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My happiest memory of time at NLNG was fighting to uplift people — Mbanefo

By Azeez Olorunlomeru
23 October 2022   |   2:32 am
Nigeria and Nigerians must imbibe the need for commercial orientation in everything we do and avoid myths and knee-jerk reactions to issues, says Ifeanyi Igwebike Mbanefo.

Ifeanyi Igwebike

Nigeria and Nigerians must imbibe the need for commercial orientation in everything we do and avoid myths and knee-jerk reactions to issues, says Ifeanyi Igwebike Mbanefo.

Turning 60 yesterday, the seasoned manager x-rayed his time at Nigeria LNG Limited and concluded that oil and gas host communities need a marshal plan and honest brokers to rebuild them. He spoke with AZEEZ OLORUNLOMERU.

You turned 60 yesterday and friends from all over the globe came together for a virtual party. What is turning 60 like for you? Talk us through the day.
I turned 60 yesterday. It was a happy day, made happier by my family, friends and well-wishers. My wife and aged parents led the felicitations. My mother is 90 and my father is 98 years both are hale and hearty. It’s such a gift; a huge miracle.

My aburo, Jahman Anikulapo, former Editor of The Guardian on Sunday, organised a virtual party. It was a hilarious event that unsurprisingly gave me a reason for introspection.

I pretty much sailed through my 40th and 50th birthdays. I, however, ran up against 60 in a way I didn’t expect. I walked away from my work and career at 55. It was such a huge shock to many at Nigeria LNG Limited because no one believed that I could leave. I was at the peak of my career; a senior manager who had run three strategic arms of the business. There were no pressures, except that I felt it was time to go; to allow the younger managers, some of whom I mentored, to spread their wings.

But, quite frankly, are there ever ex-writers? Is there a category like that? I may have given up the obligation or duty to write but I now write for the love of writing. I was a journalist before the corporate world. I got into the corporate world of writing. I am a writer and I love the freedom and availability I now have.

Aside from writing, I am currently the chairman of my kindred, Umunnakwa, Obosi. I am also the publicity secretary of Aka Ikenga, the Igbo socio-political think-tank. I am the chief executive officer of two organisations.

Ifeanyi Igwebike

Indeed, my decision to voluntarily retire was made easier by the fact that I had seen my children through school – all graduating top of their classes. I have a fairly good pension and NLNG provides free, excellent healthcare for me and my wife for the rest of our lives. I am at that point in life that I close my eyes and say to God with no other name higher than His: “May God bless you.”

Turning 60, what has changed?
The age of 60 is undeniably well beyond middle-aged. My metabolism isn’t what it used to be. Three meals in any day is gluttony. I still take long walks but grimace on steep hills and staircases. Exercise is important, but I hate it, especially early morning walks. I am something of a night owl, so I am grumpy whenever I wake early. What’s the hurry?

But Chinenyem doesn’t give up. And she’s right. I’m keenly aware of the deterioration in my muscle strength and the noticeable diminishment of my energy levels. I’m not as strong as I used to be.

Let’s check on your old habits. Do you still love to travel? Do you still love community service?
Strangely, I am a lot busier than when I had regular work. I think I was born for community service. I love to lend a helping hand to solving humanity’s greatest problems. And everywhere I worked, I tried my best to make an impact.

As Manager, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs at Nigeria LNG Limited, I instituted the Nigeria Prizes for Literature and The Nigeria Prize for Science. And on a regular basis, celebrated our role models.

With such great men and women as Dele Olojede and Dora Akunyili, we honoured 50 of our greatest in Arts and Sciences when Nigeria turned 50. Men such as Fela Anikulapo, Ernest Emenyeonu, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, J.P. Clark, and the like.

Internally, I was among those who mounted a campaign that led to the study and later provision of cooking gas. We didn’t think it was responsible for NLNG to export all of its gas while Nigerians lacked gas. I qualify these achievements; they happened under the excellent leadership provided by Siene Allwell-Brown. She was a manager’s manager. Top-notch!

Tell us about your work developing Bonny community…
Frankly, it was hard work, back-breaking work. Heavy lifting. But I had the best boss anyone could wish for – Dr Babs Omotowa. When I came into that role, NLNG, Shell and ExxonMobil under the banner of the Joint Industries Committee (JIC) had spent over $82 million. But a value-for-money audit would not have shown that up to 10 per cent of the sum spent on the community. It may have been shared between Bonny’s leadership and dubious officers from JIC, for all I cared.

As Chairman of JIC, I knew we required a paradigm shift to develop the Bonny Kingdom. Nothing short of culture change was required.

Luckily, Omotowa, the former Managing Director of Nigeria LNG Limited, and in my view, the best to date, was at the helm of affairs. He is a man you can hand over this country to and go to sleep. And when you wake up, you will find it in the first world. A man full of integrity; is the type of leader you will take a bullet for.

