Title: On Merit
Author: Georgina Ehuriah-Arisa
Publisher: Prestige, Kachifo Ltd
Reviewer: Godwin Okondo
Success isn’t often achieved on a platter of Gold. It is the culmination of hardwork, ingenuity and perhaps grace. Nothing is more dignifying than making it to the top of your career without cutting corners.
Georgina Ehuriah-Arisa is one of such Nigerians who got to the pinnacle of their careers unaided. She has, thus, documented her journey through life in the memoir, To Serve and to be Honoured on Merit.
Georgina was born in Obioha Amamba Uzuakoli in August 1962 to Chief Anosike and Mrs. Mary Ihedinma Alaukwu. She is a descendant of the original brothers who founded Uzuakoli. She was two years old when her mother brought her with her father who was working as a cook at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, which was then filled with expatriates, whose lifestyle also impacted on their family.
The author recounts her civil war experience, which was harrowing for a child of her age. She recalls: “There was luggage everywhere as women carried them on their heads and backs. Any child that was old enough to carry anything was given the maximum weight to haul along.” She remembers the crowded coaches and fear on people’s faces.
Besides, the book is a celebration of black womanhood in a patriarchal society strewn with socio-cultural impediments. It echoes the boundless regions open to any hard working African woman.
In 25 chapters, the book redefines feminism vis-a-vis the African woman, using the matriarchal ethos of her Uzuakoli home for illustration.
Hers, the book echoes, is a lineage of strong women “famous for their independence”, and, “once a man has provided a homestead and farmland for his wife, it is up to the woman to work hard and ensure that her husband and children are well-fed and no less comfortable than others.”
Her grandmother, Ezinne Uloju Nnochiri, was one of such distinguished successful women who influenced her.
In the third chapter, she gives a brief account of her hometown, Uzuakoli, and how schools, churches, railway other social infrastructure reached it in the 20th century. It was here, too, General Ibrahim Babangida was injured in a Biafran counter attack and saved by an Uzuakoli woman.
Young Georgina recollects the panic caused by bombs discharged by fighter-bombers and how many families were forced into the bush for safety. But it wasn’t long before she was rounded up while fetching water and marched out of the bush alongside other members of her family to begin life as refugees. “We learnt to roast and pepper lizards, rats and birds,” she chronicles, adding in the next chapter, “While we escaped being consumed by the war, the families that returned with their children were in for another trauma,” with widespread cases of rape by soldier and taking young women away as war booties.
The foundation to her success later in life was when she barged her way into elementary school, bypassing the ota akara she was sent to at eight. Yes, her stubborn spirit showed early in life. Fast forward to Elementary 5, she fastracked her Common Entrance Exam in lieu of the First School Leaving Certificate Exam she was supposed to take in Elementary 6, and her brilliance saw her gaining admission to the prestigious Queen of the Rosary Secondary School (QRSS, Nsukka. She was to secure a federal scholarship when she sat for the National Scholarship Examination, but her father objected to her going to the Federal Government College, Benin City. But at Queen of the Rosary, Nsukka, where she continued her post-primary education, she distinguished herself as a bright student, nay, voracious reader and debater. “Having carved an identity of clutching fat novels and books throughout my secondary school years, I naturally gravitated towards arts subjects,” she writes, making an enviable Grade 1 in 1979.
In the seventh chapter, Georgina chronicles her ordessy as a lioness (a student of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka) where she went on to study English, with prominent names, such as Professors Chinua Achebe, Emmanuel Obiechina, OC Enekwe, Donatus Nwoga, Benson Oluikpe, Kalu Uka, et al, as her teachers.
From chapter 8, the narrative changes, as Georgina begins taking her first steps to becoming somebody in life. That began with her youth service and, subsequently, securing a job afterwards in the Federal Civil Service in 1984, and began to grow through the ranks. From this moment onward, the book becomes a study on making a difference. It also informs us on the workings of bureaucracy with its positives and negative politics.
One of her greatest motivators, she admits, was Uncle Vincent Iroeche Patrick of blessed memory, who introduced her to the world of hard work, career, life possibilities and education. And so early enough, she was “convinced that the assured pathway for me to the top either in career or in any social circle was essentially through education, especially as I am not from a powerful or wealthy family to give me the perks of inherited privilege which would have taken me through life to the dizzying heights without breaking a sweat” (125). She, therefore, didn’t hesitate in sowing seeds for tomorrow. One of such seeds was learning French and acquiring more certificates and degrees.
Her career, which spanned across three and half decades saw her holding various positions in Ministry of Defence, where she started her career, to the Ministry of Information and Communications, the Cabinet Affairs Office, the Ecological Fund Office, the Federal Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development, as well as the Ministry of Interior where she retired as a Permanent Secretary in October, 2020, having successfully finished the additional one year added to her service by President Muhamadu Buhari last year.
Her efficiency in public service was trailed with multiple national awards and those from different institutions and organisations
A heart built to endure, despite facing personal challenges, ranging from the trauma of the civil war, battling infertility, divorce, she was able to pull through. Her life has shown that, where there is a will, surely, there is a way — and that way leads to the top.
In 1993, she got married to Mr. Elton Ehuriah. Georgina was also refined by foreign exposure in the 1990s. She writes: “It was the exposure to training workshops, pre-shipment inspections and bilateral and multilateral meetings which we received at MOD that gave us the edge over some of our peers.” From Washington Dulles (USA) to London (UK), Brussels (Belgium), Sanremo (Italy), Woensdrecht (Netherland), and Vienna (Austria),” she attended workshops and conferences that aided her development as a civil servant.
Her quest for bettering herself saw her bagging an MPA and a law degree programme from the University of Lagos despite work pressures in Lagos. Georgina, thus, represents that trailblazer who sees knowledge acquisition as a veritable weapon to overcoming social stasis. Of course, she wasn’t perturbed that she was bypassed twice for deserved promotion at work, for she knew where she was headed for.
Accolades for the book include that by Prof. Oladapo Afolabi, former Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, who says it is “the story of the Nigerian Civil Service deliciously and delectably told.”
For Engr. Ebele Okeke, CFR, ex-Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, Georgina is a “successful mountaineer who had conquered Mountain Everest and left a manual (On Merit) on how to discern the dangers that lie on the road to the top of the mountain.”