A retired Group General Manager, Research and Development, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Dr Bola Afolabi, speaks about his family, education, career and related issues
What was your childhood ambition?
As a child, I wanted to be a medical doctor because of the care they administer and the selfless nature of their calling. Their white garment and stethoscope fascinated me highly. Also, many doctors that I knew then wore glasses. A particular English doctor I met when I visited an ailing cousin at the Teaching Hospital, Idi Araba, Lagos wore a pair of round eyeglasses, commonly termed ‘Awolowo glasses’, which made me to adore the profession as a schoolchild. In fact, today I wear glasses of the same shape. Unfortunately, I lost my sense of smell at an early age so I could not pursue an interest in science subjects. Until this day, neither will I notice if gas smells in the kitchen nor observe a foul odour around my surrounding. It was on this basis that my chemistry teacher advised me to drop sciences ‘before you kill somebody’. I then decided that I must become an academic and possibly achieve the rank of professor.
Were you born with a silver spoon in the mouth?
Silver spoon ke? Not at all! I came from a humble background. My father was a goldsmith but he had a thriving business and my mother was an astute businesswoman of humble demeanour.
You retired as Group General Manager, Research and Development, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Can you trace the path that led you to the NNPC?
My joining the NNPC was by divine grace; it happened by accident. In 2005, the then NNPC embarked on a major transformation initiative tagged, Project PACE. PACE stood for Positioning, Aligning for Commerciality and Visible Efficiency. With the solid support of President (Olusegun) Obasanjo and his determination to reposition NNPC for efficiency and leadership of the Nigeria hydrocarbon industry, the NNPC contracted Shell International and Accenture to assist in reviewing its technical, operation and administrative processes, since both companies are global leaders in the industry they operate. Shell was assigned the technical areas of the mandate (HSES, Downstream Asset, Hydrocarbon Development, Upstream Process Optimisation and Supply Chain Management) while Accenture was mandated to consult in the soft skill areas like leadership and competence development.
Shell mobilised and seconded over 15 of its high-calibre professionals from Holland, UK, Italy and Nigeria. I was the only Nigerian and a senior consultant that was appointed and assigned the role of Senior Supply Chain Advisor, with the remit to design, recommend and implement world-class processes, systems and supply chain organisation structure for the NNPC.
The contract was initially for a five-year period but it was truncated in the third year when President Obasanjo advised NNPC to take off from the two consulting companies (Shell and Accenture). As at this period, the SCM project was the most successful of all the work streams. My work stream was well recognised and acknowledged across the NNPC; this prompted the leadership of the NNPC to offer me a role as General Manager in the corporation. I was very reluctant to accept the role because of my promising career at Shell. At that time, I had spent over 23years with Shell International in a career that saw me work in Nigeria, Aberdeen, UK with a bit of stints in Holland and the United States of America. Further consultation with my family made me reason the need to help my country, Nigeria, by bringing to bear experiences from my international assignments. I am very passionate about my country, Nigeria, so I am grateful to God that I accepted the offer to work for the country through the NNPC.
Your area of specialisation is supply chain. What informed that decision?
Supply chain is a wide subject and my sphere encompasses all, but my forte, so to speak, is strategic sourcing. I love organisation efficiency and effectiveness. Since 75 per cent of corporate expenditure is on the acquisition of goods and services, any fraction that can be saved translates into value to the bottom line and this is what strategic sourcing is all about. My training and expertise is to create value for organisations, improve their spending dynamics and release value to the bottom line.
You studied up to the PhD level. What was your drive?
My drive to become a teacher and to be the best at what I teach, PhD informed that. PhD grooms you to think widely, diversely, deeply and offers conclusion only after considering all opportunities. It makes you to ask the right questions and contribute to the body of knowledge in your chosen field.
What particular attribute of yours would you say has helped your progress in life?
Resilience is my strongest attribute. I am passionate and tenacious at anything I do; I give my best always. The dogma of the golf game taught me a lot on leadership qualities, honesty and integrity, time management, determination, focus and fair pay. Above all, I have the fear of God. My heart is like a jelly, it tells me not to do anything that will not please the Lord.
What are the highlights of your career at the NNPC?
My 11-year sojourn in the corporation comes with fond memories because I made indelible achievements in all the divisions that I worked. I am known and recognised as the founder of Supply Chain Management in the NNPC coupled with our excellent delivery of the SAP integrated business solution. I initiated the processes, produced the structure and developed the systems in which the sector operates. Today, SCM is a pride in the NNPC because it promotes accountability, prudent spending, value for money and credible processes in line with the Public Procurement Act, 2007.
