Arumna Oteh Profile: There are some women men avoid and are wary of in one-on-one confrontations: fearlessly independent and immoderately intelligent women. It is even worse if they are thoroughgoing professionals. Complement all that with an astonishingly beautiful face and you have a self-assured individual who can stand up to anyone of the opposite sex anywhere, anytime and not be intimidated or even lose ground. 

Named amongst Forbes Africa’s 50 most powerful women of Africa, 2020 Arunma Oteh, Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) hails from Abia State, Nigeria. She is a Nigerian and British citizen. Arunma had her undergraduate studies at the prestigious University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and graduated in 1984 with a first-class honors degree in Computer Science.

After obtaining her first degree, she proceeded to Harvard Business School, where she obtained a master’s degree in Business Administration (M.B.A) in 1990.

Early Career

Oteh worked for various institutions including the Harvard Institute for International Development and Centre Point Investments Limited of Nigeria in corporate finance, consulting, teaching and research. She began her career as a Lecturer of Computer Science at the University of Benin (UNIBEN) in1984, during her NYSC. After the compulsory service year, she became the Corporate Finance Officer (CFO) and Acting Head, Management Information Systems Unit of Centre Point Investments in 1985. 

She worked there for 2years and later become a consultant at Irving Skinner, London, United Kingdom. From there, she proceeded to become a research associate at Harvard Institute for International Development, Cambridge, MA, in 1990.

Oteh at Africa Development Bank

Arumna Oteh
Arumna Oteh

In 1992, Oteh got a job at the African Development Bank (ADB) as the Senior Financial Analyst, Public Sector Lending Department. She soon became the Senior Investments and Capital Markets Officer of the bank in 1993 and progressed to become the Division Manager, Investments in 1997. In 2001 Oteh was promoted to the position of Group Treasurer, and in 2006, she became Group Vice President, Corporate Services.

A Nigerian politician had the misfortune of meeting one such woman sometime in March 2012, right in the hallowed chambers of the National Assembly, Abuja. That is, the domain of the politician in question, presiding over a hearing of the House Committee on Capital Markets.

When President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua nominated Ms. Arunma Oteh as Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission in July 2009, he must have found a woman with uncommon intelligence, just as the late president himself has been described. The Senate confirmed Oteh’s appointment as DG in January 2010. 

Once she resumed work at the SEC, she began to see flaws that ought not to be in the regulatory body supervising the capital markets and related sectors in Nigeria. In one interview with the BBC, for instance, in June 2010, Ms. Oteh listed “wash sales, market rigging, pumping and dumping of shares” as sources of major concern. 

In the process of making the capital markets more professional where things would be done properly and according to ethical standards, the business elite in Nigeria opposed some of the reforms the new DG put in place. An amorphous body without any constitutional authority to question her reforms and, perhaps, after lobbying the committee overseeing her agency, Ms. Oteh responded to a summons by the lawmakers to answer questions about her manner of leadership and even competence.  

If members of the committee had an inkling of what was to come that day, they probably would have had a rethink. As they say, what will be – and maybe for good – as a bard once mused: “heaven punishes the bad and proves the best.” 

And it was just so good because Nigerians learned a lot from the encounter and only reconfirmed what they’d always known about those they elect or are imposed on them: some or most of them become ridiculous impositions and knuckleheads we know them for, those who ought not to be in leadership positions in the first place. And once there, they look out for themselves and not the people they represent or even the country they swore to serve. 

Leading her team from SEC facing the podium, where members of the Committee sat almost on the edge of their swivel chairs when she began to speak, Ms. Oteh level-gazed them, focusing mostly on the chairman of the Committee, Herman Hembe. 

By the time she was half-way through, one or two members (Hembe inclusive) relaxed into their seats. The lawmakers had invited her to that public hearing to question her competence, her managerial style, and the astronomical hotel bills accumulated in her name as head of SEC. To their dismay and taken completely unawares, she became the questioner, doubting the credibility of the Committee and followed up with a stinging rebuke of the chairman himself.

In the cat-quiet chambers, heard by all loud and clear, a withering look filled with contempt, she lashed out at the panel, told them why they could not hold her and SEC accountable. 

“When I accepted to take this job,” Ms. Oteh began, addressing the chairman like a sharp-eyed matron will a patient with decaying dentition, “I was told that when I fight corruption, that corruption will fight me back. But I could not have imagined that that would happen in the House Committee on Capital Markets. And now I question, Honourable chairman, your credibility in carrying out this public hearing. The reason I question your credibility in carrying out this public hearing was that on October 20th the SEC gave you estacode and a business class ticket to travel to an emerging market conference in the Dominican Republic. Please tell the Nigerian people whether you went there. And this was in November. And please also tell the Nigerian people, if you didn’t go whether you have returned the monies.” 

