Caption: Chairman and CEO of MRS Plc, Sayyu Dantata
Chairman and CEO of MRS Plc, Sayyu Dantata, tells SHAKA MOMODU that last Wednesday’s fire incident involving one of their barges in Lagos could have been much worse barring what he call the company’s impressive safety system
How exactly did the fire incident happen?
Fire incidents do happen every now and then especially during the dry season. In fact let me borrow from what Governor Fashola said when he visited our facility. He stated that in the dry season we experience fire and in the rainy season we experience flood. But that is beside the issue. Obviously there must have been something that caused the barge to catch fire and explode, but investigations are still ongoing to ascertain what actually caused the fire. The important thing for me personally and the company is that we took precautionary measures to match international standards of modern Oil installations in terms of safety.
And because of the investments we made in safety measures. When the fire started, our fire safety equipment kicked in and shut down the entire facility. Our well trained staff were able to move people out of danger areas very quickly. I’ll tell you the truth when I arrived at the scene of the fire incident less than two hours after, I could not believe that no one died because the amount of damage I saw from the explosion was enormous.
When I asked if there were fatalities, my people said no. They told me that the only people that suffered bruises were the staff that were making sure that people were being evacuated quickly to safety. You can imagine the relief I felt to learn that no life was lost. As the Chairman and CEO, I am responsible for every single life on the premises. There is nothing I can say but to thank the our staff who rose to the challenge and proved themselves. They proved all training and constant drill they undergo are not for nothing.
This greatly reassured me that we invested in the right personnel, with the right knowledge, mindset and experience, who can quickly deploy their training in time of danger to minimize any damage and prevent loss of precious lives in the situation we found ourselves on Wednesday. The only loss we had as you can see is material loss which can be fixed, but loss of life will always bring sad memories with the passage of time. With God on our side we did not have such an incident and to me, that is the greatest gift from God, at the beginning of 2013 and I am grateful. Also important is the amount of calls of concern and sympathy that we received. We thank everyone immensely for their support.
In less than 12 hours the governor was on site to sympathize with us and to inspect the damage. He also came up with many suggestions and ideas on the way forward and I agree with him on those ideas. As you can see, it was just the barge that caught fire while the terminal was not affected in any way. This particular barge hasn’t been used in the last four months, because of the subsidy payment issues. We have not been as active as we used to be. However with the current situation of things, and the resolution on outstanding issues with government, I believe life will soon go back to normal and business activities will pick up.
The governor was reported to have talked about the relocation of depots from Apapa away from residential areas what is your reaction to that?
For me it is a welcome proposal by him. When Nigeria was being planned from the colonial times coupled with subsequent civilian and military regimes, we never had a governor in Lagos that I can say can plan and then follow it through tenaciously to see that what has been planned will be executed like this governor has been doing. If you knew Lagos 15 years ago, you will understand what I am talking about. So when a man like that comes forward to put up that proposal you know of course it is doable, the entire facility not only the private jetties, even the major marketers depots that have been built around that area. I cannot remember the last time a train came into the Port and lifted oil for onward transportation to other parts of the country. So it is about planning. If he is talking about free zone, we’ll be happy because people will build more modern facilities, better than the ones we have now and I can assure you that if our facility was not built with all safety standards strictly adhered to, perhaps the fire incident would have been worse.
Was the barge laden with product?
It was an empty barge. If it was laden with fuel you can imagine what the situation would have been, even though an empty barge can be more dangerous than a barge that is full of oil because there is no oxygen and it is easier to monitor. However, we are on the same page with the governor - to sit down, design and plan, when and how the depots can be relocated. For depots to be relocated we have to look into the issue of pipelines. Today you have people continuing to vandalize petroleum pipelines. As I am talking to you today I read in the newspapers that there were about 25 people killed as a result of pipeline vandalisation.
These are the things that we, as Nigerians have to take a stand on and really look at very seriously. If security of pipelines is guaranteed, depots do not have to be by the sea. If there is a will, there is always a way. It is a problem that all Nigerians need to come together to solve. I believe poverty is largely part of the problem, because if you have means to live well why would you think of bursting a pipeline to steal product, a very risky venture that has consistently claimed the lives of many people.
What do you think would be the cost implication of such relocation?
The governor said something which is true: that Nigeria has moved a federal government and a federal capital. Are you telling me moving a mere tank farm would be harder? In Abuja there are a few buildings that will pay the entire investment of the Oil & Gas downstream sector. The governor didn’t say we should move tomorrow. It may take 5-10 years to relocate the terminals but let’s sit down with state, federal government and marketers to plan. It is a gradual process. The good thing about it is that when he (Lagos State governor) says things he does it.
What is your holding capacity?
