By Shola Oshunkeye
The interview could not have held at a more auspicious time. It was held on Sunday, March 8, a day that the United Nations set aside as the International Women’s Day; a day to proclaim the virtues of women globally, and celebrate them for their outstanding achievements socially, economically, culturally and politically. As it was when it all began in 1908, so it is now as the global celebration comes, year after year, with a heavy dose of activism, with strident calls ringing out at parades, conference halls, theatres, etc. at ear-tearing decibels for gender parity.
But on this Sunday, Barrister Grace Bosede Ndidi Olowofoyeku, former Group Managing Director of ASCON Oil Company Limited, was not in any fist-clenching mood. Neither did she wear purple, a colour that symbolises women and their never-fading attributes; a colour that signifies justice and dignity. Clad in a colourful ankara blouse and flowing gown, her well nurtured hair sparkling near her temple with something like a dust of gold, she sat elegantly on a simple sofa in the family’s compact but tastefully furnished living room. She was sipping orange juice from a glass cup that sat delicately in her hand as Amanda Lindsey Cook’s timeless song, Endless Alleluia, played at the background.
“Happy Women’s Day,” I said courteously as she welcomed me and my team.
“Thank you,” she said smilingly with sincere appreciation.
“I think women deserve all the accolades they can get today because they are our mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, etc. And they are a great blessing to the world,” I continued in sync with her request to stay strictly on issues. Issues of leadership, economy, governance and her dissident brand of feminism. Nothing personal.
“Thanks for your kind words on women,” she returned my compliment smilingly as she quickly quipped: “But I think women deserve to be celebrated every day, not just a day. Women are masters at multi-tasking. They are painstaking. They have strong moral force, which is good for leadership because they won’t cheat or steal. They are God-fearing, highly principled, and very good at taking initiatives.”
Then, she paused, sat straight, and lowered her voice before continuing with a deadpan expression: “Unfortunately, despite all these God-given attributes, women have to work thrice as hard as their male counterparts to get into leadership. This is not right. Progress in the work place should be gender blind. One’s gender should never be an obstacle to career success or progress. A woman should be able to rise to any level in life regardless of her gender. But what do you see in politics and governance? The United Nations says give women 35 percent representation in governance. But is it ever done? Yet, the problem is not limited to Nigeria. The discrimination is universal. And it has to stop.”
Now, there was no stopping Barrister Olowofoyeku. It was as if the question on women and leadership was the catalyst needed to make her crush her order on personal questions. And she spoke about those personal tragedies that toughened and turned her into a woman with a steely resolve to succeed against all odds, even when the winds of life blow with the devastation of a cyclone.
For instance, she spoke about how her father was murdered in the North in 1966 during the horrendous prelude to Nigeria’s internecine war. The cataclysm, which lasted 30 months, claimed over a million precious souls.
Olowofoyeku fought back tears as she recalled those days of sorrow when her mother died just at 35, unable to come to terms with her husband’s death; and the struggle that led her (Barrister Olowofoyeku) to marry at 20, going 21, as she put it.
But a gentle smile played on her lips as she reminisced on the blissful 24 years she spent with her late husband, Engineer George Ikemefuna Enenmoh, founder and Chairman of the ASCON Oil Company Limited, who died in a plane crash in Ogun State on October 22, 2005.
Of course, Barrister Olowofoyeku (formerly Mrs. Grace Enenmoh) also spoke on the unprecedented heights that she took ASCON Oil Company Limited, and the circumstances that induced her recent divestment from the group that she led for almost 14 years as Group Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer.
The interview took two days-first at her exquisite home, then at her delightful office, during which the former ASCON Oil GMD opened her life like a book.
As they say, the taste of the pudding is in the eating. Please, sit back, relax and enjoy this interview that brought out the best of Barrister Olowofoyeku:
I have observed that you rarely talk about your childhood ma. Why?
Nothing. I don’t usually like going personal. I don’t like spreading my personal life on the pages of newspaper. Dwelling on things like that, at times, could be egoistic. I would rather focus on issues; issues of business, economy, leadership and, most importantly, the things of God. Or, won’t you rather we talk about God and His faithfulness?
