it. It was during the reign of Governor T.A Orji. On another year, I was just reading The Sun newspaper and read through that the winner of The Sun Girl competition would be given a brand-new car. I made all inquiries and submitted my documents at The Sun office, Enugu, by April of that year, I was called that I have won the contest through massive votes. Towards the end of that year, I was called to Lagos head office for the car presentation by Mr. Femi Adesina who was then the Managing Director of The Sun Newspapers. It happened and that was how I also became the brand ambassador for one year. It is also on record that all my household property, including three cars were prices from different pageants and contests.
Now that fortune has smiled on you through the once forbidden entertainment industry, what are your parents saying?
My mum saw the positivity in me and started praying for me. She is still happy that for once, a girl is getting the opportunity to be heard and seen, not men all the time and in all situations.
As the SSA Tourism and Entertainment, what have you really done for the state?
We have done so much. I am not the first to hold that office because it used to be two different portfolios, but the governor collapsed them into one and handed over to me. When one talks about the narrative in Abia State in respect of Tourism and Entertainment, I can tell you that we are no longer where we used to be. I am emotional about tourism in my state because I know that Umuahia that should have been in the central map of the federation was actually neglected in our geo-political zone, but today, the narratives have changed for good. I have been able to let Abia people understand what tourism resources and potential could attract in a state. First, I did the identification of tourist of Abia. If in less than a year and six months, we are where we are today; in two years’ time, I can tell that we would have progressed more and better.
Are their tourism sites in Abia State?
Yes, we have the popular Azu-mmiri river, Arochukwu slavery, Uturu cave, Uturu and waterfalls. Others are ‘78 water falls at Arochukwu, Umunneochi spring waterfalls, the longest wooden cave in Umuahia South known as Amakama Wooden Cave and Ojukwu bunker. Though they are not all that developed, but we also have some that are fully developed and are used for film making and site seeing. My existence in that office has been able to put Abia on the national map. In NTDC, one would be told that Abia State has some tourism attractions. At the Federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism, one would also be told that we are now on the map since my inception in the office because of what we have been able to do virtually and physically. We have not participated in NAFEST for some time now, but last year, I was there to see things for myself and by His grace, this year, Abia State would be fully represented and participate in Ekiti State NAFEST. About world Tourism Day, I cannot remember when my state was projected, but this year, we celebrated world tourism day and on 26th September, we had Miss Abia Tourism as we partnered with several organizations. It was a very successful event. There is a body that organizes the seven-wonders of the year and Abia is among the 35-tourists sites chosen to participate at the seven-wonders. At the final competition, seven sites would be chosen; it is such opportunities that gave birth to Obudu Cattle Ranch. If Azumiri river is picked among the seven wonders; it will be a major breakthrough for us in Abia State. Tourism attracts a lot of resources in a state because it needs many hands to function. From caterers to drivers, dress makers, mechanics etc.
What are the new vibes you want to drive into your state through your office?
We still have other tourists’ sites where we intend to develop because I suggest that the state should be able to build a tourism company where all the sites could come together and network. We have been able to set up some pageant’s areas from different local governments.
As a tourism lady, your state has the poorest road networks, how then do you move freely and quickly to achieve your goals? Aba is a no-go area, one cannot access Uyo through Umuahia…How would tourism excel there?
There is no road in Nigeria that is perfect. Yes, there were bad roads, but now there are major constructions on those roads. The governor is doing palliatives on the roads because Christmas is coming soon and Abia citizens would be home to celebrate and felicitate with their people. State roads are in good condition; but some of those fingered roads are linked to be ‘Trunk’ A roads. Among the whole of the Southeast, roads are really bad, though the governor has warned that we should not make excuses for him, but where he has excelled should be given to him and he still stands a chance to do more.
As a young government official, after your SSA Office, what next?
I see myself as that girl with a bigger platform to do other things. I am also in a full campaign that all the Eastern states should come together and take tourism very seriously because it develops a state amazingly.
What was growing up like?
I grew up from a proud polygamous family of 12 because we are united. One hardly knows who is whose child. I grew up under the tutelage of my step mum, even my big sister is the most amazing lady. We enjoyed ourselves and grew up as a happy family. We lived in Umuahia and enjoyed a blend of nativity and urbanization.