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30 minutes with Dr Omar Farouk Ibrahim

Omar Farouk Ibrahim is the Secretary-General of the African Petroleum Producers Organisation (APPO). He had earlier served as an adviser on international energy relations to…

Omar Farouk Ibrahim is the Secretary-General of the African Petroleum Producers Organisation (APPO). He had earlier served as an adviser on international energy relations to the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources of Nigeria, in which position he represented Nigeria on the boards of several inter-governmental energy organisations. He was a Managing Director of the New Nigerian Newspapers. In this interview on 30 minutes with Malam Mannir on Trust TV, he speaks about how he moved from the mainstream media to the oil industry, the challenges he faced and how he surmounted them and other issues.

 

You started as a PhD graduate assistant lecturer for about a decade in the university system. What made you to move out of the university into the media industry?

There was a major change going on in the Daily Times of Nigeria then; I believe in 1990.  I believe 60 per cent was owned by the federal government and 40 per cent by the private sector.

We are talking of the biggest newspaper owned by the government at that time.

Exactly. The Daily Times would be 100 years in the next four years. It is 96 years today. It was established in 1927.

They were doing a major reform, so they brought in one Dr Ogunbiyi during the Babangida government and he felt that he really wanted the newspaper to be truly national.

In the whole of the Daily Times Editorial Board, there wasn’t anyone from the North. Ismaila Mohammed, who is today the Emir of Karshi, was on the board and he was appointed the managing director of Standard Newspapers.

That’s a Plateau State government-owned newspaper?

Correct. So the management of Daily Times sent letters to four universities—Bayero University, Kano (BUK), Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), University of Sokoto and the University of Jos, asking them to send them academics who would be on their editorial board for one year on sabbatical.

So, it started with a sabbatical invitation?

Exactly. I was sent among others. Eventually, I was chosen to be on the Editorial Board of the Daily Times for one year.

Before the end of my first year, the management requested BUK to extend my stay by another year. And within two years, I felt really interested in journalism. Beyond just being on the Editorial Board, I became the op-ed editor of the newspaper.

And by 1993, I moved into media administration, running the Daily Times in northern Nigeria for all the northern states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), marketing, advert and everything editorial. That was how I came to stay in the Daily Times from 1990 until 1999.

So what made you move away from the media sector to the oil industry?

In 1999, Obasanjo appointed me managing director of the New Nigerian newspaper. In fact, he offered me the Daily Times. But I thanked Mr President very much and said if he really wanted me to do a good job, I should rather go to the New Nigerian. He said the New Nigerian was dead but I said that was the more reason he should send somebody to revive the place.

My vision of a newspaper house is a paper that is strong – tell the government when it is doing the right thing and tell it when it is doing the wrong thing.

I wanted to go and work in the New Nigerian because all the media houses in Nigeria were located in the southern part of this country, apart from the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN), Kaduna and the New Nigerian. Daily Trust wasn’t there at that time.

We needed to go and revive that newspaper house. He asked if that was what I wanted and I said yes. I went to Kaduna determined to bring back to life the New Nigerian, which we used to read when we were in secondary school.

I was in the New Nigerian when, in 2002, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) adverti

dr omar faruk ibrahim
dr omar faruk ibrahim

sed the position of head of the Department of Public Relations and Information. I applied. We were invited for an interview in June 2002 – seven countries—I think Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iran, Venezuela, Libya, Kuwait; and I can’t remember the seventh country. Anyway, we went for the interview, the results came out and I was given the position.

So you met the New Nigerian half dead?

To be very honest with you, when I went to the New Nigerian in 1999, it was printing 2,500 copies a day – 1,000 in Lagos, 1,500 in Kaduna, out of which 1,000 was given out as complimentary copies, and out of the 1,500 that went to the market, about 500 came back as unsold.

We were doing five publications. We had 750 staff and they were owed about five months’ salary.

The first thing I did when I went to the New Nigerian was to lock myself in the managing director’s office. I refused to see or talk to anybody. I asked the Human Resource Department to give me the files of all the top management of the organisation, all the general managers, all the deputy managers and all the managers.

After I had gone through, it took me about two weeks, even the old files that had been closed. When I finished that, I invited these guys to have a one-on-one with them. It was after that that we had our first town hall meeting, with all the members of staff. I told them that we had 754 staff. We had five titles and were printing 2,500 copies. We were selling 1,000 and I could not sustain that, so we were going to rationalise staff. And I would not sack anybody until I had the money to pay all their arrears and gratuity.

And I would work with the government to make sure the federal government that took the New Nigerian from the northern governments took back the liability of their pension. It was not the responsibility of northern governments or the newspaper house to provide their pension because nobody asked the federal government to take that newspaper. It was Murtala-Obasanjo that took it, so they should also take the liability.

But that hasn’t happened.

It has; I will come to that. I did a report after about one month and took to President Obasanjo. I told him about the situation at the New Nigerian and said that I needed to be able to revive it and I needed his support. Obasanjo said they were not going to give any money but the determination he saw in me would make it impossible for him to say so. He promised to talk to the vice president because it was a collective decision.