Following my track record of excellent service delivery, I was reassigned as Head of Downstream Strategy and Execution; thereafter, moved as Group General Manager, LNG Investments and later on I became the Chief Executive Officer of the NNPC Research and Development Division. In all, I held five GGM roles during my sojourn in the corporation. I retired meritoriously in 2017 upon attaining the statutory retirement age of 60. In all we give God the glory.
It is often in the news the NNPC is running the nation’s four refineries at a loss in billions of naira and a bulk of the loss comes from workers’ salaries. The argument has always been that no individual would run their business the way the refineries are being run. Can you give us an insight into the peculiarities of the situation with NNPC as it relates to the running of the refineries?
I fervently believe in the doctrine that government has no business in business. Empirical evidence suggests that no matter how efficient a government establishment is, it cannot be run profitably and efficiently as a commercial enterprise because of conflicting objectives. The provision of social services is an objective of the Federal Government and that is why the government mandated the NNPC to sell petroleum products at a pegged price, irrespective of the acquisition cost of such products. No business venture will do that. The refineries are running at a loss because of the dilapidated condition of the assets (plant, machineries and infrastructure) due to their ageing nature and poor maintenance. Funding is epileptic, policy is unstable and there is little or no strategic plan for asset renewal processes. Incidentally, NNPC is blessed with very competent and well-trained technical staff that can run the assets efficiently and effectively but inconsistent government policies, political interference, asset vandalisation and unstable crude supply are among the myriad of problems militating against the smooth functioning of these refineries.
Surely, I agree with you, no private owner of such asset will continue to maintain a huge payroll when the plants are down. Instead of government business being everybody’s business, in Nigeria, government business tends to be nobody’s business. Collectively, we must change such an attitude and mindset.
Former President Obasanjo was said to have sold 51% of the stake in Port Harcourt and Kaduna refineries in 2007 but his successor, the late President Umar Yar’Adua, reversed the decision, yet today, the refineries are being run at a loss. From a point of knowledge, will you say Yar’Adua was wrong?
It is common knowledge that Nigeria would have fared best if we allowed the sale of those refineries to private investors (to stand). The reversal may have been well intended but the result has shown that it was a colossal error. Nigerians are today hailing the construction of the magnificent Dangote refineries because of the potential economic benefits and industrial progression. We would have achieved same industrial progression in Kaduna and Port Harcourt if the refineries were sold because the new owners would have provided the required funds, refit the plants with modern facilities and infrastructures and ensure quality manpower are engaged to manage the business. We don’t need to go too far at all to cite an example. Eleme Petrochemical Plant was an NNPC/FGN production facility; it was sold and had since become a solid profit-oriented foreign exchange spinner for the new owners, most of whom are non-Nigerian. Sadly, for the first few years after its acquisition, the majority of the staff managing the company were ex-NNPC workers; so it is not an issue of capability but an issue of government interference in business. I tell you, the NNPC is endowed with high quality staff, well trained with sound knowledge. Unfortunately, the system prevents them from attaining their ultimate potential.
The Nigeria LNG Ltd is another great example. Arguably the most profitable commercial venture in Nigeria, it is run by Nigerians – proudly so. The strength of its success is due to solid business principles, accountability and responsibility, world-class processes and systems, professionalism, prompt decision making and applied consequence management mechanism. All these are ingredients of private entrepreneurial tendencies. The NLNG is also a refinery with huge tank farms, complex pipeline network and integration systems. Unlike the refineries, I am sure Nigerians have never been inundated with news about when NLNG plant is due for turnaround maintenance, it is simply a scheduled activity, and every staff knows exactly what to do and when to do it. This is a company that supplies about 7% of the world’s LNG. I am sure most Nigerians are unaware that NLNG owns a fleet of over 23 ocean-going vessels (very large gas carriers) fully manned by Nigerian crews transporting liquified gas products between Bonny Island and Europe, Asia and America almost on a daily basis. With an investment of about $15bn, the company has generated about $100bn in revenue and paid more than $10bn of tax to the government. The size of their fleet is only comparable to those owned by the defunct Nigeria National Shipping Line.
As a supply chain expert, what will it take to transport petroleum products around the country without the attendant loss of lives that we witness in terms of tanker accidents and explosions?
Nigeria has what it takes to transport petroleum products across the country in a seamless manner with highest efficiency, but our attendant security challenges prevent this. The common method for moving these products is by pipeline system. The NNPC has a comprehensive pipeline network known as System 2B that transverses the West, East, South and the northern parts of the country but the system is usually truncated by pipeline vandalism, thus causing pollution and degradation of the environment. The vandalism of the pipeline system occurs nearly on a daily basis. Truth be told, the Nigerian public does not know and cannot imagine the daily challenges faced by the NNPC leadership in keeping the pipeline network active. Our country is in very dire need of strong security architecture to protect national assets, human lives, and the environment.
