My Sister Stephanie at 50

Today, this 17th day of October 2018, my darling sister Stephanie Stephanie Uku Shonekan turns 50. It’s amazing to imagine how the years have flown by. It seems like it wasn’t that long ago that as a 10-year old youngster, I sat patiently outside that delivery room in Santa Isabel, Fernando Po (now Equatorial Guinea) waiting for my sister’s arrival.

I had our restless 2-year old brother Martin – now of blessed memory – in hand, and I recall our both shooting to our feet and moving closer to those white swinging doors on hearing her first cry. Well, I don’t think little brother really understood my excitement at that age, toddler that he was. He just did ‘follow-follow,’ as we say in Nigeria. But it was all good because your birth, Steph, was the best thing that happened to us in a long time, especially after many difficult months in Biafra during the Nigerian civil war. This baby really was a life to celebrate in a big way.

The way my 10-year old eyes shone with excitement at first seeing you then, baby Estefania, is the same way they still beam in admiration, love and happiness whenever I think of you or when we share time together. You have always been adorable. You are not just a beloved sibling. You are one of my best friends, with whom I can laugh heartily, share personal stories without reserve, and confide in comfortably. We live and work on different continents but I always feel you close to me, and always look forward to our reunions.

If I can speak of my sister in the third person, Steph is a champion in so many respects – a real doer who sets her objectives and steadfastly goes after them. That is how I watched her firmly close the door on a promising management consulting career with Accenture (then Arthur Anderson) in Lagos some 20+ years ago and go back to grad school to pursue her dream: working toward her doctoral degree, writing and teaching. Broaching attendant challenges, she successfully pursued her PhD programme in Ethnomusicology at Indiana University.

With an ever supportive husband at her side and a lovely family around her, she persevered, rising steadily through academia with teaching positions at Indiana University, the University of Missouri, where she became Chair of the Department of Black Studies, and most recently the University of Massachussets at Amherst as Professor and Chair of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. Now what can possibly give her family more pride. Yes, in my view, my sister is the epitome of a ‘can do person.’

Steph, have a smashing birthday today, dear. I can’t wait until we get together in a short while to celebrate our landmark birthdays together. Vive 1968 and 1958! Two great years. Okay, 1973 was a good year too.

Much love,
Rich

 

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Remembering Martin

Martin

I woke up this morning with my brother Martin on my mind. As I opened my eyes on this 19th of September, he was my first thought. Martin left us just over four years ago. He would have been 52 today.

They say time eases the grief after the loss of a loved one. While time certainly does help, when that loved one is an immediate family member like a beloved brother, it’s still  hard to come to terms with their departure a mere four years on. I know I speak for every member of our family when I say so. Our mother, his widow, son, our siblings, Martin’s nieces and nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles …. We all miss him dearly.

Interestingly, sitting in my study sorting through papers a few hours into the day, I came across a tribute to Martin written by one of our closest family friends, our very respected Uncle Joe Abulokwe. Uncle Joe had written his tribute in his own longhand (lovely green cursive on a sheet of white paper) and given it to me shortly before I flew to Columbia, Missouri in the United States for Martin’s funeral in 2014. Martin passed away there a few weeks after a most enjoyable family reunion to mark our mother’s 80th birthday.

I hadn’t sat down to look for Uncle Joe’s tribute or for anything related to Martin’s passing this morning. I just accidentally pulled it out of an envelope as I was going through a sheath of papers. That’s why my doing so today is so significant. Reading it brought back a flood of vivid memories about my beloved brother. I did a video recording of our uncle’s tribute at the time of Martin’s funeral four years ago. But today on the day Martin would have turned 52, I thought I’d share those words here.  So here they are:

“Tribute to a Wonderful Young Man – from Chief & Lady J.O. Abulokwe KSM, JP

“Oh dear, Oh dear!!

“Martin, so it is true? True that we will see you no more, true that like a flash, you have vanished into the greater beyond, true that He the Almighty loves you more, and called you to Himself before we had time to say goodbye.

“Yes, it is true. You touched all of us so. You endeared yourself to us so. But He whom you know, and who knows you by name, has called you, and answer you must. Remain with Him and remain blessed. Forget not those you loved and left. You will abide evergreen in our minds. Adieu, Adieu, Adieu.”

