Iwenofu is one of those Africans that are as a continuous process, injected into the African Union (AU), to recreate a new global path for Africa. With a global mindset, and a life abroad devoid of inhibitions, Chinelo Iwenofu is utilizing her creative energy to gather and lead a team to tell the African story in a new way.
In this interview with Paul Ukpabio, the Nigerian born globetrotter tells us the challenging story of the Nigerian civil war and how she narrowly escaped death at a tender age to live abroad. She returned only to find out that “things were no longer at ease” in her dear country Nigeria, many years after she narrowly escaped the civil war in the late 60s as a little child.
Congratulations on your appointment with the African Union, but what exactly does your office entail?
I was unexpectedly appointed as ‘Head of Communication Affairs’ by the African Union ECOSOCC Nigeria, under the Agenda 2063 official media platform of the Ambassadorial Assembly which is a continental initiative. With that, my office entails that I act as a contributor and editor on the Africa 63 Magazine, which offers objective information within the African Union scope that educates, entertains and promotes African values to birth a prosperous continent. I will also co-ordinate the writing and production of their up and coming book – “The Africa We Want”.
How relevant will you say that the African Union has been in recent times?
The relevance of AU is definitely being felt, for instance, I know that AU responded immediately to the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, the African Union COVID-19 Response Fund was established by the Chairperson of the African Union Commission Mr Moussa Faki Mahamat on 26 March 2020, with the aim of strengthening the continental response to COVID-19 and mitigate its socio economic and humanitarian impact on African populations.
The launch followed a meeting of the Bureau of the African Union Heads of State and Government, chaired by His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, who is also the Chairperson of the African Union for 2020. Members of the bureau are His Excellency, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of the Republic of Mali; His Excellency, President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta of the Republic of Kenya; His Excellency, President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo; and His Excellency, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of the Arab Republic of Egypt. The Bureau reviewed the COVID19 situation in Africa and the leaders noted that the pandemic had overstretched the public health systems of Member States and was causing serious harm to the health, economic and social well-being of Africa, as in other parts of the world. They noted that if the trend continued unchecked it could cause a major catastrophe for the continent. The Bureau therefore agreed to urgently establish the continental fund.
The strategy guiding the continental response, called the Joint Africa Continental Strategy on COVID-19, was endorsed by health ministers of African Union Member States and was approved by the Bureau of the African Union Heads of States and Government on 26 March.
Nigeria used to play a big brother role in Africa, but with the nation presently at the rock bottom of global poverty rating, do you see Nigeria continuing to play that role effectively?
I see Nigeria continuing to play the big brother role whether they want to not. Primarily, because, of the teeming population both inside and outside Africa. We have left good and bad footprints everywhere. Even if Nigeria was destroyed today, the millions of us living outside will still have an impact. We have stamped our dominance in entertainment, leadership roles outside the continent, even finance! Nigerian banks are fanning out all over Africa, to the extent that a prominent Kenyan described us as being like the Chinese, all over the place spreading our culture. I’m afraid that if Nigeria fails it will have a domino effect on the rest of Africa because our DNA is all over the black world. But that is not likely to happen.
Nigeria looks now like it’s on a downward spiral, and could very well crash to the bottom, but we won’t die. We would get up with a few broken bones and bad bruising in plaster and so on. But once healed, which is the part where we get rid of all the selfish, destructive and recycled elements smothering us from the top; a progressive young offspring will emerge, as long as they are given the right awareness and creativity. No human being in their right mind will want to dwell forever in ignorance and decay. Mark my words, fresh blood will emerge and take over.
Still on Nigeria and global outlook, doesn’t it seem unfortunate that no one is expecting the covid-19 vaccine solution from Africa? And the only African country that offered herbal remedy was undermined and presently suffering a higher scourge of same coronavirus? Is Africa ever going to find its feet in global development dispensation?
Why no one is expecting the covid19 vaccine from Africa baffles me. And must it be a vaccine anyway? When we saw Ebola off in 93 days, not too much was said about it, in fact I would not be surprised if the west and the big pharmaceutical companies were disappointed. The fear of Africa and what Africa can achieve is real. So even if we were sitting right on top of the perfect cure for covid19 it is likely to be suppressed. Unfortunately, our age old inferiority complex will also interfere with our own belief in ourselves that we cant produce such a vaccine. The hydrochloroquine saga comes to mind. This is a cheap anti-malaria drug that we have been using for decades. Most of us may even have it in our system! There are herbs that are rumoured to be effective too. We should have scientists in the lab working on what we have, not waiting like idiots for some foreign power to come and give us a vaccine. I think it’s really about time we formed our very own AHO (African Health Organisation), we will then have the capacity to guide our own medicinal and healing processes.
Africa already has demonstrated its ability in the global dispensation, mostly on an individual basis. And what happens to those Africans who have come out with brilliant developmental ideas? They were snapped up by America and Europe, given citizenship and blended into their respective societies. And guess who takes all the credit? Never the African or Africa! And quite frankly, it serves us right! But that’s another story.
You are a poet, a writer and a publisher, which came first and how have you been able to groom each part over the years?
