The first female professor of mass communication in Nigeria and a three-time commissioner in Anambra State, Chinyere Okunna, speaks to TOFARATI IGE about the journalism profession and other issues
Do you think the media is doing enough in playing its role as a gate-keeper and agenda-setter in society?
In a democracy, there is a clear-cut function for the media. They are to be the watchdog; to keep an eye on what the government is doing and call to order those who are governing.
Some countries allow the press to have that freedom unfettered. But in some places, there are impediments on the path of the media. Basically, the media often performs as well the political structure allows them to perform. We all know that in this part of the world, press freedom, freedom of speech and other watchdog functions don’t always apply. Most government-media are practically lapdogs for the authorities.
Government officials in this part of the world are usually secretive. What advice do you have for journalists as regards exploring other options to get authentic news?
A good journalist must always summon courage to do the right thing. There will always be impediments but one must surmount them to get the job done.
Journalists face different kinds of intimidations in the course of doing their jobs. They could be jailed or even killed, depending on where they are practising. Any journalist that does not have courage ought to leave the profession. However, I am not talking about foolish. One also has to be smart.
Also, there should be strong unions that fight for the interests of journalists and empower them. There should be funds set up to help journalists who are oppressed and those who are owed salaries.
Some people say that the Internet, especially social media, has redefined mass communication? Do you agree?
I totally agree with that.
How can journalists, especially older ones, take advantage of the Internet to do their jobs better?
I have said it several times that any journalist, irrespective of age, who is not Internet and social media savvy should leave the profession. Things have changed. And when things change, one has to change with them. There was a time journalism was done with just a jotter, pen and midget (recorder).
What challenges did you encounter as the first female professor of mass communication?
After becoming the first female professor of Mass Communication in Sub-Saharan Africa, I remained the only female professor of Mass Communication in Nigeria for more than a decade, and was feeling a bit ‘lonely’ up there. Mass Communication/journalism education is somehow a ‘glamorous’ field of study and was male-dominated for a long time,. Understandably therefore, a major challenge was being conscious at all times that many women, particularly those younger than me or junior to me in academics, as well as female students, were looking up to me as a role model. Perhaps, this could have put me under some psychological pressure in terms of comportment and providing guidance and mentorship for those looking up to me. Although mentoring has always been a strong part of both my private and professional life, being constantly in the limelight as the role model I was expected to be must have constituted some kind of challenge.
The Mass Communication Department of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University has come a long way from what it used to be. Looking back, how do you feel about its evolution?
I feel very happy and fulfilled. Each time I look back at my career at UNIZIK, I feel overwhelmed with joy and a sense of accomplishment at the work we have done at the department. We nurtured what began as a unit in the sociology department into a full-fledged department and one of the most sought-after departments in the university.
On a personal note, I feel quite proud that all the post-graduate and pre-degree diploma programmes (which was later suspended) and the more recent Professional Diploma in Journalism programme, were started under my watch as Head of Department (1998-2006 and 2014-2017).
You recently edited a book titled, ‘Communication and Media Studies: Multiple Perspectives’. What makes it different from the other similar books out there?
A number of things set this book apart from other books in the field. It was written as a prelude to the forthcoming ‘Unbundling of the Mass Communication Programme’ in Nigerian universities. Thus, the 36 chapters by the 40 contributors are aligned to the eight new departments of the emerging Faculty/School of Communication and Media Studies. Above all, the book is an exercise in academic mentorship, because many of the chapters were co-authored by young lecturers and their senior academic colleagues. Those young academics belong to the Professor Chinyere Stella Okunna Mentorship Group, whose members are in more than 10 universities in Nigeria and beyond.
What interesting findings did you make in the course of editing the book?
I found that, if given the encouragement and proper guidance, many young academics are eager to learn and shine in their careers. The speed and enthusiasm with which my mentees tackled the task of authoring their chapters gave me much joy. Their works equally gave me a tough time because a number of them were writing for publication for the first time. That meant I had to painstakingly read every single word, edit meticulously, diligently carry out plagiarism checks and provide the needed guidance, which is indispensable in any good mentor-mentee relationship. Editing the book was a tough but rewarding experience.
Academic research appears to be declining in the country. Why do you think that is so?
This is because a conducive environment for effective research is lacking in most Nigerian universities. Nevertheless, researchers who love what they do still endeavour to face these obstacles and get on with their work.
What are your thoughts on the press council amendment bill at the National Assembly?
I agree with some aspects of it. In terms of people having proper qualifications to practise the profession; I agree with that. There is no profession that allows untrained practitioners. There should be entry qualifications before anyone can practice journalism.
