Dame Elizabeth Agu, born on October 1, 1960, shares her birthday with Nigeria’s Independence Day. A former Director, Central Bank of Nigeria, Alumnus of the prestigious National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS Set 41, 2019) and Consumer Rights Advocate. Having worked in different parts in the country, she tells TheFact Nigeria that our shared experiences, more than religion or ethnicity, is a unifying factor; a lack of it leaves us a disjointed people. Excerpts:
What are your prayers for Nigeria as she turns 60 today?
My prayers for Nigeria is that Nigeria will be a place where action supersedes lip service; where I can turn on the tap and water flows, not from my water tank but from a general waterworks where the water is treated and is safe. My prayer for Nigeria is that every citizen can get universal healthcare because most Nigerians are just one sickness away from poverty and that will end. I pray for a Nigeria where I can buy medications anywhere and I know it is safe, no fakes. A Nigeria where youths’ lives are not wasted on the streets because of politics, a Nigeria where we produce more than we consume, where there will be cars Made In Nigeria. A Nigeria where every household will have a Made In Nigeria car, chair, air conditioner, TV, radio, fly Nigeria Airways, etc. Can you imagine the wealth that will be in this nation, and the amount of work available for our children? And people will be proud to buy Nigerian. That is the Nigeria of my dreams, and that’s my prayer for Nigeria.
What do you remember your parents ever tell you about life in Nigeria in the pre-independence era?
Oh yes, yes. Life in Nigeria was very calm in those days. The standard of living was very high. Even in the village, people lived well. Life was not as brutish as it is now. People were good neighbors to each other. There’s always never enough but people had what they needed. I still remember running tap water in Ngwo in Enugu where I grew up. My parents told me they had water. I grew up seeing that we’ll go to the get tap water and it will be rushing and we used to have this joke that when you get there, the tap would stop, which was like a bad omen. But that was just a joke. By the time you get there in the morning the following day, the tap would be running, but it only happened when the water works were washing. Those things were even there before I was born. People were kind to one another. We lived in the Nigerian Coal Corporation quarters and we had people from other parts of the country. We all grew up together. We didn’t see any difference among us because then, people saw your soul first before they saw your labels. People were more trusting and hospitable and that was what my parents were telling me. Then, you could sleep with your doors open. People also knew the bad ones. They would tell you, see that person. He was known and bad people were avoided. They were like pariahs in the community. Some of them were even ostracised. The stories I heard of happenings before I was born, were those of a prosperous Nigeria, where there was a lot of integrity. There were bad people then but there were more of good people. In the office, people were held more accountable. Life was just so joyous and cheaper. My dad, when he got paid, he would bring home so much food and stuff. He was a Clerk in the Coal Corporation and he told me stories of a life that was serene, a life that was safe, before I was born.
Growing up, what schools did children your age get enrolled into?
School was fun and education had a purpose. You knew that going to school was like a direct Visa out of poverty. The quality of education was high. My dad did Primary Six and he could write beautifully well. We had teachers, like I remember my headmistress literally loving me. In school then, if you performed well, you were the teacher’s pet. It was not as if your parents were richer like we have these days. It was your performance in school and your relationship with other students that really made you stand out. If you were respectful, if you were kind to others, you stood out. It wasn’t like your expensive shoes or clothes that made you stand out. Teachers were held accountable and they came to school on time and kept to schedules and of course, their products also were much better in those days. You didn’t have to come from a rich home to get quality education.
What sort of school did you attend at that time?
I went to Holy Ghost Cathedral. It was a Catholic school. We were even taught by nuns then. I then went to Girls Secondary School Ngwo before I travelled to the United States where I did all my tertiary education. I was a senior prefect in my school.
Other children in your neighborhood who didn’t go to missionary schools, what sort of schools did they attend?
They were attending public schools like state schools, schools run even by the local government then. They were local council schools that were equally good and they had good teachers and you’d trek quite a bit then you get to a school that could favourably compete with the Catholic schools then. Some of my cousins went there, and in the evenings, they could take us up on any topic.
Can you remember where some of those children who attended public schools are in life now?
During our era, traveling abroad was the thing, like in the early 80s. In my own area in Enugu, a lot of us went abroad. The people I grew up with, a lot of them ended up in the United States. There are some that didn’t make it and in Enugu, are still civil servants. A lot of them entered the ministries, some federal, some states. That’s what I can remember.
There is so much class difference today. At what point did we miss it?
