Sunday, December 10, 2017 11:44 am
By Sullaiman Bello
One afternoon in March 2001, Mr. Sam Dimka, who was my immediate boss in the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources and I, set out on a mission to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) Corporate Headquartres, in Abuja. Within a few minutes, we were before Engineer Funsho Kupolokun, who was at that time the Special Assistant to President Obasanjo on Petroleum Matters.
Sitting opposite Engr. Kupolokun, to my right, Dimka stated the reason for our visit.
“This is Gboyega Bello, my assistant in the Ministry”, he began. “He would work with you in the new committee while I cover the activities of Dr. Rilwanu Lukman”, he concluded.
Without betraying any emotion, Engr. Kupolokun assented reluctantly. As he would later inform me that his reticence was because he had looked forward to working with Mr. Dimka and not his untested assistant as a member of the Technical Committee on the Liberalization of the Downstream Petroleum Sector which government had just set up to sell deregulation policy to Nigerians.
The activities of the committee, which drew large membership from the Public Affairs Department of NNPC, soon commenced. Within days of the committee’s roaring into action, my baptism of fire by Engr. Kupolokun came sooner than expected. This is how it happened: Preparatory to our initial outing in Lagos, there arouse the need to prepare a draft speech for the Guest of Honour at the event, the former Head of Interim Government, Chief Ernest Sonekan. With the absence of Mr. Edoreh Agbah, an NNPC Manager with whom Engr. Kupolokun had worked during his campaign for appropriating pricing of petroleum products in the early 90s, I volunteered to attempt the draft. Impinging on my ego, Engr. Kupolokun advised strongly against my attempt at the draft, saying it was more prudent to wait for Mr. Agbah than have a poorly drafted copy that might take much longer time to worked on. Engr. Kupolokun had thrown down the gauntlet. I picked it, burning with resentment, albeit a positive one.
To the front office of a senior colleague, Engr. Olu Akani, who had also just been seconded to work in the Office of Presidential Adviser on Petroleum from Eleme Petrochemical Company, a sub-subsidiary of NNPC then and working directly under Engr. Kupolokun, I retired. With a spare desktop computer in the office, within about six consecutive hours, I challenged Engr. Kupolokun by crafting the draft for the former Head of the Interim Government. Engr. Kupolokun had gone to consult with late Dr. Rilwanu Lukman who was on the same 11th Floor where his Office was when I went to submit my draft to him.
I returned from a justifiably delayed lunch when I was told Engr. Kupolokun was looking for me. As I entered his large office, it was an elated Engr. Kupolokun who received me with a smile, pleasantly surprised at the draft I had dropped on his lap or rather on his table, hours after his lack of confidence in me.
“Bello, look at those areas I had marked”, he had enthused as he pointed out sections of the draft I needed to review. That evening, I earned two things from Kupolokun – my respect and confidence and his HP laptop which he gave out to me and which later became my first tablet ever after.
Other goodies also followed on the second day. At lunch time, he had called that I escorted him to the NNPC top management canteen. There, it was an assortment of food! On that first outing with him at the canteen, I had made myself comfortable only to be taken aback that five minutes after I settled for the food, Engr. Kupolokun, who had pick very few items, rose from the table to say he had finished and I should meet him in his office when I was done with my bowl of food. That day as I pitifully abandoned the sumptuous food on the table, I realized that he had not really invited me to eat. On the contrary, it was an extension of the reward for the previous day job-well done. Subsequently on such numerous invitations to launch, I managed my expectations, like him, picked small food portion and rose from the table within minutes. I would later retire to junior staff canteen to have my fill.
The above picture illustrates the quintessential Kupolokun who is a transactional as much as he is a transformational leader. He would always look out to compensate your after a successful effort. I recall that K, as we used to refer to him, got me on a course to London in September 2001 during the activities of the Committee when he had felt I did a good job, as an advanced party, that arranged an outing of the Committee with the Oyo State Government. It was the first time I set my foot on the British Capital. And when the committee wound down its activities in 2003, Engr. Kupolokun wrote the Federal Ministry of Information to withdraw my recall saying that he enjoyed my services. I got employed in NNPC during his tenure as the Corporation’s GMD years later.
He is also a boss who did not shy away from applying sanctions where necessary.