Those were uncle Joe’s words, and I know that the thoughts of all of us who love Martin are with him in spirit today. Rest in peace, little brother. I know you’re looking down today and smiling that infectious trademark smile of yours as you soak up all the love.

Till one day when we meet again. Happy birthday!

Much love,

Rich

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The jewel behind PLK by Péléka

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“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art,” says Péléka Kouloufoua emphatically. It’s a warm Saturday afternoon in the Ivorian commercial capital of Abidjan, and the vivacious jewellery designer with the infectious smile and bubbly personality leans over to lift one of her many scintillating pieces off the velvet bust that it sits on. “That’s not an original quote of mine,” she says. “It’s from Oscar Wilde, and his wise words have always resonated with me. I draw on it for inspiration in my jewellery making business. As you might be able to tell, creating jewellery is my passion,” she says. “I try and reflect that passion in each piece of jewellery that I create. PLK by Péléka is jewellery for the unique in you.”

Péléka, as she prefers to be called quite simply, established her company in Poitiers, France in 2014. Based in this west central French university town, she travels frequently between France, the United Kingdom, Togo, Benin, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, all countries from which she sources the material for her intricate work. They include gemstones, crystals, local beads, wood, metal and more. She integrates all these materials into her many creations. They cover an interestingly wide range of products: necklaces, earrings, bracelets, waist beads and anklets. Other products include broaches, eyeglass chains, ID card lanyards, key holders, bag charms, bookmarks, belts and even dog collars.

Though creatively inclined by nature, Péléka did not purposely set out to be a jewellery designer. She says she stumbled on the occupation purely by accident. After years of daily grind in communications and administration, she stepped away from salaried employment in the corporate world to set up her own business in 2010.

Her first enterprise was Positive Attitude, an interior design and furniture making company in Accra, Ghana. She explains that it was as she made occasional small repairs to jewellery that she imported for her boutique from a friend and business associate in Bénin that she began to develop an interest in jewellery creation. In 2014, after relocating from Accra to Poitiers, she realised that she had found her natural calling and made jewellery making her main endeavour.

After earning her Baccalauréat with a concentration in Economics at the Bernard Palissy Institute in Joinville-le-Pont, France in 1990, Peleka went on to earn a degree in Commerce and Marketing from the Institut National Supérieur des Techniques Commerciales (INSTEC) in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in 1997.

Asked what sets her jewellery making business apart from the competition, Peleka says she makes very few repeat designs, thus giving clients the benefit of exclusivity. “No woman wants to attend an event and see someone else wearing exactly the same piece of jewellery that she has on,” she says. “I prefer to limit the number of times that I reproduce a particular piece. Other than a few pieces, perhaps less than 15 among more than 300 pieces that I have produced since I started in 2012, my necklaces are really unique. I might reproduce the designs with other beads or stones or in another colour.”

PLK by Péléka jewellery can currently be bought online or in-store at boutiques in Abidjan and Cotonou. It will also be available at a number of retail stores in France, the United Kingdom and the United States by early 2019.

Péléka is confident that as her brand grows internationally, it will eventually become a household name among the truly fashion conscious, and those who simply want to wear a work of art.

 

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Too hasty a report card on Mr Barrow

Photo credit: Sulayman Touray, Statehouse, Fajara

Banjul, 3 September, 2017

The Editor
Freedom Newspaper
Banjul, The Gambia

Sir,

Rejoinder to “Gambia: People’s Report on the Barrow Administration”

I read with interest Dr Isatou Sarr’s article “Gambia: People’s Report on President Barrow administration!” – Freedom Newspaper, 2 September, 2017.

This is not intended to be a defensive rejoinder on behalf of the Gambian government. I write purely of my own volition, albeit as an independent consultant working with the government.

I think it is healthy for people to express themselves freely. One does not instinctively think of the press as playing a check-and-balance role as do the different arms of government – executive, legislature and judiciary – but the media does very much play such a role. It is just as important for our political leaders to communicate through the platform offered by the media as it is for them to receive public feedback through the same channel. How that feedback is interpreted is a different matter.

Free speech is a wonderful right that we all enjoy as citizens in a democracy, and I am happy to see Freedom Newspaper and its contributors exercising that right without fear of reprisal. After all, this is not something any of us would have been able to do under the administration of former President Yahya Jammeh. Calling out the President and his government for whatever reason would have earned the writer and the newspaper editor a few days, weeks, months or even years languishing in the infamous Mile 2 prison in the past. And that’s with luck on one’s side. We know how outspoken journalists like Deyda Hydara and others paid the ultimate sacrifice for such “irreverence” to constituted authority under Mr Jammeh.