Actually, being a poet came first. Because when I was an eleven year old I came first in a national poetry competition in England and Wales, barely 2 years after I arrived in UK. In between everything else family, school, reading, and so on, I wrote short stories, newspaper articles, I was a magazine columnist then editor. When I got back to Nigeria, after a disturbing stint of working with unpleasant employers, I branched out on my own and decided to start my own publishing company, with little or no capital.
I still write, mostly ghost-writing for people who want to publish biographies and such. I’ve barely had time to write for myself because I would like to write a novel or my memoirs. I jot down poems every time I feel like it, and I should have clocked well over 100 poems, some of which I have carelessly misplaced. However I have just completed a book of poems which I intend to bring out on my birthday this August.
What led you into the law profession?
Oh that, I used to think it was a mistake until after a while I began to enjoy it. Practising law in England was a memorable experience. Anyway I read law at Southbank University in my desperation to go back to school after the end of a rather early and traumatic marriage. I had initially applied to read Mass Communication and was told that there was a three year waiting list, my other choices were English, History and Law. When I was offered a place on those other subjects I opted for law because that seemed like the most practical in terms of career. I thought I would go back to writing later.
I found myself lingering in the legal profession for many years long after I graduated and qualified. I worked in a few solicitors’ firms as well as her Majesty’s Treasury Solicitors which was a source of pride on my CV then. I eventually went into partnership in the City of London before bowing out finally.
Which do you prefer and which is better, practicing law abroad that is in Europe or America, or practicing it in Nigeria?
Practicing abroad, of course! I don’t understand what is going on in Nigeria, I’m not used to the system here. I never bothered to go to Law School here, because I had no intent of practicing. I was put off by the low salaries of new lawyers.
What memories of your parents do you recall and who were you most close to, your dad or your mom?
My father left for London UK while we were still in Lagos, he went off to specialize in ophthalmology. We got caught up in the progrom against Igbos which had spread from the north to Lagos, so my little brother and I, were evacuated to the East with my mother. We lived with her throughout our time in the war until we eventually left for UK in September 1969. My father met us at Heathrow Airport, so most of my adolescent life was spent with him, even though I was put in a boarding school at some point. In which case I would say I was a little closer to my father, but reconciled with my mother in my adult years when I started visiting her in Lagos.
Did your parents play any role in the civil war?
My mother was a nurse at a military hospital in Aba and Nkwerre. Meanwhile in the UK my father was a Biafran activist when he wasn’t practising medicine.
Were you married to a Nigerian and given an opportunity, will you go into marriage again?
No I was not married to a Nigerian. In fact he was from Grenada and we have 2 beautiful sons together. I’ve been given more than ‘an opportunity’ to go into marriage again, and not been willing to because the demands on my peace of my mind were too high. I had vowed never to go into an abusive relationship or marriage ever again. However, I can never say never. If it is God’s will and a gentleman shows up and our spirits blend, then why not?
The embarrassing journey of African immigrants across the Mediterranean sea to Europe continues in earnest, why the quiet about this suicidal journeys by African governments? Can’t it be stopped?
I told you already that most African governments, especially Nigerian are selfish, destructive and sorry to say, rotten. It is not in their mind set to help their citizens, they do not want to get their hands dirty, especially if most of the migrants are from another tribe. We need new governments, new leaders that will at least make an effort. At least encourage them to stay home. But they are not being given an incentive to remain in their countries, they are virtually refugees, whether war torn or economic.
You must have seen the Nigerian civil war or experienced a little part of it, what indelible memory did it leave on you?
As a child from a privileged home, the impact was not as daunting as it was for many, but I do recall the constant fear and instability we faced, and I did witness some horrors now and then. Flying out of Biafra a few months before the war ended was also a terrifying experience. The indelible memory it left with me, was that war is not the best solution, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary for self-defense.
Did you ever meet the main actor in the civil war, Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu in real life, if yes, what impressions did he leave on you and what scenario was that?
I like the way you say “main Actor”. But who told you he was the main actor? I could only say I actually met Ikemba Ojukwu in real life before the war and after the war. During the actual war, despite the fact that we spent some time in his house in Onitsha before it fell into enemy hands, he was never there. We used to watch him on television inspecting soldiers on parade, while his toddler son, Emeka junior would be exclaiming with delight in Igbo “Look at my father, look at my father”!
What are your fears about Nigeria, about Africa generally?
My fears about Nigeria and Africa, is that we could be recolonized. If we continue to allow our governments to greedily seek loans from outside, we might well be plunged back into neo-colonialism and financially enslaved.
Some people are suggesting that to change, Africa needs a revolution. What kind of revolution do you think Africa needs?
A ‘thought revolution’. A reset of the mind and complete financial independence through hard work and the harvesting of our own resources by ourselves. Also we have to learn to stop fighting each other in the name of ethnicity and religion. These unnecessary conflicts have brought us right down and rendered us easy to manipulate.
Is it time for a female president in Nigeria?
It has always been time for a female president. But whether our self-absorbed misogynist males will allow it, is another issue. I remember once a guy told me to my face, “if a woman ever rules Nigeria I will rather commit suicide than live under a woman”. I have never forgotten that sad declaration.
We are the way we are because more than half of the population is not allowed to have a say in the running of affairs. 80% of Africa is lopsided. One or two countries are trying and they are developing faster than the rest. That I guess, will be a conversation for another day.