PROF. Joseph Ezigbo, managing director, Falcon Corporation Limited, waded into the oil and gas sector after more than 20 years of being a lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He has a tremendous success story to tell after expanding Falcon Corporation, which he started in 1994, to be the first indigenous company of reference in the oil and gas sector in Nigeria after more than 25 years of dealing in gas distribution.
He holds a Bachelor of Science, BSc. from the University of Nigeria, a DIC and Master of Science, MSc degree from the prestigious Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, and a doctorate from the University of Salford, Manchester. In the course of his vast experiences in the field of pollution and environmental impact assessments within, particularly, the oil producing regions of Nigeria, he developed an interest in gas flares, which polluted the landscape. His quest to contribute to the reduction of the environmental degradation occasioned by the flares has since become his major passion.
Ezigbo has had over 30 years of cognate business experience, sits on the board of several companies and is a member of several professional bodies, including the Nigerian Gas Association, Nigerian Institute of Management, Nigerian Society for Biotechnology, and the Editorial Board of the Nigeria Energy Digest amongst others. He is well deservedly known as a gas-man to the core. In recognition of this, he regularly serves as a speaker/resource person at various industry conferences, workshops, and seminars.
He took time off his busy schedule to grant an exclusive interview to the Realnews team of Maureen Chigbo, editor and Benprince Ezeh, reporter in his office in Lekki in March. His forthright views on topical issues affecting the state of the nation such as education; insecurity, and coronavirus pandemic have affected the oil and gas sector and the country as a whole are scintillating, thought-provoking and a must read. Excerpts
Realnews: There are so many things happening in the country right now. A major one is insecurity. How do you see the insecurity in the country and how is it affecting the oil and gas sector?
Ezigbo: Anybody, who looks at Nigeria today realises that the country is in trouble. The insecurity in the country, what it has done to our sector is to create fear, and when people are afraid and uncertain of tomorrow, nobody will invest in that place and that’s what Nigeria is suffering at the moment. Most of the investors are worried that their investments are not safe, they are worried that their people are not safe and it’s hurting the economy. It hurts the country. It is hurting our industry. Again, hopefully, hopefully, for the fact that God is a Nigerian, as far as I am concerned people say God is a Nigerian, because there’s no reason why this country should be standing still. There is no economy in the world that has taken the blow Nigeria is going through and survived. But we have survived and we are surviving and I am hoping that better judgment should prevail. People should also realise that we act deliberately, out of our own volition allowing this sheep of a nation to slide down the hill without breaks. Because we are at the bottom. We don’t know. The sort of rocks that will great this incoming vehicle that is racing down the hill uncontrolled, no direction, it can be catastrophic. And I am hoping that a good sense would prevail because do we have people, do we have engineers and mechanics that can help direct it? Of course we do. Can we direct it? Yes, we can, but are they willing to participate in the direction to try and halt it? That is where the question is and I am hoping that good sense will prevail and that selfishness, selfishness, personal aggrandisement, group interest will not derail our system because if that happens…We fought the war, I fought that war, so I know what war is like. I fought in the Nigeria/Biafra war. I ended the war as a captain in the Biafran army and I saw the damages. It’s terrible. Only those, who have not smelt war will fan the embers of war as they are doing at the moment, which is not in anybody’s interest; not in the interest of the Hausas; not in the interest of the Yorubas, not in the interest of the Igbos. I just want to use the opportunity to say, I see IPOB, I see all the other people, nobody is looking for Biafra. But people are angry. They are expressing their anger and hoping in this expression that people will understand how they feel and realise that we can do things differently in the interest of the entire Nigeria not a section of the country. And the sooner we do that the better because if we get there, even the herders that are spreading everywhere, creating more problems and if it doesn’t stop, because we are pushing ourselves somewhere. What is going to happen, Somalia will be a child’s play.
Realnews: Why do you say so?
