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11 Apr

eua1After the swirl of activities for her golden birthday, ace broadcaster Eugenia Abu sat down with Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani to reflect on growing up, getting married, turning 50, casting news, and facing the future

Mrs. Eugenia Abu, gorgeous and cerebral, is one of the most recognisable faces in Abuja and the country at large. For 17 years, she was a prime-time anchor on national television, regularly delivering the highly rated 9 o’clock news to millions of homes across the length and breadth of Nigeria. She has been in the high-pressure media environment for 32 years, and you can’t help but wonder how she does it: combining a demanding job at the National Television Authority (NTA) with a multifaceted career, a ton of extracurricular activities, and a family—and excelling on all fronts.

“I am married to a very good man,” she said, giving a hint on how she has stayed centered over time. “I think it takes a confident man who has the interest of his wife at heart to allow you become who you want to be.”

She met her husband, Mr. Thompson Abu, while interning at a radio station during her first holiday from Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria. He proposed shortly after she concluded her national service, and has been her unseen pillar of support since.     

Apart from being the darling of television viewers, Mrs. Abu has also received critical acclaim, garnering several awards in journalism, including the Nigeria Media Merit Award for Best Newscaster of the Year 1995. A much sought-after compere at high profile events, she is also a prolific and prize-winning writer. Her first book, In the Blink of an Eye, won the 2008 ANA/NDDC Flora Nwapa Prize for Best Women’s Writing. That collection of essays was followed by the critically-acclaimed poetry collection, Don’t Look at Me Like That.

Mrs. Abu, who is also a member of the Editorial Board of Thisday, maintains weekly columns in two national dailies: ‘Tales from the Main Road’ in BusinessDay on Fridays; and ‘Five Favourite Books with Eugenia Abu’ in The Sunday Trust. At present, she is in the process of gaining her second master’s degree—this time in Creative Writing from Keele University, Staffordshire. (Her first was in Communication Policy from City University, London.) She is about completing her first novel, which is set in a Nigerian university campus, giving her the opportunity to share experiences from a previous era of her life long before we all knew her through our TV screens.

“I was in the run at some point to become vice president of the Student Union at ABU,” she said. “Not because I wanted it but because we had somebody running to be president called Abdulrahman Black—he’s late now—and he wanted me to be his vice president.”

On October 19, 2012, Mrs. Abu turned 50. Her family and friends put together a four-day event, which mirrored her eventful life and her various ways of engagement. Activities for this milestone included: a photo exhibition of ‘The Life and Art of Eugenia Abu’; a literary evening where a panel of literati discussed her essay, fiction and poetry collections; an anniversary lecture titled, ‘Being the Best You Can Be’, with Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, as the Guest Lecturer; and a dinner where Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the Governor of the Central Bank and former schoolmate of the birthday lady, delivered a talk on Mentoring and National Development.

“Mentoring is something that I’ve been doing from when I was much younger,” she said. “I tend to be very much like my mum. She loved to impact, and she never let bad behaviour go by without making a comment.”

One of the highlights of her 50th birthday was the unveiling of The Eugenia Abu Centre, which she plans to use to give more structure to mentoring, creative writing and her different passions. 

Below, find excerpts of her engaging reflection on a host of issues:

TELEVISION CAME LOOKING FOR ME

I wanted to be a lawyer when I was growing up. Broadcasting didn’t cross my mind at all. I loved films and might haveeu2 thought of acting, which I did a bit of in my secondary schooleu2 and during my A’ Levels. I didn’t go courting television; it came looking for me.

This was how my broadcasting career started: the first radio station in Benue State, Radio Benue, Makurdi was running test-transmission sometime in 1979. The station was calling for announcers. I had just finished my A-levels and was waiting to go to the university. I just thought of giving it a try since I was not doing anything at that time. I was tested and given a part-time job.

‘BUT IT ALL STARTED WITH RADIO’

I was the first female continuity announcer at the radio station. I would open the station at 4am. I spent three months and learned everything I could. I was a DJ while also producing and presenting request programmes, women’sprogrammes, and children’sprogrammes. I was doing virtually everything. At the end of the three months, my university admission came through and I went to school. For every holiday during my three-year study at Ahmadu Bello University, that radio station took me.