Over time, Nigerians became a consuming set of individuals, people that didn’t care what they gave, the value they added. What everybody cared for was, what’s in there for me? What am I getting? Maybe we need to do research. Here, we don’t have a lot of data, people don’t do research but we really want to know what happened to the soul and to the spirit of being a Nigerian. A lot of it too is that, what binds people together are shared experiences. When you go abroad now, if you are reading a book in Benue, somebody in Sokoto is also likely to be reading that same book or sharing that same line of thinking. And the books you read, there are characters and what they signify. You know like, a lot of their fairy tales always have like a prince that comes to rescue a damsel in distress. Eventually, it is always like the forces of good and evil, darkness and light and the good always win eventually. Here, we don’t share that same experience and the educational system does not ensure that, because everybody, the experience you share in Enugu is totally different from the experience you share in Ekiti or the experience you share in Darazo, in Bauchi State. When all of us gather and we share the experience that really joins people together, its not only religion. Its the educational system that can ensure that if I mention a character that I read in school in Enugu and somebody in Zango-Kataf mention the same experience, or somebody in Sokoto or a town in Kano reads the same thing, it will join us more than religion. Its part of the reason why we are so disjointed. If I see you now, and I mention a character from a book, and you will immediately know what that character stood for, me and you will gel on a higher level than religion immediately. So I have really checked and you know, before my 19th birthday, I was in America and I went to Duluth, a small town in Minnesota. I later went to Humpfil, Texas, another small town in the South and in the South, they are very conservative. They are not even as enlightened as the Minnesota I was coming from. But some of the books I read in Minnesota, I found out that, and as required reading, or syllabus, was similar. Like if I mentioned a character that I had read, immediately, me and that person would start discussion and it would flow seamlessly.
You are an alumnus of the NIPSS Set 41, 2019. Can you please share your experience with us?
My experience at the NIPSS was phenomenal. I was the Deputy Monitor General and one thing that excites me anywhere I go is to be able to exhibit my leadership qualities and to provide direction. NIPSS was a platform for me to do that and it gave us opportunities to show people that we can engage our better selves; that we can pull up the best out of ourselves. NIPSS was like a warm environment to thrive. I loved the food. Jos has a lot of fresh vegetables. It was right up my alley, staying at NIPSS because I love fresh foods. I love foods of various colors. They have acha, brown, white, black. I love grains and they have a lot of them. We had a lot of people from different walks of life and experiences and when you meet people from different perspectives different from yours, if you’re wise, they’ll make you wiser. You will understand that iron sharpeneth iron. You will meet people of high intelligence and you all grow off of each other intellectually, spiritually and otherwise. NIPSS was really good. I am really glad I went there, and the networking there is great. Like now, I have friends like brothers that are in the military, Customs, immigration, federal civil service, state civil service. Like now, I know the Permanent Secretary from Zamfara. He’s one of my buddies at NIPSS which otherwise, I would never have met. I met people from Edo and other states, and the educational part is incredible. At NIPSS was exactly where I met the real Nigeria. One of the courses was The Nigerian State and they actually taught us about Nigeria. I got to know Nigeria better there and I know about security and all aspects of crisis management. NIPSS really looks at the individual as a whole, like spirit, mind and body. It was a massive growth for me, going to NIPSS.
What is that particular thing you took out of your trainings at NIPSS?
One thing I took out was, it showed me that you can never say you know it all. There’s always room and the biggest room is the room for improvement. Its good to have an open mind. Once you have an open mind, you grow more but if you don’t, you’re static and you will have limited experience. One thing I took from NIPSS is experiences in life is limitless and it depends on what you make out of it. You can choose to grow or you can choose to stagnate. The choice is yours and I chose to grow and I am reaping the benefits now.
How did you develop your career at the Central Bank of Nigeria before going to NIPSS?