Why not? It’s good to talk about God and His goodness. Part of His goodness in our lives is the family that brought us forth, and the family He has blessed us with. But could you kindly tell me about your earthly father ma? Your dad.
I was born in Ilorin but I lived in Kaduna with my parents. My father was a soldier. He died during the war.
He was killed in the war? (Biafra war between 1967 and 1970)
No. He was killed during the war. You know that there was this massacre of Igbos and people of southern Nigeria in the North during the war. There was this house-to-house rampage whereby whoever was perceived to be Igbo was killed. Even though my father was from the then Mid-West, (part of which is) now Edo State, they still killed him. Yes, my father was from Edo State, and my mother too.
How did you feel and react when this unfortunate incident happened? How did you cope with the shock and the reality that your father was so cruelly murdered, and because of some political reasons?
I don’t think I understood what was going on at the time. It was 1966, and I was just about eight years old. So, I didn’t really appreciate what was going on. I just knew my father was gone and we cried our eyes out. That was it. Although we cried and cried, we didn’t understand what had happened. We, the children, didn’t even know the weight of calamity that had befallen us.
So, when did the realization hit you?
When my mother died. The reality and enormity of the tragedy began to dawn on my young mind when mother was struggling to pay our school fees. That was when it dawned on me that I don’t have a father. We were really struggling to survive. As if that blow was not enough, my mother died too.
When did she die?
My mother died immediately after my school certificate examination.
How old was she when she passed on?
She was 35 years old.
How old was your father when he died?
I really don’t know his age; I was really young then.
How many children did they have together, in addition to you?
They had six children and I’m the first child.
So, how did you cope with this second tragedy?
The mantle fell on my grandmother to take care of us. First, some of us had to move to our grandmother’s place. My grandmother was the one taking care of us. That’s why my grandmother and I were very close. Some aunties took the rest of us. But my brother and I particularly stayed with my grandmother. Then, I got married and my husband sent me to school. I went to school after I had my children. I told myself that come what may, I will survive.
So, how did you get the name Ndidi in between your names?
It happened that when I married, my husband removed Bose that I used to bear and replaced it with Ndidi.
Why did he do that?
So that I’m not mistaken for a Yoruba person (laughs heartily).
So, the suffering and deprivations that you suffered at that terrible time informed your marrying early?
How old were you when you married?
I was 20 going to 21. If you look at it, my birthday is December 1st and I got married on April 18, so I was basically 20 years.
How did you cope marrying at that age?
(Laughs) Ah! My grandmother taught me a lot of things. You know, in those days, people married early. Our grandmother married quite early. My own mother married at 15. After our mother’s death, and George (Engineer George Enenmoh, her late husband, and Founder/Chairman of ASCON Oil Company Limited) brought this marriage thing, my grandmother began to teach me a lot of things. She taught me repeatedly about the dos and don’ts of marriage. She was basically staying with me. Anytime I had a baby, she would come to stay with me for at least six months!
How old was your late husband when he married you?
He was 26.
What was he doing before you got married?
He was working in Texaco.
Had he graduated then?
Yes, he had graduated. He graduated when he was 21, and that put him in good stead to take care of me.
What were the lessons you late husband taught you while he was alive? You know some men, when they see someone younger, they would say: ‘I want her to look like this’, ‘I want her to behave this way’, and all that. What were the rudimentary things he made you pass through to make you what you are now?
He taught me to be confident. He taught me to be strong. He taught me to persevere. He taught me that in life, there would always be turbulence but you have to persevere no matter how tough the situation is. He also taught me that I don’t need to care about what people say or think about me; but I should be confident and remain focused. When he was teaching me how to drive, he would say: “Look, forget about any driver that is honking his horn. When he is tired, he will pass.” He always said: “Don’t let anybody cower you into doing things you don’t want to do. Don’t let people talk down on you. Don’t let anyone define who you are.” He taught me how to stand on my own. He was quite a good man. As if he knew he was going to die, he kept on saying, “I want to build a wife, a partner that even when I’m gone, my wife can take care of things and stand on her own.”