I always say that to be a good broadcaster on television, you need to do radio first—because in radio, you have no chips on your shoulder. Your dressing doesn’t matter. It is your voice that is required, and nobody cares how you look. This in a way makes you focus more on your skill and voice rather than on your looks. So when you hit television, it isn’t about your gele—it is about your craft.

I BECAME A NEWSCASTER BY ACCIDENT’

 I joined NTA Markudi as a writer—an editor to be precise. I had no plan of becoming an on-air personality when I joined. So for most of my time in NTA Markudi, I was an editor, a producer of news, pretty much like an editor of a paper. But what I got known for is my on-air work, which came by accident.One day a presenter didn’t show up. And I had been around for one year, understudied everybody, produced current affairs programmes, etc. My boss said ‘you can do it; you speak very well’. And suddenly I was before the camera. That’s when it started. Thanks to Engr. Wakombo, then GM NTA Makurdi, who actively headhunted me.

THEY ASKED, ‘IS SHE HERE TO OBLITERATE US?’

When I moved to NTA Headquarters, there was a bit of suspicion about who I was and where I was coming from because I wasn’t part of them. And I was very tiny. At first they thought I was too small to even be a worker. I used to wear those knee length trousers you wear when you just return from the UK. They didn’t believe I was old enough until they met my kids and they were like ‘you mean she has children.” And there were questions like: ‘is she coming to obliterate us?’; ‘does she think she’s too high horse because she’s coming from the UK?’ etc. Yet I did not have any of the attitudes of those coming back from the UK. I tried to be friendly and chatty as I am now.

I joined the network shortly after my first masters’ degree. And that was a time a lot of presenters across board were beginning to realize that they needed to have the education that goes with the glamour. I didn’t have the glamour because to be honest I wasn’t a very glamorous person, but I’d come in with the education and skills. Soon afterwards, people found out that I was just a regular person and that I was one of them.

 ‘HOW I MADE IT TO NETWORK NEWS’

They didn’t make me a newscaster immediately at NTA Headquarters. There was a process to everything. Even though I was a newscaster in NTA Makurdi for many years, they wanted to see what I had. It is not like now when you can arrive at a station and suddenly be on air the very next day. They would keep you in the cooler for about a month. Then after that they would put you on the smaller bulletins like noon. You would read noon for like two weeks and would undergo proper training. You would move from there to 4pm News, and then graduate to 7pm before you could even think of the 9 o’ clock Network News.

When I finally hit 9 o’ clock News, I was all nerves because I had been processed for it like a big deal. I think it is better that way because you will treat it with care. But if they give it to you once you arrive, then you will begin to think you are too hot. Then you will ruin it and you’ll never practice, you’ll never train, and you will think you’ve got it.

Unfortunately, things are not like this anymore. I tried to keep that tradition going when I was head of presentation for nearly seven years. I moved on from that position about three years ago. But you get pressure from everywhere, and people ask you ‘why are you not putting that person on air? The person also goes around reporting you to everyone about how much you dislike them. Meanwhile I was processing them, in a similar manner I was processed which makes one better. Those who accepted to be processed, learnt, and are better casters today.

‘A CRAZY ADMIRER STALKED ME FOR SIX MONTHS’

I got married at 21. So, I didn’t stay single for too long. But of course that didn’t deter male admirers. I was very polite and decent to my admirers, even though some of them sounded crazy. There was somebody who stalked me for nearly six months, writing me letters. From the content of the letters, I could tell that he had a mental challenge, but I didn’t take it seriously. He would write things like he loved me, wanted to marry me etc. He wrote me every week, and I kept his letters.