Our holding capacity is next to none in West Africa. The barge that had an accident is one of fourteen. Between land and sea in Nigeria we hold about 1.2 million tonnes which is almost 2 billion litres. If you look at the rest of the West African countries we operate in like Cameroun, we have over 170 stations. In Ivory Coast we have about 100 stations, Togo we have about 70 stations, Benin Republic 35 stations. So our combined capacity is almost 3-4 billion litres so we are looking at about 2 million tonnes of storage capacity in the region.
How large is your distribution network?
Outside Nigeria we have about 400 stations in those four countries that I mentioned. Within Nigeria, we have about 700 stations. So put together we have about 1,100 stations at the last count. Obviously because of the lack of product that we have experienced this year some of our dealers have gone to NNPC or PPMC retail. Some of them we will get back and this is mostly tied to the subsidy problem. You know any time people go through rough times, it tends to make them stronger. We will come out of it stronger because the honest and the strong will always survive.
How has the subsidy probe impacted on your business?
Oh, it has greatly affected us. Not just MRS, but the entire industry. Activities have been low keyed for all of us operators. You have to remember that the subsidy investigation was carried out up to 6 times within the year by the House of Representatives, by the Senate, the EFCC, the Presidential Committee twice and 2 others. This greatly impacted business but I will not comment much on that other than to say that the investigations have been conducted and concluded and we were cleared. All I can say to Nigerians, our partners and all the people that we do business with around the world is that we came out clean because our hands have always been clean.
How quickly can you restore distribution of products to all places you could not deliver while all these issues were going on?
The process is already starting but we have still not seen a clear road map of what the government really wants to do and I am just one of many marketers. However I am sure that government is not sleeping and wants to see its people have the best quality of life and relieve the suffering of the people, most especially the people living outside Lagos and Abuja who don’t earn as much as people living in these areas, they suffer more. We believe in this country and we have displayed this as a family for over 170 years. We will continue to work harder to make sure Nigerian have a job to look after their loved ones.
How quickly is work resuming at your depot?
Since the day after the incident, people have been working day and night to put the terminal back to use. I am even going to inspect the facilities myself this afternoon. My prayer is that we will roll the first truck out very soon and we will televise it so that people have the comfort and confidence that work has resumed even while repairs are still on-going. When you are in the Oil industry everyday you are implementing improvements because the minute you turn around there will be new improvements to make you more efficient in terms of safety, discharging the product and distribution. In fact we were already doing some renovations before all this and every time you come to our place you would see that there is something being upgraded to make sure that we are within the highest safety standards if not better.
Is MRS getting any support from government and maybe some other operators like you?
First of all let me say that we must look at the people that were there when the incident was on-going, the Nigerian Ports Authority. Today the Nigerian Ports Authority is probably one of the best sea port operators by international standards than I have ever seen. They were on time. Both their land fire department and marine department came and displayed what they were capable of and they did an excellent job. Also, NIMASA, DPR, NNPC, JETPFON members, DAPPMA members, MOMAN members, they all came and they supported. My first thanks will go to my staff and NPA. Of course, I cannot forget the number one man of Lagos State, His Excellency Babatunde Raji Fashola he was there and he sympathized with us and offered his assistance.
The honorable minister of transport, Senator Idris Umar also came, the Director of DPR, Augustine Olorunsola and MD of NPA, Mallam Habibu Abdullahi. I thank them very much for coming to sympathize with us in this difficult time and we will never forget it. Also, Nigerian public that prayed for us. I have had numerous calls from various people. Some I don’t even know how they got my number to send text and e-mails. I can tell you I have gotten more sympathy calls and texts than I had for the New Year. The media houses too have also been a source of inspiration, every one of them I have seen covered the incident positively. All I can say is that I thank Nigerians and this has made me re-affirm my commitment to this country to work harder and do more for the common man.
How long do you think the investigation into the incident will take?
The good thing about our own is that we are insured by both local and foreign firms and you know how insurers are. They will take the time to do a thorough job and ensure what they put out there is the correct thing. We believe that is exactly what will happen. We have to give them the space and time to do their work because we are not talking about an oil tanker on the road. We are talking about a barge that takes 24,000 tonnes which is about 30 million litres which could fill almost a thousand trucks. So this is not a small investigation. The cost of the barge is about $4 million to $5 million.
Why foreign insurance?
The only reason we went with foreign insurance companies, in addition to the local firms, is because of the foreign flag. When it is a foreign flag and you insure it with a local insurer only it becomes a problem, not because of any other issues with local insurers or we are saying the foreign insurers are better, no. Rather it is because a barge goes to international waters for operations and as such the flag administration require international insurance coverage. So that is it. It is for ease of operation and business.
This fire incident seems to be like a wake up call to every other marketers on the need to raise safety standards at their terminal?
When you are in oil business, you must be awake at all times. Its a business that involves fire that can wipe out a whole town, therefore, you don’t have a choice but to stay awake all the time and make sure that people are safe. You cannot be operating in this sector and not be awake 24 hours 7days a week. There is simply no room for complacency here. So I am very sure that other operators are not letting their guards down at all.