Looking back, all these have become prophetic. It looks as if he knew he was to die young. This explains the deep insights he gave you.
(Cuts in…) Yes. Two weeks before his demise, he sent me a long text, telling me how I had been a very good wife, a confidant, a companion, a good mother and all that. He got me wondering what the text was for. A week later, he died.
He never told you he had premonitions?
No. Because he kept on saying ‘when we are 60, we are going to retire,’ and that, that was why he was working so hard. He kept saying that after the retirement, we were going to go round the world.
How old was he when he died?
He was 50. Altogether, we lived together for 24 years as husband and wife. And he was a great husband, a great man in all ramifications.
Can you describe what those 24 years were?
I have said it. It was blissful. He was a good man. He was a good father. He was a shrewd businessman. He was a good profile in character and spirit of leadership. He was an extrovert while I am an introvert. Anywhere I go today in the country, his name still opens doors for me. Wherever I go for business or whatever purpose, they would just look at me and ask, ‘Are you George’s wife?’ Then, they will throw their hands wide open and welcome me well.
In essence, you are reaping from the good works he sowed…
Absolutely. He was a good person and he helped a lot of people. And many years after, the children and I are still enjoying the benefits of his good name and the good works he did. Yes, the name, George Ikemefuna Enenmoh, still opens doors for us-the children and I almost 15 years after.
How did you hear the news that his plane crashed?
I left Nigeria Thursday night and landed in London Friday morning. Then, Saturday night, I heard.
How did you receive the sad news?
A friend of his called me and told me, that the Bellview plane had disappeared; that they wouldn’t know if it had been hijacked, and that I should come back home. I said, they would find the plane and that I was not coming home. I just got here. Then, he said to me, still on that call: ‘Grace, George is dead.’
Breaking such a terrible news on the phone?
Yes. On the phone!
I was very angry with him. But he said that he did that because people may try to loot and cart away things in the house. He apologized and said he knew how I was, and that if he didn’t tell me the truth, I may not come. So, immediately he told me, I went and changed my ticket.
When you got home, what happened?
A lot of people were waiting for me at the airport. His friends, his relatives, my sisters. So, when I got home and they told me that he died, I said okay. Meanwhile, they had closed ASCON, but I gave the order that the company should be opened.
Yes, and people were abusing me. I came back on Sunday, and work started the next day.
What gave you that courage?
I knew that if I didn’t do that, they would loot the company. So, I called the key people and said, business is continuing as usual.
You never thought about the insinuations that people would have; people saying, ‘look at somebody whose husband just died…’?
Of course, I thought of it. One thing with me is, I don’t care what people are saying. If I know in my heart that I’m doing the right thing, I just do what I have to do. A lot of people didn’t understand the decision at that time. But later on, they appreciated me for it, saying that they admired my courage. In the time being, a boy had already stolen N1million. But when he saw that the place was open for business, he quickly returned it. He returned it after the accountant asked him about the imprest. That was what I was trying to avoid.
From what you told me, when people came to sympathise with you, it appears you didn’t weep. What made you so strong?
You think I was strong? I fainted three times when I got back to Nigeria. In fact, on one of such occasions that I fainted, a rumour went round town that I had died.
So, it was like half of you had died?
I was unconscious in the hospital.
What was your last conversation like? Did you speak with him the night before the plane crash?
What was your last discussion like?
He told me he was going to come on Monday, October 25, because he was supposed to come for our daughter’s birthday. He died on Friday, October 22, 2005, our daughter’s birthday was 21st. I had taken a cake from Lagos, and he was to meet me in London for the girl’s birthday before going to Germany. I never saw him again. He never came.
So, how did you heal? How did you get over the pain, the trauma, and the profound sorrow?
I think my children made me heal faster than I had imagined. Because, one of the things that was playing in my mind was, if I don’t take care of these children, no one will. I needed to be strong for my children, because at that time, four of them were in the university. The last born entered that August and my husband died in October. The second to the last was doing A-levels and I said to myself that if I die, ASCON will die, and nobody will take care of my children. So, I told myself I had better be strong.
What was the role that your late husband’s friends play or the experience that made you see the other side of friends generally?
