Isaac Okorafor, CBN's Director, Corporate Communications

By ADEBAYO OBAJEMU

Exactly 15 years to the day he left his job as the top editor of Business Day newspapers to join the marbled offices of the CBN, Isaac Okoroafor, top-rated journalist and celebrated corporate communications czar, took a bow from his coveted job and headed into the sunshine. Okoroafor is a man of immense energy, sound intellect and a communicator whose enthusiasm for work can be really infectious.

The CBN has always had a tradition of great image makers, some of who grew to become industry legends. Many still recall with nostalgia, the era of the iconic Chief Tony Ede whose outstanding performance on the job has become the golden benchmark for service excellence. In recent times, Ugo Okoroafor, erstwhile Punch top-line editor held the forth. Isaac followed in the heroic footsteps of those masters of the craft.

It is obvious that in the current administration, the apex bank has not only overseen monetary policies but at great length has had much input at the fiscal level, thus impinging heavily on macro-level of the country’s economy.

Communicating to the general public and the corporate world this complex duty of the bank has been Okoroafor’s job and it has not been an easy ride given the parlous nature of the economy; and widespread criticism of the bank as a lackey of the executive without any shred of Independence. His skills have made the job easier for him.

He did not just come into the position of explainer of apex bank’s policies and activities without preparation, his success is due much to his education, training and foregrounding in financial journalism where he well acquitted himself as one of the avatars. He has now become a respected addition in the pantheon of deities of financial journalism.

Ambrose Omordion, Chief research officer at Investa says of Okoroafor: “I have been watching him for a long while, and from what I have seen, Okoroafor is one of the finest spokespersons the apex bank has ever had.”

Yusuf Amusa, CEO at Statistica provides another insight, saying, “Okoroafor’s retirement is a big loss to the apex bank, one wonders how the bank will find a replacement for his big shoes.”

Ayodele Aminu, managing director New Telegraph said “Okoroafor is a former colleague, one of the finest in the business. He was a classmate of Professor Soludo at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. During the turbulent period of Soludo, especially when the issue of Africa Finance Corporation came up and its funding was mired in controversy it was Okoroafor that doused the tensions. If not for him, Soludo might not have completed his tenure. It was largely because of his performance that Emefiele retained him. We will miss him, the governor will miss him and also the bank.”

In his view, Ray Echebiri, Chief Executive Officer of Centre for Financial Journalism places Okoroafor in the first rank of financial communicator, saying he is a “consummate journalist, communicator and economist.”

Continuing, he adds that “his appointment as Director, Corporate Communications, Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), was akin to placing a round peg in a round hole, everything rhymed. It was, therefore, not any surprise that he communicated the policies, programmes and projects of the CBN effectively to, and with, all the stakeholders of the apex bank. He was very passionate about his work, and his duty application was fulsome. He worked as though his whole life depended on the work. He surely made a world of difference in the communication efforts of the CBN.

Dr Olufemi Omoyele, of the department of Management, Redeemers University, says “Okoroafor is a sound communicator, while I have not personally met him, my friends in the media attest to his humility and I always read his responses to enquiries in the media. He is a fine man, I wish him well in his future endeavours.”

In recognition of his sterling quality and contribution, the Abuja Branch of the University of Nigeria Nsukka Alumni Association (UNAA) gave him an award given his being a worthy ambassador of the UNN, having positively impacted the institution and members of the association.

Under Emefiele, the apex bank has been operating in an unusual political and economic environment. The economy has struggled to recover after the 2014 oil price shock, implying that effective policy measures needed to be activated, including the injection of further stimulus packages to support the real sector.

Omoyele says the economy has lost over 70% of its revenue, so fiscal and monetary authorities must look for intervention funds between $50 billion to $70 billion in the next three years.

For the apex bank’s spokesperson, the job of communicating the bank’s efforts to put monetary policy on sound footing was not going to be easy, given a volley of criticism.

Emefiele is the first governor to get a second term office since the West African nation’s return to a democratic rule.   However, “he will be more remembered as the CBN governor that surrendered much of the bank’s independence and ran a monetary policy that had record negative impact on the Nigerian economy,” Tunde Ajileye, Partner, SBM Intelligence said in an interview with The Africa Report.

“Emefiele’s tenure has seen the erosion of the independence of the central bank. The bank is funding the Nigerian budget to a degree that not only violates the Fiscal Responsibility Act but also potentially impairs its balance sheet as an audio leaked to the press showed. Monetary policy under him has been a mix of conflicting signals and has left many stakeholders extremely befuddled many times,” says Ajileye.

For Emefiele and Okorafor, the challenges were difficult, and even more for the latter, since he was the public face of the bank.

Many analysts have railed against the unorthodox, as well as an interventionist model that moves away from just ensuring price stability, and see the bank’s chief as a largely answering only to one master.

“Over the years, our experience here in Nigeria is that CBN governors have sometimes taken positions that rankled the government. But we haven’t experienced such under him. This has led to some labelling the CBN under him as the government’s piggy bank,” says Bongo Adi, Professor of Economics at Pan Atlantic University in Lagos.

According to Adi “the pro-socialist bent of Aso Rock appears to be backed by his monetary policy, which has been referred to as unconventional while they have to find reasons in the enabling CBN Act to justify each call they make. Some economists contend that the policies under him constrain the market and undermine competitiveness which further damages the economy – the same criticism against the government of the day.”