I highlight this because it is one of the obvious positive developments that have come about since the inception of the Barrow administration. It might be easy to take this for granted. Under the Barrow administration, which Dr Sarr gives a poor overall grade, thankfully, Gambians are now able to express themselves freely. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are alive and well in The Gambia.

I shan’t attempt to counter each and every one of the assertions made in the article. Some are too frivolous to warrant a serious reply. However, a few facts need to be made clear. The article states that the Barrow government has had to borrow money to feed itself. This government inherited an empty treasury. The new Gambian government was bankrupt in the wake of President Jammeh’s departure in February. President Barrow has stressed this time and again. International development partners have rallied to the aid of the new administration with direly needed balance of payments support and technical assistance. Thanks to the United Nations, ECOWAS, the EU, World Bank, IMF bilateral donor partners and non-governmental organisations, the Barrow administration was able to obtain the multi-faceted support needed to get the massive engine of government up and running. The media itself reported on the pillaging and mindless destruction of material that took place as the curtain came down on the Jammeh Statehouse. This is among the many issues under review at the ongoing Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission in Banjul.

President Barrow, accompanied by some of his officials, indeed travelled to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj, a once-in-a-lifetime obligation to Muslims who can afford it. The president reached out to Gambians via social media and announced his departure, seeking forgiveness and prayers as he embarked on the journey. He received a deluge of well wishes from Gambians in response to this. There was nothing untoward about this, and President Barrow was not the first, nor will he be the last sitting head of state of Muslim faith to make the Hajj pilgrimage. While in Saudi Arabia, President Barrow congratulated Gambian pilgrims for performing their Hajj rites. He delivered his message through the Gambian Amirul Hajj, Alhajie Ousman Jah, who visited him in Mina.

It is easy to criticise and issue political report cards from the outside looking in. Mindful of this, President Barrow, in his 35-minute address at the state opening of the National Assembly in June, spoke to the multiple tasks undertaken, and the achievements made within the first six months of his administration. He covered all areas of endeavour, from ongoing efforts to improve electricity and water supply and other basic infrastructure services, to health, youth employment, attracting foreign direct investment, and ensuring national security, among other initiatives.

The president has taken steps to make sure that there is a steady flow of information communicated to the public. With weekly to fortnightly media briefings by his director of press and public relations, monthly media briefings by the minister of information and communications infrastructure, and bi-annual press conferences by the president himself, he is intent on communicating to the public on the activities of his government. The information and communications infrastructure minister also briefs the press following each cabinet meeting, and these are held regularly.

Eight months is hardly enough time for any new government that has taken over the reins of leadership from a 22-year dictatorship, to perform overnight miracles. Change takes time. Development takes time. What is needed at the moment is patience. President Barrow has a capable, professional team of men and women around him. They should be given a fair chance to get on with the business of government as they have been doing. The president himself, is sanguine about prospects for a bright and prosperous Gambia, as he has expressed confidently time and again. I for one, share that optimism and see a recovering Gambia that will only grow from strength to strength if its people rally behind their government and give it the required support.

Richard Uku
UN Senior Strategic Communications Consultant for The Gambia.  @richard_uku

Freedom Newspaper article: http://bit.ly/2eAdmEn

 

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The Abuja House Photo Op

By Richard Uku

I opened my eyes this Sunday morning, and die hard news junkie that I am, I reached for my phone to see what the international news headlines were. That is, of course, after offering up a silent, thankful prayer for waking up alive. It’s just one of those things I no longer take for granted, especially after losing a loved one in his sleep three years ago.

Anyway, as I opened up Twitter, the first tweet that greeted me was one from Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa, a former member of Nigeria’s Federal House of Representatives and former Chair of the House Committee on Media and Publicity.  It read: “Glad to see PMB in very high spirits. And full of his usual humour.” Below it was a photo of a beaming and jovial President Muhammadu Buhari in the garden of the West London residence where he has been staying during his months of medical treatment, and now recuperation, from an undisclosed illness.

