HERstory

Benedikter Molokwu

Benedikter Molokwu had a dream childhood. She was the last child in a loving family and enjoyed her growing-up days. Her first major challenge, like many a youngster, came in the form of making a career decision. Her instincts led her to law, where she blossomed, taking up appointments in blue-chip organisations as a top executive. Today, she is CEO of the financial service company, Credit Swift Ltd.

BAPTISM OF FIRE

‘Are you sure you are qualified? Are you already a lawyer? You look so young!’

‘Yes, my Lord. If I were not qualified, the Ministry of Justice would not have sent me here to represent it as the prosecuting counsel in this case!’

The judge stormed out, unknown to us, to call the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to complain. By the look on his face, when he returned a few minutes later, we knew that the DPP’s answer must have angered him even more.

That was the first day I appeared in court before Justice Abimbola. I stood tall and proud in my wig and gown. But when the case was called and I stood with my friend and colleague, Patricia Odumodu (now Ofili), to announce our appearance on behalf of the State, the judge threw bombshell questions at me. I refused to be cowed. I responded courageously, but soon sat down with wobbly legs.

I was observing my National Youth Service Corps in the Ministry of Justice, Ogun State, Nigeria. The case files we handled covered two extremes of prosecutions in the High Court – road traffic offences/accidents and ritual killings – with little in between. In fact, I only recall three theft cases and a sprinkling of Indian Hemp hauls in the entire year. Writing up the legal opinions after evaluating the evidence was quite a unique experience for me, it was soon to be capped by actual courtroom exposure. And now this! We were even only in court to take judgement.

I looked up to see the judge glaring at me steadily. ‘You see, you do not even know what to say,’ he said. I rose in self-defence again: ‘My Lord, if only I and other senior lawyers here knew when you stopped delivering the judgement and started addressing me, we would have responded appropriately.’ Of course, he didn’t like that and he left the court. The entire court burst into laughter, truly, he had been so unsettled by these two girls in his territory that no one actually heard the judgement. We would have echoed, ‘As His Lordship pleases’ with others!

The lighter mood put paid to my embarrassment. It was a thoroughly scary but enjoyable experience, although my colleagues were apprehensive on my behalf and felt I should have said nothing. I told them that it was better I did; otherwise, he would continue to treat “freshers” or was it the gender (?) like secondary school students. Through the Ranks

After my youth service year, I went to Europe for my master’s degree in International and Comparative Law with specialisation in Regional Cooperation in Investment and Commerce. Before returning to Nigeria, I worked with ITT-Europe, Belgium, on a six-month attachment as an assistant to the Director of Planning, studying European Laws, regulations and directives, to assess their impact on the business of the company.

It was challenging but interesting. For instance, we spent one week at the European Economic Commission, now the European Union, then another In parliament and then at the courts in Strassbourg. However, my stay in Europe was short-lived as my parents mounted pressure on me to come back home. I persuaded my office to request ITT-Nigeria to interview me and my boss subsequently recommended me to ITT-N. I was first deployed to the Contract Administration Department, liaising between the company and the Ministry of Communications. From there I went to the Legal Department. ITT-Nigeria was the biggest player in the telecommunications sector in Nigeria at the time. I met quite a number of people in the almost five years that I worked there. This was because it was my duty to ensure that ITT-Nigeria complied with the intricate details of contracts with the Ministry of Communications and other main or sub-contractors. I made payment submissions and accompanied my Managing Director and the Chairman to the Senate to defend ITT-N’s presentations and contract performance.

I gained substantial experience at ITT-N working in all the three vital departments. It was a company with varied operations and international subcontractors that employed 2,500 staff, many of whom were expatriates. Later, they became my responsibility – personnel, welfare, human relations, and other related aspects of company administration.

A FIRST AT FIRST CITY

Subsequently, I became a serial entrepreneur importing children’s toys from Hong Kong, crystal stem and tableware from France and implementing contracts. With this interest in business, I thought it would help to work with a bank first so that I could gain some commercial experience, initially, I thought two or three years would be it, but then I have ended up spending a lifetime in banking and financial services.

I was a pioneer staff member of First City Merchant Bank Limited (now First City Monument Bank Plc), I was employed as the Company Secretary and Legal Adviser. Although I had little experience in banking and had been interviewed with senior bankers from Union Bank, NAL etc., my knowledge of company law and international legal contract documentation, as well as confidence stood me in good stead. I had to quickly network and make friends with my counterparts in First Bank, Union Bank, UBA, and the few banks then, as well as teach myself in order to acquire the necessary expertise. My efforts paid off and although I am not an accountant, I had prepared the bank’s first budget! We

were only 11 on the staff list of the bank at the time so everyone had to be supportive in every way possible, not only to keep the bank growing but also to keep it ahead of its pack. Everybody was a marketing officer as well as an administrator. From the tenacity of that initial pool of workers, FCMB grew substantially. So many momentous events happened in the bank, the sector and the economy in the period.