There are stories of historical injustices done to communities by oil and gas companies. Did you find any? How did you resolve it?
In 1976, the Federal Government considered two villages – Peterside and Finima, both in the Bonny Kingdom as possible sites for the LNG project. There were other considerations, including Lagos, Badagry, Olokola, Onne and Port Harcourt. All have large bodies of water, but Finima and Peterside were ahead of the pack because of their nearness to the source of gas, Finima was ultimately chosen because of possible synergies with Shell and ExxonMobil both already sited in Finima.

On March 3, 1978, NNPC entered an agreement with the chief of Finima House, Chief Israel Idamiebi Brown and Finima Community. NNPC was represented by Mr. A. M. Akpe, Manager, Gas and Petrochemicals. The agreement amongst other things provided that parcels of land to be acquired from Finima will be compensated for at reasonable commercial rates and that NNPC would design and construct bungalows/houses for displaced families of Finima.

By the time I assumed office, 70 families had been stranded for over 40 years. NNPC acquired 596.5 hectares of land in Finima and set aside 525.63 hectares for exclusive use for LNG plant, residential area, and access road.

To achieve this, the Military Administrator of Rivers State, Commander Sulieman Sa’idu revoked all rights of occupancy existing in respect of Fatima land. On April 30, 1993, Governor Rufus Ada George signed the certificate of occupancy.

Taking on the role of Community Relations manager, I couldn’t ignore what apparently was an injustice. NLNG was a very successful and lucrative company, Nigeria and shareholders were making truckloads of money, but there were people in the community without a roof over their heads. Omotowa and I discussed the situation and he approved the construction of the houses for these homeless families – 70 of them.

We also took a bold step to name the airstrip built on Finima land, Finima Airstrip. And resettled people living in Akusugh (aka Monkey Village), a ghetto that developed around the periphery of the plant. We successfully reintegrated them into society. We paid two years’ rent and compensated those who were shortchanged by NNPC at the rate of an N2million per room. Compensation for land at reasonable commercial rates by shareholders was beyond our remit; Finima land was part of NNPC’s equity for the project. It is the Nigeria’s shareholder’s call.

But the best part was initiating and constructing the Bonny-Bodo Road to open up the ancient kingdom. Omotowa deserves not only high praise, but God’s infinite blessings for his tenacity, and dedication that saw the project – worth N120 billion – till date the biggest Community Relations Project in Nigeria. His predecessor worked on this project but abandoned it immediately after he saw the bill. His successor did the groundbreaking party and photo ops!

But our greatest area of impact was in selling the idea of a new Bonny, ready for business. Our preferred model was turning Bonny to Dubai, a tall order but an aspiration nonetheless. Omotowa pitched the idea to the King of Bonny, the managing directors of SPDC and ExxonMobil, the NLNG Senior Management Team and the External Relations team.

Convinced, the King and Bonny Chiefs Council convened a pan-Bonny conference on sustainable development on May 25, 2013, at the Lebanese Hall, Bonny to discuss the project with the theme – Expanding Partnerships to harness multiple opportunities for growing a local economy for Bonny Kingdom. It was a well-attended conference with over 700 delegates drawn from the Bonny chieftaincy houses.

After the conference, I organised a listening tour during which I met with chiefs and members of all the 34 chieftaincy houses and all the groups in Bonny, including those not residing on the island to explain the new philosophy.

JIC organised a competitive tendering process for an agency to handhold the community on self-reliance and sustainability journeys. Accenture won the contract to review the Bonny Masterplan and institute sustainability programmes for Bonny Utilities Company, Bonny Vocational Centre and Ibanise Initiatives.

Bonny Master Plan was a blueprint to guide the socioeconomic development in Bonny Local Government over the next 25 years.

The master plan identified 12 priority areas under four developmental pillars that must be immediately addressed. They included deepening specialist and technical skills, revamp of primary and secondary education to support human capital development, improving the quality of healthcare by developing incentives packages for medical practitioners to establish on the island, promoting skills acquisition, establishing a tourism board and Bonny Eco-tourism centre, promote tourism, embark on massive land reclamation, develop harbors, beaches and world-class type facilities – hotels, spas, golf course and cultural centres.

Others were, exploring cluster development opportunities in industrial parks, securing gas availability for power expansion and building capabilities for partnership in commercial agriculture, fish processing, storage and farm-to-factory industries.

We were able to attract the World Bank, Tata organisation, UNIDO, Bank of Industry, Bank of Agriculture, Union Homes, First Bank, KOICA, (the Korean International Cooperation Agency) DFID, as potential partners.