Well, a lot of people abandoned me. A lot of people thought that was the end. They thought that I won’t be able to manage ASCON. They felt my life will not continue as it was. But my children were happy I was able to continue paying their fees and life became even better than it was when their father was alive. There were some friends who stood by me, people like Professor Offiong Bassey Offiong (SAN) and Alhaji Aliko Gwadabe. These people never left me after George was buried. Not once. They stood by me like a rock. And talking about George’s burial, it was like a carnival. People came from all over the world. But once he was buried, I was left all alone.
Going by all these traumatic experiences, for a woman of your age, how did you cope during this turbulence?
Like I said, I remained strong for my children. I needed to be strong for my children because if I wasn’t, I won’t be able to take care of them; and they would have suffered.
Would you also say that the grace that you found to be able to stand strong was accounted for in Jesus Christ?
Yes! Yet, I wasn’t a born-again Christian at that time. Yet, God still showed mercy. His grace strengthened me and saw me through those challenging years. The challenges brought me to Christ really.
Since I knew you, you have always been a woman of faith, prayerful, strong…
(Cuts in…) I knew that if I didn’t run to Christ, I would not survive. George had uncles who wanted to take ASCON from me. Some of them said I wasn’t from Asaba. They were ready to fight me. When I saw the war coming, I ran to Christ. And Christ shielded and lifted me.
None of the uncles, brothers, proposed to take you as a wife? You know our tradition in Africa now…
(Cuts in…) I don’t want to talk about that.
You mean there was no pressure?
Was there no pressure from the family?
I don’t know about that. Maybe they had meetings behind my back, I don’t know. But there was no pressure that I saw.
Okay, was there any pressure to take ASCON from you?
Oh yes! There was. They tried.
How did you win?
He had a will in which he specified how everything should be after his demise. And I told them it was not possible.
He really prepared for his exit. He had a will at 50?
Yes, he did.
And that helped you substantially?
Yeah, it did. Everybody thought they will come to cart away his things. But before they knew it, his lawyer came to say there’s a will.
You waited for seven solid years after the death of your first husband before you decided to remarry. Why?
Actually, at first, I didn’t want to remarry. I just thought that why should I marry? And I stayed single for a fairly long time. No relationship, nothing. It’s not as if men weren’t talking to me but I just wanted to stay the way I was. So, for seven years, I stayed without a relationship. But at a point, it dawned on me that I will be lonely in this house when my children are going to move. Again, people were taking advantage of me-friends, and relatives; looking at me as single. I was vulnerable. So, I said to myself, I wanted a husband.
I started praying. I gave God my specs and He gave me exactly what I wanted. I said I wanted a pastor, he gave me. I said I wanted someone who would not play pranks. He gave me a God-fearing man. I said I wanted someone who can take care of me, even if he is not as financially buoyant as I am, so long as he is financially stable, not necessarily rich; and can pay my bills. God gave me. My husband, Rev. Bankole Olowofoyeku, is a pastor and chartered accountant. He can pay my tickets. He can take care of me. He doesn’t touch my money, and I’m fine.
Since I knew you, you have always talked very fondly, very lovingly of your late husband, you still did this afternoon…
Now, if your current husband reads this, would he not feel jealous?
My husband is a pastor, a true man of God. Why would he be jealous? George was my first love. He made me. In any case, if I have to talk about my current husband too, I would talk lovingly about him. He is a loving man and my children love him so much. My first daughter usually say to me, ‘Mum, you married the right man.’ He is almost a replica of my late husband. Like my daughter would say, in life, there is a pattern, and that this might explain why my current husband is like her father. He is just like my late husband-very kind, generous, ready to do anything for you, for anyone. My first husband was just like that.
How about his children from his own marriage?
We are good. They are three boys. Probably, if there were girls, we might have issues… (laughs). You know how girls are close to their dad. (Laughs again).
Despite all that God has done for you, your business doing well even though ASCON has gone down…
(Cuts in…) Point of correction, please: ASCON didn’t go under, rather, we divested from ASCON. Not too long ago, we also diversified into other businesses, even mechanised farming.
Why did you divest?
