I Chose a Company That Offered Me Less Pay… It Turned Out a Wise Choice

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It’s hard to think of Nigeria’s embrace of the GSM technology and the revolution it unleashed in our lives without thinking of Ernest Ndukwe, the engineer whose scrupulous handling of the first auction for GSM licences helped put a mobile phone in nearly every home and swelled the government’s purse. Ndukwe turns 64 on September 2 and recalls the exciting memories of his childhood. Funke Olaode reports

Shaped by parents’ pristine values

My name is Ernest Chukwuka Anene Ndukwe. I was born on September 2, 1948. I was born in my home town in Anambra State on September 2, 1948 while my parents were on leave. They were living in Lagos but I was told they came on vacation when I was born. My father was a civil servant with the Nigerian Railway Corporation as chief labour relations officer. So, we lived most of our lives in Lagos. My mother was a nurse and midwife and eventually became a matron of a hospital. My parents were educated and humble people. My father worked hard to rise to the level he attained in the civil service. I would say that we had the privilege of being in a protected environment. We lived at Oke-Ira in Ebute-Meta Area of Lagos. The family pedigree actually rubbed off on all the children because my mother (who is still alive and turned 86 this year) also comes from a highly educated family. All her siblings are very highly educated with professors, medical doctor and all that among them. One of my father’s brothers was also a medical doctor. My background is about education and having educated people around me.

Life in the village with grandparents

Parental influence in our lives (me and my siblings) was enormous and strong. It was an upbringing that placed emphasise on humility. My father was an extremely humble man, very kind and gave his life to help other people. He was not a rich man by any standard but had a rich soul which means he believed he must be of good to the next person. And, also, my mum comes from a family of strict and upright people. My maternal grandfather was a catechist and teacher. He was also a strict man. I lived with him for a few years in the village when my parents were studying abroad. My father went for an in-service training and my mother accompanied him to the United Kingdom and also enrolled for the training in nursing. The period I spent with my grandfather in the village opened my eyes to village life and setting. My grandmother was a loving woman. Again, I didn’t have a choice and, as you know, children adapt easily especially when they have love and attention around then.

Back to the city

I came back to Lagos immediately my parents returned from the United Kingdom and picked my life where I left it. Of course, I was back in school, constituted a new circle of friends. Life was good as a child because we enjoyed the basic social amenities that were available at that time. There was electricity and water in the Railway Compound. We had an expansive compound with gardens, mango trees, and apple trees, around us. It was interesting. I am not sure I recall any happenings around us because of the protected environment I lived. But I remember with fond memories accompanying my father all the time to the football field at Onikan, Lagos Island, to watch football matches. My father, Mr. Clement Ndukwe, was the chairman of Lagos Football Association for two terms shortly before the Nigerian civil war. My father had his first car the year I was born. In fact, in those when we were driving many people recognised my father’s car and would be hailing him: ‘Up Chair!’ ‘Up Chair!’

Stoking engineering instincts

I was a very quiet, unassuming young child and not the rascally type. We have our different traits which distinguish us. In my case, while growing up I didn’t engage in any pranks of any destructive nature except that my parents knew that I was going to be an engineer. When I was about 10, my parents noticed that I was fiddling with gadgets. You can imagine dismantling objects like clock and radio set in order to put it back together. And sometimes I would succeed in putting them back and in most cases the reverse was the case. I was also very inquisitive with gadget, mechanical and electronical objects.

An itinerant childhood

I actually schooled in different places because of the nature of my parent’s job as civil servants. My father was on frequent transfer and whenever he moved, the entire family moved with him. My father was in Lagos at a time. He also worked in Enugu and we lived at the Railway Quarters. I began my early education at Ladi Lak Institute, Yaba, Lagos. I also schooled in my village for two years when my parents went to England for further studies. My father came back to Lagos from the United Kingdom before my mother and we all moved back to Lagos. I finished my primary education and went to Enugu and enrolled at Union Secondary School, Enugu, and a mission school co-owned by both the Anglican and Methodist Mission. After my secondary education, I proceeded to the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) where I studied electrical engineering. Nothing influenced me to study engineering; I just found myself dismantling and fiddling with gadgets as a child and I developed interest right from then.