I went to a public event in Kaduna after I had moved to Abuja. When I got back around 6pm, the security men said somebody was looking for me. I asked for his name and they said they didn’t know but that the person said he came in from Lagos. So I went to him and he said his name was Lucky and he was looking for Eugenia. As soon as he said Lucky, I nearly died. That was the guy who had been writing me. He was living in Lagos and he had come all the way to Abuja by bus. I said Eugenia had gone to Kaduna and that I didn’t know whether she was going to return that day. He said they told him Eugenia would come back that very day. I had to tell the security men to find a way to get rid of him because he truly scared me.

‘TWO MEN ONCE THREATENED TO STAB ME’

Sometimes you receive hate mails. I once interviewed a big entrepreneur and philanthropist in Makurdi who didn’t have formal education and who started business by selling sweets and other petty things. I asked him to tell us what he did to turn himself around so that we could encourage other people. Two days after the interview, I went to see my tailor who was living in a quiet street. I parked my car and walked the narrow alleyway that led to his house.

Then I found myself confronted by two young people with knives. They said ‘we are going to kill you here. Just because you are educated, you think you can embarrass our oga by asking him stupid questions.’ I was all by myself, and they nearly killed me that night. I explained to them that I didn’t mean any harm. I was just trying to make young people emulate his achievements because he had done excellently well. I told them we wouldn’t put him on our high-end programme if he wasn’t a success. Then they disappeared into the darkness.

‘HE KEPT PURSUING ME AND I KEPT TURNING HIM DOWN’

It was during the first holiday after I gained admission into the university that I ran into my husband. He just got a job with the radio station where I did my holiday job and he was telling everybody that he was going to marry me and I just kept nodding. I was thinking in my mind how outlandish could he be? How crazy? Who is this man? He followed me everywhere. I was like ‘please, you don’t just meet people for the first time and want to marry them.’

He kept on pursuing me around and I told him: ‘You know what? I am not going to marry you. You are not even talking about us going on a date. What makes you think I will like to marry you? I don’t like people like you who have such a high opinion about themselves.’ One day, he left his car and jumped on the bus with me and said he would follow me to my parents’ home.

These were years when your parents could kill you for coming home with a man. I said to him “you are going to kill me, please get down before my bus stop.’ He said he must follow me home to meet my parents. Then the bus driver said—I will never forget—‘madam, marry am now. This man dey beg you since now. Just marry am.’ I responded by saying who asked for his opinion. And the driver replied again that when he gets home he would pray so that I could marry my husband. I didn’t know who the driver was. My husband persisted. He is a very practical man, very focused, and very wise. He is also very funny. I fell in love with his humour among many other endearing things about him. After my youth service, he proposed and then I said yes.

‘WITHOUT MY FAMILY, I DON’T EXIST’

eu3I have a really exciting family. I am married to a very good man. I think it takes a confident man to allow you become who you want to be. I am the public figure in the family andeu3 they don’t even want to be in the public glare. Getting my husband’s pictures during the photo exhibition was a lot of hard work. He doesn’t want his pictures everywhere. In terms of age, my kids range from over 20 to 12. There are those I call the ‘First Troopers’, and then the ‘Little Ones’.

Without my family, I don’t exist. Honestly. They have done well by helping me to succeed. They manage my creative bursts. My husband is very patient and will walk me through my ideas to polish them. And I bounce ideas off my children. You will hear things like, ‘mummy, I don’t think that will work. I think you could do this, I think you should change that.’ I always go back to ask for their opinion. Even the smallest one has an idea about The Eugenia Abu Centre. They are all very creative. One of my twin daughters does beads. The other one has 80 design sketches for clothes. My 17-year-old daughter is very good with drawing and make-up. My baby daughter can draw you sitting down. She writes as well. My son is a scientist who is very creative and makes T-shirts. I am grateful to God.

Then I have siblings who hold me up. They are the best anyone can get. Everybody is successful in their own field. My elder sister is an architect and a very brilliant one. My younger brother works with the Copyright Commission. I have a younger sister who is a malariaologist, another one who is an estate planner and surveyor, and a brother who works with a bank. I have another sister who is a business woman par excellence. So I do have sisters and brothers who have done excellently well. I just happened to be the one everybody knows.

