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Deregulation: Whatever FG decides will be for the Nation’s Interest ― Bobboi

Ahmed A. Bobboi was recently reappointed by President Muhammadu Buhari as the Executive Secretary of the Petroleum Equalization Fund Management Board-PEF(M)B after what was an outstanding four year’s performance at the helm of affairs. In this exclusive interview, Bobboi reveals how the agency has been able to stand firm and ensure the wheels of the nation keep rolling with uninterrupted supply and distribution of petroleum products nationwide. He also spoke on the thorny issue of deregulation as well as the fate of the agency post PIB

You’ve just been reappointed by President Muhammad Buhari after serving for four years in office. How has it been so far since you took the reins of office as Executive Secretary, PEF(M)B?

So far so good. Thank God that we have come this far.

Being the first ‘homegrown’ Executive Secretary, my experience, training, and various roles in the organization since 1997 advertently prepared me for this role. As such, I was able to hit the ground running when I assumed office in 2016. And with the support of our Minister, the Board, Management, Staff and our Stakeholders, we have been able to solidify past achievements and chart new paths.
It has been both rewarding and challenging, but then life is about challenges. We have celebrated our achievements and surmounted obstacles as a team. You will agree with me that this year alone, 2020, has been a test of leadership and indeed livelihood globally. Being an outward and forward-looking organisation, with a competent and professional workforce, established IT infrastructure, automated business operations, we have been able to stand firm and ensure the wheels of the nation keep rolling with uninterrupted supply and distribution of petroleum products nationwide.

As we say, the reward for hard work is more work. I look forward to partnership with our stakeholders in further entrenching our values and fulfilling our vision.

What would you say are some of your remarkable achievements so far?

The first is that PEF(M)B has survived up to this day. The law establishing PEF stipulates that we reimburse oil marketers for the losses incurred by them as a result of selling petroleum products in their outlets at government approved prices. This has contributed tremendously to the seamless distribution of petroleum products around the country, and in recent times there has not been scarcity of petrol, particularly because marketers have been getting their payment regularly.

Considering the challenges, we have experienced concerning the collection of the Board’s statutory allowances, which has not been coming in on time; because we first have to collect the bridging allowance, and the NTA from marketers who import, including NNPC, nonetheless, we have managed to pay marketers every month and I think that is very encouraging.

So, you can see that we have been carrying out our mandate effectively and satisfactorily. If you take note, I said “we” so it’s not my achievement alone. It’s a collective achievement with the staff, we work and achieve together and at the end, we hope to win together.

You know, I have worked in various capacities and locations within the organisation. I served as Head of Administration and Personnel, Zonal Coordinator North-West and North-East Operations, Manager Bridging and DAPPMAN Operations, Zonal Manager in Enugu and Ibadan, and as General Manager Admin. The varied and deeply entrenched knowledge of the workings of the organisation prepared me for the challenges of the position of the Executive Secretary.

One of my objectives has been to build a robust personnel with an in-depth management repertoire that is capable and ready to serve in the highest office. When we came on board in 2016 as Management, we agreed to focus on three key areas: (1) the survival of PEF(M)B to continue to provide value to the economy, (2) to broaden and deepen the operation of the organisation and (3) institutional and human capital development, and training is part of that.

Since then we embarked on a policy of ensuring that Staff work in the field (Zonal or Depot offices) and various departments, in order to acquire practical experience and we addressed the development of fit-for-purpose manpower by ensuring staff are placed appropriately. We then embarked on a capacity building programme, both locally and internationally, to ensure that our staff are adequately equipped with the knowledge and skill set required for the innovative and dynamic world we now live in. As you know, the human resource of any organisation are the primary and most important element and investment in staff is crucial.

We have done very well in terms of training and staff development. Even though this year has been an exception due to the coronavirus pandemic which has hindered some activities, as such most of our trainings this year have been done virtually. We are hoping things will improve so that we can continue with the face-to-face capacity development programmes.
Again, we have relative peace in the organisation, because in 2016 when I came in as the Acting Executive Secretary there was tension within the Agency, and obviously where you have that kind of situation, it hinders progress. We focused on addressing staff grievances by setting up a Committee. About 62 cases on issues such as complaints related to placement and promotions were investigated. Management as a team considered the report of the Committee and addressed them one after another, looking at each case on its own merit. Most issues were resolved and have even been forgotten by now. We are still not there yet as there are one or two issues that keep recurring, but generally, we’ve addressed most issues. That’s how life is; It’s dynamic. We will continue as much as possible to address issues.