As a result of the master plan, we set up the Bonny Kingdom Development Foundation (BKDF) to serve as the implementing agency responsible for the master plan. It was also empowered to supervise the activities of all other agencies on the island.

Acting on the principle that a public company, not run along the lines of sound business practices will, in the long run, not serve the public, we worked on the other organs to ensure they were fit for purpose.

For instance, the Bonny Utilities Company set up in a 1998 MOU between JIC and the Bonny Kingdom, has had a huge impact on the development of the island, over a 17-year period, but had been unable to grow as a company. It lost a huge opportunity to acquire the assets of PHCN because it remained a 17-year infant – financially crippled and dependent on JIC for sustenance.

The growth and coverage of Bonny were slow for the same reasons. It was unable to provide coverage in Bonny in two decades or grow beyond the island. It was also unable to meet its operating costs. Its expenditure was N600m and its income was N100m. It was a company run as a charity or Salvation Army. It was a joke, rather than a going concern. We identified four major challenges with BUC – defining a viable strategy for successful transfer of ownership to the community, sustainable funding, how to ensure autonomy and good governance. BUC receives electric power from SPDC and NLNG facilities. At the time, it was serving 11, 000 households via its 50-kilometre distribution network. It employed 30 skilled and semi-skilled workers.

The Bonny Vocational Centre promotes vocational and entrepreneurial skills acquisition and develops technical competence and self-reliance in youths across the kingdom. BVC generates only three per cent of its budget. It was time for the centre to transform into an operationally efficient educational institution in terms of people, processes, and technology.

Our work was to make them into efficient and viable institutions able to compete with similar institutions anywhere in the world. That was the work we did and the JIC endorsed our work. NLNG approved a whooping N3billion yearly for 25 years and SPDC N600m for the same period to fund the master plan and the running of BKDF and its agencies.

ExxonMobil however felt the work we did, and our roadmap was enough for BKDF to carry on its business. Omotowa graciously transferred assets worth billions of dollars to the community to enable a smooth takeoff. It is important to state that NLNG’s contribution was simply the average of its 10 years annual Community Development budget.

The company did not look for money for this project; it simply made visible its yearly contributions. And transferred responsibility for managing the funds to the community. An MOU was signed to seal the deal with UNIDO and Rivers State Government witnessing the agreement.

It is important to state that the changes were not entirely well received by community leaders. Omotowa and I were summoned to the Chiefs Council where they demanded cash and contracts. I was declared persona non grata and advised to leave Bonny Island. It was the culmination of a long-running battle with the king and chiefs who insisted on business as usual. “Bring us the money but not the responsibility,” “We are only interested in contracts,” and “ We are not interested in long-term proposals,” was their major proposals.

However, Management directed that I stay and continue my job. I did and after about a year, the King and I reconciled.

You also headed the Corporate Business Development and Logistics arm of NLNG?
Yes, I did. And to my utmost surprise, I was confronted with similar structures rigged to siphon money. For instance, the guys fueling NLNG’s vehicles had no records of the quantity of petrol consumed yearly. It was the same for the cost of maintenance, the cost of spares, and the like. It was either there was too much money, or some people were fleecing the company. You cannot control what you cannot measure. I first called for the records, asking my staff to match fuel consumption with purchases. You will think it was a simple request. But the matter was reported right up to my immediate bosses, the Deputy Managing Director and the new Managing Director. I simply wanted to establish a baseline and see the patterns. What I got was close to mutiny, with staff fighting back as if their lives depended on evading accountability.

So, I devised other strategies. I instructed the head driver to publish, weekly, the fuel consumption of all cars. At first, some cars reported consumption of three to four tanks weekly. But within a month, every car, except those that travelled out of town/station was recording a tank a week or less. Sunlight is a great antiseptic!

I turned my attention to the plant. We had 319 vehicles working in the plant, a 20-kilometre network of roads. So, I proposed a plan. Let’s put four coaster buses going round the plant. We clearly marked the bus stops. We carried out a three-month test run and were satisfied that at any point in the plant, the bus will pick you up in 15 minutes max. Surprisingly, this also was met with stiff resistance. People were not ready to give up their privileges of driving a vehicle by staff. Many were not prepared to discuss the huge savings and efficiency this would bring.

The cost of purchase and replacement of 319 Hilux trucks, cost of petrol, tyres, batteries, servicing and servicing parts, etc. placed side by side, four coaster buses was a no-brainer. I still wonder why this was not obvious for close to two decades. When eventually the bus service was fully implemented, it drastically reduced the pilfering of parts from the plant.

