Nigeria in the eyes of Babs Omotowa

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PROFILE OF NLNG CEO

BY DONU KOGBARA

I am a committed tourist. I rarely shop when I travel to foreign locations. I mostly focus on sightseeing because I absolutely love historic buildings and distinguished cultural institutions; and it had always been my intention to one day visit the world-famous Harvard University campus in the United States.

satBabsThe perfect opportunity to tick this item on my wish-list arose earlier on this year, when I got wind of the fact that an illustrious Nigerian mover and shaker – Babs Omotowa – had been invited to address a Harvard gathering.

Figuring that there could be no better time to finally provide myself with the experience of strolling through Harvard’s hallowed halls, I raided my piggy bank, purchased an airline ticket and hopped on a Boston-bound plane.

The trip was worth every penny.

The atmosphere was sublime. The architecture was beautiful. The libraries were enviable. The Harvard denizens (students as well as academics) I encountered were friendly, informative and impressively intelligent. And – the icing on an already delicious cake – Mr Omotowa’s presentation, titled “Nigeria: In Need Of Dreamers Of A Certain Kind,” was truly inspiring.

Babs Omotowa, who hails from Kogi State and studied at the universities of Ilorin and Leicester (in the UK), has a first degree in Industrial Chemistry and two postgraduate Masters of Business Administration qualifications that enabled him to specialise in Operations Research and Supply Chain Management.

He started his career as a teacher (at Bishop Smith College in Ilorin) and joined Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) in 1993 as a management trainee and quickly, through hard work and cleverness, earned the confidence of his new bosses.

A rapid rise through the ranks followed; and after completing several senior-level assignments for Shell, both at home and abroad (Britain, Holland and Norway), he eventually became a Director and Vice-President.

Omotowa has now worked in the oil/ gas industry for over 20 years and is currently the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Nigeria LNG Limited (NLNG)…and the Vice President of Bonny Gas Transport Limited (a wholly owned subsidiary that handles NLNG’s shipping requirements).

NLNG has four shareholders – one indigenous, 3 foreign: The Federal Government via NNPC (49%), Shell (25.6%), Total LNG Nigeria Ltd (15%) and Eni (10.4%).

It was incorporated as a limited liability company on May 17th 1989 and is therefore celebrating its 25th anniversary as a company this month and its 15th anniversary of from first production.

And what a stellar two-and-a-half decades it has been!

NLNG, which was founded to harness our vast gas reserves and produce Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) for the export market, is also celebrating Nigeria’s 3000th LNG export cargo in 2014.

It has progressed from being a smallish two-train plant to being a substantial six-train industrial complex…and was one of the fastest growing LNG projects on the planet and is the largest industrial complex in sub-Saharan Africa.

The combined annual output of its 6 trains is 22 million metric tonnes of LNG, which amounts to roughly 7% of the world’s LNG supply.

It has acquired a 23-vessel fleet that transports its products across the globe, to various countries, including America, Spain, France, Japan, South Korea, Portugal and Turkey (which gets nearly 25% of its LNG imports from NLNG).

NLNG’s management team is 100% Nigerian and it employs thousands of people (95% of whom are Nigerian) and has delivered cumulative revenues of $80 billion since 1999 and contributes about 4% of our Gross Domestic Product and has eliminated 40% of the environmental evil that is gas-flaring (four trillion cubic feet of Associated Natural Gas has been captured)…

…and pays more company income tax – a whopping N220 billion per annum – than any other African commercial entity south of the Mahgreb region.

Wow! Not bad at all for a Naija-run company that was launched with a Nigerian contribution of only $2.5 billion initial capital and is hidden away on a little island in Rivers State!

Mr Omotowa, his management team and their predecessors have shown us what Nigerian professionals and workers can achieve when they put their minds to it and embrace integrity, diligence and international standards.

Frankly, I’m surprised that President Goodluck Jonathan has not made more noise about NLNG’s considerable triumphs, especially in this very special Centenary year, because the Government he heads is the biggest single NLNG partner; and NLNG is one of his – and this country’s – major success stories.

Omotowa himself acknowledges the support he has received from the Government, so the Government is entitled to claim some of the credit.

Modesty is an attractive trait, but there are times when it is not called for! If I were in Mr President’s shoes, I would blow the NLNG trumpet very loudly indeed, if only to drown out the voices that keep describing Nigeria as a totally failed state and insisting that nothing positive is happening within our shores.

Which brings me back to Omotowa’s eloquent and thought-provoking Harvard lecture, in which he reminded his audience of Nigerian victories – establishing the first African TV station and producing the first African Nobel Laureate, for example – and waxed lyrical and patriotic about our enormous potential.