My portfolio expanded to include strategic planning, corporate affairs and administration. I was later assigned the responsibility of managing the Treasury and Financial Services Department and I had really good people who worked very well with me. I was Associate Director for one year, before I became a substantive Executive Director in 1991, the first staff of the bank to be made one.

I encouraged the recruitment of more women whom we found to be the sustaining force of the organisation. They were productive, trustworthy, loyal and served much longer than the men, who craving accelerated promotion, usually spent one or three years there and then moved to other places.

A ROBUST BACKGROUND

Most importantly, my background as a girl growing up among men contributed greatly to what I would describe as my robust development. The last in a family of eight children, I had only one sister, fondly called Aunty Maggie. My immediate older brother, Josef, was very protective of me, being his only younger sister. The story has it that, at my birth, he refused to go to school simply because his mother had just had a new daughter! My earliest years were spent in a storey building in G.R.A.Benin City where my brother, Josef, had tumbled down the steps one day, clutching me in his arms and proclaiming with great pride, “I will always save Benny.” Besides the image of the Emotan Statue in the city’s central square, I really do not remember much about Benin. This is because my father, P.N.C. Molokwu, MBE, then a Provincial Education Officer, had been transferred so we relocated to Lagos and I was only a few years old.

In Lagos in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we lived in a quiet residential area. Pius, my eldest brother, and his immediate younger one, Louis, a retired banker, no longer lived at home when I was a child. Left at home with us (during school holidays) were Christopher (ABC), George, and Josef. My third brother, Henry, now President of the Agbalanze Society in Onitsha, had travelled to Italy to study Geology and my sister Aunty Maggie had married in the early 60s. In spite of that, there were quite a number of other people living with us that I had thought were my brothers and sisters then. Among the people in our home was an uncle, and former Rector of the IMT, Enugu, Dr. Akosa Amechi, whom we thought was a biological brother. We loved him.

Ours was a home where love reigned. My mother, (Anna) Odoziaku, welcomed almost everybody to the house, offering something to eat from her bottomless pot. We also had some domestic staff, although it was difficult to differentiate between a member of the family and someone who was not. It was a home with strict discipline. It was impressed on us at an early age to appreciate other people. My mother, who died in 1997, was a practising Catholic with a very high sense of morality and propriety. The result was that our upbringing followed a system of do’s and don’ts that has remained a part of us till date. We have a strong sense of family and respect for hard work. I have tried to impart these to my son.

I had a childhood that I believe was the best I could have. We never longed to live in any other person’s home or have their things and were happy with the environment in our home. There were people in the neighbourhood for whom we cared for, that did not have the kinds of things we had, as my mother ordered most things (crockery, cutlery, bedsheets etc.) from U.K. catalogues. There were also those who, although living in bigger houses, came to share our meals. It was an interesting childhood, full of engaging activities.

My father was a teacher and school administrator. Before we moved to Lagos, he had worked first in primary then secondary schools across the old Mid-Western Region. He was the first Nigerian school headmaster of Edo College, a position he maintained until he was deployed to the Federal Ministry of Education. Professor Taiwo, now in his 90s, took over from him. Parliamentary Secretary to the Federal Scholarship and Advisory Board. He was the Permanent Secretary in the East Central State in 1970.

My mother also had some teaching experience before becoming a seamstress, baker, and most importantly the manager of the family! Later on in life she became a textile merchant. She brought home to us a sense of commerce, an ability which our father, who was strictly a civil servant, lacked though he had great vision. Father was strict and perhaps domineering. He fondly called me “Benny, Benny O”, especially when he was happy with my performance at school. Whenever he called me “Bennedikter,”, I knew he had information about some mischief I had got into. He took pleasure in reading and shared many of his books with me. He had a positive influence on me. So I grew up with a passion for reading. He shared his experiences in the schools where he taught, like the self-sustenance agricultural policies he introduced into Edo College, where he had been headmaster in the 1940s into the early 1950s. My father’s bark could be worse than his bite while my mother was reserved but firm and businesslike. She used her lovely eyes and we understood her body language.