They gave me N100 million, and within three days, I paid N54m of that money to staff and rationalised them. By that time, we had come to about seven months of arrears.

If you were going, I paid you for seven months, as well as your gratuity, but if you were going to stay, I would pay only four months and pay the rest as you continued to work. That’s exactly what we did.

By the time we did the rationalisation, we came to 180 staff, and I recruited another 60 outside to make 240.

So, you still had over 200?

Yes. And by the time I left the New Nigerian in February 2003, our production had gone to 18,000 copies from 1,500 in Kaduna. And we were selling almost 17,000.

 So, it was on the way back to life?

Exactly. And I wasn’t giving anybody any complimentary copy.

Apparently, the game changed and now, New Nigerian is dead. What happened after you left?

When I was in the New Nigerian, one thing I made sure of was that I did not request to become the managing director.

I was a consultant to the Obasanjo campaign. When I was invited, I made it very clear that I was not a politician, so if they wanted my services, I was going to charge them. And they would pay me as soon as we signed the contract. They would pay me one-third before the primaries and one-third, whether they won or not. That was the agreement. I was paid the first money.

But not on the New Nigerian job.

I had not started the New Nigerian job; I was doing the Daily Times.

Back to New Nigerian; so after your valiant effort you left because you got a new job?

No. I am trying to tell you what led to the collapse of New Nigerian.

When I was given the job, I made it very clear that I had come to work to revive the newspaper, so Mr President should give me the latitude to do what I believed was right. I respect President Obasanjo tremendously.

Less than two weeks after my appointment, the northern governors were going to hold their first meeting and I was summoned. They said they wanted back the New Nigerian and I said no problem.

In the course of the conversation, one of the secretaries to state governments said something that I really felt. And I said he was not more northern than me. By the way, I wasn’t appointed by any northern governor; I was appointed by the federal government, so I didn’t owe them any responsibility to come to the meeting. I walked out of the meeting.

When I went back to my office I called the president and said the northern governors were going to meet the following day. I told him that the SSGs called me and this is what they were saying. I said he should tell me what to say when the governors called me again?

Before I went to New Nigerian, Obasanjo had said I could give it the northern governors. He said I could revive it, but whatever it was, he didn’t want me to remain there. He wanted me to come and work with him in the Villa.

Obasanjo’s first few appointments really alienated the North from him, so, I said he could not let go of New Nigerian because he had a duty to revive it.

He told me to go to the meeting and say whatever I thought was right. That was how he empowered me.

What did you tell the governors?

Luckily, they didn’t call me, but with that attitude, the president empowered me, such that the governors, ministers from the North and VIPs could not call to tell me what to do with the New Nigerian.

A sitting governor told the president that I was using New Nigerian to promote the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and not the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). I heard so many things.

So, one day, I went to the president, thanked him very much and told him to take his job; I didn’t want it again.

He asked why and I said I heard what was happening with the people that had political weight, and I didn’t have a constituency.

He said I should go and do what I was doing because he liked it. That emboldened me.

Less than a month after Obasanjo was sworn in, there was crisis in Shagamu and northerners were killed, bodies were put in trailers and brought to the North. The whole of southern newspapers were silent about this and people were getting agitated.

We wrote an editorial criticising the Ogun State Government and even the federal government. A top shot in the government of the president called me and asked if I had read the editorial of my newspaper. I said yes and asked: ‘What do you mean?’ He said, “You should control your Editorial Board members. I told him that I wrote that editorial.

He asked if I had another job and I said I could always go back to the university; that’s why I got a PhD. He said he was serious and I said I was also serious.

Are you saying that blatant interference by powerful people kills the media in Nigeria, especially in the North?

They did it to me but I said no because at the highest level, I had the support of the president. So, I could look at a minister or governor and say I won’t do it.

Are you suggesting that the takeover of the New Nigerian from the federal government by the northern governors kind of hastened it to its grave?

I think New Nigerian started dying even before they handed it over to the northern governors. A lot had to do with its management.

The person who took over the management of New Nigerian after me didn’t have the courage to look people in authority in the face and say he won’t this or that because he felt it was the biggest achievement he could make in his life. So he could not let it go.

So the ‘rankadede’ syndrome just carried on?

Exactly. I remember that as a head of department at the OPEC secretariat, when I heard that Mahmoud Jega had been suspended, I called the managing director and asked what the hell was happening? He said it was the minister and I asked if he knew how we moved New Nigerian from 1,000 to 18,000 copies. We were writing what people believed. I told him that if he kept on writing what the minister said, he would kill the newspaper.

That was not even the tradition of New Nigerian. In its heydays, the newspaper was seen as the most authoritative. The editor or managing director could look at Yakubu Gowon, the then military head of state and say, ‘We stand by our story.’  How did the standard change?

I think what happened is not different from what has happened in most corporations in the Nigerian scene.  Most people believe that it is a favour to get positions.

As long as you keep thinking that it is a favour, you will continue to do everything to be in their favour. But if you believe it is service, you will do a better job.

