By Donu Kogbara
THIS weekend, key oil/gas industry players will gather in Abuja to say fond farewells to Mr Babs Omotowa, the outgoing Managing Director of Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas, NLNG, who will shortly move abroad to work for Shell.
NLNG was established in 1989 to harness Nigeria’s vast natural gas resources and produce Liquefied Natural Gas, LNG and Natural Gas Liquids, NGLs, for export. The company is a joint venture between the Federal Government, represented by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, which owns 49% of the shares, and three international companies: Shell, Total and Eni.
I have a special interest in NLNG because it’s based on Bonny Island in my home state, Rivers; and having enjoyed the privilege of knowing Omotowa for several years, I can say, hand on heart, that he is an impressive professional who has done a terrific job as CEO and tried his best to meet the needs of his host community.
During his tenure, a staggering $40 billion (N13 trillion) was generated; and this revenue was rigorously audited by external auditors; and, as Omotowa himself puts it with justifiable satisfaction, “not a cent was ever reported missing.”
NLNG also contributed an unprecedented $22 billion (N7 trillion) to the nation’s coffers during his tenure, including the $2billion “bail-out” fund in June 2015.
In addition, Omotowa secured NLNG Directors’ support to partner with the Federal Government and provide 50% of the funding for the construction of a road between Bonny and Bodo (my village!) – which had languished on the drawing board since 1975 – to finally be completed; and I’m told that this commitment is the single largest Corporate Social Responsibility initiative in Nigerian history.
NLNG has also, under Omotowa, built and equipped engineering laboratories, costing $2 million apiece, in six universities – Ahmadu Bello, Ibadan, Uniport, Maiduguri, Ilorin and Nsukka). In other words, one in each geopolitical zone.
Then there’s the fact that NLNG has facilitated the construction of a dry dock project by a consortium comprising South Koreans and Nigerians, financed/built 6 LNG carriers and trained 600 Nigerians to acquire ship-building skills.
But the NLNG/Omotowa project that is closest to my heart is the Bonny Masterplan, an innovative developmental scheme that was launched this year and aims to generate employment opportunities for the local population and transform the island into a thriving, modern oasis over a period of two and a half decades.
I contacted Omotowa a few days ago and asked him how things were going on this front. His responses to my questions are summarised below:
“We are making good progress. The initial phase involves setting up sustainable structures – a Transition Management Team, TMT, and the Bonny Kingdom Development Foundation, BKDF. The TMT is now in place and the BKDF’s registration will be done once background checks of nominees are concluded…
“…Administrative staff are being recruited for the BKDF and 3rd party management companies will be appointed to run the Vocational Centre and Utility Company. The process has been painstaking to ensure lasting success; and we have engaged Accenture – an independent consultancy firm that has international experience – to help deliver the vision and enable seamless execution…”
I wondered, given that implementing the Bonny Masterplan will be extremely expensive, whether the recent drastic drop in the oil price is going to cause any problems; and Omotowa admitted that there will be some funding challenges.
“However,” he added, “NLNG is taking a long-term view and continues to regard the Masterplan as a priority. We have been through oil price drops in the past, but have not allowed them to prevent us from fulfilling obligations we’d made in better times. We went ahead with promises to provide roads, electricity and water….
“…Besides, I believe that the oil price will rebound towards $70 per barrel medium-term and I’m confident that current funding pressures will gradually ease up.”
When asked what he regarded as his greatest achievements, Omotowa said:
“Making NLNG an inspiration to Nigeria by demonstrating that it is possible for Nigerians to run “FTSE 100”-type companies and achieve significant financial results without any ethical issues. I’m also very happy that we took our relationship with our host community to a higher level, did a lot in terms of socio-economic empowerment and Local Content enhancement and achieved four years without any fatalities and one year without any major industrial injury.” [before Omotowa, NLNG had suffered an average of two fatalities and seven major injuries per year.
When asked whether there had been any disappointments, he said that he regretted the fact that he had not been able to expand NLNG’s plant and operations by getting a seventh train (new production unit) up and running.
“A seventh train is crucial for NLNG because it will increase output by 40%, lead to the employment of at least 30,000 workers – to construct the train and participate in related upstream gas projects. Frankly, I am very sad about this delay.”
When pressed to explain the delay, Omotowa preferred to be diplomatically silent. But other sources have blamed foot-dragging by previous administrations.
Thankfully, President Buhari has made it clear that it is fully behind NLNG’s expansion aspirations, so one assumes that there will be no further obstacles.
When asked how he would like his successor, Mr Tony Attah – another very capable gentleman whom I also happen to know – to fill his shoes, Omotowa said:
“I’m sure that Tony will focus, as I did, on making NLNG a world-class entity that is committed to making Nigeria stronger. And if he asks for my opinion, I’ll simply advise him to keep an eye on the need to grow talent, the need to drive trains 7/8 and so on, while maintaining sound relationships with communities and government.”