I never heard her raise her voice at or say bad words about anyone. She took time to appreciate other people’s point of view and made them understand why she did what she did. She taught us how to be honest, care for ourselves, our neighbours, pets (we had lots of cats), tend gardens, sew, bake, to listen, to pray, enjoy sports, to do positive things. She also taught us to work hard and of course to stand proud and tall! We always looked forward to eating the notoriously delicious Sunday curry at Ikoyi Hotel,

visiting family friends like the Abebes, Okwusogwus, Agusiobos, Mbanefos, Cardosos, Ezekwes, Azikiwes, Ibekwes, Egbunas, Ofodilis etc or family shopping during the Christmas season. Family Shopping was led by our father, we went to Lennards, Bata, UTC and Kingsway stores, which had shoes and clothes for young people. We were usually left to make our choices while our father would go for a haircut at the famous barber’s shop inside Kingsway stores. Thereafter, he came back to decide on what we could purchases based on our lists. Although we were encouraged to be expressive, there had to be good justification for whatever requests we were making. Whatever we needed was spelt out in a list supported by reasons for it and the estimated cost. Looking back, I would say that was a tested method of teaching children the science of budgeting. Father took our good grades for granted, although we dared not make poor ones. His main concern was our conduct as he insisted on maintaining a balance between brilliant academic performance and character/behaviour. It was the correct attitude to life at that time.

GROWING TO MATURITY

I had my primary education briefly at Grange School. Ikeja and then at Our Lady of Apostles Private School, Yaba, from where I gained admission Into Holy Child College, Obalende before taking WAEC school certificate examinations at Holy Child Secondary School, Sharon Hill, Abakaliki. I entered the University of Nigeria from the Lower Sixth Form at St. Gregory’s College, Obalende. I cultivated lifelong friendships those years, and there was much healthy competition between my friends and I, with respect to athletics, academic performance and personal behaviour. We took the little things of life rather seriously.

At the Holy Child Schools where I attended, we always looked forward to end of term activities:

traditional dances, popular Nigerian songs, poetry recitals and plays which broadened our horizons and sharpened our perception and taught by Irish and local reverend sisters. The impact of these schools, the nuns, teachers and friends made there in my life is substantial, especially in helping to develop confidence, attention to detail, a keen sense of loyalty, order and organisation. There was no alternative to going to Mass every morning! Since the little things of life added up to what one becomes, the good habits formed under this guidance helped us not only academically but in relationships and every-day life. Stringent though the rules were, we certainly created our own fun. Some of my best friends today are those whose friendship I had developed in those formative years and with whom I have grown to maturity.

I did not complete my secondary education at Holy Child College, Lagos because of the Nigerian Civil War. In 1967 many Igbo women and children were sent back to their home-town as war became imminent, nobody knowing what would happen next. Father, then working with one of the United Nations agencies, stayed back in Lagos with two of my brothers, while Mother and the rest of us headed home to Onitsha in 1967. It was an unexpected split for our very close-knit family. It brought upon us by circumstances no one could control. One hardly anticipated the civil war, let alone that it would last for two and a half years. Providence, however, reunited us all as the war ended in January 1970: we were all safe and healthy! When the war started, it was as if the battleground was right at our doorstep. I wished I were a little older as I would have loved to join the army! I was very much concerned about the state of children during the war. The situation was truly pathetic. We used to go and help out the Catholic Church personnel in the refugee camps close to where we lived, helping to share food and relief materials to displaced and poor people.

THUMBS UP FOR LAW!

I read and fantasised a lot when I was young but then if you do not dream dreams you cannot aim at the skies! At one time, I wanted to be an actress; a model; at another a doctor; an architect and then a lawyer. However, my passion was to be a diplomat in a French-speaking country; so I enrolled to study French at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Before the beginning of the semester I reconsidered my choice in the light of other options and felt that I had not made the best decision, after all.

Why did I choose to simply study a language? I recalled my maternal grandmother’s reaction to my older brother’s choice of English for his university course. She had disapproved, arguing that he spoke English well enough and would therefore need something else, a profession, to enhance it and not waste time and money! I decided to change. My attention focused on law. I critically appraised the situation to see if I had the qualities to be successful at it – I had a more-than-adequate interest in mystery; I was logical; a very good speaker; I loved reading and research and had a keen sense of propriety so I decided to go ahead to study law.

Indeed, knowing the regard my father had for some eminent Onitsha lawyers and judges who dominated the judiciary at the time. I had also read about or two lawyers in practice while still in secondary school (Perry Mason??) I felt really attracted to the law profession. I saw it then as a profession that combined drama, panache, technical knowledge and inquisitiveness.

At that time, I had criminal law and investigative or forensic aspects in mind, hoping to don a wig and be in court!

TIMES HAVE CHANGED!

