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Priscilia Eleje: Salute to the First Lady of currency

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Director of Currency and Operations, Mrs Priscilla Ekwueme Eleje

In this interesting profile, Guardian Woman celebrates Mrs Priscilla Ekwueme Eleje, the first woman to append her
signature on Nigeria’s banknotes, as she is appointed the Director of Currency and Operations of the Central Bank of Nigeria

It may have taken quite a while, but it did happen eventually- a woman now signs Nigeria’s banknotes, the Naira.

By so doing or more correctly, by becoming the Director of Currency and Operations, Mrs Priscilla Ekwueme Eleje, becomes the first woman in the 59-year history of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), and indeed the history of black Africa, to sign the currency of any denomination.

Eleje joins very few other women in the world including Scottish Debbie Crosbie, the Clydesdale Bank’s Chief Operating Officer who signs the £20 notes and Victoria Cleland, who signs other notes from the Bank of England.

English notes actually had their first female signature in 1999, when they were signed by chief cashier, Merlyn Lowther, who held the role until 2003.

Therefore, as far as banknotes are concerned, very few women have signed any of the denominations. At best, there have been different women images on the currency notes of a number of countries. Not even in God’s own country, America, reputed as the land of freedom, and of equal rights have we had this.

Indeed, it is only in about 13 or so out of the 195 countries in the world today do we have this phenomenon. Most recently, the United States (U.S.) Treasury Department announced that it will put the image of a woman on the new $10 bill by 2020, without disclosing her identity, except to hint that, “it will be a woman who played a major role in U.S. history and was a champion of democracy.”

Before now, Martha Washington was the first woman to appear on a U.S. currency in 1886, and featured on the $1 silver certificate.

It has been said that, “If featuring women on currency were a contest, the Bank of England would win, with every note since 1960 depicting Queen Elizabeth II on the front. Past bills featured nurse and statistician, Florence Nightingale on the back, current £5 notes show 19th-century social reformer, Elizabeth Fry, and the next £10 bill will celebrate famed 19th-century author, Jane Austen.”

Similarly, beyond the U.S. and Britain, countries like Syria, Turkey, Mexico, Argentina, New Zealand, Israel, Sweden, Australia, South Korea, Ukraine, and even Nigeria, have images of notable women from all walks of life on the front of some of their various currency notes.

However, in the case of Nigeria, images of unidentified women appear on the back of the notes like the ₦10 note, with the front featuring Dr. Alvan Ikoku (1900-1971), and the back, some unidentified Fulani milk maids.

This was graduated to another unidentified female potter at the back of the N20 bill, with late General Murtala Mohammed (1938-1976) in the front. Finally, a woman’s image appears in the front of the N50 note, which featured images of men from the three major ethnic groups – Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba, and the woman hidden behind.

Thus, up until now, women have literally occupied a “back position” in most global currency or banknotes.

But what’s the big deal, some would ask?

Activists, who are seriously pushing for more women on global banknotes, believe it’s a big deal. Afterall, “banknotes have a physical presence in our lives; they populate our wallets, and form a part of our interactions with others,” they argued.

And, why not? A banknote or a bill, or paper money, according to financial experts, “is a type of negotiable promissory note, made by a bank, payable to the bearer on demand,” and women form a significant portion of these monetary transactions.

It is not like Eleje is the first woman to be appointed into an executive or board position of central banks around the world, and the CBN in particular or any other institution, as before her were the likes of Mrs Sarah Alade, a former Deputy Governor, who had acted for three months as the CBN Governor, and even more recently Mrs Aishah Ahmad, who replaced Alade in October 2017, upon the latter’s retirement.

What makes this new currency signee different is not only in the fact that she has joined the league of female firsts in Nigeria, but also the fact that she has set a continental (African) record. Women like Queen Amina of Zaria; Queen Moremi of Ife, Mrs Winnie Mandela of South Africa, easily come to mind in the area of politics.

More recently are the likes of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s first female Minister of Finance, who was also a former World Bank Managing Director, and even Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke, her counterpart in the Petroleum Ministry.

Since Okonjo-Iweala, the Finance Ministry has been headed by a woman, including Mrs Kemi Adeosun, and currently Mrs Zainab Ahmed.

Worldwide, many a women had set records in different fields of endeavour – politics like late Mrs Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain; Indira Ghandi of India and even in fundamentalist Islamic states like Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, all of whom had done their bit in leaving strong footprints in the sands of time.

Little wonder then that they say, train a woman and you’ve trained a nation.

Although God called her woman, which some sceptics interpret as “woo unto man”, but God clearly defined the woman as a helper.

A whole lot of successes and breakthroughs have been achieved in the world whenever men recognised women as such, and accorded them their due place in the society.

