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Alleged racism: when Seplat board failed the nation ~ by Law Mefor

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It is no longer news that the Federal God has revoked the visa, work, and residence permits of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Seplat Energy PLC, Mr. Roger Brown, following his indictment by the Ministry of Interior over alleged racist practices, favouring of expatriate workers, discrimination against Nigerians, and breach of corporate good governance.

In the revocation letter to the company dated March 3, 2023, the Federal Government said its decision was founded on a petition by aggrieved employees of the company. The Ministry equally underscored the fact that Mr. Brown snubbed investigative invitations and claimed to be unavailable even though one learned he was in Abuja for other purposes at the time.

“As a result of these, the Honourable Minister has determined that Mr. Brown’s continued stay in Nigeria is contrary to the national interest. Consequently, the Ministry has withdrawn the Work Permit CERPAC, Visa, Residence Permit and all relevant documents that authorized Mr. Roger Thomson Brown’s entry or stay in Nigeria”, the letter stated.

Strangely, no sooner had the letter become public than the Seplat Board of Directors went to press in a statement dated 9th March and signed by its Chairman, Mr. Basil Omiyi. Besides deprecating the reports, Seplat also claimed that the allegations “have not been brought to the attention of Mr. Roger Brown or Seplat Energy for a reaction”

The statement went further to say, “The orchestrated media reports are calculated to spread false information. Seplat Energy will be engaging with the Ministry to reject the impressions created by these allegations. The Board believes that these allegations are a spurious and vindictive reaction to the enforcement of corporate governance standards in the Company by the Board of Seplat Energy…. On 8th March 2023, the Board of Seplat Energy unanimously passed a vote of confidence in Mr. Brown, who continues to discharge his duties and responsibilities as CEO from the Seplat UK office”.

Also, following a Federal High Court, Lagos, order restraining Roger Brown from parading himself as the CEO of Seplat and equally restrained the Omiyi-led Board, especially the Independent Non-Executive Directors, from “continuing to run the affairs of Seplat in an illegal, unfair, prejudicial, and oppressive manner pending the hearing and determination of the Petitioner’s Motion on Notice for an interlocutory injunction”, Seplat came out with another statement regurgitating its earlier positions, except that it added that “Mr. Brown has delegated authority to Mr. Samson Ezugworie, Chief Operating Officer, to act as CEO during the period that he is required to step back from his executive duties”.

In further defence of Mr. Brown, the Board singled out for reaction, the allegations about the site visit for a number of its major shareholders to the Company’s operations, cancelled catering and landscaping contracts, and introduction of a new job performance rating, added also that “since Mr. Brown became CEO in 2020, Nigerian nationals have been appointed to the company’s most important positions, including Chairman, Senior Independent Non- Executive Director, Chief Financial Officer, and Chief Operating officer”.

Is Seplat taking sides with the alleged oppressor?

Seplat’s swift rise in defence of its CEO over and above a lawful decision of the Federal Government of Nigeria and despite weighty allegations against him says a lot of things about the state of affairs in the company. It speaks of complicity and duplicity. It speaks of complacency also. It speaks of disdain for the Nigerian government. It speaks of incompetence. It speaks of the absence of emotional intelligence. It speaks to a lack of empathy for their employees. And it indeed speaks about both illegalities and the condonement of illegalities.

It is so disappointing that a respected organisation like Seplat claimed that FG did not communicate with Mr. Brown before coming out with the sanctions whereas investigative reports by some reputable Nigerian news steads have confirmed that the Ministry of Interior indeed invited him twice vide letters dated 9th and 15th February, but he ignored them.

Two, the speed with which Omiyi and his Board dismissed the allegations as “spurious and vindictive” gives a clearer view of why something that should have been settled in-house got to the Ministry of Interior, and eventually into the open to the embarrassment of the company. Also, the letter conveying the sanction to Seplat was dated 3rd March, while the news broke around 8th March. Yet there was no effort to discuss this with the staff despite an internal staff survey that showed very high employee discontent.  So, how did the Board conclude that the allegations were spurious?

