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By Suraj Oyewale
In 2001, the business pages of Nigerian newspapers were awash with the face of a young, cute business executive. He had led a group of equally young folks (all in their early- to mid-30s) to buy Federal Government of Nigeria’s share in one of the state-owned downstream oil companies, UNIPETROL.
Few months later, these young men also acquired the Nigerian downstream business of the Italian oil giants, AGIP, consolidated the two petroleum marketing companies and rebranded the new, enlarged company OANDO.
They brought private touch to this mismanaged government asset and turned it to, arguably, the most successful privatized government enterprise in Nigeria.
As a newspaper boy in the early 2000s, I keenly followed the news at the time. That was my first contact with the name Jubril Adewale Tinubu (fondly called JAT by his staff, and Wale Tinubu in the press).
Earlier, in 1994, the youngsters, Wale (27), Mofe Boyo (27) and Jite Okoloko (c.29), had started an oil trading company, Ocean and Oil, after sniffing opportunities in the oil and gas sector, the first two being young lawyers (Wale practicing in his father, Karimu Tinubu’s law firm and Mofe working in Rotimi Williams chambers) who had drafted oil and gas contracts and noticed untapped business mine in the industry. Both had been friends from their school days in the UK. They got on board the third, Jite, who was working in the oil and gas industry and had more practical knowledge, to join them to birth Ocean and Oil in 1994.
That was the beginning of what is today an integrated oil and gas business empire.
Wale had actually always been business-minded. He recalled in an old interview with Forbes how he used to quickly use his school fees in the UK to buy and sell cars, make small margin, before paying the fees.
And for the execution of their first oil trading contract to Unipetrol (a company they would later acquire) when they set up Ocean and Oil in 1994, he personally rode inside the jalopy ferry, beaten by rain, to ensure delivery/performance of the contract.
Although I heard of only the name Wale Tinubu in the 2001 media frenzy, he was only the external face of the company, Mofe and Jite were quietly running the internal operations. Jite would later quit to venture into other business interests - Notore fertilizers, and oil and gas business (Mid-Western Oil & Eroton).
I admired Wale’s courage from distance.
Then in May 2008, two weeks after returning from my mandatory NYSC programme, the first job offer I had was from Oando, which I joyously took. That was how the men I observed from afar 7 years earlier would later become my employer for 4 years, until I moved on in 2012.
I have never ceased to tell people that I’m a big fan of Wale Tinubu and this, as highlighted in previous paragraphs, predates my working in his company. There have been a lot of controversies about the man, but most of them were actually fed by ignorance.
One of them, that the young men were fronting for ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo and that Oando means Obasanjo and Others. That should not make sense to any informed person, as when they formed their flagship company, Ocean and Oil (from where they derived O & O in 2001) in 1994, Obasanjo was in prison, not known to be wealthy and never even knew he would later become civilian President of Nigeria.
Two, that they were fronting for Bola Tinubu. Well, to the best of my knowledge, Obasanjo and Bola were not in good terms when JAT acquired FG’s Unipetrol in 2001. I don’t think Obasanjo would approve sale of a FG asset to a Tinubu front. In any case, these guys had been doing business far back 1994 before Tinubu became a powerful politician. I have learnt not to vouch for any personality, but this just doesn’t add up.
Three, that they had a headstart being from wealthy homes. True, but where are the children of the rich people of yesteryear today? Where are the children of other big men that voyaged into business? Look, give credit to these guys’ business and management acumen. Having access to money is never enough to build a successful business.
Whichever way you look at it, Oando story is a success in indigenous entrepreneurship and turnaround of a badly run government business by private businessmen. On this score, you have to give credit to the men behind this success.
I’m a little worried about the turn of things for them in the last 4 years, especially with their upstream business foray where they are still learning the rope, but you have to give it to these guys.
JAT clocks 50 this month (June), Mofe was 50 last month (May). At golden jubilee, the young businessmen of 1994, of 2001, of 2008, are probably dropping the youthful toga.
To my former employer, rightly described by Forbes as King of African Oil, I can only wish you many happy returns. Take a bow, Mr. Tinubu, you have played your part in redefining indigenous participation in oil and gas industry in Nigeria. More Oando lubricant to your engine, sir.
Oyewale, a chartered accountant with almost a decade experience in Nigeria’s oil and gas industry, is the author of the career book, The Road to Victoria Island.