My sincere hope is that the Nigerian president recuperates fully. I do, however, find two things disturbing. The first is that the Nigerian public continues to be kept in the dark about the nature of their president’s illness. This is after he has spent several months abroad for it at their expense.

President Patrice Talon of neighbouring Benin Republic underwent two operations in France in June. On his return to Cotonou, he explained publicly that he’d had a prostate related operation, as well as a follow-up one to deal with complications ensuing from the first. He treated Benin’s citizens with the respect that they deserved by being forthcoming about his health. President Talon’s action is exemplary, and there is a lot that other African leaders and their communications handlers can learn from it.

In the United States, veteran Senator John McCain from the state of Arizona told Americans that he was receiving treatment for a brain tumour. Again, this is the behaviour that is expected of public officials. When one rises to such high office, one is no longer a private citizen, and full disclosure of one’s health is as normal as full disclosure of one’s assets. It’s called accountability. Nigeria has not seen this from their president on the health side.

So, as if this weren’t bad enough, the second thing that I find disturbing is the continued release by  President Buhari’s communications and media team of photographs of him receiving one set of Nigerian officials after the next in London. A while ago,  it was party officials and senior government functionaries. Yesterday, it was a beaming President surrounded by his communications and media team, including Information Minister Lai Mohammed and Senior Special Assistant for Media & Publicity Garba Shehu.

One of the many photographs making the rounds on Twitter is one of the officials flanking President Buhari as he reads a giant sized get-well-soon card. I responded to Mr Shehu’s tweet last night, asking him if he thought this was the best PR strategy, wondering out loud in my tweet  how this sat with Nigerians. It was a rhetorical question, of course, in light of the demonstrations in Nigeria by protestors calling on Mr Buhari to either return home or step down from office if he is too ill to continue. But that question is not my issue here.

When I saw Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa’s tweet this morning, I thought: “No! Can we please rein it in for goodness sake!” That’s when I felt compelled to say something in more than a 140-character tweet. And here we are. It’s one thing to see full page newspaper ads taken out by individuals and corporations in Nigeria, conveying felicitations to their leaders on birthdays and religious holidays. Personally, I’ve always found this sycophant-like  practice absurd. But it’s another thing to see the sycophancy played out internationally on social media. How does the world see Nigeria when its officials travel to London and photograph themselves presenting a get well card to their president? What do British officials mutter in Whitehall or behind that shiny black door at Number 10? In the eyes of the world, this can’t look good.

What is, of course, ultimately glaring in all of this is that after 57 years as an independent nation, Nigeria apparently still has not made the investment that is required in its health facilities at home. Had it done so, it would not be necessary for its head of state to require prolonged medical treatment abroad in the course of multiple visits. Developing countries like Cuba and Tunisia are known for the investments they have made in health. This is why medical tourism thrives in both countries despite the development challenges that they grapple with in other areas.

There is no reason why a nation with such vast wealth cannot do better. Last year, President John Magufuli of Tanzania was pictured visiting his wife on admission in a local hospital in Dar es Salaam. He and Mrs Magufuli had both agreed that her hospitalisation and treatment would be in Tanzania rather than her being flown to a medical facility in South Africa. It was vintage John Magufuli.

So in summary, our leaders must give careful thought to what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour when they assume public office. They should realise that the privacy they enjoy as ordinary citizens is something they must sacrifice when they assume the reins of leadership of a nation.  Nigerians deserve to know more about Mr Buhari’s health situation. And please, let nobody tell me that this is a cultural thing; that in Africa, we do not do this; that our health details are private. At the risk of flogging a dead horse, it is not. I have already provided one good example that illustrates this.

Secondly, communications handlers may want to think more strategically about the ramifications of tactics they use to convey information to the public. This includes advising their principals to be forthright with the electorate, and for them, the communications handlers, in turn to be straight and honest in  information dissemination.  They should also always bear in mind that a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Thirdly, it is time for government to put every effort possible into improving health facilities in the country – for the benefit of all Nigerians, especially those who cannot afford to travel abroad for medical treatment, but are confined to making do with what the system makes available to them.

I earnestly hope that President Buhari will soon return to excellent health and be able to leave Abuja House in London for his Aso Rock residence in Abuja.

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Richard Uku (@richard_uku) is an independent strategic communications consultant.

