Chinelo Anohu-Amazu: The woman with passion for pensions
I’m sitting in the receiving room of the PenCom building admiring the black and white charcoal sketches of past and present leaders in the Nigerian Pension Industry. The framed portraits line the white walls like a litany of commitment to progress. Chinelo Anohu-Amazu, current Director General of PenCom, is the last person in the lineup. The artist has drawn her eyes in such a way that they seem to peer at you with determined confidence. It seems like an accurate portrayal of a woman with her list of accomplishments at such a young age. In December 2012 she took on the role of Acting Director General of PenCom and was officially confirmed in the appointment of Director General in October 2014, becoming the first female Director General of PenCom. But prior to that, in 2003 Anohu-Amazu was part of the Pension Reform leadership team set up by Former president Olusegun Obasanjo and led by Fola Adeola. The committee was responsible for instituting the Contributory Pension scheme in Nigeria and bringing about the Pension Reform Act of 2004. Most recently Mrs. Anohu- Amazu was appointed a pioneer member of the London stock exchange Africa Advisory group. She has become a global thought leader in the global pensions community, and a regular speaker at global fora on the core issues affecting trends and developments in the global pensions industry.
I break my gaze from her portrait at the sound of the door opening and turn to find the woman herself standing in the doorway of the waiting room, glowing in a sun toned yellow blouse and smiling with a matching radiance. Chinelo Anohu-Amazu lights up the room when she walks in. She greets me warmly and laughingly shares about her schedule, which to me sounds overwhelming. But her spirit is infectious and as we walk across the hall to her office, I almost feel like we’ve known one another for a while. Given the energy she exudes it is hard to believe she’s managed to get away this long without an extensive personal interview. When I asked her how that was possible she confessed that she doesn’t like publicity. She would rather keep her life private and stay focused on her work. Something she’s be doing quite well for many years. With an LL.B in law from the University of Nigeria at Enugu, she is a member of the Nigerian bar. She holds a Master’s degree in Telecommunication and Information Technology Law from the London School of Economics, and is a member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, London. Before returning to Nigeria
“I kept diaries as a child and never wanted anyone to read them.” We are seated now at her office desk across from one another. I notice the little things, the clean stack of papers waiting for her attention, the clear vase of fresh white roses at one corner of her desk, a small jar of butter scotch sweets at the other. When she responds she lowers her gaze to the gleaming table for just a minute and laughs shyly. “Interviews can feel like someone is asking to read my diary. People have asked to interview me several times but I’m exceedingly private.” But she knows that the work she does driving the Nigerian Pension sector forward to the masses requires her to let go of some of that privacy she craves. She looks straight at me, her brown eyes alit, a sudden firmness to her voice. “It’s extremely important to build awareness about pensions and to get people interested in saving from an early age. So if interviewing me will help that cause then I’m all for it.” I have the sense that if I don’t drive the interview Mrs. Anohu-Amazu will dive into all the reasons it’s essential for people to learn about the pension industry. So I carefully steer the conversation to learning more about the woman behind the public persona. Who, I want to know, is Chinelo Anohu-Amazu?
“Oh dear.” She says, pausing to think before answering. “Well, I’m my mother’s daughter. Which means I’m focused, ambitious and driven. But it also means I’m really good at being a homemaker. My mother excelled, excels, both in the home and outside of it. She bakes, cooks and everything. Till today she still makes my father’s food and she loves to do it. I was raised in an environment where it was not a big deal to take care of your own home. As a child I would be hiding reading a book and my father would seek me out and tell me, ‘you must learn how to cook, wash clothes and keep house because you have not shown me any indication that you can afford house help.’” She reminisces about coming back form school with her siblings and the first thing they would ask the driver was, ‘Is Daddy home?’ because they wanted to give the washer man their school clothes to wash. “My parents made sure that I could both keep house and take my studies seriously. My father is a scientist and I am precise like him. My mother has a PhD in English, raised six children and has had a thriving career as an educator and a banker. She is my biggest role model. She trained me to be a woman first before anything else, which happens to mean that I am trained not to miss anything!” She breaks into a full-bodied laugh. “I pay keen attention to detail and I take that into my job. When I wake up, I have a clear sense of what I want to achieve and if anyone tries to tell me I can’t do it, well then the challenge is on. I spend the rest of my time mapping out the steps I’ll take to meet my goals.
One of those ongoing goals is to continually drive the pension industry to find innovative and sustainable ways to help Nigerians financially prepare for their retirement years, while investing in the growth of the national economy. “I love my work because it makes a difference and I happen to believe that you can’t excel unless you are passionate about something. I am passionate about helping Nigeria to exceed its own expectations and creating a country that we are all more than proud to call home. There is so much more work to do in bridging the infrastructure gaps that could lead us as a country to even greater heights. The great thing about Pencom is one of continuity, we have been supported strongly by four Presidents, we regulate but do not hold any money, in fact nobody in the industry does or can access money, all the pension funds are in long term instruments and government treasury bills.”
