How becoming Nigeria’s first female Professor of Mass Communication humbled me —Chinyere Stella Okunna

Posted by Pamela Eboh, Awka | 10 June 2015 | 11,606 times

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First female Professor of Mass Communication in Nigeria and currently Head of Department of Mass Communication, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Prof. (Chief) Chinyere Stella Okunna, is a mother, mentor, an educationist and Fellow of Nigerian Guild of Editors. In this interview, the Amazon who strives for excellence speaks on her journey to professorship, her role variously as former Commissioner for Information, Economic Planning/Budget, and Chief of Staff in ex-Governor Peter Obi’s eight-year administration. 

News Express: What was growing up like?

Prof. Okunna: Growing up was fun because my parents were supportive. I am sure you know I am not a young person: that means I grew up long ago. Even at that time, there were parents who were laid back and didn’t believe in girl-child education, but my dad was really ahead of his time. He was in the civil service, local government administration precisely, and he was the first black District Officer (D.O) in Aguata area where I was born. So, he valued education. I have an elder sister, two of us were born before the boy after us and both of us are professors. My sister is a professor at University of Lagos. And for everything we did or didn’t do, my dad supported us totally. I was particularly close to him and that was an added advantage. So, whatever I did as a child, my aim was to please my dad: doing well in school and bringing home good results. Everything was done well because I knew my dad would be pleased: it was a driving force. Growing up was really good. My mum was more of the disciplinarian; she was strict, even more strict than my dad. But, it was for good cause because of my dad’s unflinching love which we called kindness, though it was not really kindness because my mum’s toughness was also kindness; someone had to enforce the rules laid down for us to follow. My parents complemented themselves, and we had a good childhood. It was really good.

In your career choice, will you say you were influenced by your dad based on your closeness?

No. It was a choice I made for myself. I didn’t really discuss career with my dad. I knew at a point that I would love to create knowledge and do research. The primary place you create knowledge or do research is either the polytechnic or the university. Of course, I know my dad would have preferred me being a teacher, because he was a teacher himself before going into the civil service. So, my career choice was solely my decision. I loved education and I still do and I love mentoring young people. So, if you combine all these, the place to be is the tertiary institution.

Did you at any time in your childhood dream or fantasise about being a professor?

No! No!! As a child, I didn’t even know what a professor was. I was just doing my thing. I got into teaching communication at IMT, Enugu. Then when they created Anambra State, there was no mass communication department here, so I didn’t come down immediately. When they began mass communication as part of sociology department, I knew I had to leave Enugu somehow because Anambra was already created and I wanted to go home and teach. Even though I lived in Enugu, I wanted to teach in the university in my state, so I transferred. When I got here, I continued doing my own thing; I didn’t honestly think about the career route. I was merely teaching and researching because I love to do research. I love writing papers and I am intelligent – at the risk of not sounding modest. While doing what I loved and enjoyed doing: writing papers, attending conferences, travelling, writing books, etc. Unconsciously, I was progressing on a career route towards professorship without knowing it. When they declared me first female Professor of Mass Communication, I screamed. I didn’t know who was where in the field or who was what; I just knew I was rising on the job by doing what I enjoyed doing. And somehow what I enjoyed doing led me to the pinnacle of the profession. I didn’t fuss; I didn’t plan anything, it just happened.

What challenges have you encountered as the first female professor of mass communication?

One was being thrust into the limelight. I knew all eyes would be on me as the first one and I knew particularly that my female colleagues and female students would start looking up to me. I was forced to be a more formidable mentor, even though I love mentoring. I knew I became a role model as a result of that, for the young women and it made me really humbled. I knew that people who would like to be where I was were looking up to me. To make it worse, I was up there alone for up to 10 years as the only female professor of mass communication in Nigeria. It was a bit frightening because you are aware you are up there and the only person being looked up to in that capacity in the circle of men. So, somehow, challenges were there to make you ensure you were doing the right thing and working hard to defend and ‘justify’ the professorship. You know, in our culture, people always think that women don’t deserve the things they get. They would be thinking: ‘Aah, maybe, she cut corners; maybe they gave it to her out of tokenism or maybe because there was no other woman there, they now asked her to go and represent women.’ So, you have to work really hard to ‘justify’ your position as a woman that got there on merit. I knew I got it on merit and didn’t have to cut corners, and I knew I was as good as my male colleagues or even better than many of them were. So, that challenge to keep doing what you knew how to do and what you knew you did well to get there was always there, though it was more or less an unconscious challenge. But it was always there at the back of my mind that I had to defend the female folk. I had to justify my promotion to professorship and I felt good doing it.

