Comrade Peter Esele, a former president of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN), speaks on the NNPC crisis and the politics of oil, among other issues.
As a major player in the oil and gas industry, what can you make out of the $25 billion contract award claim made by the Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr Ibe Kachikwu and the counter-claim by the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Dr Maikanti Baru?
I think the bottom line is, what is it that led to the whole issue? The first thing we need to do is that now that it has happened, we look at the original processes. We should go back to the law, because what the NNPC is saying is that the Board does not have anything to do with the award of contracts. If that is true, that is not right, because one of the reasons why you have a Board of Directors is also to check the Managing Director; to perform oversight and find out what he does in his day-to-day activities. That is where the MD has a limit of approval, then anything above the limit will now go to the board and from there, it now goes to the Federal Executive Council (FEC) and it gets the final approval from the President. When you look at all of these, we now need to ask ourselves, what they are saying, is it true in good governance? You now go ahead, and say this is not proper and we are going to make correction.
There was a time you cited the case of [Odein] Ajumogobia when the current controversy began. What precisely were you trying to explain?
The current scenario is the third time such would be happening. In the case of a former Minister of State, Petroleum, Dr Edmund Daukoru, he was able to manage the situation at that time. But it was not so with Henry Odein Ajumogobia, Minister of State for Petroleum Resources between 2007 and 2009 and a former Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Mr. Mohammed Barkindo. And now, you have Baru and Kachikwu. Why is this happening? Why is there always a conflict? In the case of Barkindo and Ajumogobia, Barkindo had a substantive minister to report to. So, when you have a minister and minister of state, and you have a GMD, the latter would naturally want to report to the minister, because the minister is his direct boss. So, the issue of minister of state wasn’t a problem then, because the minister of state’s role is not defined. You cannot have a gatekeeper like the Chief of Staff (CoS) also as a member of the NNPC Board of Directors only to be dominated by the minister of state. You can also see another reason why some form of friction or conflict will occur, because the minister of state is the chairman, while the CoS is an ordinary member. Meanwhile, there is no access to the president except through the office of CoS. So, a lot of ego and personality clash will often come into play. What we need to look at in all of these is the best way to work. Some have been talking about corruption; I’m not looking at it from the perspective of corruption. I am looking at it from this perspective. Is the process right? No! For me, the process is not right. Is it in the spirit of good governance? The answer is no!
In other words, the episode does not in any way smack of corruption?
I am not saying so. I am simply saying that in Nigeria, we always lay emphasis on corruption in everything, but corruption has always thrived in a place where there are no processes, where there are no laid down rules. So if your processes are right and you make sure you follow these processes, corruption will disappear. Corruption is like you put a cube of sugar somewhere and you say an ant should not get there. The ant will definitely be there. So, what you need to do is to be sure that the sugar is protected by putting it in a safe. The NNPC is not as big as people are being made to believe. In fact, the NNPC is a small fry where EXXONMobil is globally. NNPC is not as big as BP or Aramco (Saudi Arabian national petroleum and natural gas company), but you don’t get to hear of this kind of stories. Our structure in Nigeria is the bigger problem. Take for example, when Kachikwu was Minister of State for Petroleum and GMD of NNPC, did he issue a memo to the president that Baba (Buhari) was in breach of? Kachikwu worked in EXXONMobil; he knows that cannot happen in EXXONMobil. You cannot be an operator and, at the same time, the policy man. No! He didn’t issue a memo, despite the fact that the process was not right. Let me provide another insight where the whole thing started from, as to the personality clash between the two men. When Kachikwu became the GMD of NNPC and Minister of State of Petroleum, Baru was the most senior man in the NNPC. Kachikwu moved Baru out of the corporation to the ministry of petroleum and he moved him up and transferred him; it is like taking a man from a softer ground to the desert. That’s what happened. Later, Baru found his way and became the GMD of the NNPC. So how would you expect them to work together, where here is a man who wanted to end your career and you are able to find your way back to the top of the system? How would it work? There is a whole lot of ego. But it is important they put their acts together and work for the interest of the country.
People have called for a thorough probe to solve the riddle surrounding the current issues. What do you think is the best way out of the quagmire for the authorities?
The president is the substantive Minister of Petroleum Resources; he is also the Commander-In-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces. He has to look at the structure and also at the good governance practice that is evolving. If there is a lacuna in the law, let him address it, and I don’t think that I actively buy the idea that the Board of the NNPC is only advisory. You put competent people on the board; those who understand that sector and the industry, to oversee it. So, there should be proper delineation of roles and responsibilities between the GMD of NNPC and the board. One of the downsides of the NNPC is that there has been too much political interference.
