A Lagos-based lawyer and former top executive of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Mr. Paul Ajetunmobi, spoke to Ejiofor Alike on the state of the corporation’s refineries, insisting that NNPC has world-class professionals who can run the plants profitably if given adequate support by the federal government. Excerpts:

You retired statutorily in November 2014 as Human Resources Manager of Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company after over 33 years of meritorious service in the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Could you please walk us briefly through your journey in NNPC?

I worked in the oil and gas industry and having worked for 33 and half years, I retired in November 2014. Before I retired from NNPC, I had the opportunity of reading law. I was called to bar in 2005, that is, 13 years ago. I am presently practicing as a lawyer. To be sincere with you, I count myself to be very fortunate among the 180 million Nigerians. I was at a very tender age when I graduated and had my first degree in 1978. I had my interview in NNPC in 1979 but I did not start work in NNPC until early 1981. Since that time, NNPC has impacted positively and greatly in my life. When we joined as junior officers in those days, I was fortunate to be sent to do my Masters Degree by the NNPC. I was also fortunate to be sent to study law by the NNPC and I moved round. So, I am very versatile in NNPC. My last 10 and half years of working career were mainly in the human resources department of Warri Refinery.

Since you retired from the NNPC, how are you making yourself available for the Nigeria’s oil and gas industry, especially the NNPC, to benefit from your wealth of experience?

Like I told you, NNPC has impacted greatly to my life and they are still responsible for my upkeep till today by paying my pensions. So, I will also like to give back to NNPC. Presently, I am a consultant to them. I consult for them in human resources aspect. I want to ensure that I give back part of my knowledge and wealth of experience to the people I left behind in NNPC so that they can keep the flag flying. I don’t want any bad thing to happen in NNPC. You know that there are many negative information people are giving out about NNPC but all of them are perverted and not the true situation of things in NNPC. People give out false information about the NNPC.

A lot of positive things are happening there, especially in the refineries. I was in Warri Refinery last week and they were operating at about 65 – 70 per cent capacity. They were producing millions of litres of refined products. I can give you a run-down of the figures as of last week when I was there. As of last week when I was at Warri Refinery, they were producing 3.644 million litres of petrol daily, 1.86 million litres of kerosene, and 3.102 million litres of diesel on a daily basis. They were also producing 55,000 litres of liquefied petroleum gas daily and 2.144 million litres of low pour fuel oil (LPFO) or black oil daily.

But the information out there is that the refineries have collapsed as a result of poor maintenance?

Most of the information out there are not correct. He who wears the shoes knows where it pinches. If you go there, you will find out that they are producing very well. In all honesty, there are some challenges. For instance, refineries are supposed to work for 24 hours, if there are no problems throughout the year. The plants are not supposed to shut down. The easiest way of moving out the products is by pipelines but when there is vandalism, there will be challenges. The machines have to be maintained properly for the plants to work 24 hours. Again, there are a lot of politics in Nigeria. Adequate funds are not being provided for the refineries. When these funds are not provided, they cannot replace bad equipment quickly.

What were the major challenges of the refineries when you were still in the system?

The major challenge was that the approval limit of the Managing Director of a refinery was very small, about N5 million as at that time. If you convert it to dollars, it was less than $50,000. But some equipment in the refineries are very expensive. For instance, things like valves and seals can cost more than $50,000 and when the managing director cannot approve it, he has to go to the NNPC corporate headquarters. But even the approval limit of the Group Managing Director of NNPC as at then was very small. So, there was little the Group Managing Director could do. Another challenge was illegal bunkering. Many youths were unemployed and they resorted to illegal bunkering to siphon products. When the refineries cannot pump directly through pipelines, tankers will come to load products. If tankers are not able to load as fast as they should load, then it will affect the operation of the refineries.

What do you think the federal government should do to ensure smooth operations of the NNPC refineries?

In all honesty, the government should empower NNPC workers and give them the wherewithal to operate the refineries. The government should strengthen them. There should be no element of frustration. For instance, in the operational areas, there are certain things that are very critical and are needed urgently for them to work effectively. But when they make those requests, they are frustrated for one reason or the other. If they are not given what they need, they won’t put in their best. If the government provides the enabling environment by giving them whatever they need to work well, they will perform well. NNPC workers are well-trained to perform.

Some of them are very experienced. Some people are saying that we are ageing because there has been no recruitment in the last 10 years. As people are exiting, the government needs to replace these experienced hands. We have four refineries and Warri is the most strategic. I will tell you the reason why Warri is the most strategic. Why I said that is that it is from Warri refinery that you pump crude to Kaduna refinery. Without Warri Refinery, the Kaduna Refinery cannot exist. It is also from Warri Refinery that you pump refined products to the north.

The previous administration contemplated bringing in the original equipment manufacturers to rehabilitate the refineries. Does it mean the NNPC has not built local capacity since all these years?

In all honesty, NNPC has the technical know-how to run and operate the refineries. Although some of us have exited, but NNPC still has competent hands. Until I left NNPC, we kept on sending people for technical training in refineries overseas. When they come back, they are competent and knowledgeable. They have all it takes to run the refineries. But like I told you, there has not been any major recruitment in the last 10 years. The last major recruitment was done in 2007/2008 although there was one they did in 2010. People are leaving, when I got to Warri refinery last week, many of my colleagues had left. Even next year and next two years, many are retiring. These are very experienced hands.

The federal government has come up with many options, including concessioning of the refineries and the private sector are showing interest. What is your take on this?

I am not in support of concessioning. Why should NNPC’s refineries be concessioned? The federal government issued more than 20 licenses to private investors to build refineries 15 years ago but none of them has built any refinery. Why do they want to take over what other people have built? My understanding of the whole thing is that people want to reap where they did not sow. They want ready-made food because the refineries are already there with all the structures and equipment in place.

The private investors just want to come and take over just like they took over the EPCL – Eleme Petrochemical Company, where they are making millions of naira. The equipment were already there; so, they just took over and started reaping where they did not sow. Most of the investors want to reap where they did not sow. If they are genuinely interested in the oil and gas business; if they are genuinely interested in making money from refining, let them take the bull by the horns just like Dangote has done. Let them build their own refineries and operate them and leave NNPC’s refineries. Let them compete with the NNPC’s refineries.