Also, I have been a believer in Information Technology (IT) being an enabler and driving force in shaping and ensuring efficient and effective processes. We are working on continuously improving our operations in terms of the quality of services we provide to people. The introduction of ‘Project Aquila’ was the beginning of full automation of our business operations and data gathering for business intelligence to deliver on our mandate. In 2017, we conducted a survey to assess the performance of our operations in all spheres and after the study, we came up with proposals on how to holistically improve our operations. We are now taking the gains of Project Aquila further with the Downstream Automated Fuel Management Information System (DAFMIS). DAFMIS is structured to cut waste, improve efficiency and plug loopholes in the petrol distribution chain. It will ensure real time monitoring and data processing of petrol movement(s) in Nigeria to the last mile i.e. the filling stations. The project is ongoing; it is due to be delivered in 2021 but so far, we’ve made some tremendous progress. PEF(M)B has always been a trailblazer and innovative organisation, in fact, we were the first public organisation to introduce online payment via Remita. The Board won an award from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for that initiative.

PEF(M)B is also a member of the Committee on the National Gas Expansion Program (NGEP). In alignment with the Honourable Minister of State’s initiative for deepening gas penetration, domestication, utilisation and consumption, we have proactively commenced evaluation of the provision of administrative support for infrastructural development in the downstream sector. We are also exploring and establishing programmes that will support the FG’s drive for job creation, establishment of small and medium scale businesses.

We are in addition exploring the feasibility of transportation of petroleum products by rail and we are equally working to ensure provision of this resource to the riverine & mountainous areas. Equalisation is all about offsetting imbalances that exists due to diversity of location of resources, so all citizens have access to the available resources.

PEF(M)B has already been recognised by the National Hydrocarbon Council as the industry Fund Manager.

Management and Staff are certainly not resting on their oars, we remain galvanized and challenge ourselves to keep progressing, utilizing available resources to deliver on our assigned mandate.

What do you make of the oil sector in the last five years with regards to a number of reforms instituted by the current administration?

The industry has experienced numerous challenges over the years that have stunted its growth; from the refineries not functioning optimally, vandalisation of pipelines and theft of products, to the lack of alternatives for petroleum as a means for transportation. The present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari as Minister of Petroleum with the Honourable Minister of State, Chief Timipre Sylva, has embarked on bold implementation of necessary policies and reforms that will ensure sufficiency, sustainability, accessibility, affordability of the nation’s resources to its citizens. You have to be able to see the positives in every situation and the pandemic should be seen as a catalyst to spur economic diversification and development.

The oil and gas sector is significant in the economy of Nigeria. Whatever happens in the oil sector, directly or indirectly affects other sectors. Now, at least, you could see that in terms of supply and distribution of petroleum products specifically PMS, there has been improvement – scarcity during Christmas, New Year and other festive periods and sometimes even times that are not for celebration – is no longer happening. And you can see the commitment of government and players in the industry towards trying to fix the problems that have been hindering progress in the oil and gas sector.

Take the current deregulation of the industry; it is a move that has long been in the offing. The expected long-term benefits will ensure lower prices to consumers with associated competition, more efficiency and also lower barriers for entry into the market.

The pending passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) will amongst other advantages, promote a conducive business environment, encourage investor participation while enhancing the exploitation of Nigeria’s resources for the primary benefit of the citizens.

NNPC recently opened the bid for the pipelines and depots on a finance – and – operate basis, engaging the private sector in the rehabilitation of these aged pipelines. There are also plans to engage private investors in the repair of the refineries.
The gas expansion program will reinforce and expand domestic gas supply and stimulate national demand. You know Nigeria is more of a gas nation than oil, with over 200tcf of proven gas. Gas will become a replacement fuel for PMS, and this will ease transportation and save the nation’s foreign exchange on importation of PMS and other petroleum products. This project is designed to reduce deforestation and associated health and environmental risks in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

These are all Federal Government’s plans that will no doubt yield benefits for the nation and its citizens. One private modular refinery is about to be commissioned in Imo state and that’s a big achievement. Dangote refinery is coming on board very soon – all these are developments in the industry, which are really positive, and the government itself through the management of the NNPC, is trying to repair the four government owned refineries. And we see genuine effort towards doing that and the pipelines that have been giving everybody, every government headache, the NNPC is going to address that headlong in terms of repairs. I think government is looking at the Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) arrangement, and if that happens, they are looking at the NLNG model which has done very well and succeeded in the country. If we can get that done successfully then things will be much better in the country.

The PEF(M)B is positioned to support the implementation of Federal Government’s policies with its experience as Fund Managers, recognized by the National Hydrocarbon Council, investment in IT infrastructure and a professional, competent and capable workforce as highlighted. As an outward and forward-looking organization, we are always at the forefront of utilisation of technology to ensure efficient and effective business operations putting people first i.e. our employees, customers, citizens as our core focus in ensuring both infrastructural and economic development.

The deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector early this year has sparked debate over the continued existence of PEF. What do you say to people clamouring for the scrapping of PEF?

PEF was setup as a result of Inter-Ministerial Committee recommendations to ensure nation-wide access to petroleum products at reasonable prices. In those days (1975), petroleum stations were characterised by long queues due to prevalent product scarcity resulting in price instability due to high transportation cost, and other adverse effects which brought about chaos in the market. Since then, PEF(M)B has been a stabilizing factor reimbursing transportation costs to oil marketers to ensure availability of petroleum products to the citizens within the government approved price band. This encourages marketers to venture into areas in the country that would have been termed unprofitable for business.