In the last 18 years in this political dispensation, from 1999 to date, there has been too much political interference. Olusegun Obasanjo was the minister of petroleum and president of Nigeria which ought not to be. The same thing is happening now, whereas it was not so under the administration of President Umaru Yar’Adua. It appears that the political leaders want to know what is going on in NNPC; they resort to influencing what is happening in the NNPC; they want to keep their boys in the NNPC; they don’t want to follow due process. I will give you an example. I was in the office of one of the GMDs and one powerful man’s wife called in telling the NNPC boss that they have already given her 10 metric tonnes of kerosene and that was why she had called. So how do you expect the GMD to function? A couple of times I have visited NNPC, one of the things you get to know is that the GMD hardly sits in the office for one or two hours without getting a call from the Villa. I am not talking about now. I am talking about the time past. Sometimes, the GMDs themselves lament all of these, and that they don’t even have time to do what they are supposed to do, summoning them from right, left and centre.The NASS will also try to do their own. So, there is always too much pressure on the boss of NNPC. At the end of the day, instead of being allowed to do his job, he will want to please those who put him there, so professional competence suffers.
What can be done to insulate the NNPC from such political interference?
Do you know that it is only NNPC boss that does not have tenure? FIRS boss has a tenure; CBN governor has a tenure; even quasi-ministries and parastatal agancy of governments do, but NNPC GMD has no tenure. He could wake up today and he is gone. So, he would want to do everything that will keep him in his job. When he is tenured, you give him the responsibilities. Let the politicians stay away; let them face politics and allow the man to play his statutory role. Given the situation today, corruption thrives in an atmosphere where there is confusion and crisis. So, it is all these things we have now.Nothing is done properly and it is in the interest of those who want to make money for the system to fall into crisis. Another aspect is that Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) should be passed into law. I am not saying the law is going to solve all the problems in the industry, but it would go a long way towards addressing a lot of issues around NNPC and the oil and gas industry.
Some groups and individuals are advocating that Buhari hands over as minister of petroleum; and that both Kachikwu and Baru resign to pave the way for thorough investigation into the current controversy.
One of the things I always say is that the president calls the shot; he is the one we have elected. It is his decision for the president to make. My only worry is that the president knows that he has the right sources. He must be able to show or prove to Nigerians that he acts in the best interest of the country. One thing is that I will like to give the president the benefit of the doubt that he knows what he is doing.
Some have accused the authorities of trying to sweep the matter under the carpet, just as they are asking the anti-graft agencies take over the case to get to the root of what is now regarded as the NNPC transactions…
I feel the issues to address include: if due process was followed and which agencies have the responsibility of looking at that (process). If one is able to establish from the process angle that somebody had violated the governance of the NNPC, or that you find out too that the minister had also undermined his position, the matter at hand becomes simple. For me, that’s the issue.
Following startling revelations about alleged impunity in the oil sector, especially in the NNPC, some Nigerians now perceive the corporation as a cesspool of corruption. As a major player in the industry, what do you think is the real problem in the NNPC?
We only hear politicians who, before they get into power, talk about NNPC and the moment they get to power, it is a different ball game. So, I laugh when people make such generalisation concerning the corporation. It is not always about NNPC; it is about the politicians talking about NNPC. They get into office and find out that they need the NNPC. Anything government wants to do, they call on the NNPC. The situation is even better now than during Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan’s administrations. The NNPC was even involved in buying mosquito nets. They will say they want to protect pipelines, NNPC would be the one to provide the fund. I don’t know the role of security agencies. So, by the time you are doing all these, you have created loopholes for corruption. So, what we are having is that they often put the man at the helm of affairs under unnecessary pressure when something that is not in the budget is funded; you are also helping to create a window for him to help himself. So, it is not just a matter of the NNPC; that was why I talked about our value system. The fact is that we are very clannish. If a Nigerian is occupying any office, he sees it as an extension of his family estate. That is another big problem. Any office you hold, they see it as if it is their patrimony. So, let us not also blame NNPC for everything. We should also ask ourselves, what are the politicians doing? Before they got elected, they would promise to restructure NNPC, and so on. But immediately they got to power, it would become a different ball game. The next thing they would do is to get oil blocks and give them to their cronies, friends, among others. – Culled from Tribune.