Ezigbo: What is going to come, if we are not careful and allow it to come, it is better imagined than to think you will see it. I am praying. I am praying seriously. Each time I go to bed I will pray that we don’t get there. Nigeria should never get there. That we will never get there because…I fought in the Biafran war for three years. I was in my first year in the university, so I saw it raw, I saw what it could do to a people.
Realnews: Could you recall your experience for us? So that people can really, vividly see what it is like?
Ezigbo: You probably ask why did I fight that war. One is because I lost my mother. I am the only child of my mother and we were so close. When Enugu was shelled, we were running away from Enugu, had an accident in Aguata and she died. I was pained. But you see, at that time, war was one of the best things outside the normal. You see, youthful exuberant, I was in the university, we came out to demonstrate in the streets of Enugu and we say Ojukwu “give us the gun, let’s go and fight” because we knew nothing. We didn’t understand what war was all about. Nobody took time to explain to us what war was like. But you see people make mistakes. Only when you make that mistake that you will genuinely realise that this is a huge, monumental, avoidable mistake. That we should never had gone to that war, but we did because we were pushed…but you don’t blame a group of people. I went to Enugu when a train came down from the north. There was this woman, pregnant, her stomach was ripped open and she was alive when it was done. They ripped her stomach and took out the child, cut out the head of the child place them on top of the woman. So when people see things like that, their anger is uncontrollable and that was where we were. But if we had diplomacy, if someone had told us that what you have seen now cannot be compared to what is going to happen. How many kids died of kwashiorkor, how many? You see children, all skeleton, are dying by the second by the second. Then we sat down and ask ourselves, this war, was it worth it? Of course, it wasn’t. We lost over three million people. So what did we gain, absolutely nothing. The sufferings were terrible. People saw hell. But again, the war ended, Nigerians took over, did they gain from the war? No. That’s what I was saying then, why can’t we learn? Because I was born and bred at Uromi, Esan, I went there and I said to people, so why can’t we all learn. If there are people up there that can talk to at the head, should go and speak. They destroyed everything that came out from Biafra, because of anger, because we are angry. How can they develop…but Nigeria lost. After the Second World War, America took the best in Germany, Russia took the best in Germany, that’s why they are world powers today. Because they say necessity is the mother of invention. When you are pushed to the wall, you become creative. Biafra became suddenly creative and Nigeria should have taken that from them and nurtured it and groomed it, in the interest of our country. But no because we are angry. We are driving ourselves to that level of anger that drove us to civil war. We shouldn’t do that. We shouldn’t allow that to happen, and leaders should know that it’s of no use.
Realnews: You were saying something about IPOB and that is anger that drove them away…
Ezigbo: IPOB is anger. It is in our interest, in the interest of Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba that we exist in a bigger Nigeria, you see because one percent of something is better than hundred percent of nothing. So if we all develop within that space, the Igbos are…there’s a saying that “any country, no matter how bad it is that you go to that you don’t find an Igbo man, take your things and go”. That’s the life of an Igbo man. Then you now say in Nigeria, look at Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Maiduguri, Ibadan, Benin, they are filled with Igbos, and then some people say they want Biafra, how are you going to contract? How can you ever going to contract? They tried blockading food from the north some days ago, what happened? It buttressed the fact that if you sustain it, your economy will die. Their market is down south, with the Igbos. They had to let go. So Nigeria is so blessed in diversity. What we need to be doing at this moment is how to galvanize and use that diversity in the interest of everybody.
Realnews: How do we do that?
Ezigbo: You see, for me, it is a simple thing, but what is stopping us is greed. That’s all. What is stopping us is pure unadulterated greed. You see, someone was telling me go to Kano state, his state, he said “born to lead”. It doesn’t make sense. How can you tell your fellow man I am born so I can lead you. And they say we all have equal pedestal. And then again, the Igbo man is so loud. He makes a penny, makes one kobo and makes one naira noise.
