Some are born with drops of greatness in them, while some achieved greatness by stint of hard work. For Omenwa greatness is how best you handle what life throws at you, even if it has to entail climbing the rungs of the much coveted oil industry as she did and left her prints on the sand of time.
Let us meet you.
Omenwa: My name is Ekwutosi Emodi Nee Ochei but I’m popularly known by my pet name, Omenwa. I’m
from Umuasele village in Onitsha but married to Emodi family from Omozele in Umuaroli.
How did the name Omenwa come to be?
Omenwa: It is a pet name given to me by my father. Story has it that I was so attached to my father as a child. We had to eat breakfast and other meals together and it was said that I won’t eat anything till he came back from work. For that reason, he had to adjust his schedule to come back home at 3:00pm just to make sure I ate because he knew I wouldn’t till anytime he came back. At first, he called me, ‘Titi’ but later changed it to Omenwa and the name had stuck ever since. The name eventually took over my real
name as people are more familiar with it. Many don’t even know my real name till date.
Omenwa: Though I was born in Lagos but the outbreak of civil war forced us to relocate back to Onitsha. It was during that period that I started my early education at where is now called Ogboli Primary School, then it was call Convent Primary School. Afterwards I went to Oba Girls Secondary School, Oba for my secondary education.
Tell us about your childhood.
Omenwa: My childhood was memorable and interesting until it was disrupted by that ill-fated civil war. As a young girl growing up in a normal African setting it was fascinating watching my mom cook. So it wasn’t difficult for me to start cooking as early as eight years old. Then Ochanja Market was close-by to us so I was always sent on different errands and I gleefully participated in carrying out house chores.
Then life was simple. Going down memory lane we engaged in different folk plays called ‘Egwu Onwa’ moonlight plays which I don’t know whether children still engage in nowadays. Also, to help at home, we had to fetch water because water was scarce then. All these events summed up to make childhood unforgettable.
But such blissful childhood as we had was interrupted abruptly by the outbreak of war.
Can we share some of your experiences during the war?
Omenwa: When Onitsha fell, we had to move to Ogidi. Right from then things were never the same interesting story because it was war and its attendant impact that was felt everywhere. However, in the midst of all the uncertainties we managed to have fun as children. After all, not going to school was enough fun in itself for us then.
The war experience to a child wasn’t pleasurable, it was a bleak encounter, by the time Onitsha fell the second time we had to relocate completely to Nnewi before moving on finally to Umuahia.
When we got to Olokoro in Umuahia things were drab and uneventful for so long until my mom started a contract with S&T to supply foodstuff. Within a short period of that contract things eased a bit. After the supply, normally we had some left over which I engaged in selling. Again the fall of Umuahia saw us move further inland to Okohia and then to Anyara.
Is there anything to take away from that experience?
Omenwa: Yes. The war experience imbued the sense of hard work in me at a very early stage in life because I was involved in the circle of activities that my mom carried out. Then I expected my mom to always come back from the market with lots of food stuff for supply of which I assisted actively. When she goes back for another restocking, I spent the time laps in-between to switch my engagement to other profitable ventures in order to support her. During that period I used to trek the long distance from Anyara to Mbano to pick up relief materials from Caritas. The next day will be to Red Cross at Ishiekpe to pick up our allocation. In all these I was eager to support my mother and our family.
How did your family manage to survive the hardship of that era?
Omenwa: Incidentally my mom’s supply contract saved us from the hunger experience that was prevalent during the war.
However, the fall of Owerri saw us once move once again to Okija and that was our last camp till the war ended.
How did it feel returning to Onitsha after the war?
On return to Onitsha, the first settlement was at Fegge. The inland town was desolate then and it wasn’t until things started normalizing that people started moving upwards once again. I had to re-enroll to complete my primary school at St. John in Fegge.
The completion of my secondary education at Oba Girls Secondary School brought me back to Lagos where I joined the civil service immediately in 1976. As a young girl, I worked specifically with the Ministry of Petroleum before it was changed to Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) in 1977.
