Having served at the federal level as Director-General of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC) where she launched the ‘Domestic Tourism Campaign’ and later in Anambra State as Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs, Indigenous Artworks, Culture and Tourism, delectable Sally Uwechue Mbanefo was recently appointed Commissioner, Ministry of Mineral Resources, Tertiary Education, Science and Technology & ICT, Anambra State. In this interview at her office in Awka, the ex-banker, opens up on the journey so far and her new portfolio among other interesting issues.
Hon. Commissioner, you were recently redeployed to a new ministry, how has the journey been so far?
It has been an amazing journey. My new ministry covers Oil & Gas and Solid Minerals. We are also in charge of Tertiary Education, Science & Technology and ICT. We also handle hydro-meteorological services. Our Ministry is erecting a kaolin factory in Nnewi South LGA in collaboration with the Federal Government. They have already supplied kaolin processing machines to the state as we speak. The federal representatives in the state, led by Mr. Dara Chijioke Okechukwu have been very proactive in guiding us. We have also developed the Anambra State Government website. Added to this, there has been the creation of the ICT Department and an ICT Laboratory. The administration created an ICT department in the ministry because our governor is very IT savvy. The ICT department was recently upgraded to an agency to fast track the deployment of ICT across the state. And guess what, recently, Anambra State got the first runners-up award in e-Government implementation of ICT at the National Council on Communication Technology (NCCT) Awards in Katsina State. We also won second runners-up in ICT Human Capital Development. What is more, we also very recently won the second runners-up in ICT Infrastructure Development. It has been nothing short of exciting and fulfilling.
On a lighter note, tell us about growing up with your famous uncle, Ralph Uwechue and how he influenced you as a person?
God rest his soul. He was such a loving uncle. He took me like his own kid and I did learn a lot from him. What did I learn about living with Amb. Ralph Uwechue? He would always insist that you give to anyone who asks no matter how tight things are for you, never refuse someone in need. My father had the same principle too. I also want to add that my father and Amb. Uwechue were like twins; they were like inseparable twins till he died. My dad was his immediate younger brother.
Oil has been discovered in Anambra State and you are from oil and gas background, tell us about it?
We are very excited about this. We have oil in commercial quantity and the best crude quality you can imagine (laughter). We also have gas in commercial quantity and it is just amazing! The truth is that the federal government will soon embark on a gas revolution to drive increase in usage in the country. Anambra State government has strategically positioned herself to key into this initiative in order to improve the state revenue; Anambra Basin is very rich in gas. Our Ministry in collaboration with the Oil & Gas Committee, and with the strong support of His Excellency, Gov. Obiano has provided an enabling environment to ensure that Anambra is recognized as an oil producing State. We are now looking forward to the federal government officially recognizing Anambra and declaring it an oil producing state; gas is the future!
Anambra is blessed with awesome tourism potentials, what are the challenges faced by the sector and measures being taken by the state government to boost tourism in the state?
Since the inception of the Willie Obiano administration, the government has made security its number one priority because tourism cannot thrive when there is insecurity. The state government donated major security equipment to the police and the state vigilante services to enable them maintain law and order. His Excellency also recruited an AVM to handle creative security and now the state is adjudged as the safest in the country. The state government in 2018 and 2019 also renovated and constructed access roads to various tourist sites for easy navigation of tourists. Our ministry collaborated with VIKO Nigeria Limited. You know, I worked with them as DG at the federal level so when I found out the CEO is from Anambra, I invited him to help boost tourism in the state using technology and he helped us. He also helped us launch Smartjobs, a software designed to create jobs in tourism targeting the youth. The state also partnered with Stanel World and INNOSON Group to provide shuttle vehicles to all the hotels at a discounted rate. However, the problem is there is lack of interest by financial institutions to lend capital to tourism investors. This is a significant challenge confronting tourism in the state and this has culminated in lack of collaboration with the private sector.
Talking about women empowerment, would you say women have a fair representation in Governor Obiano’s administration?
His Excellency is a strong advocate of gender equality and his appointment of women as commissioners, heads of agencies and other leadership positions is a testament to this fact. Not forgetting Her Excellency, Ebelechukwu Obiano, the loving mother of all Anambra women, who advocates for women’s rights and welfare through her Caring Family Enhancement Initiative (CAFÉ) program. Her Excellency is also very gender supportive. She is not just beautiful and elegant; she is highly cerebral, having come from an Oil & Gas background. She is a loving mother to all female commissioners and surely knows the way to her husband’s heart because he appreciates and respects her a lot, and that has been the secret of his success.
You also double as the Chairman, State Gaming Board. What has been your experience so far?
Before I became the chairman of the Gaming Board, the revenue that was remitted to the government account was only N10m. However, in almost one year since I took over as chairman of the Gaming Board, the revenue generated has skyrocketed to over N480m in spite of the COVID-19 challenge. This achievement could not have happened without the collaboration of the AIRS, and an incredibly hardworking Managing Director who has moved at my every call for improved revenue at such a fast pace.
