Prof. Viola Onwuliri, Nigeria’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of State for Education, Pro-Chancellor of the Nigerian Maritime University, Principal Investigator and Project Director, in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was until this week, Commissioner of Education in Imo State. In this interview that took place before a Supreme Court judgement ousted her Principal, Hon. Emeka Ihedioha of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) early in the week and gave power to Senator Hope Uzodinma of All Progressives Congress (APC), Onwuliri talked about the death of her darling husband, Prof. Celestine Onwuliri, in the Dana air crash of 2012, on why she took up what is seen in some quarters as the lowly job of Commissioner of Education, after serving as a Federal Minister as well as what the ministerial jobs cost her as a family woman. Excerpts:
You were once Minister of Foreign Affairs, then Minister of State for Education. Many people are wondering why you should stoop so low to accept the position of Commissioner of Education after you’d attained such heights in public service.
Yes. They have the right to wonder. For me, I am so excited about it, coming home to serve. You don’t just stay by the ringside and be saying: ‘why are they not doing things this way?’ ‘Why are they not doing it the other way?’ As an educationist, first of all, I am at home. Secondly, I know the plight of our people and can also bring it to the attention of the governor and the State Executive Council, and, in turn, drive the process that leads to its solution. In addition, we can also get the help of partners and friends from everywhere. It doesn’t make sense that I am in Abuja feeling good with myself as a former minister while the home is burning and needs my help. I will not feel happy that Imo children cannot get a quality education while I am in a position to help. I will not feel fulfilled. I would feel that I should have done something to help, I mean, offer my service if it is needed. That’s why I am here. What excuse would I give if it is offered and I reject it? In 2011, I was offered Deputy Governorship candidate of PDP, it didn’t work out. Okorocha’s government offered me the Commissioner of Education. That time they came to me to say that I was the only one that could help them rebuild education in Imo State. I politely turned down the offer with all due respect. And, now the offer has come again. I believe the Lord has given me the ability to work and I have the experience to put into this. Come to think of it, the system made you. You grew from the system before you became a minister or whatever. Should you now become too big to serve in the system that made you who you are? It will be unfair.
What would you say is your most regretful moment in life?
You should know, it is when I lost my darling husband in the Dana air crash on the 3rd of June 2012. That is a pain that has been with me because we were extremely close.
Could you recall what happened that day? How did you get the sad news?
I was at a function and some people came to tell me that there had been a crash.
But you knew that he traveled with that flight?
I knew. I was the one who helped him to pack his things and saw him off and all that. I even offered to take him to the airport but he said no, since there was another engagement, that I should go and represent the family. Then he called me when he had boarded. I said, ‘oh, you didn’t even miss the flight?’ because he was saying that I should allow him go because he was going to miss his flight. In retrospect, I wished I held him back.
So, you eventually got a call?
Yes, some people came to that function to say that there had been a crash. I was saying, ‘crash, how?’ So, that’s how we started discussing it and I said: ‘I hope it is not that one that my husband boarded?’ I now left the function to go back home, tune-up the radio and that was it. All the same, I did not believe that he was dead; in fact, we were all praying that God should not allow him to die in the aircraft accident. We called his number and his phone was ringing and that gave us hope until later that evening, they announced that there were no survivors, which was very unfortunate. They had not reached there. They had not done any investigation before they made that announcement. Some of the international rescue agencies were preparing to go to the crash site on rescue missions when they made the announcement. Maybe if they had done that, they could have rescued some of them, including my husband because in his own case, by the special grace of God, he was found dead with his body intact. He didn’t sustain any injury. He still had on his clothes and his shoes. Not burnt. Nothing. He was found with his rosary. He was recovered the following day, in the afternoon and the doctor said he died a few hours before then. That is to say, if they had reached him earlier, he might be alive today. But there was no rescue. When I was saying he was not dead, I am sure he was alive by then. He was a very prayerful person. We didn’t have to go for any DNA; his body was intact and everything. We had to carry the corpse home to go and bury because in our diocese, everything must be done within three weeks. They said, take your time, if God had done everything and there was no paper to sign, no DNA to do, then you didn’t need to be in a hurry.
So, what do you miss about him?
His love and care. He is such a fantastic person and we were really inseparable. I miss him every day.
Could you tell us about yourself?