I worked there for some years before applying for study leave to further my education.
Tell us about your entry into NNPC
Omenwa: My joining the civil service was funny because my dad was working with the ministry of finance in Lagos then, so after my school certificate exam, he called his colleague who was working in the then ministry of petroleum to please engage his little daughter who had just finished her exams with any clerical job available while she awaited her Joint Admission Matriculation Board (JAMB) result then. That was how it all started; I was interviewed and employed on October 19, 1976.
How did it feel starting to work at such a tender age?
Omenwa: It was normal. I started and was taught what to write. I was given a schedule and I had a supervisor eventually I picked up. It was while working that I discovered that we usually had one hour break. So I asked myself what I could be doing with a whole lot of one hour while it would take me just five minutes to eat and get back to the office. So I ended up spend the rest of my break sleeping.
During one of my breaks, I saw a notice from a driving school on the Lagos Island. I was attracted and walked in for enquiry; I was told that the lesson was for one hour per day which fitted well into my break period so I decided to enroll for driving lessons instead.
That was how I was taught driving that early and by 1977 I was already a licensed driver. Though I did not start driving immediately because the day my driver’s license was delivered to our house, I was not at home so my dad received it on my behalf. Afterwards he started hiding his car key. Fortunately for me, later an aunt of mine who was in need of a driver learnt that I could drive and have been licensed, she happily released her car key and I started driving her about town.
Owing that the ministry was not quite lucrative then as it is today how did you grow?
Omenwa: While working as a clerk, writing and awaiting JAMB result, information was circulated in the ministry for secretarial study. I applied and was offered admission. I went to Enugu on study leave for two years secretarial studies. On my return I became a secretary.
I worked as a secretary for long and found out there was no spare time for a secretary which means that whether your boss is there or not, you must be around. Fortunately, after 10 years as a Pesonal Assistant I needed another challenge. By 2006 when opportunity for further studies came, I applied and was offered admission into the University of Lagos (UNILAG) for a degree course in Business Administration. My experience as once a secretary and a personal assistant in different departments of the ministry over the years helped greatly in my course of study. At graduation I was converted to an officer.
What were your job schedules when you became an officer?
Omenwa: As an officer, I worked in the personnel department. I worked there for two years at the engineering section of NNPC corporate headquarters; from there I was posted to PPMC as an administrative officer before going back to NNPC again as a personnel officer.
Personnel department had different units. I headed the discipline unit and was posted from there to Employee Relations, working as a liaison officer with the unions (PENGASSN and NUPENG). I was there for another two years.
While there, we were able to liaise with the two unions in order to create industrial harmony. During that period, we achieved low industrial agitations because before anything escalates we find out whatever was the problem and inform the management. The management was left to consider whether the union’s agitation was what they can accommodate or not. After that we take back their decision to the unions in an understanding manner.
Any case in particular because there were many agitations especially during the military era?
Omenwa: A case in mind was when people working at the refineries were getting sick and all that was needed was just a tin of milk every day to dilute the fume they regularly inhaled at the refinery. We informed the management of such demands and it was approved. They asked for hazard allowance and it was approved. When they asked for 50 per cent of their salaries at such time, negotiations were made on what the management could afford. This is what necessitated the constitution of quarterly Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) meetings. The executives of the unions and the personnel officers meet at such forum to address all the challenges in the system.
We were able to achieve industrial harmony and there was no strike throughout the four years I spent there. However, it is noteworthy that most strikes do not emanate from NNPC but they had to join in most cases in solidarity to other unions’ agitations for something.
What was your job at MTD?
Omenwa: I was transferred from Personnel department in Abuja to Marine Transport Department (MTD) in Lagos. My job scope there was entirely different from what I usually did. The new assignment involved all the vessels that brought products into Nigeria. I was in Lagos for two years monitoring the movement and operations of vessels in and out of Nigeria until there was a problem at PPMC area office in Warri that led to the dismissal of a staff there. So I was detailed to go there and take charge of operations.