‘MY CHILDHOOD CRUSH ON THE GENERAL’

I was 12 years old when I realized that General Yakubu Gowon and I were born on the same day. I was so amazed and he was such a dashing man. I mean I was 12 years old for crying out loud and I thought my Head of State was the best-looking man on earth and the smartest. And then he spoke such good English and I kept thinking ‘this man, I have to marry him.’ Then my dad said: ‘Oh really! Write him a letter and tell him how much you admire him.’ I wrote him a long letter and gave my dad to post for me.

Many years later when we met—my dad was still alive then—I told General Gowon that he didn’t reply my letter. He was with his wife, the lovely and charming Lady Victoria, at a public function in London. He said ‘Oh, really?’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t get a reply from you.’ Then he said ‘what did your dad say?’ I said, ‘he said you were a very busy man and that you probably replied but your staff didn’t send it.’ He smiled and said, “your father is a wise man”. General Gowon became a very good uncle to speak to. He is such a gentleman. Occasionally when I run into him he would ask me about my dad. When I lost my dad, he also made some good comments about him. I wish the good general many happy returns on his birthday.

SOMETIMES, GEMS ARE FOUND ON THE STREETS’

The Eugenia Abu Centre is something I’ve been considering for about 10 years now. But I just got too busy with my work-life. It will be well structured and properly ran by professionals. There would be opportunities for volunteers and mentees. I will lend my voice to it for now as a member of the board, or as the founder. I will continue with it and be more fully involved when I retire from service. The centre has already started with the public lecture for my birthday. We will continue to do that annually, but the centre will take-off full time in 2013.

It is meant to be a creative centre where the mentoring programme and my children’s programme will all come under a proper structure. The children writing programme is done once a year and parents have come to meet me that they want to do it more than once. But we have to wait for that period when we can put proper structure in place to look after it. Mentoring is something that I’ve been doing from when I was much younger.When I take up young people, I put them on my team to stay around my work place and learn the way I apply myself to work, learn to write CVs properly, go with me to events where they see me doing things and pick up some skills. Some of them have gone on to become MCs at small events and that makes me proud.

Most of the time people just turn up from different corners to enroll – parents bring their children; some kids came off the streets to enroll in our mentoring programme. Two of my personal assistants just walked up to me with no recommendation and they did very well. This is because recommendation from parents, aunties and uncles is fine, but sometimes a gem is out there and you don’t even know. This is why we don’t reject any young person who comes as long as we are not oversubscribed. I like to keep it at three months so that I can really know you and turn you around. If you stay for up to a year you are allowed to use my name as referee. The entry is very rigorous; we have people to interview you. I also assess you. I have worked hard to build my name. We just don’t let you come in and fritter my goodwill or mess with my hard earned reputation. So I really need to know what you can bring to the table. If you are being fraudulent and pretending to be who you are not, we will know within a month.

‘WITH 50 CAME FREEDOM’

There is no difference between yesterday and today for me. Perhaps with the benefit of age, I can speak more from experience than from emotion. Also, you are able to look people in the eye and say “I am not going to do that.” When I was much younger I used to say yes to every request. I was a people pleaser even when it inconvenienced me. But from when I turned forty, I realized that I didn’t have to kill myself by pleasing other people all the time. Before, I used to say no and feel bad. But now I just say ‘no, sorry I don’t have the time.’ That feeling is now more consolidated. You are more self assured and self aware. It is also a time for living more for the truth, striving to be more spiritual, doing more charity, and increasing your kindness quotient. There is a certain freedom that comes with being 50.

‘YOUR WRINKLES TELL YOUR STORIES. EMBRACE THEM’

I think that people in the beauty business have turned us into their ATMs. Today they will say this one is anti-wrinkle, tomorrow they will come up with another one. And some women are addicted and buy all sorts. But you see those wrinkles actually tell your stories. You should wear them well. Every wrinkle has a story.

I try not to sleep with any problem. I also hang around a lot of young people. For me, I think that keeps you youthful. I find also that you really shouldn’t sweat the small stuffs. I used to be such a worrier when I was younger. I could worry about 200 different things. But over time, I’ve learnt to be calm and take every-day as it comes and trust God.