Kupolokun was a smart executive and expected noting less from his subordinates. The former Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) Secretary General, Mr. Adams Oshiomohle, would never forget Engineer Kupolokun in a hurry as he outmaneuvered the labour leader to his utter amazement on several occasions. Leading a special interest group, the NLC, at the height of the attempts to deregulate the Nigerian Downstream Petroleum Sector by the Obasanjo regime between 1999 and 2003, Comrade Oshiomohle, who later became governor of Edo State, was a torn in the Flesh of the Technical Committee on the Liberalization of the Downstream Petroleum Sector, headed by Engr. Funsho Kupolokun.
The Technical Committee was a sub-committee of the Special Committee on the Review of Petroleum Products Supply and Distribution (SCRPPSD), under the chairmanship of Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, of blessed memory. While SCRPPSD was set up basically by the Obasanjo regime to find a lasting solution to the multi-faceted challenges plaguing the Downstream Sector, among which are perennial petroleum products scarcity and the low capacity utilization of critical infrastructure in the sector, the technical committee on the other hand was meant to secure the buy in of Nigerians, from all walks of life, for the deregulation policy.
Several times the SCRPPSD pushed for appropriate pricing of petroleum products to ensure cost recovery, stimulate competition and open up private investment into the Downstream Petroleum Sector, several times, unfortunately, the Nigeria Labour Congress constituted a major clog in the wheel of the attempts through its call for strike actions which usually enjoyed initial support by the masses, leading to economic paralyses, if only on the first or at most, the second day of the call to action.
Unluckily for the Labour union however, it was racing against a long-distance runner in Kupolokun, who was the intellectual warehouse behind the deregulation policy. Kupolokun, understudied the labour union leadership, engaged them through seminars while he often delivered an upper-cut that often sent them in a quandary.
Two examples which show how Kupolokun outwitted the labour leaders would suffice. In 2001, shortly before government adjusted the pump price of petroleum products, the Technical Committee on Liberalization of the Downstream Petroleum Sector under the leadership of Kupolokun organized a seminar in Abuja which targeted mainly the labour leadership in the country. The one-day event was a huge success which was attended by such labour bigwigs as Comrades Adams Oshiomohle, Joseph Akinlaja, now a member the House of Representatives of the Federal Republic and Issa Aremu, among others. The speeches of this crop of the union leadership, in support of deregulation, although laced up with provisos, were recorded to be used on the battle day, unbeknown to the group. The battle day came on the first day of a strike action called by the Nigeria Labour Congress when Kupolokun caused to be released the documentary which contained edited statements of support by the labour unions for the policy of deregulation. The use of the documentary to undermine the integrity of the labour leadership for their double-speak assisted in no small way to quash the strike action. The strike ended abruptly on the second day.
Subsequently when the technical committee called the unions for meeting they insisted that no recording of the events should be made. But that was not the last time Kupolokun would outmaneuver them.
Again, in January of 2002, when another strike action by the NLC was on, leading the government side, Engr. Kupolokun called for a meeting with the labour leadership at the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Petroleum at the NNPC Towers in Abuja. At the commencement of the marathon meeting, Kupolokun had cleverly informed them that he was not feeling fine that very day, but he had summoned courage to ensure the meeting held. The union leaders accepted the narrative hook, line and sinker. As the meeting progressed, Kupolokun would stealthily emerge from the meeting to take his “drugs or visit the toilet”, which were pure tactics to measure the success or otherwise of the strike to enable government appropriately bargain with the union on the position of strength. At the end of the meeting, the strike action was called off with praises for Kupolokun, even by the leadership of the union at the meeting, admitting that he had provided leadership even when he was not “feeling well.”
Such was the leadership quality of Kupolokun, smart, rugged, resourceful and extremely tactical and who an opponent can take for granted at his or her own peril. For close two and half years, he led the Technical Committee on the Liberalization of the Downstream Sector on a campaign across all the states of the federation and to critical segments of the Nigerian political set up like the National Assembly, securing their buy in in droves.
Kupolokun as the leader of the group was such a bold facilitator that he organized a campaign of the committee for students union of the University of Ibadan on their campus. Only a leader could hazard selling deregulation to students right in their “den”. He did in 2001.