Beamed live to millions of homes and offices in Nigeria and beyond, most people saw the encounter as a virtuoso performance the out-dazzled and faltering lawmaker could barely respond to properly let alone match. 

Confronted with unexpected details of a misdeed, of some wrongdoing, especially in public, the tongue dries out completely rendering people in such distress speechless for some time. And by the time they respond, they run the same organ over the lips, from time to time, to moisten them. Honorable Hembe did that several times before he closed out the session for an early break. Not once did he answer any question directly when a yes or no would have cleared his name and office or condemned him right there.

From the Committee’s point of view, the hearing was meant to be a bruising session. After all, she is a woman, one in charge of a government agency under their supervision as a legislative committee. But this was a different kind of woman, a woman who was brought up, Ms. Oteh once told a journalist, “to stand up for the right thing, even if it means standing alone.”

In the same interview, she granted the journalist published by Forbes magazine of February 1, 2016, headlined “The Iron Lady Who Stood Alone,” the former empress of SEC recalled of the encounter with the lawmakers: “For me, it was standing up for the right thing despite the costs,” she was quoted in an unsigned article which those in the know suspect was written by Nigerian journalist Muyiwa Moyela for the leading publication on outstanding contributions by equally outstanding individuals in the corporate world. 

Ms. Oteh has had two more interviews with the magazine: “10 Minutes with Arunma Oteh,” and “Iron Lady in Charge of $150 billion,” hosted twice or so by SABC and several other authoritative television networks around the world. Invariably, there would be questions about her and her work, women and development in Africa, and so on. With the calmness of the academic scholar she is, the delivery of a star actress with a face to match, Oteh would draw viewers and, more than any other, the journalists who are almost always delighted to have her on their show.

“I wanted to contribute my bit to realizing Nigeria’s potential,” Ms. Oteh has said. “I believed Nigeria was a well-kept secret that was often misunderstood in terms of its opportunities and potential. There wasn’t a good understanding of the role the capital markets played in transforming the economy – I was prepared to change this.”

“I was angry that a system that is so well endowed was being led irresponsibly,” she went on. “I have always chosen excellence over anything else. I have built an international career, reputation, and standing for 22 years anchored on this. I knew there would be risks that I would be misunderstood, but I felt the benefits to society far outweighed any costs attached to me.”

Eight years after the historic hearing in the House, Nigerians and the rest of the world know too well the aftermath of a contest between two principal characters – Hembe and Oteh. They also know who has moved on and up professionally and who has been diminished. 

Ms. Oteh is, at the moment, an academic scholar at Said Business School, Oxford, England, after a brilliant spell as Treasurer of the World Bank starting from 2015. Of her appointment then, Jim Yong Kim President of the apex bank and financial institution in international business pointedly noted: “Arunma has deep knowledge of capital markets and tremendous experience as the former Treasurer of one of our partner development banks. We are very fortunate to be able to recruit an individual of Arunma’s obvious caliber.”

The partner development bank Jim referred to, African Development Bank (AfDB), has also remained grateful for having benefitted from the services of “an individual of Arunma’s obvious caliber.” From 1992 when she joined the continental bank, Arunma rose to become Vice President for Corporate Management, Language Services, General Services, and Procurement, Human Resources, Information Management, and Methods.

In that position, she came up with innovative ideas and development projects executed under her watch – all of which would come to her aid when she was appointed SEC DG years later. 

Arunma was an exceptional student right from her formative years, particularly in school where her mates would have watched in timid admiration as she was called up to the podium, from term to term, year to year, as the best or among the best in her class. It is not hard to imagine her going through the same process in secondary school, a point she made irrevocably with a First Class honors degree in Computer Science from the University of Nigerian, Nsukka where she graduated in 1984. 

Ms. Oteh never for once imagined she would end up in the business world. She wanted to be an inventor but then, there were early signs of what would become a lifelong career in international business and banking: at home after meals, father made Arunma and her sibs read aloud from financial reports that were always handy. By not muttering to themselves, corrections could be made – if need be – by an attentive, educated, and cultivated father. Moreover, after an MBA at Harvard, she worked with the institution’s Institute for International Development before taking up an appointment with Centre Point Investments Limited in Nigeria. 

There are quite a several Nigerian women professionals who have distinguished themselves in their métier and as public servants, women who have called the shot in mostly patriarchal settings where, oftentimes, they are to be seen and not heard. 

Professor of Mathematics Alele Williams and first female Vice-Chancellor of the University of Benin (my alma mater, I am proud to say) and any institution of higher learning in Nigeria for that matter, belong to that class. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Finance Minister and Coordinating Minister of the Economy is another, so is Professor Dora Akunyili late of NAFDAC. 

On the international stage, however, people like Iraqi-born British architect, Zaha Hadid, come to mind, professional women who have transcended national boundaries to become world citizens they deserve to be, women who have earned absolute respect from men not because of their gender but because of their capabilities. 

