Former president and fellow of the Nigerian Association of Petroleum Explorationists, Dr. Layi Fatona, is the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, Niger Delta Exploration and Production Plc. He tells SEGUN KASALI the story of his life so far.
You must be a big boy as a successful farmer’s child…
Well, growing up for me was very interesting. I was born into a very simple family at Ilewo in Abeokuta. My father was a Roman Catholic. Growing up was normal, very simple and straightforward. Everything was just enough for the family. I think it was that single-mindedness that propelled me and my siblings to live a very fulfilled life. There was no diversion. We went to school and were properly brought up. There was just enough for everybody to have. My father had a tremendous foresight and that is why everyone of us is very educated. My father was a very successful farmer and he believed in education. My siblings and I were very disciplined. There was no room for truancy.
You were a good boy then…
I guess I was a good boy all through. There was time for everything; time to work, play and do other things. I don’t think I ever went overboard anyway. My family, my brothers, my sisters and the family setting – with my father was in charge – made sure that we all followed the moral values to the letter. I remember that my mother made sure you ate whatever was prepared. She was always saying ‘any food I put on the table, just eat it’. So, everything was just sufficient. There was no wastage and no lack. I remember when it was time for me to go to boarding school, they were also very prepared. They knew the challenges of sending me. I was second to the last in the family. So, they had sent others to several colleges and I would say that the responsibility of paying school fees was not necessarily overbearing but cumbersome. For me, it was just another experience.
Yes. At this time, education was complete. If you endured that period, you were prepared for comradeship and life generally. It was fun and there was no anxiety. I never remembered any phase of my life that I said this was a wrong way to go. And again, it was the availability of the guardianship that we had. You couldn’t but be a good and proactive person in our time. I remember that in secondary school, I was prone to being influenced by friends. I wanted to play music. So, I told my brothers that I must buy a guitar when I got home. They all laughed saying ‘what do you want to do with a guitar in school?’ I could remember I got a very serious lecture that day that if I wanted to be a musician, I had no business going to secondary school. I could think of that incident and laugh because I was trying to be smart but they got me quick.
Any reason for the discouragement?
My brother believed if one owned a guitar, it might be a distraction from one’s routine academic pursuit. Wrongly or rightly and as far as I was concerned, it was perception. It was not a question of whether one could see why owning a guitar could get one distracted. In those days, once a decision had been made for you, you just had to follow through.
Why a guitar?
At St. Peter’s College, there was a mixed assembly of children from wealthy background, top civil servants, and from Ilewo that I came from. But, in that school, everybody was equal. So, we had children from wealthy background who came to school with guitar and you wouldn’t want to be left behind. Yes, we did not have one but we had friends who had one. Guitar was a good-to-have then. If you had a guitar in secondary school, you were a very privileged student. The guitar just added pep to our pastime. Another thing was that one could acquire better musical skills then.
So, I never got a guitar but many of my friends who got one ended up being very good players. Remember, my boarding school was all boys. So, there was not much of distraction from the opposite sex. But, we were good in sports, debating and there were so many other things that could take one’s time. Mind you! I never felt withdrawn not having a guitar because there was no need for that. I remember when I got to the University of Ibadan years after, my friends could still play the guitar which I couldn’t.
UI must be another theatre of experience.
Life at UI was unique in that it was opportunistic because I gained admission to the university in 1970 which was at the end of the civil war. So, here was a bunch of young people like myself with mature students who had been in UI before, but went away because of the war, now returning. So, I was privileged to be in a class with people older than me by five years and that mix was very opportunistic.
Today, 47 years after I left UI, all my classmates had a reunion and there we appreciated the total uniqueness of the assembly of young and old. It is awesome because one was dealing constantly with a group of brilliant people. When comparing notes, we discovered that we all are successful in different areas. At UI, we had the best of education; not only in activities, but also in other areas. One couldn’t have gone to the university in the 70s and not have add-on opportunity of not being a social person. This is because everything was organised and delivered on time.
How fun-filled was your stay on campus?
It was really interesting. We had a balanced life. Going to parties was not an issue in our days. We knew how to do everything in moderation. There was a complete balance between academic activities and social life. Everybody called me LF and that was my initial. I have a friend who calls me “road runner” (laughs) because I am very energetic. We as classmates in UI had one nickname for ourselves “Big Mouth”. This is because everybody was so sure of what they wanted to be. Mind you! We were the pioneer youth corps members. So, the society threw a lot at us. I was the geologist attached to the North-Central State Water Board. As a youth corps member, I had a responsibility to supervise a water pipeline in the whole of Zaria town. That was a huge responsibility for a boy who had just graduated from the university and I took it up. Each of my colleagues in other areas had similar humongous responsibility. So, society was fair to us. It expected much from us and we gave a lot within one year. In fact, I delivered the Zaria water project as a resident geologist.
Did this achievement embolden you?
Yes, it gave me a sense of responsibility, sense of achievement, sense of personal belief. Things we never thought we could do and I think that was what good education in those days gave us as Nigerians. You just never believed you could fail.
And it catapulted you to Shell BP?
Yes. I was presented with four different offers – Shell BP, Nigerian Mining Corporation, Baroid and Assistant Lecturer at the University of Ibadan. But, I settled for Shell BP. Life at Shell was very challenging, exposing, with good training. And again, the experience I had with such a multinational corporation is what has created this environment I am in today. From Shell, I got a Federal Government scholarship to travel abroad for a doctorate.
If not a geologist, you would have been a priest?
Yes, you are right. I could have ended up going into priesthood. Seminary was the next option. But, it was my brother-in-law who just did not feel that I should go into the seminary in Ibadan. Otherwise, I could have ended up being a priest.
Any reason(s) for feeling that way?
Again, in those days, you didn’t have a life like you have now. They controlled what you wanted to do. Willingly, decisions were made for you. Beyond that, you still had control over what you wanted to be. I remember when I was in secondary school; I wanted to be a geologist. So, I knew right in my mind that I was going to study geology. So, nobody needed to make that decision for you. But, there are still aspects of your life that didn’t turn out the way you wanted them to be. At best, you are helped to propel along that direction.
Regretting not being a priest?
No. My life has been so fulfilling and rewarding that I cannot remember any regret about friendship, and what I needed to do that I did not do. I don’t think I have a life of any regret. If I plotted the graph of my life, I have never had anything to regret over. I went to primary school, high school, to the university, went for the youth corps scheme, came out, got a good job, got a scholarship, ended up at Imperial College, had a master’s degree and came back. So, the story of my life has been progressive. In fact, it was there in the UK I met my wife.
But you knew her while in Nigeria.
Yes, I did but we were not close until we met in the United Kingdom where she was running a programme while I was running a doctorate programme. So, we were friends for a long time and thereafter we became serious partners.
You look too serious sir.
(Laughs). I have my own way of relaxing – talking to people and just being helpful. That gives me joy. Being impactful and being able to give an opinion in a way that helps somebody solve his or her problem. If there is anything I don’t have, God has a way of bringing it. And I thank God that I have adequacy of everything God says is a blessing.
But, you don’t like being called a wealthy man.
If I am wealthy, I won’t be sitting down here (laughs). If I am, I would be flying my own jet. But, wealth is a state of the mind. I think in my own proper definition of wealth, I am not wealthy. Am I a successful person? Yes, I am a successful person. I don’t think I am really a wealthy man because if I am, I would be living like Aliko Dangote. Yeah! That is the only person we know as a wealthy man.
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