How do you tackle challenges? Do you face them frontally or you shy away from them?

Frontally. First of all, I don’t think I have had any major challenges in my life because I have always done the things I know how to do and the things I enjoy doing. Like I tell everybody, if you do the things you know how to do effectively and enjoy doing, there would be no stress. That means you will succeed. When you agonise over something you don’t have the capacity for, or agonise over something you don’t enjoy doing, it’s like a horrible chore. So, like I keep saying, mass communication is a course I have come over the years to enjoy. So, I am knowledgeable about it and I enjoy doing what I am doing. There hasn’t actually been any challenge, so to say. It hasn’t come very easy either. So there is still the need for hard work. Like I always say, at the risk of not sounding modest, I have grown up with a culture of hard work and all my life through my parents’ upbringing, we were trained to work hard and work honestly. Hard work has never frightened me at any stage of my life. Early in life, as I married quite early, as a young wife and young mother, the challenge was there to combine all that with my career but I always remained resilient.

When did you meet your husband?

I met my husband when I was doing youth service and married him immediately after. I finished youth service, got a job, and soon afterwards we went to the UK as a young couple with two very young children. Soon after arriving in England, I enrolled for my master’s degree programme at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Mass Communication Research. So, the challenge was always there to combine all my duties in what we call multi-tasking. I began with a culture of hard work from when I was quite young. So when I came into UNIZIK from IMT, the Mass Communication Department was very young. And soon after I arrived here in 1994, I was made the HOD of a young struggling Department of Mass Communication four years after. We could not but work hard to get it right. I buried myself in work at the department, strived and survived. Hard work has always been a strong part of my character, and if you apply hard work in whatever you enjoy doing and what you are knowledgeable about, the challenge won’t be much, no matter how much work is involved.

The Mass Communication Department of UNIZIK has come a long way from what it used to be. Looking back, how do you feel?

I feel fulfilled because when we came in here, it was not a full-fledged department. We were not autonomous. So, to see it come out from where it used to be, I feel proud. When I got here, I met only the undergraduate programme. Then I started the pre-degree diploma, postgraduate, masters’ and PhD programmes. Really, Mass Communication Department has been my baby all through. So, looking back now and seeing where we have got to, I feel really fulfilled. Seeing the number of students here and the programmes we are offering, I can’t but thank God. Also, the people teaching here, my junior colleagues teaching now. . . many of them came in here as very young people and under our tutelage and mentoring they have all grown, obtained their higher degrees: Master’s, PhD and teaching and rising. Many of them are now senior lecturers and even beyond. I feel good looking back, but there is still a lot of work to be done because the students are coming in this time very young; they used to be older then but now some are as young as 16 or 17 years. I keep telling my colleagues that we should do more mentoring now because the students come in so young. If you don’t mentor them, they could go astray. What would you do with a child of 16 years? You need to be a mother, father, teacher and a mentor. Happily, judging me and my colleagues, I think we are working hard and achieving the results. Just yesterday, the Vice-Chancellor was here to commission some digital equipment for our FM station. I am equally the Director of UNIZIK 94.1 FM Radio. The VC commissioned our state-of-the-art equipment, which we purchased on our own. He was very impressed and promised to support us. We raised the money internally here to buy those equipments. So, when you look at all these, my dear, I feel proud and also humbled because of the part I have trodden to come to where I am now.

Talking about hard work, 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?