Realnews: Is there a way to cure that loudness because it appears that’s what almost every other person is complaining about, even some Igbos don’t like it
Ezigbo: They won’t like it, but they will do it. They will do it because it’s sort of something that is already in the system. But you see, can we move away from that? It is possible. But again, we need men, we need people of character.
Realnews: How do we achieve it? You see, the IPOB you talked about and their leader, Nnamdi Kanu, are in existence because there’s a void between the old and the new, and they are the ones filling it. And it appears that the old is also not doing what the average Igbo man would want them to.
Ezigbo: You see, it’s because our generation, we still have some generations ahead of us, but we are immediately following them, we have failed the Igbo man, I am very honest with you, my generation have failed the Igbo man. The ones before us happens to have failed the Igbo man and in failing the Igbo, we have failed Nigeria.
Realnews: How did they fail the Igbo man?
Ezigbo: Because you have refused to understand the terrain in which you are on. If you understand the terrain, then you know what is best for us. You see, the Igbo man believes money is everything, but of course, it is not. Today, you probably go to the village meeting, and there is a young boy, who has made money, and there is a wise old man who’s making suggestions, maybe his father and that old man has issues, he says “gentlemen, we have a project here for N10 million” and he puts the N10 million on the table, and tells the meeting to “forget everything the old wise man has said”. You hear Yeeee! And that will be the end of it. Think of it, they will forget all the words of wisdom.
Realnews: So it’s actually the generation that fought the war that derailed the Igbo man?
Ezigbo: No, we were derailing before then. Nigeria was always derailed from beginning. When we say that our founding fathers…what did our founding fathers do for us? What did they do really? Because I understand that when Zik was driven away from the west, he won the election, overnight they crossed carpet and he left. What they did to him in the West, he came to the East and did exactly the same thing to Eyo Ita and the rest of them. So now, did that actually help Biafra, did that help Nigeria, the answer is no. When he was supposed to form a government that would have helped this country now, he preferred to answer a ceremonial president, and we missed that simple opportunity to create a better Nigeria. That singular brilliance should have put this country in a right course but he didn’t.
Realnews: So it was that selfishness that made him to do what he did because he was being blackmailed, then instead of allowing himself to be blackmailed and doing the right thing, he just pandered to self-interest?
Realnews: Is there a way to salvage these bad, very bad situation?
Ezigbo: You know, I keep saying that, one or two things that could happen is to build again. But you know, if this building, you knock it down and keep patching, you start expanding, the foundation may not be strong enough to carry whatever structure you are putting on. It will collapse again. That’s what is happening to Nigeria, every time you try to build, it will collapse. You need to scrape the entire thing down, remove the rubble and dig a new foundation for that building you are going to put up.
Realnews: Is it possible to do that in Nigeria of today?
Ezigbo: We might be heading to a meltdown. As we speak, we might be heading to a meltdown. And that meltdown, what will be the point of it? It will come like the gold put in the fire and heated, and separate all the trash from it and get the pure gold, that’s where we going to. Do we know what to expect? Nobody knows what to expect, because it’s so fluid. It could be anything. It could go anyway.
Realnews: What is the way forward to get Nigeria back on track?
Ezigbo: Is it possible for Nigerians to eschew bitterness, to remove greed from their system? Do you know what I used to say to myself a long time ago, even though I don’t think that might save us. Is it possible for us to have an honest dictator that can take over Nigeria? But unfortunately, you cannot find an honest man, who is a dictator at the same time. If we did, that would have been the best solution to Nigeria. Get a dictator, who is honest that can do what is best for Nigeria, irrespective of what the Igbo man thinks, irrespective of what the Hausa man thinks, irrespective of what the Yoruba man thinks, because whatever we do, Ohanaeze will see Igbo as its own enclave, Afenifere will see Lagos as its enclave, Arewa will see the North as their own enclave, forgetting that none of these exist in isolation. We all exist together in the entity called Nigeria. We need to get back to the understanding that we are first and foremost Nigerians. Not Igbos, not Yorubas, not Hausas, but we are Nigerians.