Recall that when Emefiele was reappointed as the central bank’s governor for the second term in May 2019, he rolled out a five-year plan that targets double-digit growth in Africa’s largest economies. His manifesto includes domestic macroeconomic and financial stability; fostering the development of a robust financial payment system infrastructure; continuing work with Deposit Money Banks (DMBs) towards improving access to credit for smallholder farmers, MSMEs as well as consumer credit and mortgage facilities; extending intervention support to the creative industry, as well as interventions that encourage deposit money banks to direct more focus on supporting the educational sector; growth in external reserves, and support for the agriculture and manufacturing sectors.

It was due to Okoroafor’s communication skills, despite the cynicism of some pundits and others that the programmes, especially agricultural intervention funds were duly communicated that accounted for the great success in the area of agriculture following border closures. Okorafor had gone down in history as one of the most accessible CBN’s spokespersons.

It is easy to criticize Emefiele, though, says Adi. “The fact, however, is that the Nigerian situation is a challenging one.  The market isn’t always to be trusted to work; the government needs to ‘improve the market outcome.’

But the experience is that the government can complicate the situation. Perhaps, sandwiched between the devil and the deep blue sea may not be a choice to be made, after all. It might be the only way in Nigeria’s context. We have highlighted the macroeconomic misalignment over the years which he appears to have sustained.  I think this disjoint show that he is torn between the arbitrary.”

During his two terms of office, Emefiele has made a staunch effort to promote monetary policy and exchange rate stability, says Murega Mungai, trading desk manager at AZA, from Nairobi, Kenya. AZA is Africa’s biggest non-bank currency broker, transacting more than $1bn annually.

“We saw this very early on with the introduction of the investors and exporters window, which allowed investors to access foreign exchange at prevailing market rates. His policies have also focused on improving access to credit for MSMEs, intervention in the agricultural sector, and other ways to diversify the economy and cushion it against a crash in oil prices. As the banks’ regulator, he drove an increase in capital adequacy ratios from 11% to 16% last year and a 20% increase in liquidity,” he adds.

However, Emefiele has come in for criticism for not communicating with the market, most notably after devaluing the naira’s official rate recently. For Okorafor nothing must be slipshod, a soldier of the god of financial reporting has to be pure, prepared and intellectually invincible, we see all this wrapped up in Okoroafor.

At a recent ceremony in his honour by the University of Nigeria, Nsukka alumni association, Abuja branch, he gives insights into his world, saying he looks at his time at the bank from National Service.

“National Service comes above every other thing, after the worshipping of God.  National Service takes precedence above every other thing.  It has been more than 15 years.”

“I came in from the private sector.  I told my people before I left Businessday Newspaper that I was going for national service. Our country needs to be served. Whether we like it or not; whether we are happy in it or not; we must do whatever we can for the people of Nigeria, especially the ordinary people, who do not have the opportunities that some of us have.  We must continue to work for the betterment of their lives.

“I am very happy, I am very fulfilled that I am coming to the end of my public service.  But national service continues.  I will continue to do that because until all of us come out to serve this country, this country will not make progress.

“For me, my sleeping pattern will now change.  For 15 years, I have been waking up at 3. 00 am to look at what some of you (media) write and to prepare for it the next day.  My phones don’t go off.  Even when I am sleeping! That is the spirit and I am happy I will have some time to rest now.

“Running the corporate communication is like being in the battlefront.  Every day, you are on duty.  There is no weekend, no vacation, no public holiday.  Even when I travel outside the country, my phones will be ringing and I had to operate from there.

“It means a whole lot.  It denies you your private life, your community life and all that.  At a time my town union granted me leave and told me I should come whenever I wished to come because they understood what I was going through.”

“Corporate communication is a very tough battle and you must be strong physically, you must be strong and alive mentally, you must be somebody who must move-on-the-go and keep pace with the media, especially the social media.

“In the media, you see all sorts and you have to know that.  You will see people who do not see anything good in what you are doing. There are also contending interests.  They are always there.  It is your job to manage them and see how to make everybody happy.

“You may not succeed all the time in making everybody happy but you strive to make most of the people to understand your point of view so that they can buy into your initiative.

Okorafor is a graduate of Economics from the prestigious University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He was born on October 1, 1960, in Ihechiowa in Arochukwu LGA Abia State. He attended St. John’s Primary School, Ihechiowa and Wilcox Comprehensive Secondary School, Aba.

He started his journalism career as a reporter at the New Agenda Newspaper in 1990. In 1991, he joined the Concord Press Limited as a reporter and research assistant to the Editorial Board, rising through the ranks as Senior Correspondent, Assistant News Editor, and Deputy Editor/ Member Editorial Board by 1995.

He was seconded to edit Business Concord in 1997 under a special business arrangement between Marketing Information Services Limited and Concord Press. He had a short stint as Associate Editor in the Examiner Newspaper and later joined Africa Capital Alliance and as an analyst in 1999. In 2001, he became the editor of BusinessDay Newspaper, Nigeria’s first business daily.

After attaining the peak of his career as a journalist, Isaac, in 2004, joined the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) as a Media Consultant, hired by the British Department for International Development (DFID) to assist the CBN, where he drafted and implemented the Communication strategy that was key in the apex Bank’s successful completion of the 2004/2005 banking sector consolidation programme.

Thereafter, he joined the CBN as a full-time staff in 2005, as Special Assistant to the CBN Governor on Media and Public Relations. He rose since 2018 to the peak of his central banking career as the Director of Corporate Communications and Spokesman of the CBN.

Isaac has attended numerous courses at some of the world’s reputable universities and training institutions such as University of New Hampshire, City university New York, Management School London, the UK Royal Institute for Public Administration, Lagos Business School, among many others, in Strategic Public Relations Management.