We met in a restaurant. At first sight, you would mistake him for one of those well-dressed, clean-looking applicants on Abuja streets. I was already seated when he walked in. The waitress was by my side taking my orders. As he pulled a chair opposite me, I took a sweeping look at his person. Then the compelling scent of his perfume hit me. It was now easy to place him in a certain class; even if wrongly.
While fiddling with his mobile phone, he was apparently listening as the waitress wrote down my order and later repeated each item for confirmation. As the young woman moved over to his side of the table to take his orders, I noticed a smile of familiarity on her face; indicating that he wasnâ€™t as new to the place as I was. He simply smiled back and told her: can you give me the same thing he asked for? He was referring to my order as being good enough for him. Then he smiled at me; extended his hand of friendship and I took it.
At that point, the music on the television suddenly stopped and a smiling face appeared to present a news summary. The first news item was on the discovery and recovery of N13 billion in an apartment in Ikoyi, Lagos. While the newscaster read names of individuals and organisations that had laid claims to or were linked to the money, the man sitting opposite me sighed with such disgust that set my mind thinking.
Then without looking at me, he said as though talking to himself: â€œWhy are they still mentioning this womanâ€™s name in connection to this their money? Itâ€™s senseless to believe that she could have cornered such an amount from NNPC and nobody would know!â€ Instantly, I knew he was referring to Mrs Esther Nnamdi-Ogbue, the immediate past managing director of NNPC Retail Limited. She was relieved of her appointment at the same time the hidden billions of naira was discovered by the Economic and Financial crimes Commission (EFCC).
I simply smiled and replied: â€œItâ€™s difficult to believe that she wouldnâ€™t do that. These days, women are no more the women we used to think they were. They may look so innocent but there is a devil in all of them. Itâ€™s so unfortunate really but thatâ€™s the truth.â€ He looked at me and replied: â€œthere are things I should be sure of. I worked with her. We were not the best of friends, or let me say, she wouldnâ€™t describe me as one of her best subordinates, but I can say certain things about her with all certainty. She couldnâ€™t have done it.â€
I became curious. I could feel all the hairs on my head standing at attention. Over the past week, I had been silently hunting for somebody who would tell me something about this woman. Principally, I needed to know why she was relieved of her appointment because in all the noise over the recovered loot, that aspect of the news seemed to have been buried; no investigation; no disclosure. Here was a chance to dig in and get the truth.
â€œI can guess whatâ€™s on your mind. You think she was sacked from NNPC because of this loot? Let me tell you and I will just stop there, she has nothing to do with this loot; and her so called retirement from the NNPC has nothing to do with this.â€ At this point, the waitress returned to say that our order was not readily available except we could sacrifice the next 15 minutes. I quickly answered: â€œokay, we will wait.â€ I needed time alone with Eke-Madua (not his real name). How I got Eke-Madua talking again still baffles me till now because he did not seem to be in the mood to reveal anything.
For the next 20 minutes or so, Eke-Madua narrated, in reasonable detail, how and why Mrs Nnamdi-Ogbue was sacked from the NNPC by those he assumed were benefitting from the scam that has bedevilled the nationâ€™s oil industry. He said that at the centre of the issue was alleged criminal activity embarked upon by an oil and gas marketing company that is currently being investigated by the appropriate government agencies but whose investigation he believes would not see the light of day because â€œyou canâ€™t trust these people especially when their interest is at stake.â€
His story went like this: prior to the deregulation of the downstream oil industry, NNPC used to have all its products from the Pipeline Products and Marketing Company. What this meant was that NNPC Retail had no immediate need of operating its own depot facilities. But this soon changed when the downstream sector of the oil industry was deregulated in 2016. At this point, the retail subsidiary decided to seek alternative product sources through direct importation, third party supplies, among others
Â Â Â Â According to him, since NNPC Retail Ltd had no depot facilities, it decided to engage private depots owners under what he called the throughput arrangements so that products so imported or procured through third party sources could be stored pending when they would be distributed to its stations nationwide. Under this arrangement, any storage depots picked was expected to make available its facilities made up of storage tanks with not less than two million litres capacity, loading gantry, truck parking areas and office space.