The terrain became extremely difficult to do profitable business, not because one stopped thinking; of course, I never stopped thinking; I was always on my toes, thinking out of the box. We divested because a lot of issues conspired to make continuing with the business traumatic; issues like inconsistent government policy, corruption in the oil and gas sector, and many others.
Under my watch, ASCON grew in leaps and bounds, thanks to the training I got under my late husband. We expanded our outlets, filling stations, first from 11 to 39; later to 57. Under the product expansion programme that I initiated, the company went into blending lube oils and operating truck parks and tank farms.
In 2010, we expanded the business to include introducing a new range of lubricants for the market. In September 2014, we added aviation fuel, ASCON AVIATION, to our range of products.
We started ASCON AVIATION and we were determined to set a new high for the sector which has zero tolerance for errors. It was part of our commitment to safer air journeys within and outside the country. And with the world going green, we began to look in the direction of liquefied petroleum gas. Things were looking up until a few years ago when the economy began to go down. The government’s economic policies also didn’t help.
Business became so bad that, in the last four years, we had been gradually laying-off staff. I laid off a lot of staff because we couldn’t pay salaries. By 2019, we had asked 80 percent of the staff to go home. With that, coupled with the underlying factors which remained unchanged, we had to divest 80 percent. Later, we were left with no other choice but to divest the remaining 20 percent. ASCON Oil is now completely in the hands of its new owners.
There were reports in social media as well as some mainstream media that the sale of ASCON Oil upset the family of your late husband, Engineer George Enenmoh…
(Cuts in…) That is a lie from the pit of hell. The whole family knew about it. The whole process was done in the open. My children, who were directors in ASCON, as well as other stakeholders, reached a consensus that the best option was to divest.
In fact, my children initiated the move to sell the company. My children saw that the boat was sinking and they said we should bail out. And the family of my late husband, Engineer George Enenmoh, was in full support. Everybody agreed that it was the best thing to do in the circumstance. That’s why we did it and everybody is happy.
Whoever is conversant with the dynamics of the downstream sector of the oil and gas industry would confirm how hellish it is doing business in that sector. It saps all your energy, drains you of your creativity, and if God is not on your side, it can run you crazy or make you suffer some debilitating diseases due to the uncertainty every day presents in the sector.
Apart from unfavourable government policies, other major problems that made the board to approve the divestment were the various toll gates created by people, from the regulatory agencies down the line. It was impossible for you to transact any business without settling those people. You need to settle heavily before you can do business. There is also the nagging issue of erratic power supply which keeps you running all your stations on diesel at astronomical costs. This is not to mention the crazy estimated bills that the DISCOs slam on ASCON every month. Estimated billings have sent countless companies out of business. Unless this government does something urgent about estimated billings, more companies will go under.
Is the situation that bad?
Don’t you live in Nigeria? Ask people who are on estimated billings the hell they are passing through. Nigeria is about the only country in this continent where power consumption is estimated. For some selfish reason, some people just make metering seems like rocket science. Estimated billing is criminal and it is amazing that government is watching as the electricity distribution companies continue to milk Nigerians and businesses illegally.
Estimated billing is killing. It is too much. And you want to get pre-paid meter, they won’t give you. If this is not corruption, what is corruption? Refusal to give pre-paid meters is corruption, and government, through the EFCC, should treat it as such.
I will illustrate my point (on the evil effects of estimated billing) with our Admiralty station in Lekki (Lagos). Every month, we paid N2 million for electricity in estimated billing. What were we selling? And in this place, our head office (in Victoria Island), we were paying N600, 000 per month. Is this place (the headquarters) a manufacturing company? What machines do we operate here to attract N600, 000 per month? None.
As far as I am concerned, that is oppressive. What business are we doing to generate the income that would enable us pay N2 million for power in just one station, in a month? And we had 52 stations to service. What were we making in our Admiralty station to be paying N2 million every month for light? Now, we had 52 stations nationwide. If you do the maths, you would see how much we were spending on energy alone. This is not talk about other operational costs, overheads, and so on.