It is regrettable that despite all efforts put in to deregulate the Downstream Sector 16 years ago, the challenge of the sector appears to be a work in progress or retrogress, with fuel queues still reappearing intermittently and the critical Downstream infrastructure remaining dormant.
Of the many positive things that I took away from Kupolokun however, thoroughness ranks first. After an officer had produced a draft of a work, the whole team, with him as lead, settled down to analyse the copy line-by-line with one of the group reading it to our hearing. Little surprise that his presentation was ranked best during a world petroleum conference in South Africa shortly before he retired as NNPC Group Managing Director in 2007.
Kupolokun’s strength as a technocrat lies in his openness to consult extremely widely before problem solving. He latched on to anyone who could add value to his work. To Kupolokun, all his aides must, by necessity, be consultants. Therefore, he assembled an array of individuals from different backgrounds to work with him as Special Assistant to the President on Petroleum Matters. Interestingly, he would always take to your advice once he had already certified your competence.
The Former NNPC GMD does not leave things to chances. In any work situation, he would assure we had what he called Plan B, and sometime Plan C or in his choice word: make arrangements for “the Worst-case scenario”.
Kupolokun, while in service was extremely careful with public fund.
Throughout the committee’s life during which we flew to all the state of the federation, he never took night allowance, nor would he allow anyone take advantage of the committee’s work to inappropriately enrich himself or herself. His prudence of government resources was annoying to many of us then, even though now we knew better.
He was also a very punctual officer. While ordinarily we closed work at about 9pm and sometimes as late at 3am from his home, this would not prevent him from resuming work at 8:30am the second day. It is an aspect of his work culture that sticks with me till date.
Kupolokun is one technocrat who relied extremely on the power of intellect for problem solving. During the resource control impasse, he came up, following his wide consultations, with analyses of the risks the littoral states might encounter in their campaign, which went a long way to temper their agitation and brought their governors to the negotiation table.
Similarly, at the rising production capacity of Nigeria in the early 2000s, he came up with proposals to argue for an increase in Nigeria’s quota at the OPEC. As it turned out however, OPEC or some life situations required more than cognition to resolve.
Although many see him as a man that is too engrossed in his work, the truth is that he is also an interesting, pleasant fellow who acts like the king of boys in a group. At K’s element, especially after delivering on an assignment or preparatory to giving instruction on a new one, he would launch into interesting stories that all would be carried away. I recalled that sometime in Damaturu, K launched into a long and interesting series of stories after an early morning lunch in the Yobe State Government House that we were almost late for our appointment in Gombe. Of course, Femi Johnson, who was our protocol chief, bore the blame for not stopping the master storyteller that the time was up.
Kupololun, like any human being, is not a saint. He has his own fair share of weaknesses. As his assistant, he could work you to your last limit. An instance I could recall is that after I had prepared the draft of a speech one day and we had reviewed it in the office two or three times, when he was leaving to Lagos that evening, he asked me to follow him to the airport. Sitting by his side in the car, I read the speech draft again to his hearing. At a point I lost my voice. That was when he left me alone. Years afterwards, I used to compare that incident to the one in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar between Brutus and his assistant whom nature overtakes as he plays him music.
His other weakness is that he is too trusting. Once you have passed his certification, your suggestions to him are golden. Many people who did not know how you had passed through a difficult time to gain his confidence were always appalled and sometimes irritated how he would accept your advice without question.
Many people describe Kupolokun as a workaholic. I think that is an understatement. What might annoy someone who had just joined his work group was probably that at 2:00am or 3:00am, he could wake you up with a call to give you an instruction for an assignment.
Kupolokun’s righteousness manifested when on November 3, 2003 he was appointed NNPC Group Managing Director by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, exactly 10 years after he was unjustifiably relieved of his position in 1993 as the youngest ever Group Executive Director of the Corporation.
From the inception of NNPC, all its chief executives have always been thrown out of their exalted position unceremoniously. The only exception to date is Kupolokun’s. As a highly organized individual, who would not allow anybody to mess up with him (as he used to say), he exited the Corporation as its GMD in a well-organized series of valedictory programmes. Such is K’s smartness and organizational prowess, and his ability to manage crisis.
My former big boss, as you turn 70 today, December 10 2017, those of us who came across you felicitate with you today, praying that God grant you long life and good health. Wishing many more years in good health.