Irrespective of how brilliant a person is, they cannot go to a court and begin to argue a case as a lawyer. A person cannot just read textbooks and start performing operations on patients without being a qualified doctor.
Journalism should not be an all-comers affair. So, I agree with the part of the bill that calls for regulation. I also agree with the part that urges employers of journalists to pay the salaries of their employees as and when due. Many journalists work for months without getting paid. And when the pay does come, it is usually peanuts.
However, as regards the membership of the Nigerian Press Council, I don’t agree with that. The government should not be allowed to hijack the journalism profession.
What has been your experience managing Unizik Radio?
It has been a wonderful experience. I started in 2014 and it has also been quite challenging. Being a university-owned radio station, there are some restrictions placed on it by the National Broadcasting Commission. For example, there are contents the station cannot air. Since it is not a commercial radio station, it is not allowed to broadcast adverts. Funding is another major challenge.
However, one has to navigate those impediments and make sure one is broadcasting well.
The radio station is also a training instrument for students of journalism and allied courses. That means it has to be properly equipped and staffed to make sure one is teaching the students well.
To properly manage a campus radio, one needs knowledge and experience, and we have tried to bring all these to bear.
What do you think can be done to effectively curb the menace of sex-for-grades that seems to be rampant in higher institutions these days?
It is such a horrible and criminal act.
To effectively curb the act, affected students need to speak out. Most times, such students are usually afraid to speak out. Meanwhile, the lecturers who indulge in such acts often target young, weak and naïve students.
For a long time, I have mentored students and I often tell them that if anybody harasses them, they should speak out and see whether people like me would not fight for them.
On a lighter note, any male lecturer who harasses a student should be castrated. Though that is a joke, that should tell you how I feel about the issue.
What do you consider to be the highlights of your time as the Commissioner for Economic Planning and Budget?
I began (my public service career) as the Commissioner for Information and it was quite good formulating policies.
My time as the Commissioner for Economic Planning and Budget was the climax of my assignment in government. It was quite challenging but rewarding. In that position, I was coordinating all the donor agencies and development partners. They brought a lot of funding into Anambra State.
I worked with a governor (Peter Obi) who was very frugal and meticulous in planning. We used the money from donor agencies to fill the gap in our budgeting. At a point, I was also the Chief of Staff to the governor.
Even though the state has very rich individuals, as a government there wasn’t much money, so we had to plan very well. The governor did his best and the result was good. Many years after leaving office, he is still acclaimed for what he did in office.
In addition, our goal as a government was to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. I was also the chairman of the MDG Implementation Committee. By the end of our tenure, Peter Obi was adjudged one of the best governors in the area of implementation of MDGs. Donor agencies go to places where the money they give out are used judiciously. By the time we got into office, all the donor agencies had left because of what was happening in the state at that time. Even after he left office, he was invited to New York (United States of America) to share his experience in governance, as regards MDGs. I accompanied him on that trip and it was a very powerful outing.
I thank God for giving me the capacity to perform on the job. We were not perfect but we did our best.
Are you still open to public service?
It depends on what you mean by public service.
Would you still like to serve in the capacity of a commissioner or even aspire for a higher office?
Í am an academic, not a politician. Running for any elective position is completely out of the question. I would not run for governor, senator or any other post.
How would you assess women’s participation in politics in Nigeria?
It is completely hopeless. Each time I speak about women in politics and leadership, my heart breaks. For example, in my state, there are a lot of educated, enlightened and skilled women, yet their participation in government in both elective and appointee positions is practically hopeless. In the House of Assembly, there are 30 members but only one is a woman. There are also 21 local governments in the state but not a single one of them has a woman as chairman. Also, out of about 20 commissioners, only five of them are women.
Yet, there is a gender policy in Nigeria that stipulates that a minimum of 35 per cent female presence in government. Former President Goodluck Jonathan tried in that area but the situation is heartbreaking in this current regime of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd).
At all levels, women have not been treated well. Women are not even asking for equality; they are only asking for equity. It is sad that they are not getting that.
Do you think it is a failure on the part of women not to agitate for what they rightfully deserve?
They have been agitating (for it). Some people are speaking out. We live in a very chauvinistic and patriarchal society. Many people don’t believe women should participate in politics at all. There are very negative attitudes towards women in politics. In our cultures and religions, women are given subordinate positions. When a woman aspires beyond those subordinate positions, many men who are chauvinistic don’t take kindly to it.
Also, Nigerian politics is highly monetised. There is too much money sharing going on and not many women have that kind of money.
What is your advice to young career women in the area of male chauvinism, especially in journalism that is largely dominated by the male folk?