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Today is a good day

 

I am working from home in a hard Brexit UK this week and contemplating next steps as I prepare to leave Ecobank in just under two weeks. This will only be the second time in my long career as a strategic communications professional that I have voluntarily opened and shut one door behind me before another one opens. But sometimes we know when it’s just that time to move on to the next challenge.

I am looking forward to a little R&R with family, a lot of saxophone playing, karate training after too long a hiatus and to putting a few more miles on my motorcycle in the coming days. Of course, I intend to do this while turning those figurative irons in the fire and considering my options for the future.

Interestingly, my imminent departure from Ecobank comes precisely eight years after I sat glued to my television in my Lomé living room, transfixed like millions of others around the world as then President-elect Barack Obama took the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States. And today, on this 19th of January, President Obama’s last day in office, my 82 year young mother, until now a national of her native Trinidad & Tobago, takes the oath in Kansas, Missouri to be sworn in as an American citizen. Our family is so proud of her.

So today, I celebrate the confluence of these three interesting developments: my self-motivated career crossroads, the historic culmination of Mr. Obama’s eight years as a president and statesman and the wonderful celebration of my mother’s US citizenship. Today is a good day and this is a good week. Indeed, it’s an exciting new year with great hopes on the horizon.

 

 

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Making corporate social responsibility count

By Richard Uku

Much is made about profitability in the private sector, where making money is paramount. Indeed, it should be. Companies exist, after all, primarily to be profitable for their shareholders and their employees, and to add value for them. Those who manage corporations must ensure that return on equity is greater than cost of equity. This is the most basic financial formula for keeping a firm in the black.

I work for a bank, the one with the largest geographical footprint across Africa, and therefore this is a familiar refrain in management meetings. Profit is by all means important, but while companies keep a watchful eye on their bottom line, it is equally important to balance making money with corporate social responsibility (CSR). This is an area in which I feel particularly invested in my work as a strategic communications professional.

All companies, big and small, have a moral obligation to promote the development of the local communities in which they operate. Four years ago at Ecobank, we started a CSR initiative that has since become a welcome annual tradition. It is one which my colleagues and I look forward to each year. ‘Ecobank Day’ is a special day set aside in the fourth quarter of the year, which we devote to giving back and working selflessly in the service of our local communities. In previous years, we have refurbished classrooms, built school blocks, and worked to help prevent the spread of Ebola, among other activities.

Our twin themes for Ecobank Day this year were: promoting information and communication technology (ICT) in schools, and improving maternal health. Employee teams all across our 36 subsidiaries in Africa carried out activities in one or both of these areas. At our group head office in Lomé, Togo, we chose to focus on improving maternal health. A reconnaissance mission to the local Sylvanus Olympio University Teaching Hospital left us in no doubt that we needed to make this our 2016 Ecobank Day activity.

It was gut wrenching to see expectant mothers sleeping on bare floors and others curled up in foetal positions since the cots they lay on were more the size of short trolleys than standard beds. The neonatal ward, which was the centre of our operation, was bereft of some of the most basic equipment. Lack of financial resources for the repair and purchase of incubators had led to the use of makeshift aluminium units, completely open on one end. The supervisor told us how one baby had rolled out and fallen to the floor just a few weeks earlier. Miraculously, the baby survived. I stood looking on in shock as the medical personnel fought to save lives with the little they had to work with. Furthermore, conditions were not as hygienic as they could be due to the absence of running water.

Following our recon visit, we swung into action two weeks later. On December 10, I led a team of colleagues to work at the hospital. We donated new incubators, mucus aspirators, beds, mattresses, benches, cots, and chairs to the hospital. We helped install new windows and doors in the maternity ward. We also procured equipment for the rehabilitation of potable pipe-borne water for the ward and we dug trenches for the laying of the water pipes.

We also busied ourselves with indoor and outdoor cleaning, assembling baby cots, scraping surfaces to prepare them for new paint work, and painting. Some colleagues spent time talking to mothers in the ward about maternal and baby care. At the end of an industrious, labour-filled morning, we went room to room presenting care baskets to mothers of the ward, a gesture which elicited some of the warmest smiles of appreciation that I’ve ever seen. It just proved that it sometimes only takes a little gesture to make those in need happy.

I came away from the exercise feeling extremely pleased with the effort that my colleagues and I made. I do believe that we made a difference, and it felt gratifying. For me, this is what corporate social responsibility is all about: working to improve the quality of life for local communities, especially where there is dire need for assistance.

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