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After quitting his job as managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) in 2003 in controversial circumstances, Jackson Gaius-Obaseki needed to know that the decisions he had taken were the right ones. So he signed up for an advanced management course at the high prestige Insead business school in France.
Mr Gaius-Obaseki had been at the helm of a company seen by many in Nigeria as notoriously untransparent, and had made his fair share of enemies trying to bring about changes in Nigeria’s upstream and downstream oil markets.
At one point during Mr Gaius-Obaseki’s tenure, a committee of the lower house of the National Assembly had probed NNPC on fuel import tenders and oil lifting quotas.
He finally left the company in late 2003 just after President Olusegun Obasanjo temporarily suspended all fuel import contracts into Nigeria as an investigation was launched into how the contracts had been awarded.
Today, the former career geologist turned business manager keeps a relatively low profile. ”I ran for almost five years without interruption, never really had a proper holiday. So I had some time to play some golf and then move away,” he says, speaking in a tidy modern boardroom atop a skyscraper overlooking the bustling waterfront of Lagos, Nigeria’s high octane commercial capital.
The desire to put his decisions to the test at one of the world’s foremost business schools was too tempting a prospect to miss, but it had been no easy task to get into a top business school.
“Everybody refused to take me. For good reasons, their argument was that they looked at my CV and it was intimidating. They could not even teach me. They felt it would be unfair to take me on and then deny a younger, more inexperienced person the opportunity for that training,” he says, peering over his reading glasses at his laptop. The screensaver was him at an awards ceremony in 2002, receiving the Commander of the Order of the Niger, one of the country’s highest civic honours, from Mr Obasanjo.
Fortunately for Mr Gaius-Obaseki, he had mentioned on his Insead application that he would be willing to share the knowledge he had gained over more than three decades in the energy sector. And the business school felt it could forge a symbiotic relationship with the former Institut Français du Pétrole student.
In June 2004, Mr Gaius-Obaseki enrolled in Insead’s four week Advanced Management Programme, designed for very senior managers with at least 15 years’ experience in the boardroom. The tuition fees for the course were €26,000. The course promised “intellectual, technical and inspirational recharge” as well as “discovery, revelation and reassurance”.
“It was a programme that I believe is designed to prepare people to do what I had done. So if you sat down to listen and go through the programme, I don’t think there’s any other process that can validate what you’ve done,” says Mr Gaius-Obaseki.
The decisions he had taken had not been popular in some senior circles at NNPC. Gradually he had lobbied the government to get rid of the crude oil subsidies that NNPC was locked into. The company originally had concessions to buy crude oil cheaply to sell to the domestic refineries but was also selling the surplus on the international markets.
This system of incentives encouraged corruption and periodically inflicted domestic fuel shortages on Nigeria even at the same time as it was exporting more than 2m barrels of oil a day.
And although it was Africa’s biggest oil exporter, Nigeria was having to import much of its gasoline. Mr Gaius-Obaseki took NNPC into the retail sector to bridge the gap, but this had unintended consequences. The boost in supply stoked a rise in demand as public expectations grew in a nation where people frequently sat for days in petrol queues at filling stations.
Mr Gaius-Obaseki was reassured that once he was persuaded to share his knowledge in a talk at the end of the course, students and faculty could see what he had been up against.
“You go to a place like Insead. Of course as a player you will now be thinking ‘Yes I did this well, I didn’t do this well, maybe I should have done something different.’ And of course you are a position to tell the professors ‘Yes, Prof, in a perfect world, yes, that will be, but in the real world this is what happens’. And of course you might have the Prof say ‘Jackson, you’re right’.”
Touting himself as a director who was energetically cracking down on corruption he became the lightning rod for criticism of the company.
He initially declines to respond to criticisms made by anti-corruption campaigners and diplomats who say that NNPC’s accounts were hard to understand and omitted vital information. Pressed on this point, he says: “The fact that you can give people the opportunity to look at it and say ‘I can’t understand it, there’s a gap here’ is better than them not seeing anything at all.”
If the criticisms are unfair, Insead provided him with a forum to absolve himself of any personal blame.
“Somebody asked me what motivated me to do what I did. I think he was from Indonesia. He said everybody who tried to do what I did got killed,” he said.
“The flip side of it is that you go through a lot of pains, you have to make a lot of sacrifices - but when you finish the people will love you.”
Now that the course is over and the cathartic journey has been undertaken, Mr Gaius-Obaseki can live life on his own schedule. When not at work, he might play golf or squash or pop into the skyscraper to see his nephew Godwin who runs a fund management company.
Set to turn 60 this year, he consults on petroleum and human resources issues through companies he says are registered in Nigeria and the British Virgin Islands.
He says he works with un-named former energy industry colleagues and that his services are retained by “key players”.
Mr Gaius-Obaseki twice declines to disclose the names of the companies when asked. He explains that he is trying to “wind down” and doesn’t yet want to advertise widely to potential clients. Asked how the Financial Times could take advantage of the companies’ services, he laughs and replies: “Just send me an email.”