You come across as a workaholic. How do you relax and spend quality time with your family?
Anambra is a quaint metropolis. It is a green and peaceful city endowed with an amazing capital, Awka. I am in the most sophisticated EXCO I have ever been in my entire life. Most of the commissioners and special advisers have come from the Diaspora to retire at home. His Excellency’s passion for the Diaspora was exhibited in his appointments because he called these last four years the legacy years where we must leave with a bang effect! However, I do make out time to practice and sing in the choir of St Thomas Aquinas Parish, Awka, and to keep out of trouble, I also engage in reading at the altar as a lector in two churches, St Edwards, Amawbia and St Thomas Aquinas Parish, GRA. I am also a prayer coach for fellowships in Lagos, Abuja and Anambra, and I mentor the youths. Because of the safety in the state, I do go for long walks in the evenings in Awka while I pray with my rosary for peace of mind.
Really, you recite the rosary often. Two of your aunties are reverend sisters. Why did you not go to the convent?
(Laughter) One could still live the life of a reverend sister even when married. However, I am praying that one of my children will be a reverend sister.
What is the secret of your success?
The secret of my success is in putting my absolute trust in God and accepting His will for my life no matter what I am going through. I also believe in hard work, hard work, and more hard work all the way and then, I believe in discipline. Many young people lack discipline and think it is easier to be an entrepreneur but without discipline you will get nowhere. There is what I call the 3Cs of success. They are Capacity, Competence and Character. For capacity, do you have the qualification, ability and training? For Competence, do you have the efficiency required, can you deliver the task? Character is the most important, do you have the character it takes to do the work, to work with others. What are the human values and principles that define you as a human being? Is there consistency in your character? However, the major ingredient is humility, hard work, discipline and perseverance.
Through hard work and diligence, you have achieved so much in your career. What is your advice for young girls who believe that sleeping around is the easiest way to the top?
It is a sad and very serious development in our society today that a lot of girls have this warped mindset. These girls are our future mothers so we must be alarmed at this development. What has happened to virtue? What has happened to modesty? This issue is at the very centre of my heart and that is the reason I am doing a youth talk show christened Tete-a-Tete with Sally. We need to re-orientate our future mothers if we must have a vibrant and happy society because women are the bedrock of society. Girls need to know that their bodies are the Temple of The Holy Spirit and they must use their bodies to glorify God. Also, we glorify God by the way we dress. We must not cheapen ourselves or our values in the eyes of the opposite sex or offend others through our dress sense.
What were the achievements of the tourism sector under your tenure as Commissioner?
Under my watch we created the Home Coming Festival and a kaleidoscope of events including Masquerade Festival, International Reggae Festival, Friends of Anambra Day, Diaspora Day, Chinua Achebe Day, Palm Wine Festival Day, Anambra Tasty Cuisine Day and Art Exhibition Day festival among a host of others. These events also attracted the likes of captains of industry and His Excellency, Gov. Willie Obiano who shared inspiring experiences with the youths. The musical concerts featured 2face, Rude Boy, Funny Bone, Flavour and Davido. Other achievements were the renovation of the Owerre-Ezukala Caves and Waterfalls and the Ogbunike Caves by the construction of prototype structures and buildings to provide conveniences and changing rooms, bars, souvenir shops, tourism information desks for tourists and better access roads. We also initiated the creation of Anambra Diaspora portal used by the ministry in keeping the database of ‘Anambrians’ in the Diaspora. And I guess, you will definitely find this exciting, we also transformed the ministry into a walk-in art gallery decorated with amazing paintings and bronze works of an internationally renowned artist, Mr. Chidi Okoye . We also created a Hotel and Hospitality Department to harness the potentials in the hotel and hospitality sector of the state for optimal performance. Then there was the E-Registration / digitalization of Hotels in collaboration with VIKO Nigeria Ltd. designed to ensure that all the hotels in the state are enumerated in the ministry’s database. We also set up five major revenue windows for tourism IGR and nurtured regular interaction with hotel owners and put them through the guidelines for grading and classification of hotels which led us to massive capacity building in the sector. We also began aggressive inspection of hotels whilst also coaching the hotels on Covid 19 compliance measures in collaboration with our dynamic Commissioner of Health Dr. Vincent Okpara. It has been an exciting journey I must confess.
The youths are the future. What has your new ministry done in terms of youth empowerment?
A nation that invests in its youths invests in its future. In this regard, this Ministry trained 500 unemployed youths selected from across the 21 LGAs of the State on acquisition of 14 different skills at our Technology Incubation Centre, Nnewi. This is geared towards making them self-employed. Also, when I was in charge of the tourism ministry I introduced the smart jobs project for the youths. This culminated in the empowerment of 5000 youths as directed by His Excellency. They were trained to trade on an e-business portal for booking of hotels and transport and flights to Anambra State for tourism.
What is the secret to your beautiful looks and youth?
(Laughter) Wow! I have said a couple of times. The truth is I bend down, mop and scrub my floors, cook and also do my laundry often. Try it sometime.