Meanwhile, in the petition by Seplat employees exhibited in the court processes filed by aggrieved Seplat shareholders over the matter, the workers accused Mr. Roger Brown of intimidation, bullying, and sacking of Nigerian staff of Seplat; intimidation of senior staff and members of the senior management team; abuse of corporate governance, the relegation of host communities, relocation of Seplat technology office to Aberdeen; bullying of Nigerian staff by foreign nationals; and refusal to fully relocate to Nigeria despite collecting huge amounts for that purpose, among others. Yet the Omiyi-led Board only picked out the issues of cancellation of landscaping contracts and visit by South African investors in its statements. This, coupled with branding the allegations as spurious simply shows the levity with which Seplat Board treats serious matters and speaks about its proclivity for playing on the intelligence on right thinking Nigerians.

If one may ask, what is spurious, and what is vindictive? Is it that the names of people and events mentioned in the said petition by staff and affidavits deposed by the applicants in support of the aforementioned pending suit do not exist? Is it that Busola Ogunbawo, Chuks Igelenye, Mirim Kachikwu, Alero Onosode, Afolabi Folurunsho, Samuel Orimoleye, Yetunde Taiwo, John Ebi, who were all senior staff plus 14 middle level and junior staff were not systematically sacked or forced to resign within six months of Mr. Brown’s assumption of office as CEO and without the approval of the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC, formerly DPR)? Is it that while he is quick to disengage Nigerians upon the attainment of the age of 60 based on his alleged discriminatory retirement practices, he still retains the likes of Mr. Rymll Peter (67), Mr. Carl Franklin (62), Mr. Thomas Hywel (61), and Mr. Burge Peter Christopher (over 60) in the services of the company?

Or is it the allegation that since he rose from the position of Chief Financial Officer (CFO) to the CEO effective 2020, he refused to hand over the London to a Nigerian, Mr. Emeka Onwuka, who succeeded him in line with the established policy and practice of Seplat, but instead hired and handed it over to his fellow Irish, Mr. Alaisdair Mackenzie? Or is it that Seplat’s assets have now become the subject of attacks and vandalisation in the Nigeria Delta due to the collapse of proactive host community’s engagement for which Seplat was hitherto known?

Is it also that Mr. Brown unilaterally moved the technical/subsurface department of Seplat to Aberdeen, which cost Seplat a fortune, and appointed his fellow Irish and British nationals as heads of this critical department, thereby deliberately robbing Nigerians of the career and training opportunities to grow in the industry contrary to the provisions of the Nigerian Oil and Gas Industry content development Act (NOGIC)?

The legal issues

Meanwhile, deserving of special attention in this matter is the issue of the alleged violation of extant laws of Nigeria. The Ministry of Interior stated in their letter to Seplat that “Investigation and records in the Ministry also revealed that Mr. Roger Brown had CERPAC that was not based on validly issued Expatriate Quota approved by the Ministry of Interior resulting to the violation of relevant Immigration Laws and Regulations”.

This is a very serious matter. Yet Seplat has trivialized it. Section 58 Immigration Act 2015 provides, “It is an offence for any employer of persons liable to repatriation to discharge any such persons without giving notice to the Comptroller-General of Immigration, or for any such employed person to be redesigned, or change his employment, without the approval of the Comptroller-General of Immigration, and upon conviction, the employer if not a citizen of Nigeria and the employed person, as the case may be and his dependents shall if the Minister thinks fit, be deported and the business of the employer may be wound up as prescribed by this Act”.

Section 105(1) also provides, “Where an offence under this Act or any other relevant law committed by a body corporate is proved to have been committed on the instigation or with the connivance of or is attributable to any neglect on the part of a director, manager, secretary of the body corporate, or any person purporting to act in any such capacity, the officer or person is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of three years or to a fine of Two Million Naira or both…” while Section 105 (2) clearly states that “Where a body corporate is convicted of an offence under this Act, it is liable to a fine of Five Million Naira and a court may issue an order to wind up the body”.

In conclusion, while the Honourable Minister of Interior deserves commendation for revoking Mr. Brown’s documents, let it be known that Nigeria is a country governed by laws. Let the laws be applied to the letters. Importantly, one cannot also agree more with the civil rights group, Make a Difference Initiative (MADI) that Seplat CEO, Roger Brown; the Board Chairman, Mr. Basil Omiyi; and the Independent Non-Executive Directors under him should honourably resign or be shown the door. It is in both the national interest and corporate interest of Seplat.

Dr. Mefor, a Forensic/Social Psychologist, is a fellow of the Abuja School of Social and Political Thought.

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