I was born in Lagos and had part of my education at our Ladies of Fatima, Lagos. But during the civil war, we came back home. I finished my primary education in a village primary school at Amuzi in Ahiazu Mbaise. From there, I went to Owerri Girls Secondary School and to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where I took a degree in Biochemistry. But within the period, I got married. As I was graduating, I was getting married. That was in July, 1979. Then we went over to UNIJOS because my husband had also finished his PhD. at UNN. He read Zoology. I now followed him to Jos. I couldn’t take on the scholarship given to me at Nsukka because my parents refused. They said the marriage was too young that I should go to my husband. So I had to sacrifice the scholarship and join him in Jos. The only thing they told him is that he should ensure that I did my PhD. We both rose to be professors at the University of Jos. He rose to become Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Acting Vice-Chancellor before he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO). I came back and joined him at FUTO. At FUTO, I was invited by the former governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha and his wife. His wife was the first to approach me. She said she would want me to join their government in the second term, that the governor said he would want me to come and add value to his government. Those were her words. I said I wasn’t going into politics. My husband said no. About a month after, I was not expecting the ministerial posting but it came. I became the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, in charge of all the continents, except Africa. Within the period, we lost the Minister and I stepped in as supervising minister. And, by the grace of God, within the period, I did very well. I chaired the United Nations Security Council meeting because Nigeria served a two-year term from 2014 to 2015 as a temporary member of the United Nations Security Council. Before then, Nigeria used to serve in the Security Council after every 10 years; it was like a 10-year routine. But we were able to pull it off through international campaign and lobby. We got the whole of Africa, and, of course, the global community, to support our candidature. Of course, I led all that. It was like the global community stood by us and it was beautiful. God was just with us throughout.
You were not a core diplomat but you were able to perform so well. What’s the secret?
Yes. Once you are a thoroughbred academic, you can fit in anywhere.
You just painted a rosy picture of your briefs as Foreign Minister, but what did it take out of you personally?
Ah, don’t even talk about that. It took a whole lot out of me; it was a lot of hard work. I would be in the office till 12 midnight and sometimes, till 1 am. You know, you are working with people all over the world, with different time zones. When you are supposed to be sleeping that’s when some of them would be waking up. So, you are not sleeping and then there was a lot of traveling. I always had with me a packed bag. When I was taking up the job, I was told that my best friend is the international passport. So, I had my international passport ready 24 hours a day. Sometimes, I would tell my husband and he would pack the bags and they would bring it either to the office or to the airport.
And, your frequent traveling didn’t affect your marriage? How were you able to cope with the demands of both worlds?
My marriage? No, it didn’t affect my marriage. My marriage was a no-go area, as far as interference from my official duty was concerned.
Even with you junketing all over world, as it were, as part of your official duty?
If it occurred to me that it was affecting my marriage, all I would have done is to just abandon the job and go. I am not interested in any job that will affect my marriage. It was not the first time. There was a time they wanted me to run an agency on HIV. I was in Jos and they came to look for me, to say that I was the only one that could handle that, that could run the fund for them. Of course, I was deep in anything that has to do with HIV. They said I should bring my CV. I told them that I was not going to do that, that anything that would take me away from my husband would not work for me. That he is in Jos, how could I leave him and go and be living in Abuja? I said the fund should come to Jos or they should work it out so that both of us could and go and live in Abuja, otherwise, I am not interested. They were like ‘do you know what you are rejecting? This is a multimillion-dollar project’. I said I am not interested. I can’t leave my husband and go and be enjoying a multi-billion dollar project; let us be chopping naira here. I am happy because ours was a blissful marriage. My husband was such a wonderful man. The ministerial thing did not come home with me. I just left all its wahala in the office and I came home to be my usual self, doing all the responsibilities, rendering all the services that I should render as a wife, and everything. It didn’t change anything. Somebody was saying that one thing she admires about me is that even as a Minister I was not taking the owner’s position in the car. He said that each time he saw my husband and I in my official car, that the man would sit at the owner’s corner while I sat in my usual place. I said it didn’t matter, what matters is that he is my husband and I am his wife.
Did you have time to cook for him?
Yes, I did have time to cook; it’s only that he didn’t allow me to do that every time. He would say that he didn’t marry me to come and be cooking. He would say, ‘Please, come, let us gist’. For him, my company was more important than cooking for him.