The wellbeing of the people is a driver for development of government policies. The main issue is not about scrapping the PEF but about government ensuring availability, accessibility, affordability, of petroleum products and resources for the development of the nation.

PEF(M)B has successfully carried out its mandate for over forty-five years at no financial cost to government. I will advise people to try to understand the role of PEF(M)B very well before they ask for the scrapping of the Board. I want them to ask themselves without PEF(M)B, what will the marketplace look like?

Whatever the Ffederal Government decides will be for the benefit of the nation. We have a versatile and highly trained crop of personnel; formidable structure and world class IT infrastructure that can easily transform and add value in many respects within the economy.

What would be the role of PEF post PIB?

The role of the organization will be determined by the Federal Government with the interest and well-being of the citizens at the heart of its decisions. I know very well that our President does not want the people to suffer more economic pains. As I said, we are poised to making available our expertise, infrastructure and manpower to support, collaborate and partner with all stakeholders for the transformation of the industry to conform with international best practices, encourage investment in the sector and generally enhance the exploitation of these resources for the benefit of Nigerians.

We have a versatile and highly trained crop of personnel; a formidable structure and a world class IT infrastructure that can easily transform and add value in many respects within the economy.

How has COVID-19 impacted your operations and what are you doing to surmount the challenges?

With a committed and resilient staff along with the utilisation of Information Technology, having automated our business operations since 2012, we have been able to surmount challenges posed by the pandemic.

I can assure you that every nook and cranny of the nation would have felt the impact if our business operations had been seriously interrupted during this period. PEFMB operations have remained uninterrupted during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with sustained payments to marketers to ensure availability of petroleum products nationwide, support of marketers’ business operations, price stability and support micro-economic activities.

We have some of the most dedicated Nigerians as staff of PEF(M)B. Despite the directive for over half the workforce to stay-at-home during the early days of the pandemic, management and identified essential staff have worked tirelessly to ensure seamless operations. In PEF(M)B, we work as a team, holding up one another to deliver on our mandate. Management and staff have been highly efficient during this period and I highly commend our resilience and determination to get the job done and also for the commitment, sacrifice and patriotism displayed.

Within this period, as responsible corporate citizen, PEF(M)B supported the FG with palliatives for the vulnerable and less privileged by providing items to the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. We also ensured Nigerians were properly informed through advertising in media channels. You know individual responsibility is crucial to curbing the spread of the virus. PEFMB’s primary mandate is of course a socio-economic investment.

How would you describe Nigerian media reportage of PEF’s activities in particular and petroleum industry in general now compared to decades ago?

With technology and the numerous available media platforms, access to news is now at our fingertips, literally. It is important more than ever that media houses act responsibly with information dissemination. Some platforms are credible and ensure responsible reportage while some others can be mischievous. It all depends on each one’s values and mission. I believe individuals also have the responsibility of identifying and deciding from which platform they want to feed, especially now that every Nigerian has literally become a reporter using social media.

When we have given out information on events and comments on issues, the reportage of PEF activities in the media has often been accurate. But most times they are unfavorable when news has been published without due recourse to ensuring accuracy.
We are a focused organisation and keep to our mandate ensuring business operations are uninterrupted despite certain untrue publications. You see the truth will always prevail no matter how long it takes. Our responsibility is to ensure that we are transparent, accountable and responsible to the Federal Government and the citizens to which we are providing a social service. We continue to safeguard this trust and deal responsibly as we are accountable to the people, without being unnecessarily distracted.

What do you think are the challenges facing the media in terms of accurate coverage/reportage of the petroleum sector?

Desktop journalism cannot be the end of news reporting. Intensive investigation into information outlets and collaboration will work to a large extent in reinstating integrity in reporting. Media houses should remember that stories that they write/report today become history in the future. What the media conveys determine, to a large extent, how the world judges us as a nation.
No doubt, dishonest dealings have crept into various aspects of our society, but we still have credible, responsible and trustworthy news outlets that can be relied on for information. Other media firms should emulate these values to return confidence in the media.

How can the media overcome these challenges?

We encourage the media to embark on investigative journalism and ensure accuracy of information received before dissemination. The media is crucial to shaping public perception of issues as the platform between news and the society. The people trust what they read, and this determines their reactions. The media should verify the information they get and give every individual or organisation the right of reply or response to ensure balance.

Are there ongoing or planned engagements or programmes by PEF aimed at improving media coverage of the agency in particular and the sector reforms in general?

At PEF(M)B, we have regular interaction with the media, keeping them informed on our activities and plans. We intend to continue this to ensure accurate information is communicated to the public.
Our various platforms of communication are also kept up to date for easy access to information. As the Federal Government’s activities are unveiled in the next few months, these channels will be kept open and efforts sustained.