It doesn’t matter where you come from…!

By Emeka Oparah

I have been planning to do this post ever since I got back from Lebanon, but distractions won’t let me. This morning, I woke up to a well-crafted piece by my ABURO (younger brother), Akin Fadeyi on the same topic and I decided to agree with him by sharing this personal story.

In 2006, I was among a team of senior management staff from Celtel Nigeria who attended a Strategy Workshop in Sharm El-Sheik Resort, Egypt. I will talk about that magnificent resort at another time. Suffice it to say, it was an incredible experience staying in that breathtaking “island” sandwiched between Mount Sinai, Sahara Desert and the Red Sea.

It was even more breathtaking working with some of the most brilliant men and women from over 18 countries. We (Celtel) had just been acquired by the Bahrain-based Zain Group and we were asked to join in the group Strategy Workshop. One of the great HUMAN BEINGS I met on that trip was Antoine Aboukhalil, pictured here with me (below), who looked after (and still looks after) after Media Relations in the Corporate Communications Group-and he’s the reason for this story.

Emeka Oparah (left) and Antoine Aboukhalil

The Corporate Communications Workshop was broken into three groups namely, Public Relations, Internal Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). I noticed Antoine wouldn’t take his eyes off me, as I moved from one group to another. He came to me, after a while, and asked whether I was a staff or a consultant. I claimed I was both. He concurred because he felt I knew so much about the three verticals and shared great insights with so much ease. He told me he would arrange drinks for me and the Group Chief Corporate Communications officer, Ibrahim Adel. He did, and the rest, as they say, is now history.

I became one of the blue-eyed boys of Ibrahim Adel and by extension, the mercurial Dr. Sa’ad Al-Barak, the very powerful Group CEO. I literally became part of the Group Corporate Communications Group all the way from Lagos, Nigeria. I was always part of everything Communications in the Group Head office, and took part in every workshop, except when the powers that be in Nigeria blocked me (and they did quite a few times, including blocking me from moving to Bahrain as a Group Staff). During the workshops which heralded the re-branding of Celtel to Zain, I was highly favored in the preparations as a member of the inner caucus, based on the experience I brought and knowledge I shared on rebranding from Econet to Vodacom to Vmobile and to Celtel! I was even given an award for the insights I brought during the Media Training Workshops in Nairobi, Kenya.

Antoine sold me to the establishment, very very well. Everybody admired me. Well, not everybody. Some people, of course, were not comfortable with my sudden popularity. Never mind. I will never forget the 46664 Concert, sponsored by Zain, which was held in Hyde Park, London, to commemorate Dr. Nelson Mandela’s birthday. Compered by Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinketh, it showcased global music stars including Eddy Grant, Amy Winehouse (RIP) and Nigeria’s hottest star then, 9ce, whose Gongo Aso was Nigeria’s Second National Anthem, at the time.

In typical Zain style, the show was massive. Everything was like Texas, BIG. I even got chauffeured upon arriving Heathrow to my hotel in a BMW 7 Series. All my expenses were picked by Zain Group. I even had personal once-in-lifetime access to Dr. Mandela. I will never forgive Chris Adetayo for missing the shot when I was alone with the old man! Yes, Chris (Sponsorship s Manager) was there. So also was Ifeanyi Egbuawa 9Events Manager). Only Emmanuel Otokhine (Public Relations Manager) did not make it. I was Head of PR, Events and Sponsorships. Top dog! Look, i got back to my hotel room after the concert, the dancing and the booze, and did a full-page write-up, sent it to Thisday newspapers back in Nigeria, which got published two days after. I received accolades from Dr. Al-Barak for that article.

Why am I recalling all of these things? Antoine Aboukhalil, a Lebanese, who met me just once and took to me, facilitated all of it or most of it. He didn’t care where I came from. He didn’t need to investigate me. We didn’t attend Sam universities. He simply experienced and trusted my intellect and decided to risk everything else. Trust me, I did my best not to disappoint him. And it was all the Lord’s doing.

I know he was the one who got our overall boss, Ibrahim Adel, to make moves to move me to HQ-moves that were decidedly resisted and rebuffed by the then CEO, Mr. Bayo Ligali (May his soul Rest In Peace). I think Bayo was conflicted: on the one hand, he didn’t want to lose me to the Group but on the other hand he didn’t want to promote me. Well, promotions are in the hands of God and it came when it was to come. Sadly Bayo died too soon and didn’t witness my promotion. He probably can still see me-and he must be proud of Emekus-Emekus-as he used to fondly call me.

The last time I met Antoine was in 2009 when he attended the MAMAs (MTV Africa Music Awards) which I organized at the spanking new EXPO Centre of Eko Hotel. So, you can imagine my excitement, when it turned out I had to be in Lebanon for a week-long activity. Naturally, Antoine was the first person I told, and he promised there and then to fly in from Kuwait, where he’s now based to join me in Beirut. We had a great time, talking about the Zain days and all the nice and naughty things we did. We even spoke to my former MD/CEO, Alain Sainte Marie, a Lebanese too, who took over after Bayo left due to ill-health and eventually passed away. I was pained I couldn’t meet up with Alain, but it sure felt good the boss still exuded so much warmth and chumminess to a small boy like me.

I have heard people describe others as DETTRIBALIZED. I have never been TRIBALIZED. So, I’m UNTRIBALIZED. That’s the way I was brought up. When I meet people, their etymological background is hardly an issue. Perhaps, the only time I try to know where people are from is when I need information or there’s need to travel to the person’s hometown. Otherwise, what i focus on are the heart, the mind and the capabilities of people. Now, that’s not to say I will keep quiet when some people gang up to shaft Mbaise people, my people, of their right to appoint a bishop. I will fight for anybody whose rights have been unjustly trampled upon.

But Antoine will forever be my brother and my friend just like several of you reading this post, who have met me in person and know what I’m made of and what I can do and can’t. Thank you, Antoine for all you’ve done for me-and you’re going to do. I owe you more than one, Bro. And thank you all, my dear friends, for bringing out the juices in me.