I don’t think I suffered male chauvinism because like I told you, I came into the profession and took my space. I didn’t allow anybody to intimidate me. And, honestly, men respect you when you know what you are doing. They covertly acknowledge when you are better than them. Let me boast a little bit: A man has never beaten me in class – primary, secondary and even during my university days. I have never played second fiddle to anybody. I have always been top of my class. So, when your male colleagues see you doing your work and doing it well, they respect you. Of course, there are male chauvinists, but most men will respect you when you are doing honest work and achieving results on merit, not on tokenism. Not when they say: ‘Aah, there are nine men here and they need one woman; OK, put this woman there’. That’s tokenism and they won’t respect you. Or when they have finished a job and you come to attach yourself to it. See how hard you, Pamela, are working; I see you everywhere. Another example is maybe when you, a female journalist, are assigned to a beat; you are there dressing up, looking fragile and the man goes out, gathers the data and writes the story and you simply put your by-line there. He knows you haven’t done anything. You didn’t contribute in any way. How then will he respect you? But if they say ‘Go and cover an election’ and the man jumps out in his jeans, you jump out in your own jeans; he is interviewing people, you are intelligently doing the same and the story comes out, he will respect you. That’s one thing I tell my female colleagues: don’t ever look at yourself as less valuable than your male colleagues. Once you do that, they will take advantage of you. So, the chauvinists among them when they see you beating them in the game, how will they be chauvinistic? That’s why I have always tried to work harder than my male colleagues. I remember many years ago when I was practically the only woman in the field, travelling with them and going on conferences; my male colleagues would say, ‘Stella, we would like to see your husband that allows you to travel the world, sleep in hotels and attend conferences everywhere’. That’s because we all went to conferences together and slept in hotels, working hard. But I behaved myself and my husband had absolutely no cause to be embarrassed by anything I did.

You know, when men see you doing your work and rising on your job through hard work and in honesty (indeed, honesty matters), they respect you. Moreover, when your employers assess you, they won’t say ‘Aah, Mrs. Okunna! She is married with children, she won’t have time to do her work, please give her two extra marks’. No, you will earn the marks buy yourself with integrity and there won’t be any ‘pity’ or chauvinism.

I think it’s happening to you Pamela, because I see the way you move everywhere covering news events, but if you go and sleep and your male colleague goes out there and then comes back with the news and you say, ‘Nna (bros) put my by-line’, he won’t respect you because he knows you didn’t do the work yourself. But, if you go and cover a story, he goes to cover a story and he sees your story later, verifies and it’s true, you didn’t fabricate it, you covered it and obtained the information on your own, he will respect you. That’s the only way to stop male chauvinism and I know that with time things will change, because women are coming up. When I began rising on this job, there were practically no women; we used to write papers on Female Faculty in Journalism Education to encourage women to come and teach journalism, because if they didn’t teach, our students would end up going into the field with a male-dominated point of view. See us now, women are at par with men teaching in this department now and it’s very good.

You played a pivotal role in the administration of former Governor Peter Obi; how did that appointment come to you without your being in politics? Did you anticipate it?

No, I wasn’t in politics and I really had nothing to do with politics. It came like a bolt from the blues, and I almost didn’t accept it. You know why?


I was in communication. And I knew that if they made me a commissioner, they would probably put me in the information ministry. I am sure you know that in Nigeria, if you are a Commissioner for Information or a Minister of Information, if your president or governor doesn’t do well, you become a propagandist and a liar. You must lie to cover up the man’s deficiencies. It happens everywhere. So, my fear was that as a professor of mass communication, the governor would deploy me as Commissioner for Information and if I went there and the man didn’t do well, I was finished. I knew I would either resign or thrive on lies and I was very conscious of the fact that I was teaching ethics here then: it was my core subject. So, that was the fear I had. I panicked really and almost didn’t accept the appointment.

So, how many lies did you have to tell to protect your principal?

Well, I say it everywhere and with pride. I was lucky when I got there because my governor did well. Peter Obi did so well that I didn’t have to lie for him. I didn’t have to fabricate stories or become a propagandist. I simply did my job as an information commissioner and, after some time, he felt I was an astute planner and meticulous in my work, that’s what he told me. And that was why I was moved to Ministry of Planning. So, I didn’t dream of being a commissioner. It just happened. I didn’t even know Peter Obi and had never met him before my appointment. He said he was looking for someone in information and people told him there was a professor of mass communication at UNIZIK and, my name kept coming up and that was how I came into the picture. It was at the swearing-in ceremony that he saw me for the first time. That was what happened.

Is there anything you did then as a commissioner that if given another chance you will want to re-do?


Are you saying you got everything right?