Like Zaha, Arunma is British. Like Zaha, too, who was rewarded with the Pritzker Prize, the highest and most prestigious award in the field, Arunma has a sheaf of awards to her credit. There is the Impact on Leadership Award, for instance, in 2016, an award she considered “very special,” but conceding at the same time that “there are a lot of women who have distinguished themselves across Africa and it’s an honor to be named a woman who has had a significant impact in Africa.”

Having individuals like Ms. Oteh work for Nigeria should be considered, any which way, a plus, a woman whose wealth of experience and ethical standards got the attention of the World Bank long before and soon after her tenure at SEC. Sadly, however, professionals like Arunma, well-meaning Nigerians like her, are oftentimes frustrated, bruised, and shooed out of places and institutions in which they are most suited or needed. Even so, the rest of the world not only recognize and acknowledge their genius but also celebrate them.

Despite the lawmaker’s initial bellicosity at the hearing, stakeholders and analysts have had commendable things to say about the sweeping changes she made with magisterial authority at SEC. One of them, an oil exec who retired last June, recalls her invaluable assistance when they wanted to register their company with LSE. According to him, Ms. Oteh responded promptly and professionally to what officials at LSE required from the agency she headed in Nigeria. 

Is it any surprise Ms. Oteh is also an OON, conferred on her by former President Goodluck Jonathan for her exemplary services and contribution to modernizing the Nigerian capital markets? 

To be sure, Ms. Oteh remains one of the country’s role models, especially to career-oriented young women. But she could have been addressing young people in Nigeria in general and not only the female folk when she declared in another interview: “First, seek to be the best and only that the best is good. Secondly, always remember that integrity is key, never compromise on your standards, and never compromise on your values. Thirdly, invest in yourself, crave knowledge, read, read, and read.”

 “Ignorance,” Socrates famously observed, “makes man the plaything of fate while knowledge can alter his destiny.”

There is no worthier or readier example of how reading or “craving knowledge” can change one’s destiny and take an individual far in life than Arunma herself. 

Arunma’s Career at the World Bank

Arumna Oteh
Arumna Oteh

Oteh left the Security and Exchange Commission in 2015 following her appointment as the Vice President and Treasurer of the World Bank Treasury by Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank. Her new appointment as treasurer of the World Bank, she led a team that managed assets totaling USD200 billion for the World Bank Group, central banks, sovereign wealth funds, and other financial institutions. They also maintained the World Bank’s global reputation as a prudent and innovative borrower in over 50 currencies.

The Oteh-led team was able to execute well-prepared transactions and carefully coordinated credit rating and capital market relationships for the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Development Association (IDA). She was also responsible for extensive financial advisory for the clients of the World Bank and cash flows of over $7 trillion.

AWARDS AND ACHIEVEMENTS

Oteh’s meritorious service earned her the following awards and recognitions. 

University Foundation Scholarship National Merit Award – 1984

Faculty Prize for Best Graduating Student in Physical Sciences – 1984

In 2011 Oteh received a national honor as an Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) in “recognition of her contribution to economic development and to transforming the Nigerian capital markets”. In 2011 she received the “Distinction In Public Service” award from the Commonwealth Business Council/African Business.

In 2014, Oteh won the CNBC Africa All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLA) Business Woman of the Year category for West Africa.

She was a nominee for Forbes Africa Person of the Year Award – 2015

Also a recipient of Avance Media 100 Most Influential African Women – 2019

And the most recent, Forbes Africa 50 Most Powerful Women – 2020

Some notable quotes to Arunma Oteh’s credit include:

“…Admit your inadequacy. The only people God can’t help are those who don’t think they need His help.”

“Often our eyes are on everything and everyone – except God – the one who can solve our problems.”

 “By tackling climate change, we’re harnessing the power to make a positive impact on the world.”

“We need to address extreme poverty with a sense of urgency especially given the untapped wealth and human capital that Africa is endowed with.”

“…Africa needs women entrepreneurs to be big, bold, innovative, and have a growth mindset, to unleash their wealth in terms of people and resources. We also need to foster an ecosystem that enables innovation and entrepreneurship.”

“…Identify the enemy which is oftentimes our attitude”. Have faith and trust God to see you through the season.”

 “…Women have strong natural entrepreneurship skills which will need to be nurtured and brought to scale. A strong message from my friend.”

“World-class capital markets transform societies as they create wealth for all and redress income inequalities.”

“I want to see Africa be the place where no one writes those articles about wars, disease, and famine.”

“If leading change, being passionate, resilient, and decisive about a great course is what makes me an iron lady, then I boldly raise my hand high to that tag.”

“You can be the next Obama, you can be the next Mark Zuckerberg, you can be the next Beyoncé. It’s really up to you to put in the effort. The common theme is hard work.”