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HomeExecutive BriefFrom NYSC Platoon to TETFUND Boss: How Sonny Echono's career took flight

From NYSC Platoon to TETFUND Boss: How Sonny Echono’s career took flight

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By Tunde Olusunle 

We had cultivated new relationships during our one-year service to our 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, and 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, extended handshakes, knuckle bumps, and long hugs.

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 make new friends. Tony Olofu, who recently retired as an Assistant Inspector General (AIG) of Police, and Armstrong Idachaba, who retired as acting Director-General of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), were in this bracket.

Since we are all residents of Abuja, the nation’s capital, we find ways 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, the 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 later, recall each other’s faces, exclaim, and our hands would be locked in almost inseparable handshakes.

Sonny Sylva Togo Echono, more officially known as S. T. Echono, is one of such people. Oby Ezekwesili is another. We were all assembled for drills on the improvised parade ground at the Alvan Ikoku College of Education (AICE), Owerri, on August 27, 1985, when Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) 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, led Nigeria’s Under-21 men’s soccer team to the Soviet Union for the FIFA World Youth Championship, which began on August 24, 1985.

Allison Madueke, then a Navy captain, was the 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 (ES) 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, May 25, 2024, Echono was in Lagos, decorated by Champion Newspapers as the Outstanding Public Servant of the Year.

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The correspondence that conveyed the information about Echono’s nomination for the prized award, TETFUND, under his watch, is reputed to 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 product 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 over time.

It recalls his sojourn in the Nigerian public service, where he rose to the professional pinnacle of his career as Permanent Secretary.

S. T. Echono trained as an architect at 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, includes Nigeria’s former water resources minister, Suleiman Adamu; former deputy governor of Kogi State,

Yomi Awoniyi and the Principal Partner of Cosmo Base Consortium Ltd., 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 the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing in 1987. Like professionals who logged more years of training in university, notably medics, attorneys, and engineers, Echono got off to a privileged start. 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 experiences, Echono was shuffled around a bit. He was, for example, in the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit (BMPIU), a creation of the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency.

He notably served 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.

In 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 supervising the education sector as Permanent Secretary, being called up for his present assignment couldn’t have been more appropriate or 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 to 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 cooperation with Brazil, Britain, the African Union (AU), and the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) in the growth and development of tertiary education and agriculture.

Sonny Sylva Togo Echono was born December 16, 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 (NIA) 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 establishment of a Federal College of Education (FCE) in Odugbo, in the 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 operationalization 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 outfits in his beleaguered constituency. This follows recurring incidents of terrorism by bandits and herdsmen.

Specifically, no less than 50 innocents have been felled by bloodthirsty 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, and landowners have been displaced in many instances.

For Echono’s conscientious, unblemished service to the nation, he has been deservedly garlanded with the national honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON), among other recognitions.

*  Olusunle, PhD, is a Fellow of the Association of Nigerian Authors (FANA).

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