Suffice to say that similar to the situation with pipeline vandalism, a significant proportion of our petroleum products are also being stolen through incessant piercing of holes at intermittent sections of the pipeline network nationwide. It is a time for national reflection and strategic government protective intervention.
Can you recall the events that led to your emergence as the first non-European President of the Board and Council member of CIPS, UK?
CIPS is the leading global professional body for the promotion of the arts and science of procurement. In 1999, membership of the institute started growing exponentially, the institute then decided to open its governance to include international members. A seat in Council was created for Africa and votes for election of offers were opened to members. My colleagues at Shell encouraged me to enter for the election due to my strong academic and professional background, my energy and international exposure. I vied in the election with several other contestants across Africa. I got the highest number of votes and began to participate actively in council. The legend, the ate Abraham Mutakila of Zambia, came a distant second. My voice was strong, advocating for professional excellence and the continuous development of students worldwide. I championed the campaign for the growth of the profession within governments and the African Union. Little did I know that my actions were been noticed. In no time, I was nominated for several committee works and subsequently appointed into the Board of Management. These opportunities provided a platform for further recognition which I believe supports the adage that the reward for good works is more work. A year later, I was appointed as Global Vice President and in 2010 became the first non-European to be elected Global President of CIPS. My appointment was recognised as a huge honour even to Nigeria, Africa and the black race. I won several awards in this sphere.
My contribution to the profession continued to be recognised globally as I am a regular resource at international conferences, universities, study centres and also helping the World Bank and government to develop strategy and competency framework for professionalising procurement in both the public and private sectors.
At what point did you begin a family? Where and how did you meet your wife and what attracted you to her?
My wife of inestimable value I met in England when we were both students in the late 70s. She was the reason I returned to the UK after my sojourn in America. I could not take my eyes off her and was worried I might lose her if I was far away but today the rest is history. Her calmness, beauty, mien and incessant singing of praises to the Lord attracted me to her. Every now and then I tease by calling her Eleganza because she is a fashionista.
I married at the age of 27, a year older than my wife and we started raising our family immediately. Combining raising a family at such an early age with our career was very challenging but rewarding. We all grew up together and we could relate with our children as if we were siblings. We hoped that they would do the same but each of them decided to follow education and career first.
Did marriage shape your career in any way?
Marriage makes a more disciplined man because you have not only yourself to care for but the daughter of another man. You are conscious of the time you spend at work and the time you commit to other activities (like sports and socials) because you must return home to satisfy other obligations. Indeed, my marriage is a significant contributor to the successes I recorded throughout my career. I had a soul mate at home to share my challenges with. My wife became my bouncing board, my pastor, my mother, my counsellor, my friend, my prayer warrior and spiritual uplifter. Whenever there was a challenge, she will often say, lets commit it to the mighty hands of God. I am a testimony of the adage that says, two are better than one.
You play golf, what fascinates you about the game? Is it because it is a game for the rich?
Simply put, golf is life! I am a natural sportsman. I play most ball games and play them well too but since I discovered golf many other games I play were relegated to the background except that I still manage to keep tennis in the loop. I had sworn that nothing will take me out of football and table tennis but here we are. The real reason is that golf is a jealous game. It requires you to keep coming back because there is always something to learn and improve upon. It has all the attributes of leadership. In fact, during my time at the NNPC I was a member of the promotion panel for several years. A key question I ask anyone who mention golf in their CV was: Name five of the many attributes of golfing that you need to exhibit as a senior management staff. I would expect answers such as: integrity, time management, temperament, focus, perseverance, etiquette, decision making, empathy, managing success and failures, calmness, eyes on the ball, determination etc.
Contrary to the common belief, golf is not a game for the rich but truth be told, it is also not a game for the poor because apart from the high cost of the kits and club membership fees, you need be able to afford the various expenditures that come with the game every time you play. For example, we pay green fees, course fees, caddy fees and very importantly small spend on socials at the end of each round, known as Hole 19.
I am fascinated by the game because I get quality exercise for walking five hours per round; the game tasks you mentally and you meet people of diverse backgrounds, character and standing in the society. The game is a revealer of character, which is why we say that a round of golf with someone will reveal to you if they are worthy to do business with.
How do you love to dress?
I consider myself as a modest but smart dresser. I love colours and ensure that colours match in my dress pattern. My wife is my compass, she pays attention to details and would hound me when she feels I under-dress for what an occasion demands.