CHIEF Michael Olurunfemi retired from the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, as Group Executive Director of NAPIMS. At different times in NNPC, he was a Senior Petroleum Economist, Senior Financial Analyst, Deputy Group Managing Director (Corporate Service) and Chairman, NETCO, as well as Director, Research Division of Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC. In this interview, Olorunfemi, gives account of his working experience with the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Gen Muhammadu Buhari, at NNPC.
BY CHARLES KUMOLU
How did you find yourself in the oil industry?
I was lecturing at the University of Lagos. After two years, I left because I did not feel like what I wanted to do was what I was doing. I was teaching mathematical engineering then . After two years, I saw an advertisement in the newspapers for a Senior Petroleum Economist. I was not in petroleum management, but I applied and, when I applied, I was given the job. That was how I came into the industry in 1972. I was then in the Petroleum Ministry. At that time some thought I had not taken the right step.
We learnt you had a working relationship with Gen Muhammadu Buhari at the time he was the Federal Commissioner for Petroleum Resources. Can you describe how you first met him?
It was at OPEC that I had the knowledge of oil and gas because I had not spent five months in the ministry before I went there. I was the first Nigerian to be in OPEC. Nigeria joined OPEC in 1971 and I was the first representative in 1973. That period, 1973-1977, was critical in OPEC. I had only four years contract and, after the four years, I came back to Nigeria.
I came back to Nigeria the first day NNPC was born. That was in 1977. I met Buhari when I came back when he was the Commissioner for Petroleum Resources . He started in 1976 but I came back from OPEC in 1977. Because of my experience , when they wanted to have a national representative in OPEC, I was chosen as the Nigerian representative in the OPEC Commission Board.
There is an OPEC Economic Board which is another board where all decisions as regards price and all that is taken. So I was the Nigerian representative. I was still in Nigeria, but I was attending every OPEC meeting. So I was almost the first person people knew when they came around and that is how I came to know Buhari. I was always with him each time he came for OPEC meeting in Vienna.
How can you describe his capacity as a manager of persons and resources?
He was my boss, so it was normal that I knew him. What I admired in him was his ability to carry every one along. He is a good listener, which is a critical leadership quality. We used to have a professional boss, who was the Managing Director. At that time, the person was the head of NNPC. He liaised with the Commissioner for Petroleum Resources, who was Buhari.
And the method made things faster because Buhari could go to the Head of State straight away and that is why if you read our books, we said that the period of Buhari was the golden age of NNPC. It was the period when we got things done fast. All the refineries and pipelines were put in place during that period because there was just no intermediary, he could walk in and get approval from the Head of State, so everything was done fast and anybody who knew that period would know that it was the golden age of the NNPC.
What particularly attracted him to you?
As I said, one thing about him that struck me was that anytime it came to things like economics which I knew more about, Buhari would always listen to me. He has a listening ear. That is among his most important attributes. And there was another man then, though late now, Chief Sunday Awoniyi, he was the Permanent Secretary during that period, he also would say, let us hear them’, even though we were junior to them. He is one man that would listen to you and allow you to make your contributions and if it made some sense, it will hold.
Then one other thing about him was that he came to know that I went to the London School of Economics, so each time we came to London, he would call me and tell me to follow him to a bookshop. I would take him, from 1977 to 1979. I never saw him one day buy a wristwatch, only books. While others were buying other things, he was always buying books.
If you look at the period, 1976-1979, when he was Petroleum Commissioner; that was the period people started to acquire blocks. He must have looked at such things with disdain. He was the one to process it for them, yet he never got one for himself. He did not get a block or a petrol station, he was just a man that we could see, and I just could not understand him. He is a good manager.
But there was this problem of of $2.8 billion. Can you give us an insider’s account of what happened then?
We had this problem of $2.8 billion, and you know, it was mainly political. Chief Awolowo was not able to win the election and Obasanjo handed over to Shagari, and when this $2.8 billion issue came up, Awolowo and others saw it as a way to discredit Obasanjo thinking that the money was lost, when indeed the money was not lost.
And it was during the time Buhari was serving as commissioner; there was no lost money anywhere. An audit was made then by an external auditor and they came with an interim report. The interim report was supposed to be given to the NNPC management. It was not a complete report, unfortunately that day, there was no single photocopying machine that was working at our office then in Falomo, so they had to make photocopies. They went to another place to do it; unfortunately, one of the pages was left there, and that is where people saw it and reacted. People just wanted to hit at something, which is what happened. What happened again is that we just woke up one day and he was Head of State.
What about his time as Head of State?
I was then Deputy Chief Economist, and I had about five ranks above me. But I was in charge of what they called the Economic and Intelligence Department, I recommended prices to the government and all that. Being Well being a soldier, he was always very firm, and he would listen and, when you convince him, it is a go ahead. And then I had first access to the Head of State, so it made things very fast. And also, because of the link between him and the Managing Director, he was supposed to be a buffer between the Head of State and the NNPC and he was doing that quite well, that is why I can say that his managerial skill was thorough and fast.
Then we were doing things both on time and within budget because we had no excuse to fail. It was during his time that we had the Warri Refinery opened in 1978 and the Kaduna in 1980 but the work had been done already by him. Also the pipelines and the depots had also been done. When he was the Petroleum Commissioner, he had direct access to the Head of State, then he was in good partnership with the professionals at NNPC and he was always ready to listen.
The problem in NNPC since he left is that now, you cannot make a single recommendation to the minister without the minister taking it to the Federal Executive Council where they will begin to ask questions. That is where delay comes in especially on the issue of refinery maintenance. It is just like your car, you are supposed to service it as and when due. If the approval does not come quickly, the problems increase. During his time, there was nothing like that, there was quick approval.
Some people say that NNPC is not efficient, but when you come to NNPC, at that time, it was just like Shell. You cannot get in if you are not good. You are competent, that is why you get in, it was later on that things became bad. As Head of State, when we met him, he was already familiar with the industry, so he was familiar with how the oil industry worked. It was during the time of Babangida that this question of a minister being the accounting officer came up. That system ruined the whole set up. During the time of Buhari, it was still the Permanent Secretary, and these were people that were in the know. During that time, they would normally listen to someone who had been in that position for a long time.
But some have said that his subordinates were the ones calling the shots during his time as Oil Minister and Head of State. How true is that?
It was not that he was not doing anything, but the point is that there are establishments and people that had been there and you had to listen to them. It is wrong for people to say that Idiagbon was in charge. During our meetings, Idiagbon would sit and may not utter a word as long as we discussed, because he did not know anything about what we were discussing. And in fact, it is not wrong for you to listen to your subordinates because you can learn from their suggestions too. In fact, I never heard Idiagbon speak on petroleum matters.