I took a deep dive into the company’s fleet management software – the telematics solutions – and realised that it was ornamentally used. It had the capacity to check fuel consumption, improve safety and reliability, and optimise cargo motion routes. It effectively tracks vehicle location, oversees driver behaviour – speeding, hard braking and acceleration, wearing the seatbelt, turning on the air conditioner whilst parked and observing journey management protocols and taking adequate breaks in between destinations.

In a few months, we knew good drivers from bad ones, courtesy of telematics which grades drivers green amber and red. If you stayed on red for three months, your contract is terminated. Only those on the green are allowed to make out-of-station trips.

One of the first victims of telematics fleet management was NLNG plant operators. They do 12-hour shift work. And the telematics showed that they had no business driving after night vigils. They were all graded red, meaning that they were a danger to themselves and other road users; an accident waiting to happen. Their official vehicles were withdrawn and replaced with a bus.

I turned my attention to flights and our dedicated aircraft. They were too costly to run. By just changing the ticketing officer, I was able to save $ 5 million! The dedicated aircraft was an entirely different story. I invited domestic commercial airlines to ply Bonny.

I met with Arik, Air Peace, Bristow and another airline, I cannot immediately recall the other airline that indicated an interest in playing our routes – Bonny, PH, Lagos and Abuja. I got quotes ranging from $1.5 million to $ 3 million dollars. This was both effective and a huge cost-saving. These offers were mere fractions of the cost of running dedicated aircraft. Commercial airlines flying into Bonny, I believe, would contribute to the realisation of the Bonny-Dubai dream.

I was still working on this project when my bosses re-awarded the contract to owners of the dedicated aircraft on a single-source basis.

When I confronted the CEO, his response was clearly against the conflict-of-interest policy of the company that contracts should not be single-sourced to associates, friends and family members. T. I was alarmed at the utter lack of integrity. The officer who sabotaged the bid was promoted. Something unheard of in Nigeria LNG Limited.

My happiest memory in this role is fighting for the upliftment of contract staff – the drivers and janitors. Besides numerous bonuses and milestone payments, NLNG yearly increases the salary of its staff, sometimes by as much as 20 per cent. You can imagine my shock when I found out that the salaries of drivers have not increased in 20 years.

Rather, it had been dwindling as a result of mindless competitive bids that reward the lowest bidders. By the time I took over, they had lost over 35 per cent of their salaries, had no medicals, no educational support and had been banned from partaking in the company-provided lunch.

Pope Francis spoke loudly and eloquently against inequality. I met my boss, Sadiq Mai Bornu, who supported my appeal for the company to intervene. But the MD, Tony Attah bluntly refused. I decided to take my chances by going through committees. And he made me jump through hoops to get it.

At the Corporate Tenders Board, I made a passionate appeal. I told my colleagues the story of their drivers and janitors. How they hang out with security guards and sleep in motor parks to keep their jobs. They go home only on weekends because their take-home pay could not take them home. How one of our drivers who plunged head-on into the river between Rivers State and Bayelsa State was allegedly begging for N50 to eat breakfast before the trip. Any of us could have been his passenger.

And lastly, I reminded everyone that the company has been good to us; has benefitted Nigeria and its shareholders. Then, I reminded them that a rising tide must lift all boats. That’s God’s law. And that karma knows every address.

I have never slept more soundly than I did that night when the tender’s board voted overwhelmingly in support. We immediately granted these colleagues access to the canteen and began a review of their salaries for which the tender’s board approved a little short of N3 billion.

You should write a book on Nigeria LNG Limited.
I already did. It is titled, ‘The Story of Nigeria LNG Limited.’

Tell us about your days in journalism and civil service.
My time in journalism was my best day. I started work on the copy desk of The Guardian. I had wonderful teachers—Rasaq Adedigba, Gbenga Omotosho, Hyacinth Onoh, Banji Adisa, Chima Nwafor, Eluem Emeka Izeze and Baba Mac Alabi who had the greatest influence on my career. Alabi thought me how to use the dictionary; to interrogate the facts of every story to see how they fit.

He took nothing for granted. Rasaq was like that too, kind, dedicated, eagle-eyed and always willing to lend a helping hand. The Guardian Copy Desk gave me the opportunity to acquire a master’s degree from UNILAG. Leaving The Guardian was like a bird leaving the nest. I moved to African Concord to join Bayo Onanuga, Dapo Olorunyomi, Kunle Ajibade, Femi Ojodu and Lewis Obi. I was the copy editor and later Senior Assistant Editor.

I worked briefly as Political Editor with Independent Newspapers before I joined the Federal Civil Service as Assistant Chief Manpower/Public Affairs Officer with the National Manpower Board, a parastatal of the National Planning Commission. I also had brief stints with Reuters and other international news agencies. I indeed covered June 12 election for Reuters.

It has been an interesting journey for me. This is the week I would have retired from NLNG if I had served full tenure. I can now exhale.