Before NIPSS, I was working in the Central Bank of Nigeria, (CBN). CBN is a great place to work, the people, the processes and so on. CBN is a very organic institution. It improves on its own. It adapts. When we came in around 1989, 90, a lot of the things were manual, and before we knew it, I was there in CBN and CBN got automated and continuous improvement is one thing that CBN ensured so if you got into Central Bank, you’re definitely not leaving the same. Even when I left CBN, now that I am retired, and I go into the general society, it even makes me appreciate CBN more; like the way we worked, the way we were committed to doing the job, and of course, their pay was good compared to other organizations. CBN wasn’t a place that there was strife, maybe because people like, felt contented. Its not like a place where people do Do Or Die. I was privileged at some point in my career to be the Branch Controller in Delta State. That was my life’s most beautiful experiences. Delta people are easy-going people, very educated and laid-back and they are very open minded people. I really enjoyed my stay in Delta and my staff also in Delta, they were new people so I watched them grow. It was a new branch. I was the pioneer Branch Controller so it was like giving birth to a baby and watching that baby grow. I watched the Asaba branch grow into the best managed branch. We won the award for the best managed branch in CBN and we started from having our office floored because we were even in a place given to us by the state government. From that, we moved into our own CBN because what CBN does is, anywhere they go, they don’t wait until the building is finished. We come in a year before, while the new building will be there being built while the Controller shows up with limited staff, offering limited services too and also engaging the contractors building so that we also make input into the final building. Its really a beautiful process so I watched the new CBN being built. I watched the bricks upon each other, and then they gave me staff. I remember when they would bring money to you to service the state. You know, every state has its own Central Bank. So we paid all the banks there and then we processed the money. We received all the dirty notes from the banks there and then we count and audit them, turned them into cleaner notes, the ones that were dirty, were burnt, but we don’t burn them anymore due to environmental concerns. Being in the branch is like making things a better version of themselves. I saw all my staff, some of them would come, they were still young, they marry in your presence, they have children in your presence. I used to enjoyed going to those naming ceremonies and looking at the staff that just showed up in my office, now, they have a partner, now they have a child, and sometimes I even witnessed a second and a third child because I was there for over 10 years. So just the multiplicity, seeing people grow in my presence was great, and seeing the positive impact I made in their lives was like the high point of my work in the branch of Central Bank of Nigeria, Asaba. Working with our stakeholders, watching people, like farming; we did a lot of fish farming in Delta, being a riverine place, in Warri and other places. Just watching things grow, watching people grow, watching the economy grow was a big part of my experience.
How did working in different parts of the country and with people from other tribes and cultures impact on the way you view Nigeria?
When I started my career, it was in Port-Harcourt. That was my first port of call. I was in Port-Harcourt in 1989 to 1995 till I was transferred to Abuja. You know, every state has its catchment. Everywhere you work, all the junior staff are people from the area and that helps you to feel the vibes of wherever you are working. Port-Harcourt was another good place. They are friendly people, we had people from all over Nigeria working there. Only the junior staff are usually from the area but the senior is a good mixture. I was working with Salisu Rabe, he was from Katsina. We were neighbors and our children grew up together. If you see Rabe, a typical Fulani man but when you see him in Port-Harcourt, he’s just like an Ikwere boy. We didn’t have banditry then as we do now, and we didn’t have people calling each other names, you are a herdsman, you are a militant. Everybody felt at home. We used to be in the banking hall cracking jokes, and you could actually joke about people’s nuances and cultures without them feeling offended. Now, people are so sensitive because of so much divide. People relished in who they were but also understood the importance of diversity. From Port-Harcourt, I came to Abuja in the 90s. It was a very beautiful experience. CBN is always a very diverse and friendly place to be. I used to work in banking halls and then we used to have people from different backgrounds, just ensuring that we achieved the same goal which is to serve the nation.
Now, you are into Consumer Rights Advocacy. What prompted your interest in this area?
Even as a child, there was always a part of me that wanted to protect the vulnerable or the weaker person and the voiceless. Its a huge part of me and I always sought out opportunities to do that. When I went to NIPSS, my paper was on Consumer Rights Protection. My supervisor was a great woman, a Professor from South West Nigeria. She was an inspiration. I learned so much from her. She’d always tell me, “Be Firm But Be Kind”. Sometimes people think that you have to be mean to be firm, but she’s very very intelligent. She was my supervisor and I did my paper on Consumer Rights Protection and during my research, I was shocked by how much consumer rights are trampled upon and how helpless people are, even to seek relief; and when they even do, nothing comes out of it and there’s no place to run to. When I did my paper on Consumer Rights Protection, I said I could take this a step further and go straight into consumer advocacy. Am still fine tuning it, but that was how I got into consumer rights protection and advocacy.
How far are you willing to take your Consumer Rights Protection Advocacy?
I want every consumer to know their rights and to insist on it, to have the nerve to stand and insist on getting what is due him or her, either through a product or a service. Its my way of paying back to society for what the society has done for me. To CBN and NIPSS too, for what they have done for me. The only way I can pay back is to ensure that the average Nigerian gets what they are promised. If a product promises you to relieve you, it has to deliver or get sanctioned, or pay back.
How can Nigerians be truly united in spite of diversity?
People are all friendly once things are going smoothly. But once things are going wrong, that is when you know the true colors of a society. Everybody runs into their safety nets, like into their religions. The Christians will bind together, the Moslems will bind together, the Ibos will bind together, the northerners will bind together, the Yorubas will bind together so it becomes like a mini Nigeria which is like, yes, this is Nigeria too. You cannot be better than Nigeria. This is what people don’t know. If in the general society, once its time to share the national cake, everybody runs to their ethnic groups, why would it be different elsewhere?