Realnews: There is no patriotism from what you have just said?
Ezigbo: It doesn’t exist in our dictionary. Things are happening because you do not have a Nigerian. There’s nobody who is a Nigerian. So we see Nigeria as one big cake. How much can I steal out of it, how much can I bulldoze myself and get from it, and not how much can you give to Nigeria to make it better. It is how much can you take out. And once you take out, that Nigeria you feel you have, you never feel safe in it again. You see that’s where we are making the biggest mistake because the amount of money Nigerians own outside Nigeria, if you bring back a tenth of it, Nigeria will be El Dorado. Nigeria will be that we have been looking for. But you carry the money you, put it there (abroad); then you go cap in hand to beg them to give you loan and they will give you back part of your money with a very high interest.
Realnews: Is that not the height of foolishness?
Ezigbo: Foolishness is putting it mildly
Realnews: Do our leaders realize this? Because it is actually our leaders who are responsible for taking the money out not every Nigerian. It is not the over 200 million Nigerians, but the 1 percent, who are leaders.
Ezigbo: Please, Please, every Nigerian, be it the guy in the farm, be it the herder, the cocoa farmer, the tomato farmer, right up to the students at the university level. The disease has become so endemic. The disease has permeated the very fabrics of the different societal groups in our system. That is the problem. Each level has been corrupted so much.
Realnews: Is there a remedy?
Ezigbo: Like I said initially there will be meltdown. But the meltdown will be so uncomfortable. We can’t even imagine it. The various countries in Africa have gone through hell for nothing compared to what is happening here in Nigeria.
Realnews: What is this meltdown, break it down?
Ezigbo: When you have gold, and you melt it down, it becomes a pool and you can refashion something from it. Knock it down to nothingness so you can begin again. It could happen, but I am not praying for it. Because it knows nobody, it will take anything that stands in front of it. You know, Nigeria has stopped educating her children. We have stopped educating our children and that is the biggest, painful part of the issues in this country. There used to be a time when if you come to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, you find Cameroonians, Indians, Americans, you find even the English coming to study. Today, that doesn’t happen again. We have lost everything. Nobody even wants to study anymore. When I came back from the UK with a PhD, if I walked into the classroom, people will know somebody walked in and I didn’t sell handouts because I was not brought up that way. I thought my students because I took pride in the number of people that came out of the university and their various work place, and what they were doing for themselves. I was proud. I recollect once, when I was in charge of admission at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, one man had come with his son to beg me to offer him admission, to recommend him for admission. And I checked and found that his son’s name was to appear in the second list. I told the man, its ok, I will see what I can do and they left. Then the names appeared and the man came, he was so happy. He said so you worked this thing for me? And he gave me an envelope. And I said to him, what is this? And he said it was to thank me for what I did and I said, I didn’t do anything. Your son passed the exam. If I take this money, you will go home thinking you bought this admission for your son. Respect this boy because he passed. And I gave him back his envelope. Today, each time the man sees me, he says I can’t believe it! But you see, the point is hypocrisy. If our people have honour, have respect for themselves. Most hungry people don’t have respect for themselves. We need to restore confidence back. But you see, we have trained so many people in the university who are now lecturers, who didn’t go about it the right way and are now lecturers who really know next to nothing. They come in, they don’t have books. If they are able to get two or three books, that becomes a book they need to copy and roll out to students. And if they spend maybe up to 20 years, that’s the same note you will be reading and people will be avidly copying.
Realnews: Now let’s get down to business. How is all the ugly incidents happening in the country affecting the oil and gas sector where you are operating in?
Ezigbo: It is killing the oil and gas sector. You see, fortunately or unfortunately, Nigeria is a gas not an oil country. We are a gas country with little drops of oil that’s what Nigeria is. Which is a blessing. But the other half is a curse.
