Mr Ernest Omo-Ojo, who put in 20 years as an employee of an oil company, Exxon Mobil, recently sued the company, demanding N100m as damages for his alleged unlawful sacking by the firm, shares his story with ADE ADESOMOJU
Can you talk about the content of your faith-based book that allegedly led to the termination of your employment by ExxonMobil?
The book, The Potent Force of Sponsorship, was borne out of a personal drive to talk about a man who had benefited from the sponsorship principle. Principles do not discriminate on the basis of colour, race, tribe or religion. If you follow the principles, it will work for you. The book essentially distinguishes between mentorship and sponsorship. Life without a sponsor cannot reach its zenith. The book gives you practical steps with proven stories of mentors and sponsors through times, the place of mentors and sponsors in our lives, how you can distinguish one from the other and how they can help you to achieve your full potential. The book is essentially my gift as a youth pastor to upcoming youths, and to the glory of God, over 2,000 copies have been shared free to youths in various local church assemblies in Abuja, Lagos and outside the country.
You said you were disengaged because you authored the faith-based book and for seeking to be elected as the vice president of the cooperative society. Were these specifically stated in your letter of termination of appointment?
No reason was adduced for the termination of my appointment, but the issues were raised at my disciplinary committee hearing. They referred to the issues constituting conflict of interest.
In what sense did they say these amounted to conflict of interest?
The onus is on Mobil to prove.
How did it start?
I was issued a suspension letter in April 2019, and was told that I would be told when I would appear before a disciplinary committee. What was stated in that suspension letter was that there had been some alleged conflict of interest in breach of the policy of the company. They were not specific about any of my actions that were tantamount to conflict of interest.
When, I was invited to face the disciplinary committee, essentially, what were laid out were those two issues of alleged conflict of interest – that I got involved in the publishing of a faith-based book, ‘The Potent Force of Sponsorship,’ and sought an elective office. That is, to be the vice president of my cooperative society. I was asked to respond. I had sought audience and permission from the regulator, Department of Petroleum Resources, to appear at the disciplinary committee. The regulator said I should go ahead. They said I should give them feedback after the process, because ExxonMobil had also responded to them after they sent them a follow-up letter following my petition, telling them that they would carry them along as it was just an internal process.
I made my presentation at the disciplinary committee and I informed the DPR. They said they would be waiting for them. Precisely four weeks later, ExxonMobil disengaged me via a letter sent to my private email address. Like I said, no reason was given. It was just a one-page letter – ‘Your services are no longer required, accordingly you exit the company’. So, I took the letter back to the regulator to say that I had just received the letter. They were shocked. The DPR said, ‘No, this can’t be happening’. And I said, ‘Yes, it has happened. This is it’. Then they said, ‘Let’s have a copy of the letter, you stay aside, we will handle this issue’.
During the disciplinary committee’s hearing, did they cite any portion of the book they considered to be tantamount to conflict of interest?
The book had no bearing on the oil and gas industry. It was essentially a faith-based book, more like a mini-guide, a manual that I was using to engage the youth in my church and across many denominations.
You published the book in 2017. How did it become a subject of disciplinary action only two years after, in 2019?
That is a puzzle that I’m unable to unravel. Like I told you, I got my last award in the third quarter of 2018. This was a book I even published in 2017. So, this is a question that is beyond my human interpretation, to be able to throw light on, which was why I told the DPR that I was being persecuted. My book and aspiration to be the vice president of my cooperative society had no bearing on what they were doing to me. Maybe there was something they were unable to say. They should go ahead and say it.
You suspect that they just brought up these issues to cover for deeper resentment or hostility they had against you…
The onus is on them. I am not going to pre-empt them. But the records are there. How can somebody be given an award in the third quarter of 2018 as a resourceful person, as somebody that should be an example for others to follow, and a few months later, this person becomes someone else? They need to tell the regulator or the court of public opinion what really is the issue.
Was the cooperative society, under which you ran for office, managed against the instruction or policy of the management of the company?
For you to be a member of the cooperative society, you must be a member of staff of ExxonMobil in Nigeria. And for you to seek an elective position in the cooperative, your nomination form must have to be endorsed by at least three members. So, I went through the whole process. Interestingly, the campaign, election and all the processes of the election took place on the company’s platforms. Those who contested from Eket, Port Harcourt, Lagos and other places, campaigned on the company’s online system. They also voted via the company’s system. I can’t say where there is a conflict of interest.
Did you win the election?
Interestingly, I didn’t even win. My opponent won. This is another question the company needs to come out and answer. I don’t know what happened. I can only speak for myself. Interestingly, this election took place in early 2018. I think we had the election either in Q1 or Q2 of 2018. And this persecution started in 2019. This was well over a year after that process had ended.
And two years after your book was published?
Do you know of any other employee who was disciplined for contesting in the election?
With the benefit of hindsight now, do you have any regret publishing that book or contesting in that election, which according to you, were presented as the basis for disengaging you?
through the stress of life and when my story is being written, all that would be said about me is that I worked for ExxonMobil. No! We have other parts of life we need to fulfill. Interestingly, ExxonMobil, as a company, encouraged us to always give back to society. That book for me was my personal sacrifice to give back to the youth of Nigeria. I was telling a story from my personal perspective of a man that God lifted from zero level out of the dungeon. I was telling my story to show that one needs to be able to position oneself and identify the right sponsor in life, and be able to distinguish between who is a sponsor and a mentor.