Not really, but I think we gave our best. I wasn’t perfect because we are human beings but I think we (Team Peter Obi) worked hard. We came into Anambra at a time the state was at a crossroads, so to say. The image of the state was battered; there was a lot of bad blood, so much in-fighting, and every sector required development. Things hadn’t gone as well as they should have gone in a state like Anambra and that was why Peter Obi dreamt up the ANIDS philosophy (Anambra Integrated Development Strategy): because every sector required urgent development. You couldn’t come into a state like that and do one-point agenda by giving attention to one sector or even a few sectors, because every sector required attention. So, he took on all the sectors simultaneously. We came in there and determined to make it better. And, I think in the government of Peter Obi, one of our greatest achievements was the peace and tranquility he enthroned that made him able to work so well and achieve so much. When we came in here – oh my goodness! – there was too much bad blood, so much in-fighting; but Peter Obi by his nature is a peace-loving person, and he calmed things down. If we didn’t have that peace and tranquility in the state, he wouldn’t have been able to achieve what he achieved. So that’s it. I don’t regret anything.

If you are called up again by the incumbent government of Governor Obiano to render service to the state, would you – despite the rancour between your former principal and the incumbent – accept to serve?


Why not?

Because I don’t think they will ever appreciate anything I will do. Besides, they won’t even call me because given how long and how closely Peter Obi and I worked together, I am still loyal to him and everybody knows that. If you look at today’s (The) Guardian (proudly raises the newspaper to show the picture of herself in company of Obi and others), you can see us there. We still sometimes work together. Not long ago, we attended an MDGs programme in New York, where he was globally appreciated for the work we did in MDGs. There are a number of outings we attend together, so somehow we still work together. People know where I stand and given the present situation in terms of the relationship between Obi and Obiano, the government won’t call me. If they call me, I won’t accept. I don’t really know what went wrong, but the present governor and Peter Obi inexplicably have not got on well. So, even if I am crazy enough to go to work with the government, they would think I am a saboteur or a spy. They won’t even believe I am being honest within the government. So why should I go there in the first place? Peter Obi is the only political boss I have known, so long as people still ‘yoke’ me together with him, anybody who is against him will not have anything to do with me, and I don’t go where I am suspected at any time. I am a very loyal person, and once I come into a place, I give my best and I remain totally loyal. So, if I come into a place and I am doing my work well and you think I am not loyal, it will just kill me.

Don’t you think they would sheathe their swords sometime?

Well, I don’t know. It’s their business. I don’t understand the problem, really; but I think they should sheath their swords. First of all, they started pretending that there was nothing wrong even when people knew there was something seriously wrong. You cannot hide that kind of thing. Just yesterday, I learnt that another documentary was aired on ABS against Obi. I don’t know what that was and I didn’t watch it either. Honestly, I don’t understand it. I can’t tell you I know what the problem is.

What is your fashion trend?

I am not a trendy person. Although I am not ‘bush’, I am not a fashionable person. I wear whatever I am comfortable in. I love simple designs and traditional wear. I can dress up in English suits also. I wore a lot of that when I was coordinating the activities of donor agencies in the Peter Obi administration, but I am more comfortable nowadays in traditional wear. I do have a good tailor who sometimes sews very well. That’s me, I am not glamorous or very fashionable.

What kind of perfumes do you love to wear: designers or anything with sweet fragrance?

Designers? Yes. What do you call designer perfume? Is it not because they are long lasting? I am a bit like Peter Obi; I don’t waste my money. I don’t spend money on expensive things I don’t require, so when I buy a designer perfume, I buy it because it lasts. I don’t like harsh fragrance. Rather I prefer something that is mild so that when you enter a room, you don’t disturb people’s nostrils with the strong smell of your perfume.

What is your view on the prevalence of indecent dressing among youths, especially in tertiary institutions?

Abominable! We are tackling it here in the university community. It puts me off completely. I don’t see why a woman should be showing off her buttocks with flimsy short skirt or leggings. It’s horrible and I wonder whose children are doing this, unless they don’t come from homes or don’t live with their parents. It’s a horrible thing and we are trying to tackle that here. Gradually, the change is taking place. If you looked around when you were coming, you would have seen that most of the students have started wearing their departmental colours like a uniform: T-shirts and proper shirts. I think part of the reason was because of indecent dressing. I loathe it. You can’t dress indecently to my office. As a mother, I won’t talk to you and they know.

How do you mentor?