When I left the university to go into the oil and gas, Nigeria was flaring $4.8 billion worth of gas every year. We have been doing that for the past donkey years – 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years. Can you begin to imagine what that could have done to our economy? Dubai would have been nothing compared to Nigeria. New York would have been nothing compared to Nigeria. But we are still wallowing in squalor.
Realnews: What is the future now that we have realized that we can make something out of gas because oil, due to fossil fuel, carbon emission and climate change concerns is actually going down?
Ezigbo: Have we realized it?
Realnews: We haven’t?
Ezigbo: Have we? Because that is the one-million-dollar question. Have we actually realized that? Because I would have thought by now, we have learned our lessons. PIB (Petroleum Industry Bill) should have been passed by now. But has PIB been passed?
Realnews: As an industry person, what do you think is the major stumbling block in passing this PIB?
Ezigbo: Selfishness, greed, and avarice that’s all.
Realnews: The idea is that some people think it is IOC’s that don’t want it passed, do you think they have a role to play?
Ezigbo: They are part of the problem.
Ezigbo: This country is filled up with hungry men who don’t have any honour. Let me answer it this way so that you can actually appreciate it. I went to Cotonou. That was couple of years back. My brother was in the Customs, so we went to buy a car. By the time we got there, it was late in the evening and so it was difficult to come back. I told him we should wait till the next day, but he insisted that we must go back. I asked him if he had gotten all the papers. He said no, that he would get them the next day, let’s go now and he will sort it out on the road. I reluctantly agreed. We came down to the border and the gendamerie stopped us and requested for our papers. My brother called him by the side and tried to give him some money. To my surprise, he asked my brother: “This money, are you dashing me?” My brother said yes, I want to dash you. And he said but you know, you still have to go and pay for this. If you give it to me, I will thank you, but you know my children are in school and school is free, and the government pays for it, that this is the money they use. So if I take it from you, there will be no money. Not just only my child, others will not go to school. But if you give me, I will take. But you will still have to go back to Cotonou and pay this money. We stayed there till morning, then ran back to Cotonou, got the documents and paid for them. When we came back in the morning, the guy was preparing to go, I called him back, brought out the money and gave it to him. I said to him: “thank you for teaching my brother to do the right thing.” If we are able to teach Nigerians to think of our government first, you see, our governments are filled with touts, not people of integrity, not people, who understand the needs of the people, not people that understand that the position they have is the position of servants who should serve well; that there is honour in service. If we are able to teach our people that. The moment we are able to succeed in doing that, then we have started trekking our first steps out of our foolishness, out of our stupidity. Because, you see, the south-south are saying no to PIB because they want 10% derivative put in there. There is this famous Roman Emperor that said: “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.” We must start from the beginning, do something. And that gives you the basis from which you can climb into the next step. Start small, start from the beginning. If we pass the PIB as it is, we will see how it works, we can begin to amend it. But if we don’t have the discipline to pass it, there will be nothing to amend. But if it is there, there are things to amend as you work along. If we have the PIB, we keep amending it until we have a perfect document. That should not mean that we will be afraid to pass it the way it is, and then slowly, watch how it’s affecting the economy, affecting the people and amend it as you go along and have a perfect document at the end of the day. That’s what we as a people know, but we want to show that I am stronger than this person and I have more influence than this person.
Realnews: So how has the pandemic affected the oil and gas sector? Have they lost so much or gained?
Ezigbo: We’ve lost and we’ve gained.
Ezigbo: Let’s even start from the workforce. We’ve learned that you don’t have to travel to Houston all the time to get agreements signed. Now we sit down here and have meetings. Pandemic have down well, it has thought us a few things. You see, if we are not lazy people, the lesson would have been complete. But we are very lazy people. Lazy in the sense that, now, some people don’t go to work, but they get paid their salaries because they are supposed to work from home. But are they actually at home working? The answer is no. Have they learned their lessons? The answer is no. They haven’t. So on those angles, we’ve lost. Some physical things that need to be done with some people there have reduced. Yes, they have reduced because they say the fear of COVID-19 is the beginning of wisdom. So a lot of people are afraid. So from that angle, we lost as well. At the beginning, at the heat of COVID-19, particularly in my own case, most of the factories I supply gas were shut down. Most of them were no longer using gas. We had surplus gas. People were not using gas, so the economy was suffering because in Nigeria, 95% of our economy is based on oil and gas, which is terrible.