Israel was freed from annihilation, when Esther, the beautiful Jewish wife of the Persian king Ahasuerus (Xerxes I), and her cousin Mordecai, persuaded the king to retract an order for the general annihilation of Jews throughout the empire by casting lots (purim).

Indeed, Moses’ leadership and patriotism may never have come to light if his mother hadn’t been smart enough to have put him in a basket into the river for Pharaoh’s daughter to see. The worst could have happened if it was an Egyptian son that had discovered him first! Again, Mrs Christine Lagarde has been making waves in global monetary issues as IMF Managing Director, since her appointment in May 2011.

It is no wonder then that the current CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, is desirous of having more women in the monetary system. But who is the new money woman? Eleje is married with children, and enjoys counselling, mentoring, and brisk walking at her leisure.

At the time she joined the CBN, she probably had no idea she would one day break a jinx. How could she? She was a graduate who just wanted a good job like any other person She has a Bachelor’s degree in General and Applied Psychology (1981), and a Masters in Organisational Psychology (1984), both from the University of Jos, Nigeria, and joined the services of the CBN same year.

The relatively unknown lady continued to do her thing the best way she knew how, with little idea that something was distinct about her work ethic, which got her bosses’ attention and began to groom her for higher responsibilities.

Still unknown to her, she couldn’t have imagined where all that would end; she becomes the first woman to sign the Naira, that’s where!

Where did she come from? The official profile exclusively obtained by The Guardian from CBN is quiet about Eleje’s past, except to indicate that she rose through the ranks to become a Director in 2018.

Thus, her career trajectory has seen her work in Administration Department (1984-1985), Foreign Exchange Department (1985-1988), Banking Operations Department (1988-2000), and Currency Operations Department (2001 to date). She attained the executive cadre in January 2006, following her promotion as Assistant Director and later became a Deputy Director in August 2010.

In May 2017, upon the retirement of the then Director, she was appointed as Coordinator, Currency Operations Department; a position she held until her confirmation as substantive Director in August 2018.

Eleje has appeared once in the public since her appointment, to talk about how the CBN intends to get rid of dirty/unfit notes from circulation since banks have refused to do it and save Nigerians from the daily embarrassment of carrying such notes.

Her brief appearance on a national television, Channels TV, simply showed she is a woman who means business!

Judging from her pronouncement, she appears ready to take on the gauntlet as far as currency operations are concerned.
She has already been well-groomed and trained for it, and had attended various local and international leadership and currency management courses/seminars/conferences.

Notable amongst them are leadership for the 21st Century at the Harvard Kennedy School, International Commercial Cash Operations Seminars (ICCOS) in the United States of America (USA), Ghana, and China; Cash Cycle Partnership in the United Kingdom; Bitcoin, Crypto-currency and Data Security in the United Arab Emirates (UAE); Money Laundering and other Financial Crimes at Lagos; and Managing People for Higher Results in Kaduna. She has also served on a number of technical committees and implemented several currency management initiatives to create value and improvement opportunities for the Bank.

In addition to these, she is an alumna of the prestigious Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship programme in Banking and Management at the Boston University, Massachusetts, USA. She is equally a Certified Information System Auditor (CISA).

Given the nature of the Nigerian monetary society, one thing is certain though, Eleje sure has a daunting task ahead of her in currency operations, not just because she is challenged to represent the womenfolk very well for being the first, she is equally meant to show that whatever a man can do, a woman can also, and sometimes even do better.

This is not to say that some women have not abused the trust reposed in them when they are found in positions of authority, but the few who have let the womenfolk down cannot discountenance the strides that several other women in high offices have achieved.

Looking at Eleje with her enviable credentials and antecedents, she promises to be a trailblazer and role model for several young women to emulate.

Although The Guardian has no other way of confirming Eleje’s suitability for the job other than that she rose through the ranks and had been well-trained for it. But if the conservativeness of Emefiele, who already described himself as an introvert is anything to go by, he may not be willing to sacrifice competence on the altar of mediocrity, considering the appointment has no political affiliation.

Besides, the Beijing Affirmative Action seeks at least 35 per cent slot for women in every sphere of life, but not even America, the most admired democracy has been able to achieve that quota. And even less so our dear country Nigeria, where there are even now fewer women representatives than have been in previous administrations. But half bread, they say, is better than nothing.

We, therefore, salute the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele for his bravery, and equally salute Eleje for making it possible for the fiscal policy management to confirm her appointment as the substantive Director of Currency and Operations.

The National Council of Women Societies (NCWS) Nigeria, has equally congratulated Eleje, on her appointment. Its President, Mrs Gloria Shoda, affirmed that her confirmation would go a long way towards encouraging other career women to be dedicated to their work, knowing that their dedication and hard work would someday offer an opportunity for them to occupy the best position in their chosen careers.


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