He said everything went on well until it was discovered that two of the companies had decided to engage in criminal activities. It was observed that there was a wide disparity between the NNPC book balance volume and what he called the ending stock volume which indicated the actual volume of product in the companiesâ€™ storage tanks. One of the companies whose identity he disclosed was quick to make up for the scam while the other one bluntly refused. Instead, the owners were boasting that nothing would happen.
Eke-Madua went on to explain that the inventory reconciliation indicated that while NNPC Retail Limited book balance showed more than N13 billion worth of product in favour of NNPC Retail Limited, the ending stock disclosure or the actual volume of product in the depot was about one quarter of that. In his narrative, Eke-Madua said everyone was rattled. Those directly responsible for supervision were immediately roundedâ€“up and subjected to investigation while the company was summoned for a meeting and demanded to either re-stock in favour of NNPC or pay the monetary equivalent.
â€œGuess what?â€ He asked looking straight into my face. â€œBased on the directive of the managing director, we were able to salvage the situation by trucking out the remaining PMS amounting to almost two million litres. Still, that left an outstanding indebtedness of almost 85 million litres of PMS in favour of NNPC Retail Limited. This is valued at more than N12 billion,â€ said Eke-Madua.
The summary of his narrative was that the criminally-minded oil and gas marketing company had removed the unaccounted-for volumes of the product illegally because it was not done with the consent of the NNPC Retail Limited. And that all attempts by the NNPC Retail Limited to recover the unaccounted-for volumes from the marketing company, either in material sense or in monetary equivalents, yielded zero results.
It sounded believable except for one missing link. My reasoning was that it was irresponsible of the management of NNPC Retail Limited to sit tight while the scam lasted. As if reading my mind, Eke-Madua said something that shocked me. â€œIt is natural for you to think that madam deserved what happened because she presided over a huge scam. That would be correct if she did nothing about the situation; or if she was a part of the scam.â€
He disclosed that as soon as the scam was discovered, Mrs Nnamdi-Ogbue raised several memos to every agency of government and certain top government functionaries first, by way of information; and second, to call the offending company to order. Eke-Madua was emphatic that as someone deeply and strategically involved in the running of the enterprise, he was aware that several letters were written to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Department of State Services (the Secret Service) to investigate the scam.
According to him, at the beginning, it was doubtful if some top officers of the retail company were not involved in the scam; including the managing director and her management team. But the level alarm she raised and the vigour with which she pursued the matter left no one in doubt that she was shocked and embarrassed by the magnitude of the scam and was bent on ensuring that the marketing company would not go unpunished. That was exactly what put her in trouble. It is believed that she must have innocently stepped on big toes.
He said that as soon as the offending company refused to honour its obligation to NNPC Retail Limited within the stipulated deadline, the managing director alerted the EFCC and the DSS seeking their full-blown assistance to recover the money or the unaccounted-for volume of the PMS. However, nothing seemed to happen. After several letters were written to these agencies without any action being taken against the marketing company, â€œwe became curious and disturbed.â€
Then just as the waitress emerged from the far end of the well-set dining hall with a tray of meal, he leaned forward and in a whisper, said: â€œThose behind the scam really had their back covered by some heavy weights somewhere. They continued to have a field day and enjoyed their loots instead of being locked up and their assets sold to recover the money. I can confirm that the managing director was sacked as a punishment for raising alarm over the fraudulent act. Have you ever heard of such a thing before?â€
Then we had our meal; and as we parted ways, Eke-Madua said something that left me thinking: â€œIn this country, there are still men and women of integrity; but there are so many wicked people who parade more might than the innocent. Tell me, is it right for somebody who raises alarm over a criminal activity to suffer because she is considered to have stepped on toes of collaborators? I challenge the NNPC hierarchy to tell the world what this woman did wrong. They wonâ€™t because they have nothing to tell the world.â€
â€“â€“Kalio, a former journalist, lives in Abuja