Unfortunately, there is insufficient space to publish everything he said on that occasion, so I’ll settle for quoting the most poignant and uplifting excerpts:-

“…Every country has self-serving (or self-destructive) myths…For the United States, it is American exceptionalism…a myth that iconic historian, Richard Hofstadter, celebrated when he wrote that America is the only nation in history that believes it was born perfect and strives for improvement…

…“The American, you could say, is a dreamer who holds steadfastly to a myth that has not only made America the richest nation in the world, but has also sired other myths [such as] American perfectionism at home and exceptionalism in the world. Good myths beget good destiny…”

“…[In Nigeria], we have some pernicious myths that even our people have elevated to orthodoxies. The prime one is that Nigeria was a ‘mistake -, a mere geographical expression’ [that was forced on us by colonialists]…

“…[Other myths include the beliefs] that nothing works in Nigeria, that we make great plans, but always have problems with execution…that we’re individually brilliant but unable to produce good leaders…”

“….Nigeria has had a chequered history, but which country hasn’t?..[Besides] defiance and resilience are also hallmarks of our history…and Nigeria with its can-do spirit and specialness is waiting for the right environment to flower…”

“[All we need to excel] is dreamers of a certain type and quality: nation-builders who will respond to the yearnings of the citizenry for a platform to make a mark on the world…leaders willing to put national aspirations above personal, religious or tribal interests…men and women who believe in Nigeria’s specialness, if only because Nigeria is the biggest black nation on earth…”

“[and as we contemplate the future with cautious optimism, we earnestly pray that] one day all its controversies, all its contradictions and all its contrarian impulses will resolve nicely, even if miraculously, and that [Nigeria] will rise like the mythical phoenix and take its rightful place in the comity of nations…”

I was deeply moved, emotionally – and psychologically energised – by Omotowa’s cheerful outlook and dogged faith in the Nigerian project, which often comes across as depressingly doomed.

I’m also unapologetically wedded to the capitalist idea that societies need entrepreneurial personalities like Omotowa to push them forwards.

But it has to be said that not everyone shares my view…and that Omotowa (despite his blue-chip CV) and NLNG (despite its income generation talents) have attracted strongly-worded criticisms – from Bonny natives, for example.

Since I am a journalist, it is my duty to be objective; and I felt obliged to corner Omotowa after his Harvard outing, to direct some awkward questions at him. I asked him why a significant number of Bonny residents routinely accuse NLNG of adopting an arrogant approach towards community relations issues.

He answered thus:

The relationship between us and Bonny has been one of partnership. We have done fairly well during the time we’ve been here and have the zeal to do more. Only recently the King of Bonny visited the President with his Council of Chiefs and spoke glowing of the support the community has received from NLNG.

“At the beginning of the partnership in the 1990s, we and other development partners signed an MOU with the community to deliver power, water and roads to the Bonny Kingdom. It is worthy of note that the promise has been kept, and that all the agreed projects have either been delivered or are nearing completion.

Last year, led by the King, a Sustainable Development Conference was convened with the community and NLNG support and facilitation, to launch a post-MOU era with a refreshed Bonny Master Plan that would enable the Kingdom – quite rightly – to take the lead and claim ownership of future projects and business initiatives for reasons of sustainability…These MOUs and the Sustainability Conference show clearly that we listen respectfully to our host communities.

“Maybe we have not satisfied individual interests, but I would like to clarify that we have focused on meeting communal needs and provided roads, hospitals, vocational learning centres, round-the-clock electricity, pipe-borne water, micro-credits, scholarships and many other benefits to 250,000 Bonny inhabitants.”

Many Nigerians are intensely suspicious of the international oil companies (IOCs) that adopted Omotowa and own the lion’s share of NLNG.

There is a widespread view, particularly within Niger Delta host communities, that IOCs do not have Nigeria’s best interests at heart; and I sought Omotowa’s reaction to this constantly simmering tension and lack of trust.

These assertions are simply untrue…Let me use Shell as an example. I am not aware of any other company in Nigeria that has spent as much money to train Nigerians locally and expose them worldwide to the latest technologies…

…Such exposure and transfer of technology is now enabling several new indigenous oil companies to becoming oil producers. Also, even before the Nigeria Content Act was enacted, Shell in Nigeria had a local content policy and was at the forefront of developing local contractors…

“The IOCs have stayed with us through thick and thin, at times when many foreign companies abandoned Nigeria. They held onto the Nigeria relationship during the civil war, when oil prices dived, during the Niger Delta militancy crisis, etc…

…“And I don’t know of any other company in Nigeria that genuinely cares as much as Shell does. Mistakes have been made because nobody is perfect. But whenever there is any complaint relating to ethical, environmental, human rights or other societal issues, attention is paid to resolving and preventing conflicts, both in Shell’s head office in the Hague and in local offices in Nigeria…

Recently, particularly during  the ongoing discussions about the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), there has been a lot of hostile media coverage around IOC earnings. But Nigeria gets over 85% of upstream Joint Venture proceeds and more than 60%, of offshore proceeds. And IOCs are not even arguing against Nigeria increasing its take, but have cautioned against increasing it to the point where investing in Nigeria will become so unprofitable that Nigeria will suffer…”

Finally, I asked Omotowa about the greatest challenge he had faced. His response should send a shiver down the spine of every law-abiding Nigerian.

An incident that occurred in 2013 made me sad. A government agency – NIMASA (Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency) – blocked our operations for several days, despite a court injunction. This action led to financial losses ($1billion across the value chain) and undermined NLNG’s reputation with international customers and financial institutions…

“Worst of all was the fact that Nigeria incurred 70% of the financial losses during a period of high unemployment when funds were needed for infrastructural development and poverty alleviation and efforts were being made to promote the country as a good foreign direct investment destination.” Thankfully, NLNG was not subjected to disruptive piracy for long; and Omotowa, who doesn’t know the meaning of complacency and has no intention of resting on his laurels, is concentrating on moving onwards, soaring upwards and taking the organization he regards as a mission as far as it can go. For him, the sky is the limit. For Nigeria, his presence is a huge bonus.

 

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