Placed side by side, the Lagos of the 1960s dwarfs what it is today. It was really fantastic, safe, clean and beautiful. It still had beaches, parks, and libraries. Ikeja, where we lived when I was a child, had people of different nationalities: Indians, Americans and Britons. Children related with each other freely and without any trace of ethnic bias. Nigerians were simply Nigerians not Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa etc. As children, we did not observe ethnic discrimination in the relationship among the adults; so we grew up with a national consciousness: ‘We are Nigerians, the others are expatriates.’ We had to be the best and do the best we could to emulate the adults, finding our sense of direction in order to get something that would really stand us out as true Africans.

The standard of education up to the 1970s was high. I cannot recall going to a tutorial college to receive extra lessons. Much of what we learnt in Forms 4 and 5 were already familiar to us in Form 3. Extra-curricular activities made up a major part of the primary school system. For example, apart from sports, we went on field trips, an opportunity we used to look for butterflies and hunt for frogs to dissect – I even recall my primary school class visiting the 7-UP factory. Education was not just a matter of reading; it was a part of a full spectrum of events. Honesty and self-reliance were core values inculcated in us. I don’t recall any child cheating in examinations during my school days. It would have also been strange to see teachers carrying wares to be sold within the school premises. They were paid fairly (or at least they were content with their salaries) and committed to their duties.

One strategy that helped in the upbringing of children then was the widespread attitude of involvement by friends and neighbours – children were brought up by the entire community. Parents knew one another and their children. For that, children were careful not to get involved in anything that would drag their name into disrepute. Parents had a proprietary interest in the children around them, whether or not they knew where they came from. They could not stand aloof and watch them misbehave. In the school system then, parents were not defensive of their children. These days, one finds parents going to argue with school authorities in defence of an erring ward. It never happened then. Instead, parents gave further punishment in order to instil a sense of discipline into the child.

AN INSPIRATIONAL LIFE

After FCMB, I joined Credit Swift Limited, a non-bank finance company providing loans, services to small and medium sized companies with training and bookkeeping Programmes to ensure that they stay on top of their businesses. I currently offer pre-liquidation services to a failed bank under the auspicies of the Central Bank of Nigeria.

I am on the boards of Dangote Sugar Refinery Plc, Crusader Sterling Pensions Limited and Standard Chartered Bank Limited. Over the years I have served on other boards including the Governing Council of the Financial Institutions Training Centre, The Upper Niger River Basin Authority and participated as a member of task-specific panels at state and federal government levels. In the 1980s I was a member the Legal Advisory Committee of the President of the Federal Republic or Nigeria, the Anambra State Task Force for the Revitalisation of Ailing Government Companies and its Technical Committee on the Privatisation. In the 1990s I served on the Panel for the Reform of NITEL. I am currently on the Panel for the Review of the Code of Corporate Governance set up by the Securities and Exchange Commission to update the existing code for public companies.

Although not a practising lawyer, my legal training and experience continue to shape my contributions to corporates, development organisations, societies I belong to and young people. I deliver law, corporate governance, finance and management papers to promote the continued education of senior management and company directors. I still read and research a lot. I must admit my keen interest in Corporate Governance, consequently during my tenure as President of the Institute of Directors Nigeria (IoD). I founded the IoD Centre For Corporate Governance in collaboration with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Corporate Affairs Commission to promote and encourage companies to comply with the Code of Corporate Governance for Nigeria. It is an organisation that will play a key role in shaping corporate performance through corporate governance compliance and become a centre of excellence for corporate governance. I am a member of professional bodies like the Nigerian Bar Association, International Bar Association, International Association of Women Lawyers and the Chartered Institute of Bankers Nigeria. For many years I was an active executive member of the International Women’s Society and my town societies have my commitment – I belong to the UmuIkem UMUADAs and the Onitsha Professional Ladies’ Circle (OPLC).

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People feel inspired by my professional and personal attributes but I consider my leadership role in IoD and other career progression as a tribute to my parents and as my contribution to society. I tend to go over the top when I am serving a cause and I manage to elicit great cooperation from those working with or supporting me: this makes for success. I have accepted only a few awards including the Kwame Nkrumah Leadership Award (2004) and the Trailblazer Award from the Nigerian Bar Association (Women’s Forum)(2007).

I do support women issues and believe in the mainstreaming of (not quota for) women! Some programmes I run are of great help to women. Before
the last elections, I got involved with an organisation that sought to raise funds to support female politicians in their quest for elective office. Although I am not a politician, I do not rule out participation in governance.

Bennedikter China Molokwu is a fellow of the Institute of Directors,UK. She is the Chief Executive Officer at Credibble LTD. She is on the board of Dangote Sugar Refinery PLC, CrudaderSterling Pensions and Main One Cable CO. Nigeria LTD. She is also a member of the chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria, the International Federation of Women Lawyers, the Nigerian Bar Association and the International Bar Association.

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