Earning less to fulfill yearning

With focus and determination, and of course with God on my side, I pursued my childhood ambition and followed it with passion. I developed interest in science subjects which took me to the University of Ife where it was realized before I moved to the larger society. I left University of Ife in 1975 and went for my National Youths Service Corps. We were camped at St. Gregory’s College, Obalende, Lagos. The students’ population was minimal then. I met many new people and made friends. I met the likes of Chidi Ilogwu, Mike Ajegbo etc. After my youth service, I joined a company called Radio Communications Nigeria Limited (RCN). In those days, you had a choice of job selection. I was offered a job with Levers Brothers as trainee manager with a higher remuneration. It was a 50 percent higher pay more than my salary at RCN but because I felt RCN was more in tune with what I studied, I jettisoned the idea working with Lever Brothers. I remember Lever Brothers offered me N5,000 per annum while RCN offered N3,500 per annum. But I was looking for relevance in my chosen field not the money. Perhaps if I had joined Lever Brothers then may be I would have risen to the top. I was to work in a factory as an engineer but RCN was technology inclined. I didn’t regret that decision because shortly after joining RCN, we were sent for in-training in the United States. We went to Florida. It was my first trip abroad in late ’76. That experience defined my future in many ways. It exposed me to how people do things in other places. So, knowing what you want out of your professional life has a role to play in your career path. And that is why I didn’t face any challenge. I remember as a young engineer in those days, the only challenge is to prove yourself. With modesty, I have always worked hard as a human being right from the onset. Coincidentally, I did my youth service with the Nigerian Railway Corporation where my father worked and retired. It was a good experience and they even offered me a job but I declined and pitched myself with the private sector. I remember when I came back from United States I was posted to a depot workshop at Ogba, Lagos, as a supervisor. If there was a break down of equipment, some of us would not leave the workshop until we found solution or fixed. It was that challenge of proving yourself and committing to what you believed in that kept us going.

Blazing a trail

Like I said earlier, RCN was an eye opener and in a way, it re-defined my career destiny. I spent four years in this company and left to join an electrical company which I considered a stop gap. I only spent six months with the company because prior to that time, I had attended interview with General Electric Company (GCE), a company that deals with telecoms equipment, design, supply and installation in Nigeria and they (the management) had indicated that they were going to give me a job. GCE is a subsidiary of GCE Group of United Kingdom. But it took them almost eight months to make up their mind. I got the job eventually and became the first Nigerian engineer to be appointed. Before that time, all the engineers were expatriates with some Nigerian technicians. I was with GCE in 1981 and became the managing director in 1989. I was the managing director of this company for 11 years when I quit to contribute my quota to development of telecoms in Nigeria by joining the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) in 2000.

Most rewarding years

When you are at the helms of affairs in both public and private sector, you have higher responsibilities. But in my own view, they both have various appeals. It was a rewarding experience for me at both levels. I moved fast, becoming the managing director of General Electric Company (GEC) at the age 40. I enjoyed the progress that was made in the company until I left for NCC in 2001. I was active in the industry and became the president of Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria. During that time, I was advocating for the liberalization of the sector and little did I know that I would be called upon to lead the process. Saying the obvious, my most rewarding years had been in government and the NCC. What I tell my students at Pan African University where I teach part-time now is that as a public servant you have a bigger responsibilities on your shoulders because your actions affect so many people depending on the decision you hold. If you do it right, the whole nation become beneficiaries of the action and if you do it otherwise, it is verse versa. When I compare responsibility as an individual in a private sector and the public sector I think public sector is higher.

On the GSM revolution

I have done well for myself in my career before I moved to the public sector. But my greatest achievement was when we organised the first auction for GSM licenses in 2001 and it became an instant hit: the democratization of telecommunication service where the rich, the poor and not so rich are able to use telecoms services. When Nigeria moved from the bottom of the pyramid to a leading nation in the telecoms field in Africa is a rewarding feeling for me. Of all the sectors of our economy, the one that has experienced this kind of transformation is telecoms industry where I played a part in making it happen. I thank God for the time I spent at the NCC. It was a privilege to be part of it and also to see it nurtured from almost ground zero to the height to where it is today.

My wife…an epitome of beauty

When you are a nice looking young man, it is difficult for you not to be noticed. For me, though I looked attractive I have always been a very focused and determined young man whose only priority is to succeed. That kept me on my toes even in the face of temptations from the opposite sex. But I met my wife, Ndale, whom I met at a wedding at The Church of Assumption, Falomo, Lagos, in 1982. Of course, she came with another lady that I knew closely. I had never met her before and when I sighted her, I was curious to know who this damsel was. I intensified more effort in my thinking, walked up to her and introduced myself. She was a student in the United Kingdom and came on vacation. My wife is an epitome of beauty, very humble and nice. It didn’t take me much time to see all those traits in her. That was how a relationship kicked off and we got married in 1983. It has been a wonderful marriage and I have no regret.

Still raring to go

I wouldn’t say all my life aspirations have been fulfilled because there are many things one would like to do. For instance, I teach at the Lagos Business School because it has always been my passion to impart knowledge. I have always been interested in the hospitality industry since I was a child and I am still nursing that passion. I am also passionate about humanity and currently playing my role in that area. In terms of what I do now, I run a consulting outfit called Open Media Communications Limited. It is a multi-faceted consultancy firm, a telecoms company that serves as an intermediary. We also help in the area of technical solutions in telecoms services. We serve as company’s representative locally and also involved with a few other companies who are in the electrical engineering area.

Thrilled by accomplishments

Looking at my journey through life in the past 64 years, God has been good. As I child, I got an in-born talent to become an engineer and I pursued it with determination. I did not only become an engineer, God directed my career path to the top. By age 40, I had seen it all, becoming the managing director of a multinational company (GCE) in Nigeria. Moving to the pubic sector was like an icing on the cake because I was among the visioners that re-defined the telecoms industry in Nigeria. This makes me happy and fulfilled because I know I will always have a date with history when the story of GSM is written some day.

Copyright © 2012 This Day. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).


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