If this government truly wants businesses to grow, if this government really wants businesses to help take the declared 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in 10 years, as the President promised in his (2019) Democracy Day broadcast, then, it must formulate policies that will help businesses grow. It is the business that grows that employs.
You have really painted a gory picture of the industry. But if this was the general situation in the business, why did the sale of ASCON Oil generate the interest it did?
It is the work of idle naysayers. It is the work of people who do not understand business. They were just saying whatever their idle minds can produce. But our day of revelation will come very soon. Very soon, those saying all those nonsense would discover that selling a business is neither a plague nor a curse. In business, you can reinvent the wheel; you can reinvent your business model as many times as the market dictates. You cannot be paddling a sinking boat. If your boat is sinking, and beyond rescue, then, you find a way to bail out. If it’s beyond what you can rescue, you bail out. Why should we be paddling a sinking boat when we can invest in other businesses, do profitable business without having hypertension or stroke?
Most businesses in Apapa are struggling. Most of the depots in Apapa have been put up for sale. People don’t stay in business just for the sake of staying. If your corporate goals are not being met, you innovate. You repackage, and that repackaging could be diversification to more profitable and less stressful businesses like we are trying to do.
In any case, I don’t know why people singled us out. Most businesses are struggling under this economy, no matter what the government tells you. Total is struggling. Forte Oil has sold. Mobil has sold their downstream. Oando has sold. A lot of people have sold their businesses and gone abroad. A lot more even want to sell, they can’t find buyers. So, why are people talking about ASCON? Why is my own different? Is it because I’m a woman. Meanwhile, many people have been phoning to congratulate us on our decision. Those are people with foresight. But we are here re-strategising and re-modelling. And by God’s grace, people will soon see our new business and they will glorify our Father in Heaven. They will know that it is not a plague, and certainly not a curse to sell a business.”
Precisely, what is this your new baby? Could you, please, give us a little insight into what the new baby looks like?
At the appropriate time, the world would know. Let me borrow some lines from our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, in Matthew 5: 15: have you seen anybody light a candle and put it under a bushel? No! You put it on a candlestick. Very soon, people will see our new baby sitting pretty on the mountain top.
These days, when most women are struggling to climb career ladders, and excel in whatever they choose to do, many still sit at home, waiting for their husbands to bring everything, including their sanitary pads. They rely on their husbands for everything. What advice do you have for this category of ladies?
Though the husband is the head of the family, though it is ordained that men shall be the family’s bread winners, I still strongly believe that women should go out to work. Women should build their careers and pursue their dreams. They should be able to compliment the efforts of their husbands, even if the man can provide everything and anything they need. Besides, what is wrong in a woman being financially independent? ‘My money’ is different from ‘our money’. When you work and you earn money, you learn the value of money. You’ll learn how to manage things; you will learn to be prudent. But if you don’t work and earn money, you will spend money anyhow. If I wasn’t a good manager of the resources that my late husband left, we won’t have anything by now. My children are grateful to me for that. They keep saying if I had not managed the wealth of their father properly, the story would have been different. They say they’ve had friends whose parents died and, today, they are living below the poverty line.
On a lighter note, let’s talk about your looks. What are the things you do to keep fit and still look as beautiful as I knew you about 10, 11 years ago?
Well, I exercise and I don’t eat much. I just eat a little. I can eat like six times a day but it will be little things.
What kind of exercise do you do?
I walk. I have a fitness band that I follow religiously. I make sure that I walk 10,000 steps a day. So, if I do not meet that target, I go round and move till I get to that target. Gradually, my weight started shedding.
What is your food regime like?
I take oats every day. In fact, I have been taking oats for the last eight years because it has low cholesterol. I take it without milk and sugar, first thing in the morning. My husband has said he doesn’t know how I cope with that kind of food. But I do. And I don’t fast.
Doctors say when you are climbing the ladder of age, if you are not eating something, something is eating you. So, what is eating you in terms of ailments, or any underlying sickness?
(Laughs) I don’t know what is eating me o. Yes, I was sick at a point but I went for medical checkup and I’m now fine. I have always been very fit, health wise. Of course, you would have aches and the likes, but that’s just about it.
- This interview was first published in Saturday Sun of March 28, 2020.