Though still marine transport department because there was a jetty there which I took over. The problem there was that when the refinery was on, tankers did not meet the evacuation demands by lifting of enough products and due to vandalism of oil pipelines that sends product to Benin the only available means of moving products was through vessels. So I was in charge of movement of these vessels. But if the refineries are down the only means of bringing in petroleum products to Warri and Benin was through the vessels. There were tank farms where vessels discharged their products for further operations. This type of operation was carried out till the refinery picked up again.
I was in Warri for 4 years before being posted back to Lagos.
Can you describe the level of functionality of the refineries when you were in the ministry?
Omenwa: The refineries then were working. It was only during maintenance that they were shutdown and immediately after that everything returns to normal again. It is not like what we have now.
At what time did things get bad in the oil industry?
Omenwa: When I was there, refineries only get shut down for maintenance. Although then militants
vandalized several pipelines and facilities which also affected production, except during such acts that led to shutdown, refineries functioned in optimal capacity.
On my return to Lagos I was assigned to manage another vessel. The vessel went on maintenance when I took over so my job became to liaise between the staff involved in the maintenance oversea and the management. I was on that beat, managing the vessel even after maintenance till 2011 when I retired.
How come you are now into hospitality?
Omenwa: Before I retired, I lived in government quarters at Ikoyi till I was transferred to Warri but the property was sold during monetization era. So when I got back to Lagos I needed an accommodation so I started searching and contemplated on whether to buy an already made structure or to buy land somewhere and start fresh construction. It was during that search that this structure that houses Maria Suit was acquired.
What spurred you into hospitality industry after years in the public service?
Omenwa: Actually while working as a liaison officer in the Employee Relations, I discovered that most of the negotiations that I mentioned earlier were mostly done outside the office in hotels anytime we have meetings. There was hardly a time officers don’t spend 4 weeks in a hotel. In PPMC alone we have 6 area
offices and the headquarters. These area offices have many depots under them and every depot has PENGASSN/NUPENG units there that met regularly.
All the different units, chapters and areas in all the regions of the federation met to take decisions on how to manage their affairs to enhance smooth operations and the information arising from such meetings was transmitted upwards to the headquarters which calls for regular consulting by the officers in charge from the headquarters to the area offices. These consultations are held in hotels as it were.
When there is crisis in any of the unions and it is escalated for example, instead of moving all that were involved to Abuja, it demands me heading to such destinations to interfere after which reports will be sent back to Abuja. All through, you find out that in all these in a month, hardly can one spend 2 weeks in the office without travelling for official purpose. From my travelling experience as an employee I think I have hindsight into what hospitality business entails.
How has business been so far?
Omenwa: The business is thriving by the grace of God. It is quite interesting and keeps one busy too instead of retiring and doing nothing. It keeps the brain occupied.
What in particular can you point that your origin as Onitsha indigene created into you that helped your success both in public service and in business?
Omenwa: Being Onitsha person really helped me a lot because there is this saying; whose child are you? In Onitsha culture, nobody will ask who you are but whose child you are.
Also, “Nkpaya nwa onye onicha kalili ogbugbu e”. This proverb really helped me in life. Whatever I do, I always avoid tarnishing my name or people rubbishing me. This always comes to my mind and it’s one of the principles that guided me throughout my working years in NNPC. My parents were alive when I started and I know that if their child is involved in any false thing, I know it will hurt them.
Advice to the youths
Omenwa: The problem with our youths these days is that they want to make it and make it very fast these days and it doesn’t work that way. You have to grow by working hard. It is absurd that a 15 or 20 year old becomes a millionaire without any work. He cannot manage it and that is what our youths are copying.
I advise our youths to be steadfast and stick to education. Have a certificate. Let them take life seriously and follow the stages. With that they will make it.