Most people would rather do the rankadede type of thing to keep their job because they think they must put food on the table; they don’t want to get sacked. What gave you the courage to do what you did?

When we rationalised staff, we hired new people, including a number of people from the South and also of northern extraction. I told them to come and help us.

I gave my Mercedes to the late Ibrahim Auduson and my Honda to another person, with the understanding that when we got money I could buy official cars for them.

When we got the money, we sat down and said, ‘Look, gentlemen, my priority is not to give you comfort at this time, let’s build this place first. So we invested the money in reviving New Nigerian.

For the almost four years I was in New Nigerian, they were using my personal car.

When I got the OPEC job and was leaving, I told them that after they used my car for four years, they should keep it.

The point I am making is that I went there with the determination to change the place. As long as you don’t see a place as a source of making money, you can do well.

Sometimes people’s poverty is more in the mind, so they would always look for a means of making money; do you agree with me?

Exactly. Basically, that was how the New Nigerian was killed.

From OPEC, at one time you were the Group General Manager in the then Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). And now, you are the secretary-general of the African Petroleum Producers Organisation. You seem to have become an oil man; is that correct?

When I went to OPEC, I got interviewed for the position of head of public relations and information department. I must tell you that I knew next to nothing about oil. The interview was strictly on public relations, editorial etc.

When I assumed duty, I told myself that I could not be a spokesperson of an industry I didn’t understand, so I gave myself two years. At that time, OPEC was seven years.

I told myself that I was going to dedicate myself to reading, attending conferences and trainings.

By the time I left OPEC, the director of research disapproved. I remember very vividly an article that was to be used in the OPEC Energy Review. I was the editor of the OPEC Energy Review, so I ignored him and I published it. And within three months, the citation from that article passed all the other citations for the last five years of the history of OPEC Energy Review.

You are now at the African Petroleum Producers Organisation, what does it do because it is not like OPEC; it doesn’t issue quotas?

No.

I have seen the issue of this energy transition. I have also seen that it has some funds. I don’t know where it got the funds it is using to make some of the transition. Can you elaborate on that organisation?

I was working in OPEC when Dr Lukman, the then minister requested the secretary-general to allow me come and help him. For six months or one year, that was how I came. I told him that I would come but I knew the intricacies and the instability in the system, so if he wanted me to come and work for him, he would get one of the parastatals under him to employ me, then post me to his office. That was how the NNPC employed me and I was posted to his office as an adviser, communications.

I worked with him for barely four months and the Yar’adua government (Deziani Alison Madueke) came. We worked for three months and couldn’t work together.

I think we parted ways from April to June, then she asked that I should be sacked. But the managing director, Austin Oniwan refused, saying they were all shocked at the fact that this gentleman who came from OPEC took a salary that was one quarter of what he was being paid.

She said, “Okay, take him away; I don’t want him in my office. That was how I went back to the NNPC.

After two years, I got promoted to a Group General Manager in charge of public affairs. I was in that position when Deziani came back to ask that I should come to her office.

When I was invited, I said fine. She said she wanted me to come and become the Group General Manager, OPEC matters. That was when she was trying to get the position of OPEC secretary-general and many people told her that she won’t get it without Faruq who knew the system there and everybody.

When she called me, I asked if I could request for one favour. She asked what it was and I asked if I could report to the permanent secretary, not directly to her. She asked if I did not want it and I replied that all of us were working for her, but I would feel more comfortable working with the permanent secretary. She said okay, and that was how I worked there.

When she left, Ibe Kachikwu came and retained me. When he left, Silva came and also retained me. I was holding that position. This time, in fact, they expanded it to become Group General Manager, International Energy Relations. I was OPEC governor for Nigeria, executive Board member for GCF for Nigeria, IEF.

When Kachikwu was the president of the APPA, they were going to do a major reform of the African Petroleum Producers Association and I was made the chairperson of the technical committee.

After the reform, the position of the secretary-general was advertised and Nigeria nominated me. Other countries nominated their candidates. We went for an interview. And in 2019, the ministerial council appointed me as secretary-general.

Can you tell us what exactly that organisation is currently doing, the key things?

The APPA was established in 1987, essentially to bring together African countries producing oil and gas to share thoughts, etc.  But not much was done until after 2015 when the world decided to move away from oil and gas.

It was at that time that these countries realised that in the nearly 70 to 100 years that we have been producing oil and gas, we have been heavily dependent on foreign financing, foreign technology and expertise, as well as foreign markets.

Now that those we have been dependent on have decided to move away from oil and gas and we have 125 billion barrels of oil in our ground, 600 and something trillion cubic feet of gas, and we have the largest proportion of people in the world, 900million Africans do not have energy and 600 million Africans don’t know what electricity is about.

Are we going to leave this oil and gas in the ground because Europe and America say no?

It was then that we said let’s reform this organisation and see what we could do so that we can use this energy to change the living standard of our people because it is this same energy that Europe and America used to get industrialised and change the living conditions of their people.

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