Interestingly, I wrote this book in 13 days. It will also interest you to know that I had more than 500 general managers of ExxonMobil at my book presentation, which was held in July, 2017, in Lagos. More than 70 per cent of those who attended were colleagues from ExxonMobil. Everybody was excited by the book; they were glad about what I was doing. They came to participate. They supported me. I printed about 3,000 copies of the book. I spent about N3m from my personal funds.
It appears the company was aware that you were working on a book before the presentation. Did they try to discourage you or warn you about it?
You said you spent about N3m to produce the book? Was the company probably concerned that you got the funding from the wrong sources?
I presented the receipts of the cash transfers to the disciplinary committee to demonstrate that this process was very transparent. The company had these receipts and the regulator had these receipts to show that I made payments for this book from my personal account.
According to your claim in the N100m suit you filed against Exxon Mobil, your sacking contravened the directive of the DPRs’ regulations that provided that ministerial approval for disengagement of a worker by an oil and gas firm must first be sought and obtained. Can you shed more light on this?
The rules governing the oil and gas industry are very clear and unambiguous. Resolution 4.0 of the amended guidelines on the release of a worker in the Nigerian oil and gas industry signed on November 17, 2019, states that ‘any employer who wishes to release a worker shall apply in writing to the DPR Director for the Minister’s approval stating the manner of member of staff’s release, reasons for the proposed release, compensation due the worker and proposed replacement of the worker’. Aside from this regulation, I already had a petition before the DPR which was undergoing hearing.
Do you think the DPR’s directive was in conflict with the company’s internal rules?
Mobil as an operator is bound to play by the rules set by the regulator (DPR). In a football match, players follow the rules of the game as led by the referee. An operator cannot be bigger than a regulator. It may interest you to know that Mobil’s Human Resources Policy gives credence to this regulation on ‘employment separation’ of DPR under what it termed Company Initiated Separation. In this section, the policy expressly states that in all instances of a CIS, which is my case, ‘appropriate consultation with the industry regulator, DPR’ is one of the requirements to be met for this process to be completed.
How fair would you say that the disciplinary hearing was?
First, I was suspended. I attended a company disciplinary committee hearing. The two alleged counts, as stated earlier, were read to me. I provided a written documented response stating my story, showed proofs – verified bank receipts of my personal funds in printing the said book. Thereafter, I was told the company would revert to me. Instead, what followed was the termination of my appointment, with no feedback whatsoever, not even a warning letter, final warning, suspension without pay, etc. Can that process be said to have been fair?
You said the DPR reviewed your case and directed Mobil to restore your rights and privileges, but the directive was not obeyed by the firm. Do you think that by that, the DPR has lost its bite as a regulator in the oil industry?
I would tell you to direct the question to the regulator.
You wrote to the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), asking for his intervention in his capacity as the President and substantive Minister of Petroleum and as of the time you wrote the letter on July 20, 2020, you stated that Mobil had been in the disobedience of the DPR’s directive for 200 days. Are you sure the President got your letter?
I have done the needful as required. I thought it wise to bring the abuse to the attention of Mr President. I do not know how the bureaucracy works, but I am hopeful the letter is getting the desired attention.
You ordinarily ought to be satisfied with sending your complaints to the Minister of State for Petroleum, who can, in many respects, exercise the power of the substantive minister. Did you report the matter to him?
I communicated officially to the office of the Minister of State for Petroleum and he is aware of the matter.
Did you take your matter to the President out of frustration?
Yes, I would say I had to report the matter to the President out of frustration as the matter had been going on for close to two years. My income has stopped and I have a family to take care of, with two children in university. It was becoming very tough and I had no other option but to seek the intervention of the President and, by law, the President is the extant petroleum minister.
Did you resort to suing Mobil because of the prospect of the interventions you sought from the President and others?
The judicial process does not foreclose any intervention by the President. This matter goes beyond my person. This could become a locus classicus in the oil and gas industry.
Did you take into account the gruelling nature of seeking reprieve from court in Nigeria due to the delays and technicalities involved?
I knew from the outset this was not a 100 metre-dash, but this is a marathon. I have followed the process meticulously over the past 15 months that this matter has lasted. There are no technicalities on this matter; the questions raised are very clear and unambiguous. I’m very confident of the Nigerian judiciary, which still remains the last hope of the common man. My prayers are very clear. I would be satisfied with the court’s decision.
Won’t your court action hamper the intervention that may come from other directions?
The court process has only added value to the whole entire process. I have patiently been on this intervention efforts for close to two years. There are alternatives that can be explored even while the matter is pending before the court. The court provides for out-of-court settlement if the parties agree. I’m for peace, respect for rule of law, and any settlement that addresses that is okay by me.
Do you believe that Mobil will obey the court order in the event that your suit turns out to be successful?
I have worked for this organisation for well over two decades. I started with them as a member of the National Youth Service Corps and rose to become Operations Advisor, Public and Government Affairs in Lagos. One of the major pillars our business rests on is that we care more about the process of achieving any result than the result itself. What we were told at all company business platforms was that Mobil, as a company, would walk away from any business deal if the process is unfair. So, that’s essentially what I’m asking of them
Source: Punch Newspaper