I like my spa. It is something that I adopted about seven years ago. I do have my massage every six to seven weeks and have deep-moisture facials. These are just basic stuff which I can do at home. But I go to a salon because it is more pampering.

‘POST-RETIREMENT PLAN? TRAIN OTHERS’

I have spent 30 years at NTA. I will definitely spend some time with NTA post-studies. I am still in service. I am now in the training and development department. NTA gave me a platform all these years and I respect that. They also gave me this study leave and enabled my studies. I salute that. Apart from going to work with the Eugenia Abu Centre when I retire from active public service, I would like to be involved in training other broadcasters. I also intend to travel quite a bit and spend more time with my family. I love travelling. I also await God’s plans.

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24 Mar

It has been four weeks since one of President Goodluck Jonathan’s aides, Reno Omokri, was caught and found out to be allegedly behind the fictitious character, Wendell Simlin. In those four weeks, the Presidency has kept mum on the issue and not a single word or statement has been said by it on the matter.

Nigerians should be concerned about this because of the central issue around why Wendell Simlin came to exist in the first place. Wendell Simlin, alleged to be Reno Omokri based on computer footprints and facts establishing strong linkages between the character and the special assistant to the President on New Media, came to exist because he was trying to use the terrorist attacks in the northeast as a political game.

Let us be clear, had Reno Omokri not been caught in the act, the suspended Governor of the Central Bank Nigeria, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, would not be a free man today. The government would have had more than enough reasons to have him in custody without bail. The only reason the conversation and the issue did not get that far was because Nigerians were quick to link the Wendell Simlin character to the Presidency.

This says a lot about the supposed fight against terrorism. Increasingly, there are pointers to the fact that the Presidency has more than enough motives to see that the terrorist attacks in the northeast do not stop.

For starters, the northeast is the stronghold of the opposition. Making it impossible for elections to hold there next year would be a massive gain for Wendell – Reno Omokri – Simlin and his boss. If the people of the northeast are prevented from voting through the militarization of their states and the established presence of terrorism in and around them, this will boost the president's chances of re-election.

The other motive is the budgetary allocations to the fight against terrorism. Over the last three or four years, huge sums of money continue to be allocated for contracts related to supplying equipment and gadgets to aid the military in fighting terrorism.

Like the suppliers of diesel and generators in Nigeria, the beneficiaries of these contracts have a reason to want to see the supposed fight against terrorism continue. If the war is won too early, the contracts will stop too early. Same as in if Nigeria generates more than enough power, there’d be little or no need for generators and there’d certainly be a massive reduction in the sales of diesel. Motives.

The motive that concerns Wendell Simlin and the continued presence of terrorism in the northeast is the fact that the Presidency can use it to play political games. For a government that sees no shame in using religion and ethnicity as a political tool of divide-and-rule, it’d not come as a surprise to see them engage Wendell-Reno Omokri-Simlin to link the terrorist attacks to a man that had only six days before worked in the same government. The Presidency apparently sees the terrorist attacks in the northeast as something to benefit from at least politically.

This is one reason Nigerians must continue to listen to the silence from the Presidency concerning Wendell Simlin. The silence is not without meaning. The silence could mean, “oh! We got caught again!” or “if we don’t respond to the allegations, the issue will fizzle out soon enough!” In this case, silence certainly doesn’t mean “not guilty!” It screams: “guilty!”

Nigerians must be concerned. Wendell Simlin is a definitely a product of the Presidency as Reno Omokri works as the Special Assistant to the President on New Media. Wendell Simlin’s tool of trade, i.e. lies and demonisation, cannot be said to be tools that the Presidency does not use. In this case, terrorism was a useful political tool. The presidency had only failed in using the innocent blood of the many souls killed in the northeast to score cheap political points.

The presidency failed to use their blood this time but it was not because it didn’t try. Wendell Simlin was a mask used by Reno Omokri to play the same game that PDP’s publicity secretary is also playing but at least he is playing the game without a mask on. Impunity continues to win under these outlaws in power!

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