Home Opinion The Sun shines sunnier on Sonny Echono

The Sun shines sunnier on Sonny Echono

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We had cultivated new relationships during our one-year service to fatherland as participants in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). Beyond encountering fellow alumni of our alma mater, we had made new friends from other institutions across the country, from other ethnicities in our multicultural fatherland. One year, 365 days which we considered eternity when we were inaugurated into the NYSC in August 1985, had suddenly, maybe magically rolled over. It was now time for goodbyes, for extended handshakes, for knuckle bumps and for long huggings. It was time for us to board public commuter automobiles ferrying us to our respective primary addresses as we were poised to face life’s unfathomable and intertwined prospects as young adults.

Undergoing the NYSC in Owerri, Imo State helped me to make new friends. Tony Olofu, who recently retired as an Assistant Inspector General of Police; and Armstrong Idachaba, who retired as acting Director-General of the National Broadcasting Commission, were in this bracket. Since we all are resident in Abuja, the nation’s capital, we find to meet, have a drink, reminisce on God’s grace and enjoy laughter. There was Dennis Eboreime, who ascended to commanding heights in the banking sector, and Dede Mabiaku, protege of Nigeria’s Afrobeat purveyor, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. We may not have been that close those days, but there were a few “youth corpers” as we are known in local parlance, but Owerri was a denominator. We would meet in life latterly, recall each other’s face, exclaim and our hands will be locked in almost inseparable handshakes.

Sonny Sylva Togo Echono, officially known as ‘ST Echono’, is one of such people. Oby Ezekwesili is another. We all were assembled for drills on the improvised parade ground at the Alvan Ikoku College of Education (AICE), Owerri on 27 August 1985, when Ibrahim Babangida, Chief of Army Staff at the time, upstaged Muhammadu Buhari, the military Head of State. Days before the Babangida palace shove-aside, Andrew Uwe, the formidable and popular central defender, had led Nigeria’s Under-21 men’s football team to the Soviet Union for the FIFA World Youth Championship, which began on 24 August 1985. Allison Madueke, then a Navy Captain, was military Governor of Imo State at the time. AICE, Owerri was the makeshift camp of the NYSC. Nigeria won the bronze medal at the FIFA competition.

Echono has been the Executive Secretary of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) for over two years now. He had barely caught his breath upon logging a fulfilling 35 years in the Nigerian public service, when former President Buhari assigned him to TETFund. On Saturday, 25 May 2024, Echono was in Lagos, decorated by Champion newspapers as the ‘Outstanding Public Servant of the Year’. The investiture was held at the high profile Eko Hotels and Suites on Victoria Island, Lagos. The correspondence which conveyed the information of Echono’s nomination for the prized award, TETFund under his watch is reputed have dexterously pursued the vision of making the organisation an “outstanding public service institution”.

The communication salutes Echono for “focusing on upgrading the status of Nigerian universities and for restoring hope and vibrancy” in our tertiary colleges. Under Echono, according to the document, Nigeria’s universities are today “better empowered to respond to the strategic challenges of university education in Nigeria”. According to Champion newspapers, Echono has shown “strong and effective products character in the leadership of TETFund in a way that has impacted tremendously on the overall wellbeing of Nigeria’s universities today”. Champion newspapers salutes Echono’s broad and extensive experiences and exposures grossed over time. It recalls his sojourn in the Nigerian public service where he rose to the professional pinnacle of his career, as Permanent Secretary.

Echono trained as an architect at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in 1983 and a Master’s in 1985. His generation of architects who studied at ABU, the foremost university in Nigeria’s north, include Nigeria’s former Water Resources Minister, Suleiman Adamu; former Deputy Governor of Kogi State, Yomi Awoniyi; and the Principal Partner of Cosmo Base Consortium Limited, Benson Ezem. Echono’s class of students in his university, surely sounds like a blessed one against the backdrop of the successes recorded by members of that coterie, in later life. He began his career in the civil service as an architect with Federal Ministry of Works and Housing in 1987. Like professionals who logged more years training in university, notably medics, attorneys, and engineers than most others, Echono got off to a privileged takeoff. He was placed a few grade levels ahead of his peers. As with the culture in the civil service to ensure its employees savour multisectoral experience, Echono was shuffled around a bit. He was for example, in the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit, a creation of the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency.

He notably served at different times in the federal ministries of Defence, Water Resources, Environment, Agriculture and Power among others, logging loads of vistas on his career trail. Echono can very rightly be described as one of Nigeria’s most seasoned and experienced technocrat-bureacrats. Because he was one of the pioneer civil servants who were trained in “public procurement,” he functioned serially and consistently on this schedule across ministries before his appointment as Permanent Secretary in 2014. This was after his 27th year in the employ of the federal government. Echono had stops in Agriculture and Communications between 2014 and 2017. He was thereafter transferred to the Federal Ministry of Education in 2017 which was his duty post for the five concluding years of his 35-year sojourn in the nation’s bureaucracy.

Early March 2022, Echono was appointed the chief executive officer of TETFund by Buhari to replace Suleiman Elias Bogoro. For a public officer who spent the concluding five years of his career superintending over the education sector as Permanent Secretary, being called up for his present assignment couldn’t have been more appropriate, more fitting. He stated, in an interview he granted last April, that “cartels” were in-charge of TETFund projects in the past. This gave the establishment a bad name as it was conceived by the public as the habitat of graft and sleaze. Echono moved quickly to introduce reforms to enable the organisation focus on its core objectives and to regain credibility. Under his superintendence, TETFund has entered into strategic partnerships for the training of Nigerian professionals in vocations critical to the nation’s needs at this point in time. TETFund has transnational cooperations with Brazil, Britain, the African Union, and the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, in the growth and development of tertiary education and agriculture.

Sonny Sylva Togo Echono was born 16 December 1962 in Otukpo, the sociocultural headquarters of the Idoma nationality of Benue State. He attended St. Mary’s Primary School, Otukpo, before proceeding to St. Theresa and St. Mulumba College in Jos for his high school education. He sat for the advanced levels at the erstwhile Murtala College of Arts, Science and Technology, now Benue State Polytechnic. He proceeded thereafter to ABU, Zaria. Public service has opened him up to further education and training in other institutions including the University of Calabar and the University of Turin, Italy. He was installed as the 28th President of the Nigerian Institute of Architects in 2019, a position he held until 2021.

Back home in the Idoma country, Echono is highly regarded because of his unobtrusive commitment to community development. He is credited for instance with facilitating the domiciliation of a Federal College of Education in Odugbo, in Apa local government area. The institution matriculated its pioneer set of students, 500 in all, in May last year. Echono is reported to have pleaded with his kinsmen to make deliberate sacrifices to ensure the hitch-free operationalisation of the new college. In concert with well-meaning leaders from his part of Benue State, Echono has stridently called for the establishment of at least a unit of well-honed federal government-owned security outfit in his beleaguered constituency. This follows recurring incidents of terrorism by bandits and herdsmen. Specifically, no less than 50 innocents have been felled by blood-thirsty hounds in Apa, Agatu and Otukpo local government areas since the beginning of this year. Homes and farmlands have been mindlessly destroyed in the predominantly agrarian sub-zone, landowners displaced in many instances. For Echono’s conscientious, unblemished service to nation, he has been deservedly garlanded with the national honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger, among other recognitions.

Olusunle, PhD, is a Fellow of the Association of Nigerian Authors

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