by Wale Ojo Lanre
WHEN, in April 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan announced the appointment of Mrs Sally Uwechue-Mbanefo, an accomplished banker and a top private sector player as the new Director-General, Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), the tourism stakeholders and practitioners were gripped by a cold. The cold emanated from the fact that the erstwhile director general of the corporation, Chief Olusegun Runsewe, was not only perceived to be doing well by the template operating then, but he was in far away Dubai, UAE, doing what he knows best for Nigeria, coupled with the fact that he was just two years four months into his second term tenure of four years!
The image of Chief Runsewe, which loomed large over the sector with the impression of being the best performing director-general and the fact that the newly appointed Mrs Mbanefo was unknown in the tourism sector, readily prepared a negative mindset against her among the stakeholders and particularly the tourism media, over which the former director-general seemed to have wielded a lot of influence.
Mrs Mbanefo’s silence in the first eight weeks of her appointment did not help matters, as this seemed to have jelled with the growing fears that she could not make any impact not to talk about performing well and better than her predecessor in office. Reinforcing this were some unfounded tales of missing money in the NTDC, this is an entity which her predecessor used to constantly hammered into the ears of the public that it suffered from paucity of fund, thereby making people to wonder where else could such a huge money come from within eight weeks of vacating a post which the new occupant is being alleged to have embezzled!
However, the tide of events changed exactly in the third month when Mrs Mbanefo called a stakeholders’ summit in Victoria Island, Lagos, an event she used her goodwill in the private sector to get sponsors for without any financial implication for the NTDC where she unfolded her plans, vision and action. At the Tourism Stakeholder Summit held at the Events Centre, Kofo Abayomi , Victoria Island, with the theme: “Rebranding the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation,“ Mrs Mbanefo, leveraging on her experience in the private sector, opened up what was up her sleeves for the sector. “Tourism is a serious business which must be approached with all sincerity of purpose, diligence of mind and optimal clarity for the betterment of the nation’s economy and not just for its glamour, noise and paparazzi intent I don’t want to play to the gallery as my mission, according to the President Goodluck Jonathan who appointed me, is to do all things humanly possible to link the sector with the mainstream of the economy, not by making noise on the pages of newspapers but by ensuring there is a strong connect between NTDC and the private sector.” She revealed to the guests and tourism stakeholders that she had been silent for the past weeks because “For the sector to grow and align itself perfectly with the mainstream of the economy for the benefits of the stakeholders and practitioners, there should be a paradigm shift from the ways NTDC as an entity used to conduct business and interact with the private sector and this could only be done if the corporation itself is reinvented and restructured in line with contemporary dictates and demands . This is what I have been doing as the structure I met on ground cannot fast track the new template of the moment. Then, it was business as usual but now it is business unusual. As they say charity begins at home. I know the fact that driving a vision successfully is not a loner’s efforts but a collective endeavour of all in the corporation who must key into to the vision. But we thank God. We have repositioned NTDC and honed the work force thoroughly well to service the sector and your aspiration.”
She revealed that “it is now a new NTDC where the staff are assured of future growth with a new well defined salary structure, conducive atmosphere, two staff buses to ease transportation in Lagos and Abuja offices.” She declared: “I have to declare to all that I will use whatever time I have as the DG NTDC to grow Domestic Tourism. This is the fundamental and the bedrock for tourism to grow in this country. We must first of all appreciate, promote, harness and enhance the tourism gifts, blessing and opportunities which abound in Nigeria by ourselves before calling others to come and see.” Mrs Mbanefo, in a sequential order, reeled out her vision of promoting domestic tourism as contained in her booklet with the theme “Rebuilding the NTDC and Growing the Tourism Value Chain for Revenue Generation and Job Creation.” She efficiently encapsulated the totality of her vision on domestic tourism, hinging it on the three pillars, viz rebuilding the NTDC which she has done and is ongoing via retuning the staff and the environment for the business unusual : growing the tourism value chain, which she has been doing and which was demonstrated on that day when she signed MOU with five strategic partners, Heritage bank, Visa Incorporated, Arik Air, ABC transport and Reddington Hospital, on the day of the Summit in Lagos and Re – inventing the Tourism Sector which involved introducing programmes that change how value is created, marketed, delivered and financed.
And in the last six months, Mrs Mbanefo has been marking the turf in accordance to her programme and projection by distinguishing herself not as a noise maker but a doer who is not taking Nigerian for a ride through newspaper tourism propaganda and sloganeering. Desirous of pulling her vision through, she had a breakfast meeting with the media in Lagos where she craved its indulgence in supporting her as “Nigeria has more fascinating stories to tell. And no one can tell it better than the Nigerian journalists themselves.” Mrs Mbanefo revealed that she would first of all take a trip to the six geo political zones to see, visit, authenticate and assess some notable tourism sites for development and enhancement. She told the journalists: “I love our participation in tourism fairs and trademarks but I am assuring you that NTDC will not just participate in international shows and trade fairs just for the love of it but we will certainly attend those in which Nigeria has a lot to gain and benefit. “We must be sure of what we are calling and inviting people to see. We must be able to know, firsthand, what and what need to be done in making the sites presentable and worthwhile.” To her, for domestic tourism to grow, all the strategic partners must be involved and wired into the vision, and in line with this, she also had a dialogue over breakfast with airline operators and travel agencies, where she sold her domestic tourism vision, canvassed their understanding and charged them to be patriotic in their operations. “As the nerve centre of the tourism sector, you have to redefine your strategy bearing in mind the development and promotion of domestic tourism. You are the ultimate beneficiaries of domestic tourism. The wellbeing of domestic tourism is the wellbeing of your cash in the bank. As domestic operations blossom, your coast of operation and cash flow.”