First of all, by my lifestyle. I try to be a role model to students. Mentoring can be either done directly or indirectly. By the way I comport myself. Then I run an open-door policy; I don’t turn away students when they come to see me, no matter how busy I am. If you walk through that door, I see you, no matter how stressed out I am because a child may come at a time he/she is in crisis and if you turn him/her away, that may be the breaking point for her. So, I keep an open mind, I listen and try to solve every problem. Like this afternoon, I had to rush out to solve the problem of some of my students that are being omitted from going for youth service. I also give them words of advice without being judgmental. Some come with the problem of school fees and often I make up what they have so they can pay and continue in their studies. Other times I stand in for their parents and pay their school fees for them while their parents refund me later; they have never failed in their refunds. A student may come to you and he has done wrong, you don’t shout or condemn, although you reprimand and you will do that allowing for his youthful exuberance. Some of them, like I told you, are very young and most of the things they do, they do in ignorance. Some come here without that required closeness with their parents. In this case, you try to be their surrogate parent. Some of them don’t even have the liberty of a heart-to-heart talk with their parents. So, we intervene and mentor in so many ways. I also have a scholarship scheme here in UNIZIK for students from my community, Ukpo.

How does this scholarship scheme work?

It is being handled by my town union. I am not directly involved in the selection of beneficiaries, so I don’t influence the list in any way. They do their selection purely on merit. But the criteria are that the person must be an Ukpo indigene and must be poor. So, candidates apply to the town union, where they know their parents; they screen them and recommend those who are to benefit.

So nobody can feign to be poor in order to benefit?

No, no, they screen anybody that applies. Also for the money, I release it to the town union, when they finish their tabulation and send me their results. I do the same thing for secondary school students every year. The best 10 students in SS2 in the two secondary schools in Ukpo, I pay their WAEC and NECO fees as well as school fees in their SS3. Again, the UIU (Ukpo Improvement Union) handles it.

What more would you say you still want to achieve in life?

What more do I want to achieve in life? Well, I still have a few more years to be here and I would like to strengthen my department beyond where we are now before I retire. Though I didn’t fancy this headship when I came back from my term in government, I have accepted it and will do my best with the opportunity to contribute further to the development of my department. So, now I have been appointed, I have two years to run this place and I would like to take the department up to a certain level before I leave. I want to build an annex to our departmental building, strengthen the place and point the department in a strong direction before I leave. I will also support my VC as much as I can. He is doing well; he is a young man and he has fresh ideas. Outside UNIZIK, what else will I do? My children are grown up, so I don’t have much to do at home.

In this era of dieting and exercising, what does your typical menu look like? How do you feed?

I love fruits a lot. I eat a lot of fruits everyday. Now that it is mango season, I eat about ten mangoes everyday. I love bananas and apples too. I love fruits, any one I can find. By the time I fill my stomach up with fruits, I don’t really have enough space for too much food. So, I don’t take very bulky food. I exercise; I have a treadmill and a stationary bicycle. Once every two days, I either do the treadmill or the bicycle. I also walk round my compound. Because of anxiety over cholesterol, I watch what I eat and I don’t eat very oily or fatty food. Generally, I am a very healthy person by nature.

How do your husband and children feel about all your successes?

Proud. My husband’s heart is bursting with love and pride, so to say. We met when we were quite young and we have grown together. He is a medical doctor and he has done quite well in his own profession. He is a consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician, and he owns a private hospital in Enugu named after me: Ristela Hospital and Maternity. Because he has done well in his own profession, he doesn’t grudge me doing well in mine. He has supported me all the way, encouraged me and now that I have arrived at what I would call the pinnacle of my life, he feels fulfilled.

How many children did you have with him?

Surprisingly, six. I have a medical doctor, I have a pharmacist, I have two engineers, I have a computer scientist and I have public health specialist.

You must be fulfilled

Yes I am. I must tell you, each time I think about my life, I feel very fulfilled. Life has been good to me. I just lost my mom two weeks ago. My dad died 35 years ago, when I was nothing. It broke my heart but I thank God my mom was there to see me grow. Her death also broke our hearts, because she was never ill, although she was 88. But at least, she saw us, her six children, grow and succeed.

•Photo shows Prof. Chinyere Stella Okunna.

Source: News Express

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