By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
She combines the beauty of Cleopatra and the saintliness of Mother Teresa. She is as much at home in the church and the affairs of state. There are modern-day fervent Christians who demonize and destroy indigenous artworks but she happens to embrace these traditional works of art. Barrister (Mrs.) Sally Mbanefo is indeed a splendid study in thought-provoking contradictions. Even so, she is up close a force of nature, a remarkable human being.
Sally Mbanefo’s new challenge as the Honourable Commissioner of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Indigenous Artworks, Culture and Tourism in Anambra State points to a total rebranding of the state.
She has a resourceful brotherly ally in Anambra State’s Honourable Commissioner of Information and Public Enlightenment, the internationally acclaimed journalist and researcher C. Don Adinuba. Both commissioners incidentally share the same building in the Anambra Secretariat in Awka. Synergy is the word that binds the devoted duo upping the ante in the state that prides itself as “the light of the nation”.
A day with Sally Mbanefo in her office can pass for a lofty exercise in intellectual uplift. She has the uncanny ability of making one feel so at home, much like the girl next door, such that addressing her as Mrs. Mbanefo would look so wide off the mark. She makes no issues of her international gravitas and her last national duty as the Director-General of Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC) in Abuja. Her vision today is totally encapsulated in the Anambra mission. She waxes eloquent on the fantastic reception she has received in coming home to Anambra State.
“I feel like I have lived here all my life,” she says, spreading out her hands in the manner of one who is at peace with her entire environment. “The Governor is so caring, his brilliant and beautiful wife looks after all of us the female commissioners, and the wider public here is ever so peaceful and loving.”
She reveals that she was running an IT firm after her work at NTDC when Governor Willie Obiano came “with an offer I can’t say no to.” In her words, “The appointment was a pleasant surprise.” What was particularly pleasing to her was the inclusion of “Indigenous Artworks” in her tour of duty. She has been painting since she was 16.
She excelled earlier as a banker and felt she had a well-earned retirement. “I keep retiring and they keep bringing me back,” she says, laughing.
She had planned not to work again. Her desire was to travel and see the world. She would on the side have art exhibitions.
She forged ahead as a director in Lafarge Cement, communications director of Coca-cola, director in Am American Kim and gas company, and ran a micro-finance bank.
It was while running an IT firm that Governor Obiano’s irresistible offer came and changed everything for good.
“I have come to support my own state,” she enthuses. “Anambra is an undiscovered paradise.”
The four-in-one ministry under her watch, to wit, Diaspora Affairs, Indigenous Artworks, Culture and Tourism, would ordinarily overwhelm most but Sally Mbanefo already has all the cardinal points within her ambit. She has on her own started a massive redesigning of the building she operatives out of to fit the image of her desire.
By birth, she comes from the redoubtable Uwechue family noted for making redoubtable marks in promoting Igbo issues and fighting the cause of Igbo people. Her uncle, Ambassador Ralph Uwechue, was President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the apex pan-Igbo organization. He was the man who opened the Nigerian Consulate in Paris and courageously told Gowon that if he declared war on the Igbo people, as per Biafra, he would quit his ambassadorial job. He thereafter negotiated the currency for Biafra and became the landmark publisher of Africa magazine in London as well as the three-volume “Know Africa” encyclopedia made up of Africa Today, Africa Who’s Who, and Makers of Modern Africa.
Sally’s father, Owelle George Uwechue (SAN), put his life on the line when Governor Chris Ngige was abducted by federal forces. He lived in Anambra for four years, defending Governor Ngige against all furies from the Federal Might and earned the sobriquet of “Onye Anambra”. Now Owelle George Uwechue is defending Chief Innocent Chukwuma, the CEO of Innosons Motors. On her part, Sally oozes Onitsha majesty from every pore.
The independent-minded Sally Mbanefo never lobbied for the job. She is happy that Anambra has become attractive such that people from the Diaspora are getting increasingly interested in the state. While I was with her she played host to Queen Uche Umeagukwu who won the Miss AfricaWorld pageant of beauty, brains and business in the United States. The Anambra-born queen had flown in from America.
Sally Mbanefo plans to open out to the world the many tourist sites in Anambra such as the Owere-Ezukala Waterfalls and Cave, the Igboukwu bronzes, the Ogbunike Cave, and the Agulu Lake on which stands the eye-popping Golden Tulip Hotel to be launched soon by Governor Obiano.
Sally stands towering on the shoulders of the giants of Anambra State, notably the founding father of Nigeria Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the leader of Biafra Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the doyen of modern Nigerian democracy Dr. Alex Ekwueme, the nearly-Pope of Anambra extraction Francis Cardinal Arinze, the saint-to-be Blessed Iwene Tansi, the world-acclaimed novelist Chinua Achebe, and other younger worthies like the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and musicians Flavour and Phyno etc.
A Catholic prayer warrior, she prays that all will bode well in the end, even as Governor Obiano jocularly says: “Sally is killing us with too much prayer here!”
She gives this promise as a parting shot: “Anambra will celebrate me for what I’ve done for the state.”