‘I Lived In Nigeria And Resumed Work In America’
Solomon Oluwafemi Omowunmi, General Secretary of The Gospel Faith Mission International (GOFAMINT), Km. 40 Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Aseese who disengaged from the service of the United States (U.S) Embassy in Lagos as Information Specialist in September last year, spoke to DEBO OLADIMEJI on his odyssey
What is your background?
I am from Ijeda-Ilesa, Osun State. I was born in 1956 at Koton-Karfi, Kogi State where my father the late Samuel Omowunmi Fanumi was based, doing Osomaalo business. The business failed and he returned home to Ijeda with my mother, Idowu Omowunmi Fanumi in 1979. My mother is still alive.
Which school did you attend?
I started school at St. Pius Primary School, Koton-Karfi in 1963 and proceeded to St. Augustine’s College, Kabba, Kogi State in 1970. After working for two years as a clerical officer at the Federal Ministry of Transport, Marina, Lagos from 1974, I went to Ife University Teaching Hospital Complex, now Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital, Ile-Ife, to study Nursing from 1976 to 1979. I worked as a staff nurse at the General Hospital, Ilesa and the Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Yaba from 1980 to 1982. I wrote the GCE Advanced Level while working as a nurse at the General Hospital in 1980 and gained direct entry into the University of Lagos (UNILAG) to study Political Science in September 1981. I graduated from UNILAG with Second Class Upper in June 1984 and did my National Youth Service (NYSC) at the Ministry of Local Government and Community Development in Abeokuta, Ogun State from 1984 to 1985. I went back to UNILAG for the Masters degree in Political Science in 1986.
When did you start your working career?
I joined The Guardian as a Foreign Affairs Reporter in 1986 and rose to become the Head of Foreign Affairs Desk of the newspaper in 1989 till March 1991 when I left to take up an appointment at the United States Information Service (USIS), which is now the Public Affairs Section (PAS) of the U.S. Embassy.
I applied for the position of Information Specialist published in one of the dailies. I didn’t know it was the U.S. Information Service because they used the Post Office Box. Months after, a call came through to my office at The Guardian when I was not around and somebody took the message that I should come to the U.S.I.S. That didn’t sound strange to me because I had been invited like that several times for news coverage. When I got there the following day I was asked to and see the Director for a job interview. I was confused because I was not sure that I ever applied for a job there. When I got in I met the Director, Mr. Bob LaGamma and the Information Officer Ms. BettyAnn Felthousen.
They said they had seen my application and had shortlisted me for interview. Sensing my confusion, they brought out my application and it was then I realized that it was my response to the newspaper advert months before. They asked me some questions and we discussed the salary and I started one month after because I needed to give one month resignation notice.
How many years did you serve at the Embassy?
I joined in March 1991 and left in September 2014, making 23 and half years exactly.
What were your experiences?
I had very nice experiences. Working at the American Embassy gave me a lot of exposures. I had the opportunities to travel to America on several occasions, and I had trainings in Public Diplomacy on some of those occasions. The trips enabled me to see all parts of America – the East Coast, the West Coast, North, Middle and Southern parts of America. I also had opportunities to stay some days with Americans in their homes.
What made it difficult for you when you started and how did you get over it?
You see, coming from the ever-bubbling newsroom into a kind of quiet civil service setting was not easy. I missed going out on the beat to get things as they were happening. Moreover, I tried to keep up my interest in journalism at least by writing some personal opinions. After the second published opinion, my boss advised me to be very careful because it could get to a point when my personal opinion might be mistaken for the U.S. position. He didn’t tell me to stop but he told me about the problem that could arise. So I stopped.
Again, it took time to adapt to the two lifestyles entailed working at the Embassy. It was like one was living in Nigeria and working in America everyday. I adapted and I feel fulfilled working there for 23 years and some months. You have your job description and you must be up to the task. As Information Specialist, I had the responsibility of advising the key officers on the media climate in Nigeria as well giving reports on major issues as they unfolded. They relied on these reports for their work and you know what that means. It means you must know your subject areas very well and must be accurate at all times.
How did you end your career at the US Embassy?
I ended rather abruptly because I was planning to stay through to my retirement age. But in December 2013, there was this divine call on me to come and take up a full time ministry in my church, The Gospel Faith Mission International (GOFAMINT) as the General Secretary. Initially I brushed it aside because it was miles different from my plans and I knew the remuneration was going to be nothing close to my earnings at the U.S. Embassy. But the pressure of the call became so heavy that I started praying and giving it consideration. I finally gave in around July 2014 and finally left the U.S Government service at the end of September to enter into the office of the General Secretary of GOFAMINT on October 6.
Did you influence US policy on Nigeria in any way?
That I cannot say categorically. But everything done by the workers contribute one way or the other towards U.S. foreign policy on Nigeria.
How did journalists benefit from you while you were in service?
I worked closely with journalists. In fact, my office was the first point of contact between journalists and the American mission in Nigeria. I attended to journalists’ enquiries on all matters. Those I could handle, I did and those I couldn’t handle by myself such as explain U.S. government position on issues, I passed on to the appropriate officers to deal with. In short, everything that had to do with journalists and press matters came through the information office manned by a colleague, Mrs. Joke Omotunde and myself. One thing I should not fail to mention here is that many Nigerians think the American system works exactly like we have it in Nigeria. For instance, they expect that as a worker in the Embassy, I should be able to help relations and friends to get some assistance, like jobs or visas from the Embassy.
Take the visa issue for instance. The system allows me as somebody working with the press to be able to do a referral to be signed by my boss for press people only, and not for my friends and relations. It allows me to make recommendations for press people because I am employed to work with them and not for my relations. That is very difficult for Nigerians to understand. But that is the system.
What is your most memorable moment working at the Embassy?
Being part of the team that worked for successful visits of one Vice President and two Presidents of the U.S. to Nigeria. I particularly cherish the work we did when President Bill Clinton visited Nigeria. You know, it was the first Presidential visit after very many years and it came shortly after the inauguration of the civilian regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo. It was a lot of excitement and many hours of work every day for three weeks in Abuja before the visit. All the Nigerian officials too were very expectant of the visit so had all the cooperation and we got everything we demanded or needed for the visit.
Are you married?
Yes. I got married to Oluwakemisola in 1992. She took to private business after her graduation. She started as a poultry farmer and she is now into bakery.
How did you meet?
We met in the church. She came from Ibadan and had to stay over the weekend to complete the assignment she came for in Lagos. She didn’t want to miss church service on Sunday so she decided to attend any Pentecostal Church around. The one she found was my church, The Gospel Faith Mission International (GOFAMINT) and that was where I spotted her.
How many children do you have?
We have three children, two boys and a girl. The first boy is a graduate of English Language of Covenant University; the girl is in her final year reading Mass Communication at the same university, while the second boy is still in SS 2.
Why didn’t you send them to the US?
These are people who finished secondary school at 16. I think it is too early in life to throw them far away from my care. If they choose to study in America after their NYSC, they have my full support because they would have reached the age of maturity at that point.
What are your future plans?
I hope to continue working full time in the vineyard of God till the retirement age of 70. After that, I will still wish to continue with the kingdom work on part time basis as much as my strength allows and according to the measure of grace of God upon me.
I had two or three bad experiences but speaking generally. I really don’t want to talk about them again.
How do you think that we can improve the relationship between US and Nigeria?
That is politics. You know, I am now a full time pastor. Anyway, I think the two countries have good relationship. The only thing I will add is that there should be higher level of trust in dealing with each other. I see some measure of suspicion in the relationship which I think should be ironed out or improved upon.