Living up to her words, she first of all ensured a proper rebuilding of the NTDC, laundered its work force and ensured a positive change of their mindset from business as usual to business unusual and she commenced her visit to the six-geopolitical tourism zones. According to her: “We cannot promote domestic tourism without ascertaining and having a heart-to-heart contact with the various sites we would be inviting foreigners to visit. This is an authentication trip which must be undertaken for authentication, certification and verification of facilities there in.” Mrs Mbanefo, thus, tied her apron, revved her tour engine and commenced the tour of Lagos, Kaduna, Kano, Taraba, Benue, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Ondo, Osun, Ogun, Rivers, not only visiting the tourism sites in these states, but dialoguing with major stakeholders therein preaching to them the gospel according to domestic tourism. These peregrination have taken her to see the Mare Festival and Idanre Hills in Ondo, Tinapa in Cross Rivers, Oodua Festival in Ile Ife, the Mambilla Plateau in Taraba, 9999 Choristers in Akwa Ibom, Olumo Rock in Ogun State, first oil well site in Oloibiri, Bayelsa, the royal gate in Kaduna, the museum and other places in Lagos, and a lovely cruising on River Benue. All these were never ventured into by any of her predecessors within the space of time and logistic. For instance, in the South-West, she did not only have a heart-to-heart discussion with Otunba Gani Adams, the cultural tourism ambassador of that region, in his office, but attended the Oodua Festival, held in Ile-Ife, where the Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade not only specially applauded her passion and prayed for her, but commended her for being the first director-general of Tourism who knows what to do and doing it well.
The same episode played itself out when she was the special guest of honour at the launching of the Niger Delta Slave Route in Port-Harcourt, an event put together by the Centre for Peace Tourism Arts and Culture, CEPTAC, where the President of the centre, Chief Mike Amachree, described her as “the light in the dark tunnels of tourism.” Her carriage and exhibition of a firm grasp of the tourism industry, and what the sector needed to grow, have endeared her to major economic and professional groups in Nigeria which have either invited or dignified her as a speaker or special guest of honour at events and ceremonies. And in any of these, Mrs Mbanefo has given a very good account of herself and utilised the opportunities to tell the audience why domestic tourism should be it . Mrs Mbanefo, a Barrister-at-Law and a hard core player in the private sector, displayed her intelligence and understanding of the tourism sector as a speaker at an event organised by the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Lagos, last year, where she was given a standing ovation after her delivery. She impressed the gathering of Nigerian economic players so well that Chief Goodie Ibru, the then president who was a former president, Federation of Tourism Association in Nigeria, FTAN, described her as an “asset not only to the sector but to the nation.”
The management and staff of City People Magazine could not hide their feeling after she honoured their invitation and delivered a paper on: “Fashion and Tourism.’’ They acknowledged her sound mind, solid understanding of the sector and her agrarian passion at promoting domestic tourism. Mrs Mbanefo has also built bridges of constructive engagement with the Federal Road Safety Commission, the Central Bank, Nigeria Immigration Service, Nigeria Football Federation, Nigeria Turkish Chambers of Commerce and Industry and other sectoral organs whose business cuts cross the tourism sector. Even the football fans in Nigeria commended the NTDC for being the only Federal Government parastatal which welcomed the Golden Eaglets with a ceremony at the Nnamidi Azikwe International Airport last year after their victory. Her foreign engagements have also been gauged within the location of necessity and not formality, as promised. It is on record that she did not only perform well at her first foreign engagement, the World Travel Market, WTM, London, held in November last year, but her organisational ability and conduct impressed the Nigeria High Commissioner, Dr Talatu Tafida, who participated at the fair for the first time, in praising her: “I must commend the director-general for her robust sense of duty and responsibility by inviting Nigerians who live here to participate at this market. This is the first time I am being formally invited.
This is a break from the past behaviour of your predecessor when I will just be informed that Nigeria was here. This is commendable. Kindly keep it up.” Though, Nigeria was unable to participate at the FITUR Spain, Mrs Mbanefo said: “Like I have said, many times, our participation in the foreign travel market will be determined by first, the inherent benefit of such a show and priority on available fund. You see, at WTM, London, Nigeria was able to sign fruitful MOUs and we are talking with the World Bank officials we met there on funding of certain projects. We are desirous of ITB Berlin because we are in contact with some agencies and countries that are eager to talk business with us.” The six months or half year performance of Mrs Sally Mbanefo has succinctly told all that you don’t judge a woman with her looks or appearance but rather with what she has to offer and the way and manner she goes about it.
This lady has confirmed that she has a vision for the sector. She has affirmed that she can drive the vision. She has continued displaying that it is all about physical beauty alone but about beauty of brain, guts and patriotic zealotry to deliver beyond the expectation of the cynics. According to Mr Ayo Olumoko, CEO, IFOGEM: “The director-general has been sequentially implementing her programmes and being religious about driving domestic tourism. I have watched her at close quarters, particularly how she packaged Nigeria’s participation at the WTM. I have also been following her travel all over Nigeria, preaching her gospel of domestic tourism. I have also been impressed by her strident efforts at carrying stakeholders along and informed. These are pointers to the fact that she will perform well in the subsequent months or years provided there is the right political backing and will.”