Before returning to Nigeria in 2000, Anohu-Amazu had a thriving career in the private sector in London. But she came back because she wanted to be part of those who were committed to improving Nigeria. “My first role back in Nigeria was in the public sector, working for the Bureau of Public Enterprise. But it didn’t feel like the public sector. It was actually a roller coast of wearing different hats, which was a lot of fun. I had an incredible boss.
It was also a great mix of people. It didn’t matter where you came from, if you were Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa. I was used to that from my days at university. The beauty of the Federal Government colleges at that time was that you would have classmates from all over, from different cultures and ethnic groups all studying and growing together. That was the childhood I had. So it was a rude awakening to me that fast forward 20 years later and I come back to Nigeria and suddenly people are concerned with what geopolitical zone I was from. But at my job in BPE it wasn’t like that. We all got along really well. I learned so much from my work there. It was like I was attending many schools all rolled into one on that job! There was business school, grammar school, and debating school. We used to sit around the table with our boss, Nasiru El Rufai (now the executive governor of Kaduna State) and work together for however long it took to achieve our goals. It was a bit utopian. I didn’t realize that wasn’t the norm everywhere else. We were encouraged to be outspoken and to share our ideas looking for the best solutions to the problems that arose. There was a culture of honesty, sincerity of purpose and a committed work ethic. And because of the nature of our work we were exposed to a wide variety of people and institutions. In many ways it prepared me for my work here.” Before becoming Director General, Mrs. Anohu-Amazu worked as the first Commission Secretary/Legal Adviser of the newly set up National Pension Commission (now PenCom) and has been a part of the organization from its onset.
It is clear that Chinelo values honesty, integrity and hard work. I ask her what her mantra in life would be and without skipping a beat she says, “Do what you want to do. You must believe in yourself and also believe that excellence will lead to your success.” My parents raised me to be the best at whatever I wanted to do. So I’m raising my son the same way. I hope that he will have a strong character and that he will be kind. Everything else I know he will get but I am particularly interested that he is compassionate. I try as much as possible to conserve his individuality. I don’t try to make him conform. I tell him that even if what he wants is not popular he has to be true to himself. I want him to stand for something he believes in. Too many people these days don’t stand for anything at all. I want him to do what he likes to do but to learn how to be a smart worker.” She goes on to make what she considers an important distinction between working hard and working smart. “There are lots of people who work hard and don’t progress very far. The difference is figuring out what you want to do and finding out the shortest possible way to get to it. Think about how you are going to do something and do it right. Don’t work hard in the wrong direction.”
Mrs. Anohu-Amazu has been working hard in the right direction alongside many others to bring the Pension industry in Nigeria to new and commendable heights. She received a Presidential commendation for her work on the 2004 Pension Reform Act, and since taking on the DG position, she has steadily worked with operators who have grown the pension funds assets by more than 2 trillion Naira. She has helped bring the Nigerian pension industry to a global platform by initiating an ongoing partnership with the World Pension Summit (WPS) and hosting the annual WPS Africa Special conference here in Nigeria for the last 3 years. The summit provides a platform for African countries to share best practices within the industry, dialogue across relevant sectors and reflect on addressing key challenges to help drive the economic success and social development of the continent forward. She is now championing the roll out of a pilot micro-pensions scheme and driving initiatives with the IFC on infrastructure & is reaching out to the Nigerian tech community to engage operators to help to find innovative solutions to reach all Nigerians.
It is clear that Mrs. Anohu-Amazu is passionate about her work but I wanted to know what brings her joy. What are the moments that make her just happy to be alive?
“I get joy from the smallest and the most random things. I love to laugh. I love unexpected things, like last Sunday as I was walking into Mass and this little girl just made a mad dash from her parents and came and gave me the biggest hug around my legs. I was so surprised but I was thrilled. But I also get joy from reading. I get my love of books, art and drama from my mother. As a child I used to want to be in her company all the time and so I’d follow her to her library in the basement of the house. And if you wanted to be with her in that library you had to read a book. I start reading very early because of that. She gave me the complete works of Shakespeare, not the abridged version, and would tell me, ‘Read it. It’s English. Just a different kind of English.’” What Chinelo does not read is romance novels because, as she protests, “As soon as you open the book you know how it’s going to end. There’s no fun or work in that.” Like her penchant for life, she looks for a well-meaning plot in anything she commits her time to, whether it’s her books or her work.