Realnews: That’s revenue loss. So how much revenue do you think the oil and gas sector must have lost due to the pandemic?
Ezigbo: Huge. I will say it is huge. We have lost so much. Trillions of naira of course, because if you look at it this way, most countries slowed down in production completely and that meant energy utilization also slowed down. They were times we had LNG vessels out there but there was nobody to buy.
Realnews: During the pandemic?
Ezigbo: Don’t say during the pandemic because we are not yet out of the woods.
Realnews: Yes, but oil price is increasing
Ezigbo: Oil price is increasing. Saudi Arabia is having some issues at the moment. So there’s a cut down in production. So that is driving at the price. Again, the economy is recovering; production is increasing and demand is also growing.
Realnew: So what’s the future of oil and gas industry?
Ezigbo: Very bright I must say. At the moment, I think Nigerians are beginning to learn a few things. Nigerians are also coming into the industry. As the Western world have withdrawn in some areas, Nigerians have come in. We do have some dedicated Nigerians. Look at Seplat, what they are doing, look at Oando; look at the gas distributing companies within the system, look at Falcon. They are growing at the moment, even though we are expanding our gas distribution possibilities. We are building a 15,000 metro tank farm in Port Harcourt. We try to ensure we have lots of cooking gas coming to the East because it’s terrible really when you remember that LPG is produced in Port Harcourt, that’s NLNG. All the receiving tanks are in Lagos. So you produce it in Port Harcourt, you truck it to Lagos. Hear the crazy part of it, the vessel available for transportation of LPG is a 30,000 tonnes vessel. All the tanks in Lagos are 17,000. So you bring 30,000 tonnes to Lagos, drops 17,000, leaving 13,000. So it has to wait until the tanks come down and you refill. So the transportation from Port Harcourt to Lagos, the demurrage of the vessels staying there, then you put it in tanks and then get smaller vehicles (tankers) and fill them up, then drive them from Lagos and come back to Port Harcourt and sell them to people.
Realnews: That increases the cost?
Ezigbo: It goes without saying. You must add the cost of transport from Port Harcourt to Lagos, add the cost of demurrage, add the cost of storage, then add the cost of tankers that will now drive it back to Port Harcourt to go and sell. So the price is almost times two of what it sells in Lagos. The research that was done, shows that the number of women that died of smoke from cooking with firewood is high, but nobody hears of it. Should we allow our women to die because of our stupidity? So people are saying their needs and trying to fill up areas that are empty, like what we are doing at the moment. By the time we have finished building, we will be getting from NLNG in Port Harcourt, then face the East and pump it in there at cheaper rate. Because I want to create a franchise in such a way that I can create several points for storage and refilling plants to ensure that it gets into the very depth of the eastern economy.
Realnews: That’s a very good one. Finally, when will all these be achieved. What’s the timeline?
Ezigbo: By end of 2022, we should be in the market. But Nigeria…. I go to bed most times and I just cry and say what is wrong, we have everything and yet…. What happened at the toll gate is sad, but it gives me hope. It does not make sense that we lost some young men, and nobody has actually come to apologise to Nigerians. I think it’s sad, but it is good because it has shown that the awareness is growing and you needn’t go to compel people to come out to protest; but they heard and came out to join the protest. That’s why what you guys are doing is fantastic because you’re spreading the word. As long as the word is being spread, and you people insist on telling the truth, no matter what happened, tell the truth, people will listen to you and maybe we will have a better Nigeria. And this is the key. It is said give them the truth and the truth will set you free.