My advice has always been that they should work consistently and honestly hard, without trying to cut corners and by avoiding the ‘entitlement mentality’ of expecting things to be made easy for them because they are women. In working hard, they must possess high self-confidence and self-esteem necessary for women to excel in a patriarchal society where many (particularly male chauvinists) expect them to feel inferior to their male counterparts.
What were some of the challenges you encountered while working as a commissioner?
I really don’t believe in challenges. Like I said earlier, Anambra is not a rich state. We had to be careful and decide what needed to be spent money on. The governor had a saying then that ‘people do what would be inspected, not what is expected’. On several occasions, he toured the 171 communities in the state to see what was happening there. He did not just delegate and expect people to carry out his directives.
We were on our toes all the time, planning, executing and monitoring different projects. Anybody who did not have the culture of hard work would not have been able to work in that administration.
Also, not everybody supported one. But, it was generally a good job because I worked with a governor who was popular and effective. Things would have been harder if the governor was not performing.
In Nigeria, if one is a commissioner or minister for information and one’s principal is not doing well, one would have to be lying all over the place. One would become a liar and a propagandist. When I was offered the job of Commissioner for Information, I was initially afraid. I also made up my mind that if the governor did not do well, I would quit. But, the governor did well and we didn’t have to lie and do propaganda. If you look around, you would find that commissioners for information and the Minister for Information are practically lying their heads off because their principals are not performing well.
Did you struggle to fit in when you eventually returned to the classroom after your time in public service?
Not at all. My return to the classroom after serving in various capacities in the Peter Obi administration was seamless. We left government on a Friday and by Monday, I was back at the university. I have always been an academic and immediately my political assignment ended, I was eager to return to my primary calling. The Vice Chancellor and my department welcomed me back with open arms. By the beginning of the next academic session after my return, I was appointed Head of the Department of Mass Communication for the 2014/2015 session.
What are the most memorable experiences of your childhood?
I lived in a very empowering environment as a child. My father was the first black district officer in our community. He was in local government administration and he rose to the top of his profession. Even at that time, he believed in girl-child education. My elder sister is also a professor. Our father encouraged us in every way and he did not discriminate based on gender. In those days, many people did not believe in educating female children because they believed they would end up in their husbands’ houses.
My greatest joy in school was coming home with the best results because I knew my dad would be pleased about it. Coming from that kind of conducive environment, the sky was our limit. Together with our mother, they gave us their support to get to the top. I thank God for the kind of upbringing I had.
Did you at any time in your childhood dream about being a professor?
Definitely not. As a child, I did not even know anything about professors, talk more of fantasising about becoming one.
How does your family feel about your successes?
They feel really proud. My success is inspiring my children to make their marks in their own careers. My first child, a medical doctor, has already become a university lecturer and is doing quite well. My other five children— a PhD public health professional and university lecturer, an engineer, an engineer and bank executive, a pharmacist and a computer scientist— are also striving valiantly and are successfully getting on with their lives.
You are a mother of six. How have you managed the tricky balance between family and work?
My watchword has always been meticulous planning to ensure that neither my family nor my career suffers. In addition, I have always endeavoured to harness all available opportunities. This was particularly necessary when my children were young. For instance, to be far away from home to study for my PhD with peace of mind, I solicited and received the unflinching support of my two mothers (my biological mother and my mother-in-law) to take turns to look after my home and children— a task which my extremely busy husband could definitely not have coped with, being a medical doctor in private practice.
Although this is an opportunity many career women do not have nowadays because their mothers and mothers-in-law are probably also working women too, but I’ll suggest that other types of available opportunities should be seized as coping mechanisms.
What more would you like to achieve?
Someone who has been as active and busy as I have been over the years, can hardly keep still. I am still in the academia and I would like to keep supporting the Vice Chancellor in his effort to achieve his ‘Project 200’, which is to make the Nnamdi Azikiwe University one of the best 200 universities in the world.
Right now, I am involved in the implementation of projects for two grants from the World Health Organisation and the Association of Commonwealth Universities. The first was won by a research team I belong to and the second by myself. Both of them are uplifting my university and enhancing its academic visibility. I would like to conclude both assignments successfully. Above all, I would like to keep working to inspire my biological, academic, political and social children to keep doing well under my watch through my continuing guidance and mentorship.
How do you unwind?
My work schedule and social engagements are so hectic nowadays that I hardly have time to unwind. Fortunately, attending social and other non-curricular activities is pleasurable and helps me a to unwind. In addition, ‘getting lost’ on the Internet after working is a means of relaxation, a source of pleasure, and a good way to unwind.