Professor Becomes Nigerian Ambassador to Russia
Despite danger and past conflict, Steve Ugbah is once again tackling politics
More than 20 years ago, two young Cal State East Bay business professors, both from Nigeria, sat on a bench outside a movie theater in Hayward. They made a pact.
“We don’t do politics,” Stevina Evuleocha recalls agreeing with her husband, Steve Ugbah.
The couple had both seen firsthand the dangers that seeking political office in Nigeria could bring. Ugbah’s brother had been killed years earlier because he was mistaken for an uncle who was protesting a gubernatorial election, and Evuleocha had been nearly killed working at a poll booth as a young adult.
“My political history is bittersweet,” Ugbah says. “Yes, I was involved in politics at a young age, but my younger brother was murdered because of politics, and that left a sour taste in my mouth. So sour to the point where when I left Nigeria to study, I never intended to [go] back and get into politics.”
But life had other plans.
In 2011, drawn back into the political upheaval by friends and family in Nigeria and wanting to make a difference, Ugbah decided to make a gubernatorial run in his home state of Benue. Shortly thereafter he made headlines in the New York Times. Ugbah had lost the race, but in deciding to contest the election results, landed in the middle of what would become a three-year battle in Nigeria’s Supreme Court.
“My election was stolen,” Ugbah says.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court tossed out his case on a technicality (simply put, the court decided it’d taken too long to process) and it seemed like the door to politics in Nigeria was closing. But in 2015, Ugbah gave it one last go, serving as the campaign manager for Muhammadu Buhari, now president of Nigeria, who upon his inauguration made Ugbah an offer he couldn’t turn down: an ambassadorship.
Now, in less than a week, Ugbah will move to Moscow to serve as the Nigerian ambassador to Russia and Belarus.
“Steve’s life is one that’s really deep in terms of service to humanity,” Evuleocha says.
In the coming months, Ugbah’s primary “mission,” as he calls it, is to “open up Russia to Nigerians and Nigeria to Russians.”
Nigeria has lacked an ambassador to Russia for the past three years, so he’ll spend the first few months identifying what challenges the countries face and make a plan for strengthening their relationship.
But why Russia?
For one, Ugbah has already spent some time there. While teaching in the Cal State East Bay MBA program, he led groups of students to Russia for study abroad trips, some lasting up to six weeks. Also, Ugbah says Nigeria has a lot to offer countries that are interested in supporting its economy.
For example, according to the organization Our Africa, Nigeria is Africa’s leading oil producer. It’s also home to a growing telecommunications market and an as-yet untapped, high-potential retail economy, per the marketing group McKinsey & Company.
“Nigeria is a developing country ... but Nigeria also has a very strong, large consumer market,” Ugbah says. “There are boundless investment opportunities there, but we haven’t done a good job of selling the idea.”
Between now and his departure, Ugbah says he’s been learning to read Russian, receiving briefs from the president of Nigeria and doing other studying, but he’s aware of how many unknowns he’ll soon face.
“I don’t know what I’ll encounter when I land in Moscow,” he says. “I’d be
lying to you if I told you I know all the challenges or have all the answers …
but I am looking forward to reestablishing and strengthening this relationship.”
In the meantime, Evuleocha will be holding down the fort in the couple’s East Bay household, awaiting word as to when she too will be joining him in Russia. Together, the pair have five children — ranging in age from middle school to adulthood — who have grown accustomed to a busy life filled with their parents’ full-time work schedules, international travel, sports and other activities.
When Ugbah is gone, Evuleocha and the kids share spider-killing responsibilities and try to keep the household running as normally as possible. When he’s home, they all crowd around the table playing board games and cards or watch movies and plan adventures.
Evuleocha says while it’s challenging with her husband gone, the times Ugbah is home make it worth it.
“He gives everything that he has and then some,” Evuleocha says. “I never felt like [politics] was something that ever deprived him of anything else. Because between it all, he has time to play dad, play husband and make sure he has meaningful relationships.”